OT: 16 December 1911 – John Grant “The Secrets of Canntaireachd”



The Oban Times, 16 December, 1911

The Secrets of Canntaireachd

5 Wallfield Place, Aberdeen

7 December, 1911

Sir,–In your issue of 25th ult., Dr. Bannatyne says I am in a difficulty regarding the above. Dr. Bannatyne says that I begin by asserting that he does not know the mysterious MacCrimmon notation secrets, and neither does Dr. Bannatyne know the secrets of the MacCrimmon notation. This is no mere assertion on my part, but his own words. After his attempt to prove his knowledge of the MacCrimmon notation, as contained in his letter of 20th ult., he says “the MacCrimmon Canntaireachd is dead.” Regarding the questions which I put to him through the medium of your columns, he has not given a single satisfactory answer.

Dr. Bannatyne’s reply to my question No. 1 is “Yes,” after putting Macleod of Gesto’s hat on his own head. Why did Dr. Bannatyne not simply answer “Yes” or “No” from his own knowledge, without hanging on to anyone else? Question No. 2–Dr. Bannatyne says that the MacCrimmons left their scale in the tunes published in Macleod of Gesto’s book. They never did. The Raisa MacCrimmons who invented the system of notation never saw Macleod’s book, and if Capt. Macleod had known the key or scale to the MacCrimmon sol-fa notation, he would have published it. Question No. 3–Dr. Bannatyne simply copies the title of Macleod of Gesto’s book. This is no answer. He says a reprint of Macleod’s book can be had from Messrs. J. & R. Glen, Edinburgh, for 2s 6d. This is not the case, as the last time I visited Messrs. J. & R. Glen they had not a copy in stock! To question No. 4 Dr. Bannatyne says that in the preface of my latest book, “The Royal Collection of Piobaireachd,” I say the MacCrimmon sol-fa notation is superior to the present day notation. I asked this question at him, not at myself. He has taken my answer to the question. For question No. 5, Dr. Bannatyne says vowels are sounds, and consonants are grace-notes.

He says vowels are sounds or large notes, but he does not say what name the notes have, or how the student could make them out–the same with grace-notes. To No. 6 Dr. Bannatyne says the tune he sent me privately was No. 7 in Capt. Macleod’s book. I cannot lay my hand on the copy meantime, but anyone could copy a tune from a book which is written before his eyes and yet be quite ignorant of it. Dr. Bannatyne’s answer to question No. 7 is: “The MacCrimmon canntaireachd is dead.” What is clearer than this?

Dr. Bannatyne says I am not competent to judge the power of his intellect or memory, while perhaps I may be permitted to draw attention to the fact that he considers himself capable of judging me. Dr. Bannatyne says that he will undertake to memorise any known pipe tune in a quarter of an hour by means of canntaireachd. I say that he never will, though he lives 1000 years, but the place and date for a test may be arranged. Before this challenge of Dr. Bannatyne’s is of any use, he will have to play any pipe tune in existence in a quarter of an hour, as well as to hum or chanted it over in a meaningless jargon. He has laid himself open to an examination, and therefore I alone must be his judge. Dr. Bannatyne says he mastered Curwen’s system of sol-fa notation in three days. Fifteen minutes is only a 288th part of three days.

Regarding Mr. MacLean, who Dr. Bannatyne has drawn into the matter and says that he mastered Macleod’s book of notation in an hour, and that I am not entitled to generalise regarding Mr. MacLean’s ability or memory, I am as much entitled to challenge this as Dr. Bannatyne is to make the statement.

Dr. Bannatyne says that I write saying the MacCrimmon notation was ingenious and mysterious. From the MacCrimmon tunes handed down to us a staff notation, I have every right and no hesitation in saying that the MacCrimmon notation was not only ingenious but perfect, and yet it is mysterious to Dr. Bannatyne, as he has not said or proved that he knows or understands it.

The MacCrimmon tunes which we have now were handed down to us from one decade to the other by means of one piper fingering the tunes to another–thus the tunes were preserved by musical sounds produced on the chanter quite independent of any system of notation. Piobaireachd was chanted in the time of the MacCrimmons in their own notation, called canntaireachd, and from its perfect and beautiful form, I am quite justified in saying that it was ingenious, and as Dr. Bannatyne says it is dead himself, it is therefore now a mysterious system to him and all in existence. Dr. Bannatyne says “the once mysterious hieroglyphics on the tombs of the East yielded their secrets to earnest students.”

