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

© Copyright Pipe Major John Grant - Designed for Dr. Alan Armstrong