Archie Grant was a 1931 Mod Gold medallist and one of the best-known Gaelic singers during the pre- and post-war periods. While known through his recordings on Beltona and, latterly, Parlophone, and for his platform appearances and radio broadcasts, Grant was in his own way an example of the oral tradition, preferring to sing unaccompanied, and dispersing the many Gaelic songs for which he composed the melodies into circulation, without any thought for copyright.
Known as a Skye man, and with the fluent Gaelic of a native speaker, he was in fact born in 1902 in Lenzie, Dunbartonshire, where his father, who came from Boreraig, was a railwayman. Archie was seven before the family returned to his father’s island. His mother came from the musical Turner family on Islay. Family lore has him singing at a wedding at the tender age of four – his party piece was Chuir iad an t-sùil a Pilot bochd, a song about a one-eyed dog.
“His Gaelic was first class,” recalls his son-in-law, John MacNeill. “If you listen to any of his records, every word is beautifully enunciated. He would have spoken virtually nothing but Gaelic at home until he went to school.”
Eventually Archie left Skye to follow in his father’s footsteps to work on the railways, stationed for a long time at a remote outpost on Rannoch Moor. Around the time of his marriage to Marion MacArthur, from Achmore in Lewis, he moved to Glasgow, where he worked as a dockside warehouseman for the Irish boats at the Broomielaw.
Music remained a part-time occupation, but it was clearly where his heart lay. As a young man he sang for a while in the choir of St Columba’s Church in Glasgow and won a medal at a local Mod in Paisley, reputedly giving the prize of ten shillings to his mother. Then, in 1931, he achieved a “grand slam” by winning the Gold Medal and the Oban and Lorne Medal at the National Mod, as well as the first prize for an unpublished song. He was the first Mod competitor ever to win both the Gold and the Oban and Lorne at the first attempt, and he later said that he was thankful that he wouldn’t have to go back to the Mod, because winning the two medals and the unpublished song was all he ever wanted to do.
Shortly after that he went to Perth to record Don Chuthaig – “To the Cuckoo”, the first of many recordings with Beltona. He also auditioned and later broadcast for BBC radio, but was told initially that his voice didn’t make the grade – this at a time when his records were starting to sell widely (without going into the politics of the early BBC Gaelic department, it’s perhaps worth bearing in mind that this was around the same time that the great Jimmy Shand failed his first BBC audition for having the temerity to tap his foot).
Archie made some 30 records – all of them 10 inch, 78rpm singles. Many of these studio performances were with pianists who, as often as not, had little feeling for Gaelic song. On stage, at Highland or island gatherings at Glasgow’s St Andrews Hall, for instance, or on his Hebridean tours, he preferred to sing unaccompanied.
There are numerous tales attached to these tours, such as the time he was arriving on Eriskay with another noted Gaelic singer of the day, Margaret Duncan, to find that they’d have to wade the final few feet to the shore from the boat. Grant, who wasn’t a big person, offered to carry Duncan, who was, with the result that the two of them ended up in the water (Duncan accused him of doing it deliberately). On another occasion, shortly after the Second World War, Archie was singing a song, Gillean Uidhist – “The Boys of Uist”, which name-checked some of the islanders who’d been in the conflict. When he sang a certain name, everyone turned round, and he realised that the man he’d just named was sitting in the audience.
Perhaps less widely appreciated than his prowess as a singer were Archie’s abilities at composing tunes for other people’s lyrics. “Archie composed a lot of tunes for Gaelic songs,” says MacNeill. “Other people would send him the lyrics and he would compose the tune, and he gave the copyright of the tune to whoever had written the lyrics. He would go down to his cousin, Chrissie Turner, who was a well-known musician in Glasgow, and sing her the song and she would play it on the piano and transpose it into notation. He never thought of keeping the copyright, which would have been very lucrative for him, because he wrote some great Gaelic tunes. He just kept the copyright of one tune, Gad Chuimhneachadh – ‘Remembering You’.
“I think later on in life, when he saw people claiming credit for his work, he regretted not having kept the copyrights.”
Among the many other popular songs for which he wrote the melodies were Seòlaidh Mise Null (also known as “Welcome to Barra”), Eilean Àlainn Leòdhais – “Lovely Isle of Lewis”, Eilean na Hearadh – “Isle of Harris”, Bàta Phort Rìgh – “The Portree Boat”, Eilean Scalpaigh na Hearadh – ” Isle of Scalpay” and Failte gu Scalpaigh – “Welcome to Scalpay”.
A modest man, Grant told an interviewer during the 1960s that he never thought that he would share a stage along with such notable Gaelic singers of the period as Neil MacLean and Kenny MacRae . Asked what he regarded as his most memorable performance, he replied that it was at the funeral of Iain “Kaid” MacIllEathain, the Skye singer who was killed in a railway accident, when he sang MacCrimmon’s Lament accompanied by the distinguished organist Margaret Hill-Boyle.
At a time before the advent of television – which helped establish the wide following of a later Gaelic singer, Calum Kennedy – Archie Grant, who died a week before his golden wedding anniversary in 1991, became a household name, who didn’t sing for profit, but simply for the love of it.