In the Egyptian hieroglyphics their meaning was discovered by the fact that some words were expressed in Greek characters, and thus a key was furnished to the mystery of the hieroglyphics. It is almost certain that the mystery would never have been discovered were it not for the Greek inscriptions, but Dr. Bannatyne has furnished no proof that he has found any part of the MacCrimmon notation expressed either in sol-fa or the present-day staff notation. If this be considered strict, then all I can say is that it is the only logical reply which I can give to Dr. Bannatyne’s comparison, seeing that he started the question of hieroglyphics. The Egyptian hieroglyphics contained their own alphabet as a secret for over two thousand years, and probably would not have been discovered yet, were it not for the accident of inscriptions in other languages, which furnished a key. Therefore until some of the MacCrimmon notation be discovered in staff and sol-fa notation, note for note and side-by-side, they will ever remain a secret and a mystery.

Finally, Dr. Bannatyne seems very anxious that I should test his abilities in canntaireachd. This, as I have already said, I cannot do by argument, or through the medium of this valuable paper, but personally and in his presence. Many years ago I possessed a copy of Macleod of Gesto’s book of canntaireachd, and it is open to any student. Piobaireachd can only be conveyed to the ear instrumentally by means of the Great Highland Bagpipe, and be the notation in whatever format likes, it does not alter the actual performance and sound or melody of the tune when played on the pipes.

Dr. Bannatyne’s letter contains a puzzle for solution by some of your readers who are interested in canntaireachd or piobaireachd, viz.: He says “‘the MacCrimmon canntaireachd is dead,’ but all the pipers he knows use a sol-fa system of notation of their own.” Now what has to be solved is: Seeing that we all use sol-fa notations of our own just as Dr. Bannatyne does, how is it that he is the only man who has fathomed or hit on the real MacCrimmon secrets, especially in view of the fact that he says the MacCrimmon canntaireachd is dead? This places us all on an equal footing; and he says: “If Capt. Macleod’s Collection is the real MacCrimmon verbal notation.” Dr. Bannatyne has no proof whether Capt. Macleod’s Collection is the real MacCrimmon notation or not by the use of the word “if.” Canntaireachd was once clear and simple and the lifetime of the great MacCrimmons, but up till now it remains a mystery to the most ardent student in piobaireachd.–I am, etc.,

John Grant

OT: 25 November 1911 – Charles Bannatyne “Canntaireachd”



The Oban Times, 25 November, 1911

Canntaireachd

Salsburg, 20 November, 1911

Sir,–Mr. Grant in your issue of 11th inst. says I am trying to get over a difficulty as best I can. I am in no difficulty, but Mr. Grant is. He begins by asserting that I do not know the mysterious MacCrimmon secrets, whatever they may be, and it lies with him to prove his assertion. To meet him halfway, I asserted that I can read any canntaireachd in existence, and asked him to test my power through your columns, but his only reply consists of some laboriously adroit questions designed to force me to admit that I know or don’t know his bogey, the mysterious MacCrimmon secrets.

While I am sorry to encroach too much on your valuable space, yet I feel constrained to answer Mr. Grant’s questions categorically:

1. Does Dr. Bannatyne know and understand the real MacCrimmon verbal notation: canntaireachd?

If Captain MacLeod’s Collection is the real MacCrimmon verbal notation, the answer is “Yes!”

2. Can Dr. Bannatyne prove that the MacCrimmons ever left a scrap or vestige of a scale or key to their system of verbal notation?

They left the tunes published by Captain MacLeod, and they contain the scale, or they could not possibly be tunes.

3. Can Dr. Bannatyne tell me whether the tunes given in MacLeod of Gesto’s book are the MacCrimmon verbal notation called canntaireachd, or are they a system of notation of MacLeod’s own invention?

The title of Captain MacLeod’s publication is: “A Collection of Piobaireachd, or pipe tunes, as verbally taught by the MacCrummen pipers in the Isle of Skye to their apprentices, now published, as taken from John MacCrummen, piper to the old Laird of MacLeod and his grandson, the late General MacLeod of MacLeod.” A reprint can be had from Messrs. J. & R. Glenn, Edinburgh, for half-a-crown.

4. Can Dr. Bannatyne tell me if the MacCrimmon verbal notation is, or ever was, superior in every manner to that of our present-day staff notation?

5. No qualified piper can mistake the time marks in staff notation or the various notes and grace-notes in that system. Now, Sir, can Dr. Bannatyne prove that any piper can tell what the time of any tune is in MacLeod’s book, what any note or grace-note is, or the length of their duration? The MacCrimmons left no scale or key to guide anyone.

Mr. Grant, in the preface to the latest edition of his book the tune says it is? As a means of memorizing pibroch, grace-notes and all, it has no modern superior. In the vocables, take, say, himbodrao, him-bo-dra-o. If Mr. Grant year is not find enough to distinguish the different time lengths of the syllables I cannot help them by argument. The vowels are sounds, and the consonants, as h and dr, are grace-notes.Diroro is the gracing of B by doubling low G by D and C; hieririn is the low A opened and then sounded twice by the little finger beats; horiro signifies the B beats; hiavarla or hiardla signifies the D beats; hodro is doubling of C or B according to how it occurs in the tune; bitri is doubling of D or F, according to the occurrence in the tune.

