Allan Ross

Alan Ross Web

Allan Ross (13 September 1940 – 5 September 2011)


An obituary by Neil Cooper was published in the Glasgow Herald 12 September 2012:

Without Allan Ross, who has died after a long illness aged 70, this newspaper’s Herald Angel awards, which are given weekly throughout Edinburgh’s August festival season, would be infinitely less colourful.

Because the numerous winged statuettes, which he lovingly created in all their fragile, sepulchral glory alongside the Archangel, Little Devil and Wee Cherub Awards, are works of art in themselves which have become treasured by those gifted them, even if they might not always be aware of the modest, gentle giant of a man who created them.

It’s unlikely too, that they would make the connection with him as the fiddler extraordinaire in the 7:84 company’s original 1973 production of The Cheviot, The Stag and the Black, Black Oil, John McGrath’s legendary ceilidh-play, which told Scotland’s real story through an array of loose-knit popular theatrical forms, and which more or less reinvented modern Scottish drama as we know it. Anyone who saw the television version of the show, filmed on location for the BBC’s Monday night Play For Today strand in 1974 while touring Highland village halls, will recognise Allan Ross as a charismatic, red-bearded figure, whose playing was emotive and expressive, both during the play’s incidental music, and when leading the dance band, The Force Ten Gaels, who played after every performance.

Music wasn’t his only contribution to this seminal work. He built the famous pop-up book set painted by John Byrne, and even drove the company transit van, that quintessential symbol of small-scale touring theatre in the 1970s. Like many of the Cheviot cast, including John Bett and Bill Paterson, he had appeared in The Great Northern Welly Boot Show, a similarly-styled piece of grassroots popular theatre that retained a radical edge, and which made Billy Connolly a star.

Be it as a performer, designer or builder, his presence in both shows marked a career that would see him transverse several generations of theatre and spectacle that mixed the popular and the radical, from work with David MacLennan’s 7:84 breakaway pop music theatre company, Wildcat, through to Communicado’s Gerry Mulgrew and Angus Farquhar’s pre-NVA percussive provocateurs Test Department. He also built the first set of swings for site-specific experts Grid Iron’s original production of their adventure playground set hit, Decky Does A Bronco.

While born in London, Allan Ross was of Ayrshire descent, and his mother was a violin virtuoso who exposed her two sons to Celtic folk music from an early age. He studied at Central School of Art before setting up an interior design business. Moving to Scotland in the early 1970s in search of his roots, he quickly became involved with 7:84, and the adventure began.

Beyond more formal theatre, he built the Viking longboats that led Edinburgh’s Hogmanay procession to Calton Hill, where they were burnt. The elemental nature of the event appealed to him – he so much resembled an actual Viking he could have been captain of all those boats. Which, in a way, he was. He also built the giant clock-tower for Libera Me, Gerry Mulgrew’s outdoor spectacular that saw in the new millennium on the capital’s George Street with a feat of human engineering that saw the clock operated by a troupe of aerialists.

One of his most recent projects was a gypsy caravan, which he built from scratch using the chassis of two cars he found in a scrapyard.

This wasn’t done for anything specific, but purely for fun and to exercise the full extent of his inventiveness and craftsmanship, which, as with everything he touched, he put his heart and soul into.

Beyond his work, family was at the heart of his life. Two daughters, Emily and Aeola, and a son, Barney, from his first marriage to Paddy Graham, survive him, as do five grand-children, his brother, Jim, and his step-son Oli. His 30-year-long second marriage, to film producer Penny Thomson, ended when she died in 2007. In 2008 he met Sally Freedman, who, he married in 2009 in what was to be a brief but blissfully happy union.

Allan Ross’s art and family came together in what turned out to be his final performance when he played alongside Freedman at the 3 Harbours Arts Festival at Cockenzie House, Cockenzie, in June of this year. Extending his legacy even further, he worked closely with Oli making this year’s collection of Herald Angels, passing the baton to a younger generation of makers, who can be eternally inspired by Ross’ celestial creations.

