IN his time one of the most celebrated Scottish country dance musicians in the country, Dundee-born fiddler, bandleader and composer Angus Fitchet was largely self-taught, yet became a highly versatile player, as comfortable in celebrity TV shows as he was at a village dance.
Yet the composer of one of the most broadcast Scottish dance tunes, the J B Milne reel, might just have ended up a saxophonist, having bought a saxophone in his youth and learned to play it very competently.
Fiddle, however, was his great love right from his childhood, when he would wake to the sound of his father, who worked on a small farm outside Dundee, playing his fiddle. His father was regarded as a fine player, having been taught by John Lamond of Monikie, and it was his father who gave Angus, who was born in 1910, his first lessons on the instrument when he was just five years old.
Within a few years Angus was playing mainly Scottish music with his father at dances, lying down for a nap at the back of the hall when he got tired, before taking his place in the band again, often playing until 2 am. He seems to have been largely self taught, learning through watching, listening and natural aptitude.
His properly professional musical career, however, started with playing for silent films in the local cinema. Initially just mixing casually with the cinema musicians, running errands and handing out music, Angus became acquainted with classical music, and was soon listening to the likes of Jascha Haifetz and Fritz Kreisler. Borrowing records, he would play them repeatedly until he could play along with them and he practised scales and arpeggios for hours.
When he was 12, a visiting piano tuner heard him play and asked if he could sit in one night at the local cinema as the usual violinist was off. The cinema playing – and the very useful five shillings a week that came with it – ended, however, with the advent of the “talkies”. It was around that time that Angus bought that saxophone.
It wasn’t until the late 1930s that Angus, by this time married and with three children, joined a five-piece orchestra in a restaurant in Largs, although that engagement came to an end during the early years of the Second World War when the Italian proprietors of the restaurant were interned. Angus and his family returned to Dundee where, in 1945, he settled easily back into Scottish dance music when he joined the great Jimmy Shand and his band.
Working with Shand, by which time he’d remarried, producing two more children, agreed with him and within a few years he’d formed his own dance band which became very much in demand – touring the country in an old Dodge Red Cross ambulance which cost him £50 and ran on a mixture of petrol and paraffin. “Sometimes we couldn’t see for the smoke,” he would recall.
The band recorded, made many live broadcasts and toured actively on both sides of the Border. Angus had a habit of casually writing his bookings on the back of a cigarette packet, then, when he’d finished the pack, tossing it – and the booking – out the window.
His sweetly singing fiddle tone and spot-on enunciation, even in the more challenging tunes, were widely admired. He didn’t use expensive instruments but seemed to have the knack of coaxing fine tone from the least prepossessing of instruments, reputedly being very content with a fiddle he bought for a fiver in a Dundee market. He did, however set much store by a good bow, preferably a classic Vuillaume or Tourte.
On one memorable occasion when playing for a Dashing White Sergeant, he suggested that he and the two accordionists in the band take turns in choosing and leading off the tunes. The first accordionist led with The Rose Tree, the other with The Mason’s Apron. Angus promptly went into Scott Skinner’s highly challenging reel, The Spey in Spate, then laid down his fiddle, sat back and grinned hugely as the others tried frantically to get their fingers round the tune.
For several years, Angus gave up his band and played solo, accompanying well known Scottish artists such as Will Starr and Robert Wilson, then, by this time in his late sixties, he joined the great Jimmy Blue, whose band travelled full-time with Andy Stewart and appeared on network TV shows alongside such celebrities as Julie Felix, Dana and George Hamilton IV. Andy appreciated Angus’s sharp wit, and during lengthy tours of Australia and New Zealand, Angus’s skill with that other stick“, a snooker cue, was well exercised.
Things looked bleak for his playing when he started suffering from deafness and severe arthritis, but a course of “gold” (Myocrisin) injections helped greatly and he was able to start playing again, among other things guesting with Bobby Crowe and his band at accordion and fiddle clubs across Scotland and the north of England. The emergence of the box and fiddle clubs provided another, late strand to his career and he delighted in passing on his expertise to emerging young fiddle players, often doing so during regular appearances at his local Dundee Accordion Club.
In his 80th year, he took part in a two-band BBC broadcast from the annual gathering of the National Association of Accordion and Fiddle Clubs in a Perth hotel. For some reason the broadcast’s host, Robbie Shepherd, was unable to link the programme so the two bandleaders were asked if they could provide their own introductions Angus not only did so but blithely went on to introduce the programme’s “club news”.
His last public performance was at Perth Accordion and Fiddle Club when he was 81. He died six years later, but left a legacy in his music – from his first composition, the march Mr Michie, composed in 1926, to his hugely popular reel J B Milne. He also composed some enduring slow airs, such as his Lament for Will Starr and, notably, his Lament for Lockerbie, composed following the Pan Am Flight 103 atrocity.
When, during his last years, he was asked how he’d like to be remembered, he responded simply: “Angus Fitchet, fiddler.”
His friend Andy Stewart summed up his gift in a poem, For Angus Fidget:
When he comes ben care hugs the wa’
An’ joy jinks in the middle.
The doul’s awa, the dance is a’,
When Fichet plays his fiddle.