6. Can Dr. Bannatyne tell me whether the tune which he sent me privately by post is a system of verbal notation invented by himself, or is it the real verbal notation of the MacCrimmons, called canntaireachd?

7. Is canntaireachd to live or die, or will pipers in general ever use it as a universal system of notation?

The tune I sent Mr. Grant is, I think, No.7 in Captain MacLeod’s book. It is called their “Cean Deas.” I write from memory, as I do not exactly remember the tune I forwarded. It may be No. 4, “MacLeod Gesto’s Gathering.” If it is No. 7, the modern name of the tune is “the Earl of Ross’s March,” if No. 4 the modern name is “The Gordon’s Salute.” The MacCrimmon canntaireachd is dead, but all the pipers I know using system of their own. I never invented a musical system of any kind.

Mr. Grant should not be so positive in his statements about who is or who is not able to memorize piobaireachd. I would undertake to memorize any pipe to in existence in a quarter of an hour by means of canntaireachd. I was taught staff notation in my younger days, and five years ago I mastered Curwen’s sol-fa in three days. I question Mr. Grant’s right to say this is exaggeration. He is not competent to be the judge of the power of either my intellect or memory.

He states his object is to prove whether or not I know and use the real MacCrimmon notation. Well, let him do so! I have given him some little assistance by means of this letter. He says the exhaustive analysis I published in your columns some years ago was my own local system. It was not! It was and is an analysis of the vocables published by Captain MacLeod as being the MacCrimmon notation. Perhaps Mr. Grant has not seen the publication. He writes of the notation as being ingenious and mysterious. If, as he says, no one living understands it, then he doesn’t. It is therefore mysterious to him. No man can call anything ingenious the working of which he does not understand.

Why should the MacCrimmon notation not be solved by students? The once mysterious hieroglyphics on the tombs of the East yielded their secrets to earnest students. I cannot read these, but I would hesitate to place on record the sweeping statement that there is no man living who can.

In a previous letter Mr. Grant said, “but put Dr. Bannatyne to a perfect test outside of MacLeod’s book, and he is lost in the mazes of a mysterious system of notation.” I asked Mr. Grant to put me to any test he liked, either with regard to MacLeod’s book or any other system of vocables. Heretofore I have never been put to any kind of test on the subject. Now, Sir, can any offer be fairer? I do not imagine part of the MacCrimmon mantle has descended on my devoted head, as I would not care to asperse the dead masters.–I am, etc.,

Charles Bannatyne, M.B., C.M.

OT: 11 November 1911 – John Grant (in Aberdeen) “Canntaireachd”



The Oban Times, 11 November, 1911

Canntaireachd

Aberdeen, 6 November, 1911

Sir,–In your issue of 28th October Dr. Bannatyne is trying to get over a difficulty the best way he can, but that is not the point. He is trying, so far as I can see, to put a bone in my mouth, and also those who are interested in this art, instead of proving that he knows the real MacCrimmon secrets of canntaireachd or not.

He has not contradicted one single statement which I have put before him. I said that there is no person living who knows and can read the MacCrimmon verbal notation called canntaireachd. He has not said that there is. As I have taken up a considerable amount of your valuable space already, I am to be as brief on this occasion as possible, and bring Dr. Bannatyne back to the real point by asking him the following questions, viz.:

1. Does Dr. Bannatyne know and understand the real MacCrimmon verbal notation called canntaireachd?

2. Can Dr. Bannatyne prove that the MacCrimmons ever left a scrap or vestige of a scale or key to their system of verbal notation?

3. Can Dr. Bannatyne tell me whether the tunes given in MacLeod of Gesto’s book are the MacCrimmon verbal notation called canntaireachd, or are they a system of notation of MacLeod’s own invention?

4. Can Dr. Bannatyne tell me if the MacCrimmon verbal notation is, or ever was, superior in every manner to that of our present-day staff notation?

5. No qualified piper can mistake the time marks in staff notation or the various notes and grace-notes in that system. Now, Sir, can Dr. Bannatyne prove that any piper can tell what the time of any tune is in MacLeod’s book, what any note or grace-note is, or the length of their duration? The MacCrimmons left no scale or key to guide anyone.

6. Can Dr. Bannatyne tell me whether the tune which he sent me privately by post is a system of verbal notation invented by himself, or is it the real verbal notation of the MacCrimmons, called canntaireachd?

7. Is canntaireachd to live or die, or will pipers in general ever use it as a universal system of notation?

Dr. Bannatyne said in one of his letters that Mr. William McLean, Glasgow, mastered the notation in MacLeod of Gesto’s book in half an hour. I said in my next letter that there is no one living who could commit one single piobaireachd to memory in half an hour and play it perfectly without a mistake–that is, no one living could master any system of musical notation in a month, far less half an hour. Dr. Bannatyne has not contradicted me. His statement is exaggerated in the extreme; mine is very much modified.