Jackie McGlone wrote this obituary for the Scotsman, 10 September 2011

Allan Ross, sculptor, painter and fiddler. Born: September 13, 1940, in London. Died: September 5, 2011, in Edinburgh, aged 70.

ALLAN ROSS was a latter-day Merlin, a magician and a musician, who knew how to transmute base metal into gold. He often spent his working days in “freezing isolation” in his grotty Granton workshop, sculpting gilded angels that appeared to have winged from heaven, carving ice to resemble the inside of Superman’s cave and creating wooden dragons that could breathe fire.

Despite having battled a debilitating illness for some time with enormous courage, fortitude and dignity, Ross never stopped working. On the day he died, just a week shy of his 71st birthday, he was planning to do some spot-welding on the hitch he was making for a gypsy caravan he had built.

Born in London, the renowned sculptor, painter and fiddler was of proud Scots descent. His father, an Ayrshire man, was a Glasgow railway worker who moved the family to London when he was drafted into the Metropolitan Police force in the late 1930s, while his musical mother was a virtuoso violinist and fiddler. Ross grew up with the sound of Celtic folk music ringing in his ears since the family often played together. He and elder brother, Jim, were educated at several schools in London, before Allan won a place at Central School of Art.

After graduation, he set up an interior design business, arriving in Scotland in the early 1970s, with a broad Cockney accent that he loved to play up when people complimented him on his prowess on the Scots fiddle. He came in search of his tartan roots because his people were originally from Tain, Ross-shire.

A lanky, gentle giant of a man, famously hirsute, he was one of eight performers who, along with the late John McGrath, were founding members of 7:84 Scotland, touring the country with their legendary production of The Cheviot, The Stag, And The Black, Black Oil, the mould-breaking radical “ceilidh play,” which first went out on tour in 1973.

Director and producer David MacLennan, now famous as the man behind Glasgow’s Play, Pie and Pint theatre phenomenon, was one of that band of travelling players. He recalls: “Allan was a force of nature. Tall and handsome, with a wild mane of red hair and a fiery beard. When he stood on the little stages of village halls all over the Highlands and Islands, he looked like a Viking chief who had just beached his longboat nearby to perform wonders on the fiddle.”

Those wonders included The Hen’s March to the Midden, with Ross scraping and crowing so that MacLennan says you could see the fowl’s strutting progress and The Four-Poster Bed, with his flying bow upended to mark the posts of the bed. But it was his heart-breakingly beautiful rendition of The Lament for the Children, his haunting elegy for the suffering of the people of the Highlands, that MacLennan remembers Ross pouring his heart and soul into every night. “Allan was also the driving force in The Force Ten Gaels, the dance band which played every evening after The Cheviot performances into the wee, small hours,” he says.

Ross also drove the transit van in which the company toured, while he doubled as an actor and a musician, learning how to conjure up theatrical wizardry. Perched on the van’s roof was the giant pop-up book of sets, conceived by McGrath, built by Ross and painted by the artist and playwright John Byrne. Last year, it was shown in the Curtain Up! exhibition at the National Library, in Edinburgh.

As an actor, Ross played a multitude of roles with 7:84: an “Indian” in The Red River Valley, assorted crofters and even a cunningly disguised policeman.

Later, he worked with many other theatre practitioners in Scotland, including Gerry Mulgrew, Wildcat and Test Department, as well as making the gigantic “joke” lochside sculpture for the BBC’s acclaimed dramatisation of Iain Banks’s novel Crow Road. For many years, Ross also designed and built the massive rolling sculpture that was the siege tower and the Viking longboat that led the capital’s torchlight Hogmanay process to its climactic conflagration on Calton Hill. For Hogmanay, in 1999, he built and engineered a giant clock tower to mark the millennium – typically, it was worked as if by magic, using acrobats, accompanied by a dazzling light show.

