Although synonymous with Highland culture and particularly the pipey style of fiddling, Aonghas was actually born in Edinburgh, on September 13th, 1931 when he arrived ahead of schedule at his grandmother’s house.
He grew up in Fort Augustus in a household where music was an essential part of everyday life and was soon showing an interest in the fiddle and pipes, which his father and uncles all played. One day his Uncle Archie showed Aonghas how to play Dornoch Links and within half an hour Aonghas had the tune mastered.
This was the only lesson that “the left-handed fiddler,” as Aonghas became known, ever had. He picked up more tunes from his father and uncles and practised incessantly, playing at weddings and informal social gatherings until he joined Farquhar MacRae in the long-running Roshven Ceilidh Band.
In the 1960s the Traditional Music and Song Association of Scotland invited Aonghas to represent the Highland style in a competition at Blairgowrie Folk Festival. The Shetland fiddle legend Tom Anderson donated a cup and Aonghas won it for two years running. He also won the fiddle championship at the National Mod four times.
When Tom Anderson began a fiddle summer school at Stirling University, he asked Aonghas to be one of the teachers. Apart from his children, Deirdre, Fiona and Angus Jnr, who is well known as the fiddler in Shooglenifty, Aonghas had never taught anyone before. But with the aid of some photocopied tunes and, as Aonghas recalled, a small miracle, he began a long association with Stirling University and a career as a much-cherished teacher.
His pupils include Allan Henderson, of Blazin’ Fiddles, and Eilidh Shaw, of Harem Scarem and the Poozies, and they can easily be recognised by the red tassels on their fiddles. Aonghas got the idea for these after seeing Romanian gypsies at a festival in Middlesbrough sporting tassels on their fiddles. He returned home, purloined some wool from his wife’s knitting and made his first tassel for Angus Jnr. Since then, pupils reaching a certain standard have been rewarded with this small trophy.
In 1977 Aonghas recorded the landmark Aonghas Grant Highland Fiddle album. It would be thirty years before he got round to making the follow-up, The Hills of Glengarry. The tunes he has written, and many he has inspired, have always been in wide circulation, however. He has played in Norway, Denmark, Holland, France and Ireland, judged competitions and taught at fiddle camps in America, and played at the Bicentennial Festival in the National Mall in Washington, DC, in 1976. He continues to teach privately, at various feisean and at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama.
A modest man who regards himself as a backwoods gut scraper, Aonghas has always taken greatest delight in seeing dancers dancing to his music. The publication in 2008 of a book of his tunes, The Glengarry Collection, will ensure that the dancing continues. But even without the book, Aonghas Grant has created an enduring legacy among dancers, players, learners and listeners alike.
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