In Dr. Bannatyne’s letter dated 23rd October, he states that Mr. William McLean, Glasgow, was taught piobaireachd in Skye by means of vocables. This may be so, but were these the real MacCrimmon vocables? I was taught piobaireachd myself by means of Gaelic vocables, but that is no proof that I was taught by the same system as used by the MacCrimmons.

My object is to prove whether Dr. Bannatyne knows and uses the real MacCrimmon system of MacCrimmon verbal notation. If Dr. Bannatyne cannot prove that he knows the real MacCrimmon canntaireachd then there is no use of going further with the matter, but I say, as I have already said in your columns, that there is no one living who knows and understands the real MacCrimmon secrets of canntaireachd, and that the exhaustive analysis of vocables published in your columns some years ago was Dr. Bannatyne’s vocables system of piobaireachd, and not the ingenious and mysterious system of verbal notation of the MacCrimmons called canntaireachd.–I am, etc.,

John Grant

OT: 28 October 1911 – Charles Bannatyne “Canntaireachd”



The Oban Times, 28 October, 1911

Canntaireachd

Salsburgh, by Holytown,

23 October, 1911

Sir,–Mr. Grant is still attempting to force down my throat a claim I never made. I have nothing to do with what Mr. Grant thinks or Mr. Simon Fraser says. Mr. Fraser can speak for himself on canntaireachd.

Regarding Mr. William McLean, whose name I used without his permission, I may say he was taught piobaireachd in Skye by means of vocables, and these resembled Captain MacLeod’s collected vocables so closely that Mr. MacLean had no difficulty in reading the latter in half an hour.

Mr. Grant goes on to say:

Dr. Bannatyne has MacLeod’s book of sol-fa notation, and when he places it against the staff notation this is a guide for him, as he says, with years of careful study. But put him or Mr. Fraser to a perfect test outside MacLeod’s book, and both are lost in the wilderness of the mysterious system of notation.

Regarding the first part of the statement, I can only say it is nonsense. I never did anything so fatuous as to place MacLeod’s sol-fa against the staff. I saw to MacLeod’s Collection in an hour or so, but it has taken me several years to see through the variety of sounds such as “in,” “an,” “un,” “en,” which do not differ very much in meaning.

If Mr. Grant wishes to realize the utter futility of “placing MacLeod sol-fa against the staff,” let him study MacIntyre-North’s article on the subject in “The Book of the Club of True Highlanders.” He will there see how signally North failed to understand the MacCrimmon notation. I read it by a vowel scale, by sound, and by a few simple rules. It is not possible to read tunes like No. 5, 10, 7, 4, unknown tunes by name, but which when translated proved to be “Dungallon’s Salute,” “McDonald of Duntroon’s salute,” “Earl of Ross’s March,” “Gordon’s Salute.” You see, Sir, one must know the tune first before he can “place MacLeod’s sol-fa against the staff,” as Mr. Grant alleges to do.

I published in your columns a few years ago an exhaustive analysis of the vocables, and that still holds good, except one small error.

Regarding the second assertion made by Mr. Grant, previously quoted, I can only say that I have never been put to any test by anyone at any time by which my ability to read canntaireachd could be proved or disproved, I assevervate I can read any canntaireachd in existence today, and am willing to demonstrate my power to do so if given an opportunity. If Mr. Grant cares to test my knowledge of canntaireachd through your columns by setting [sic] me a tune to translate, I shall be glad to indicate the melody in my reply, or shall send the translation to Mr. Grant.–I am, etc.,

Charles Bannatyne, M.B., C.M.

OT: 21 October 1911 – John Grant “Canntaireachd”



The Oban Times, 21 October, 1911

Canntaireachd

21 Murieston Crescent, Edinburgh,

16 October, 1911

Sir,–In your last week’s columns, I notice a reply to my letter which appeared in the previous issue. Dr. Bannatyne asks me to state when and where he made the claim that he is one of the two men living who know and understand the MacCrimmon secrets of canntaireachd. I am not prepared to state that this claim on the part of Dr. Bannatyne ever came before the public from his own hand, but I am speaking here now on evidence in print and otherwise in my possession.

I hold a pamphlet printed and written by Simon Fraser, Australia, for which I give an extract as follows, viz.:–

The true key of all secrecy or mystery enables them (the MacCrimmons) to keep their music such a close secret, that there are only two persons living who can write or translate their music, viz., Dr. Bannatyne and myself (Mr. Fraser).

Now I do not say that Dr. Bannatyne made the statement directly, but it was made by Simon Fraser. If it is the case that it is correct let Mr. Fraser says, as I have quoted above, then Dr. Bannatyne can lay claim to be one of the two living who know and understand canntaireachd. If Dr. Bannatyne has not seen the leaflet in question he has had no opportunity of referring to it, but the opportunity stands open now.