But it was as a sculptor that this Renaissance man made his mark – from the golden angels, archangels, cherubs and wee devils he designed for Edinburgh Festival/Fringe awards to the bust he made of a stern John Knox (now in the Highland Theological College in Dingwall) to the temporary giant’s footprint – 90ft by 30ft – he installed in West Pilton Park. Ross, however, would have disdained such a claim. He once said: “There is a lot of arrogance involved in ‘making your mark’ and leaving it indelibly on society after you’ve gone.”

He added: “I like a piece of sculpture to be like a play. It unfolds as you walk around it and it changes, because there’s always a surprise around the corner. I prefer to leave something to the imagination, to preserve a bit of mystery.”

It was a measure of his modesty that he never signed his work, even his many oil paintings – he drew all the time and was planning a new painting at the time of his death. He liked to “colour in” his work because he adored the smell of turpentine. “It was almost Proustian,” he joked. “There’s a thing called a turpentine high, which I got as soon as I set foot inside art school, and I honestly think I have been high on it ever since. A whiff of it wheechs me back half a century.”

At art college, a tutor told the youthful Ross: “A sculptor must have a glass ass and never sit down. Get up and do it. If you’ve got an idea, make it, feel it, look at it, try it, throw it away.”

He was a model pupil.

Ross was first married to Paddy Graham, mother of his three children. The marriage ended in divorce and, in 1978, he married Penny Thomson, the film producer and former director of the Edinburgh International Film Festival, who died in 2007. In July, 2009, he married Sally Freedman, whom he had met in 2008, an all-too-brief but very happy union.

He is survived by Sally, his daughters Emily, 46, Aeola, 42, son Barney, 41, five grandchildren, brother Jim, 73, and stepson Oli, 24, who has been working as “the sorcerer’s apprentice,” helping make this year’s angels.


Of the musician


Commercial recordings

Archival Recordings

SSS Archive No.: SA1971.233
Native Area/Country: Edinburgh, Shetland: Lerwick
Catalogue: sa
Additional Comments: Studio 5″ reel
Date Recorded: 1971.09.01
Fieldworker(s): Ailie Munro
Informant/Artiste: ROSS Allan, ANDERSON Tom
Type of Material: Scots music fiddle tradition fiddling

SSS Archive No.: SA1971.234
Native Area/Country: Edinburgh, Shetland: Lerwick
Catalogue: sa
Additional Comments: Studio 5″ reel
Date Recorded: 1971.09.01
Fieldworker(s): Ailie Munro
Informant/Artiste: ROSS Allan, ANDERSON Tom
Type of Material: Scots music fiddle tradition fiddling

SSS Archive No.: SA1971.235
Native Area/Country: Edinburgh, Shetland: Lerwick, Shetland, Ireland [x2]
Catalogue: sa
Additional Comments: Studio 5″ reel
Date Recorded: 1971.09.02
Fieldworker(s): Ailie Munro
Informant/Artiste: ROSS Allan, ANDERSON Tom, BAIN Aly, CLANCY Liam, MORTON Robin
Place Recorded: SSS
Type of Material: Scots music fiddle concertina bodhran guitar songs Irish tales

SSS Archive No.: SA1971.236
Native Area/Country: Edinburgh, Shetland: Lerwick
Catalogue: sa
Additional Comments: Studio 5″ reel
Date Recorded: 1971.09.02
Fieldworker(s): Ailie Munro
Informant/Artiste: ROSS Allan, ANDERSON Tom
Type of Material: Scots music fiddle tradition fiddling

Other media

Video etc.


Compositions, transcriptions etc.


Albannach poster2


In other sites etc.


To the Scotsman obituary actor Bill Paterson appended:

The word versatile can be overused but nothing else would do for big Allan Ross. A fiddler extraordinaire, a chippie capable of building a set in an afternoon, a driver capable of taking a transit van from Brussels to the north coast of Sutherland in less than two days, and a part-time actor able to play a witty King George V or an undercover cop with his flaming gold beard “disguised” by a false chin – which, of course, he had made himself.

Quite simply, those early tours of 7:84 Scotland could never have happened without Allan Ross.


Of the player’s music