I have other information in my possession which I do not wish to divulge in print without Dr. Bannatyne’s permission.

Dr. Bannatyne says–”I only claim to be able to read Captain MacLeod’s canntaireachd, and still make that claim.” Captain MacLeod of Gesto published some twenty or more piobaireachd in the MacCrimmon notation called canntaireachd. This was the MacCrimmon notation or canntaireachd; not “Captain MacLeod’s canntaireachd,” as Dr. Bannatyne says. The MacCrimmons invented the system, and Captain MacLeod only copied and published it; so that Dr. Bannatyne is quite wrong in saying that the notation given in MacLeod of Gesto’s book was MacLeod’s; it was the MacCrimmons’.

In other words, if Dr. Bannatyne claims to be able to read and understand the tunes written in MacLeod of Gesto’s book, which was the MacCrimmon canntaireachd, then he must understand the MacCrimmon sol-fa notation.

Dr. Bannatyne makes a statement in the effect that Mr. Wm. McLean, Glasgow can read and understand MacLeod’s book, and that he learned it in half an hour. Mr. McLean can answer for himself; but I say there is no man living who can play anyone piobaireachd correctly from memory in half an hour; neither is there a man in existence at the present day who could master the secrets of any system in a month, far less half an hour.

Dr. Bannatyne has MacLeod’s book of sol-fa notation, and when he places it against the staff notation this is a guide for him, as he says with years of careful study. But put him or Mr. Fraser to a perfect test outside MacLeod’s book, and both are lost in the wilderness of the mysterious system of notation.–I am, etc.,

John Grant

OT: 14 October 1911 – Charles Bannatyne “Canntaireachd”



The Oban Times, 14 October, 1911

Canntaireachd

Salsburgh, by Holytown

9 October, 1911

Sir,–Mr. Grant, in your issue of seventh inst., makes the statement that I claim to be one of two men living who “understand the MacCrimmon secrets.” Would your correspondent point out when and where I made the claim?

I only claim to be able to read Capt. MacLeod’s Canntaireachd, and I still make that claim. Mr. William MacLean, Glasgow, winner of the Cowal March prize, also reads it. He does so in the same way as I do–principally by sound, and he learned it in half an hour. Captain MacLeod’s book contains no secrets, so far as I can make out. The MacCrimmon secrets are contained in their many fine tunes published in old notation in well-known collections.–I am, etc.,

C. Bannatyne, M.B., C.M.

OT: 7 October 1911 – John Grant “Canntaireachd”



The Oban Times, 7 October, 1911

Canntaireachd

21 Murieston Crescent, Edinburgh

1 October, 1911

Sir,–Your issue of September 23rd contains a reply from Mr. Simon Fraser, Sydney, to my letter of 24th June last on the above subject. Mr. Fraser and Dr. Charles Bannatyne, claim to be the only two men living who know and understand the real MacCrimmon secrets, and to them my letter of 24th June was an intended test as to whether they really know the secrets of the MacCrimmon verbal notation called canntaireachd or not. Up to this date your readers have had a reply from Dr. Bannatyne to my letter of 24th June.

In Mr. Simon Fraser’s explanation now before me I cannot see that it is at all proof that ever he got the MacCrimmon secrets of Canntaireachd in theory or practice, and I shall deal with the most important items in his letter systematically.

Mr. Fraser says: “As Mr. Grant does not suggest why Sheantaireachd was altered to Canntaireachd, I will call it by the latter term to please him.” I had no need to suggest why Canntaireachd was ever altered to Sheantaireachd, but perhaps Mr. Fraser will enlighten me where in the Gaelic language I will find his form of the word. Why does he give in and accept the word Canntaireachd really to please me if Sheantaireachd is correct? This is no proof that either he or I are correct in the minds of those who are not capable of judging for themselves. Canntaireachd, which is absolutely correct, means to chant, or sing over, piobaireachd or pipe tunes. Sheantaireachd was never known to the MacCrimmons,, or even understood in Skye. It is not a proper Gaelic word of any description. Therefore it Mr. Fraser does not understand right from wrong in the Gaelic language, on which the MacCrimmon verbal quotation was based, how can he possibly know and understand fully the secrets of this mysterious notation?

In Neil MacLeod’s song, “An gleann’s an robh mi og,” we find the lines:

“Greis air sugradh, greis air dannsa,

Greis air canntaireachd is ceòl,” etc.

If Mr. Fraser is right, perhaps he will give me as good an explanation of the word Sheantaireachd, which he uses, or tell me where I can find it in the Gaelic language, dictionary, or in fact any shape or form.

Mr. Fraser in the course of his letter says: “In the year 1853 my mother commenced to teach me the Canntaireachd, and the secrets of the MacCrimmons.” The next question which arises in my mind and those who are interested in the art of piobaireachd is: “Was Simon Fraser’s mother qualified to teach her son such an ingenious system of notation in theory and practice? Was she a professional piobaireachd player? Had she a perfect knowledge this verbal notation equal to that of the best of the great MacCrimmons?” Such are the necessary qualifications she would have had to acquire before she could have taught her son. We must have real proof that the system is still alive and understood.

From Mr. Fraser’s letter I understand that he intended printing a book piobaireachd, which was to have been written in the staff notation and, below the stave, in the sol-fa system of the MacCrimmons. This is in itself proof that his verbal notation is no use without the staff notation along side of it. On the other hand, if Mr. Fraser has the perfect system of the MacCrimmons and he can bring it back to use, why does he not print his tunes in the same form as MacLeod of Gesto did? It would be a very cheap method of publishing his book, and if the system is real that the production of this publication would prove its correctness, this being the only means by which he could bring it back to use if it is real. I have composed not a few original tunes, and have given them in the most perfect system of musical notation in existence. It can be read, played, and understood by all. It now lies in all parts of the world. I have sent copies by my own hand to India, Africa, Australia, and America, etc., and I have received many congratulations of success. I have not challenged or condemned others who work for the good of the art until I have been challenged or condemned, and on this basis I am defending myself.

Mr. Fraser says that the verbal notation of the MacCrimmons is the only means by which piobaireachd can be properly played, and he has now to prove his point. Again I will repeat my statement that there is no more perfect system of musical notation under the sun than the staff notation. Any one with ordinary intelligence can understand and play correctly from it, whereas the verbal notation of the MacCrimmons, however perfect it may have been in its day, was only of use to the pupil when sung and the sounds represented and shown by the teacher to the pupil. In Canntaireachd there are no time marks, nothing to show the duration of any note or whether any one word represents one or more notes, whereas in the staff notation an E is always an E, and F is always an F, a crotchet is a crotchet, a quaver is always a quaver, and so on. By this musical system no performer can mistake the name of any note, grace-note, or their value.

I congratulate Mr. Fraser on the good-humoured manner in which he takes my letter, but I say that there is no one alive who knows or understands the MacCrimmon system of verbal notation called Canntaireachd, and up till now we have no proof that there is anyone alive who does know it.–I am, etc.,

John Grant

OT: 23 September 1911 – Simon Fraser



The Oban Times, 23 September, 1911

Sydney, 9 August, 1911

Sir,–In your valuable paper dated June 24th, I see a letter from Mr. John Grant, and with your kind permission I will reply to it.

As Mr. Grant does not suggest why Sheantaireachd was altered to Canntaireachd, I will call it by the latter term to please him. As I have abandoned the idea of publishing a book of piobaireachd only, I will give Mr. Grant some information that I have never mentioned to anyone outside my own family before. I kept this to myself purposely for my book, but on taking a tune to a printer he told me that special type would have to be made to print the tunes as I had written them. As Mr. Grant says he would like to see the old notation restored, I will explain how I came to be in possession of the MacCrimmon secrets. My great-grandfather (on my mother’s side), Charles Macarthur, was taught by Patrick Og MacCrimmon, and he taught my grandfather; and my mother being very fond of piobaireachd, he taught her how to read and sing the Canntaireachd. Charles Macarthur was a great favourite with Patrick Og, and he took great pains with him to make him not only a great piper, but also a composer.

In the year 1853 my mother commenced to teach me the Canntaireachd and the secrets of the MacCrimmons, and along with my father’s assistance they gave me not only the “casket,” but also several “jewels” that have never been published. My father, who was a relative of David Fraser, Lord Lovat’s piper, was born in July, 1796, and in the year 1812 he became acquainted with Neil MacLeod, Gesto, who introduced him to John MacCrimmon, and the two of them learnt the Canntaireachd from “John Dubh,” as he was generally called. Neil MacLeod, Gesto, was a fine player, and so was his son Norman MacLeod, who died in the year 1847. He played in my father’s house shortly before he died. My father knew John Bane Mackenzie well, and heard him play several times. Mr. Grant will now understand that I have my information from a very reliable source. The MacCrimmon secrets have been very useful to me, as they helped me to turn out the best pipers in Australia, my son being the present champion all-round player.

As to the ordinary notation, I started by playing the violin from it in 1860, and have used it ever since for that instrument, which I make as well as play. The first lessons I had upon it after learning the scales were strathspeys and reels, and I thought I was doing very well till I heard a Mr. John Smith, who had been playing in Edinburgh for 18 years. I had to learn all over again, for although I could play the notes in time, still the spirit, or “birr,” was not there. It is just the same with piobaireachd–there is a something in the playing which cannot be put on paper.

I would strongly advise Mr. Grant to read Abdy Williams’ “Story of Notation,” p. 218, where he says:–

Musical notation, however perfect, can never entirely represented composer’s meaning. Much must be left to the imagination of the performer, and only deep and prolonged study and experience can enable him to render the printed or written notes satisfactorily.

 This is only a portion of what Mr. Williams says about classical music, and as piobaireachd is the classical music of the pipes, these remarks can be applied to it also.

I may also mentioned that there are two different scales in the MacCrimmon notation–the old one, and the one perfected by Patrick Mhor on his return to Italy about the middle of the seventeenth century, and which was published in your columns some time ago by Dr. Bannatyne who, I may mention, has translated successfully any pieces I sent him.

The old scale is as follows:–

Hin hin ho ho ha hie hi hi hi or di dili  
G A B C D E F G A    
Di-u hi-n O Being used as E very often.  
A E F E                  

As MacLeod was a particular friend of my father’s, I do not wish to find fault with him further than this–that he should have put all the lines in, and written his 1828 book according to the proved scale of Patrick Mhor. The old scale, as will be seen, made one vocable to answer for two, and sometimes three, different notes. In “The Comely Tune” three lines are left out through the whole piece, which is very puzzling except to the expert the MacCrimmon music. I have two versions of this tune, and the verses in it are very interesting, and show what a clever man and deep thinker Patrick Mhor was.

In conclusion, I may say that I am not in the least annoyed at what Mr. Grant has written, as no doubt he thought I was inventing something of my own, and I can assure him that I shall be only too pleased to help anyone to restore the old notation, which I know to be perfect. The MacCrimmons were, as Mr. Grant says, very clever, and although others may try to imitate their system, there is no one as yet who has improved upon it. As my old and respected teacher used to say, “the new system may be all very well, but it does not show you how to play the tunes.”–I am, etc.,

Simon Fraser

OT: 24 June 1911 – John Grant “Piobaireachd Composition and Canntaireachd”



The Oban Times, 24 June, 1911

Piobaireachd Composition and Canntaireachd

21 Murieston Crescent,

Edinburgh, 19 June, 1911

Sir–Now that I have got my work, “The Royal Collection of Piobaireachd,” completed meantime, published, and put before the public, in my leisure hours I wish to direct my attention to the subject of “Canntaireachd,” or the MacCrimmons’ “verbal notation.” Although I uphold this ancient system of notation in the Introduction of my book, and the editor of “the Oban Times” says that I “appear to be a disciple of the MacCrimmon verbal notation,” what has set me seriously thinking is the editor’s remarks further on in his review of my work. He says: “Whether a new piobaireachd era can be established through the medium of a musical system which has fallen into disuse, attractive as its secrets are, is a doubtful problem.”

The seriousness of my position here has awakened me to a task that may seem very difficult, and one contrary to what I have already said regarding “Canntaireachd,” and after careful consideration I feel that to make my attitude quite clear so far as it affects the MacCrimmons’ “verbal notation,” is necessary for me to give those who are interested in my work some further explanation.

I still uphold all that I have said in the Introduction of my book–that the MacCrimmons had a perfect system of “verbal notation,” or “Canntaireachd,” which they taught to their pupils; but on a more careful and minute study of this old verbal system I have come to the final conclusion that it has not only fallen into disuse, but into oblivion, and there I am afraid, in spite of all our efforts, it is destined to remain. It is quite true, as I have said in my introduction, that “Canntaireachd is the true casket in which the jewels are placed,” and what has happened? We have lost the casket, but retained the jewels. It is not our fault that the casket has been lost; it was lost many years before we were in existence. Therefore concerns me most is the jewels. I wish to keep the old jewels bright and sparkling in preserving the ancient pieces of “Ceòl Mòr” from sustaining loss by neglect and creating new stars on the horizon the piobaireachd, and thus created a new interest in the revival of the composition of the art of ancient piobaireachd. What I have done and am prepared to do is with singleness of heart.

I envy no man’s attempts so long as they are in the right direction, to raise a lost and forgotten art. I have listened long and patiently to the lamented cry that piobaireachd composition has fallen into oblivion. I have looked long, but in vain, for some new theme to revive my drooping heart and stir the soul that is within me to higher ideals and imperial aims. I heard ringing in my ear as I played my “phiob mhor” some five years ago the imaginative wail of the last of the great MacCrimmons’ war-pipe, and I made a vow that I would not be content to sit and listen to imaginative themes from the misty isle, or to the rusty pens of those who could only attempt to irritate and confuse me regarding the tunes we have; for we have men who have condemned the best compositions of the masters of old, and have offered us not a single note in their place. There was on the face of this great difficulty little or no encouragement for a new composer to appear. In fact it seems to be considered a crime to attempt to compose a new piobaireachd.

In spite of all this, I lifted the “silver chanter,” with all its charm, and on 27th July, 1906, in my virgin attempt to create a new theme, I offered as a humble and loyal Highlander the first fruits of my labours to his late Majesty, King Edward VII., a Salute, which his late Majesty was graciously pleased to accept. Inspired and encouraged by this Royal recognition, I went on and on until my first attempt is now doubled twenty-fold. I began as it were in a den of thorns, out of which there was little or no hope of escaping without being hurt with the prickly points which were eager to tear me. I have taken the heavy burden calmly and laboured on steadily. I have lived to surmount it all, and before my eyes the thorns have blossomed into roses, leaving the jewels in the casket in which I have placed them, viz., the modern staff notation. I will now retrace my steps to the old casket or “verbal notation” of the MacCrimmons called “Canntaireachd.”

If we believe what Mr. Simon Fraser, Australia, states–that “canntaireachd” (not “sheantaireachd,” as he writes) is the only means by which piobaireachd can be noted and played–then all my efforts in the “Royal Collection of Piobaireachd” are in vain. To crown all, what are still worse, instead of admitting that there is no one living who thoroughly understands the secrets of the MacCrimmon notation, “Canntaireachd,” Mr. Fraser says: “There are only two men living who can translate their (the MacCrimmons’) music, namely, Dr. Bannatyne and myself.” I daresay, from what we read, both those gentlemen have told us so, but I say that they have only unsuccessfully attempted it.

Mr. Simon Fraser writes himself as follows:–”All lovers of pibrochs (piobaireachd) will regret that the MacCrimmons did not leave some books, written according to the proper skills and time marks; if they had done so there would have been more good players today, and the music more widely known.”

Here Mr. Fraser states what is real truth. The MacCrimmons were cleverer than they are credited with. They not only held their system of notation a secret in their lifetime, but they carried it in whole and part with them when they died. Now as Mr. Fraser admits this and agrees with me, I would like to ask him or Dr. Bannatyne one question, viz., When the secret of this notation was lost at the death of the last of the great MacCrimmons, where have they found it? Have they found it? is the real question, and this is what they have to prove as well as bring it back to use. What I say is that they have found a system of their own. Dr. Bannatyne is indeed an able piping expert; but how can he be sure, therefore, that the key he has is the veritable MacCrimmon key? The MacCrimmons left no scale or vestige of such a thing as a key.

One of the things which are against Mr. Fraser is that he finds fault with Captain MacLeod of Gesto’s “Collection of Canntaireachd” because he did not place his vocables according to the MacCrimmon scale, and that he gave no time marks, etc. How does Mr. Fraser know that Captain MacLeod did not give the vocables according to the proper scale when he never saw the MacCrimmon scale? There can be no time marks given in canntaireachd, as the system is only of use when taught by word-of-mouth to pupils, and not when written down to strangers, as our present-day staff notation is. I hold the MacCrimmons gave their pupils the time of the notes by duration of sounds, which they sung or chanted; this is how it was called “Canntaireachd,” from the word to chant, or sing. Their pupils also were taught the fingering on the holes on the chanter that represented the sounds, which varied as well as grace-notes.

In conclusion, I may say that I would really rejoice to see the day that the old verbal notation of Boreraig could be brought back to use. We live in a more enlightened age, when the improvements are greater, and nothing will beat the modern staff notation to enable a man to play a tune he has never heard before, and who has not the composer beside him to chant it over to him. The modern staff notation gives everything to perfection–time, accent and grace-notes, without omitting one single iota that is necessary for anyone who has ear and taste to play piobaireachd. The old piobaireachd players of fifty or sixty years ago would not give into the modern staff notation because they did not understand it; that was why many of the old pipers condemned it. I may say that I was taught both systems when learning to play piobaireachd. My teacher laid the book with staff notation before me, and chanted the tunes at the same time. This style of chanting tunes, which is still in existence to-day, along with Captain MacLeod’s book of Canntaireachd, the only vestige of the MacCrimmon notation which now exists, forms an imaginative clue to Mr. Fraser’s and Dr. Bannatyne’s version of “Canntaireachd,” but have they found the real secrets of the MacCrimmons’ verbal notation? I could perfect a system of chanting any piobaireachd or pipe tune known, so that it could be made useful and universal if every piper was to adopt my style of vowels, diphthongs, types of cuts, and grace-notes, etc., but they will not do that, so it is best to allow everyone to adopt his and their own system. At the present day every piper has his own method of expressing in language the different grace notes, cuts, slurs, and fingering in pipe music–there is no fixed rule or language to guide anyone. In the Introduction of my book I give a limited few who have studied Canntaireachd the credit of fully understanding, but after more carefully reading and considering what they have to say on the subject, I can only say that no man living has fathomed or understands the system of verbal notation used by the MacCrimmons.–I am, etc.,

John Grant

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