OT: 22 June 1912 – John Grant “The Secrets of Canntaireachd”



The Oban Times, 22 June, 1912

The Secrets of Canntaireachd

42 Elmfield Avenue, Aberdeen, 17 June, 1912

Sir,–The readers of the “The Oban Times” who interested in such an important controversy cannot fail to see a resemblance of the olden times in this, a modern, age. It seems as if the fiery cross had once more gone its round, for there have gathered representatives from the MacLennans, MacDonalds, Bannatynes, and Frasers against Grant. Let them all come! My motto is “Craigellachie.” My standard waves freely in the western breeze; it says “Stand Firm,” and I will deal with my opponents in turn, according to their appearance on the field, the last first.

Before doing so, a little explanation is necessary. Your correspondents would make readers believe that I have issued a worldwide challenge to all and sundry in the art of piobaireachd. In the meantime I have only challenged my corresponding opponents. Otherwise I have made no boast of my knowledge in piobaireachd, further than that I am prepared to protect it in its original and proper form, to keep it from suffering loss at the hands of unskilled man in the art, and to shatter the hopes of those who have cropped up in later years with grossly erroneous ideas entirely their own, unknown to the masters of old, and abhorred and detested as destructive to a magnificent art like piobaireachd by present-day “masters.”

I deal with the art as I was taught, without gaudy, useless and adulterated terms familiar to those few who try to destroy piobaireachd, and I can trace my tuition direct from the MacCrimmon school.

By taking up such an attitude I only hope to merit the support, and grace the audience, of hundreds of Highlanders who wish to see piobaireachd raised from utter ruin to a scientific basis.

First let me deal with my friend, Mr. MacLennan, whom I used to meet so often in the “Fair City” with friendly handshake. Mr. MacLennan says he had no intention of taking part in this matter–that he was once contented to observe only; and perhaps his former intention would have been the best. Mr. MacLennan says he fails to see Dr. Bannatyne’s admission about the formation of his scale, but let me repeat it from the paper; It was demonstrated to the writer (Dr. Bannatyne) by means of an MS. piobaireachd which belonged to John Dall Mackay, by Lieut. McLennan of Edinburgh, that when the old pipers first began to write music toward the end of the eighteenth century, they wrote on a nine-line stave, each line representing a note on the chanter,” etc., etc. On these facts the writer (Dr. Bannatyne) found his way to the discovery of the secrets of canntaireachd.”

Let Mr. MacLennan read this again and judge for himself, and I leave the rest to your readers to draw their conclusions. So that the scale being what it is, there is no smart piece of work to claim on Mr. MacLennan’s part.

Mr. MacLennan should reproduce his quotations in whole, not in part. What I said was that there should be no difference in the notes or syllables in the singling and doubling of the crunluath, except where the singling follows the urlar in long or themal notes, and are changed in the doubling into crunluath movements. The rest should be the same in the doubling as of the singling, and if this information is new to Mr. MacLennan, then I am sorry for him.

The tune quoted in this correspondence was “War or Peace,” and fortunately its composer had a mind–as Mr. MacLennan says–two construct a tune with a plain crunluath, a doubling, and a mach, but to say that it can have a crunluath breabach too is absolute nonsense and the essence of ignorance in the art of piobaireachd; and there is that rule, although Mr. MacLennan says there is none.

Then Mr. MacLennan asks me a question which resembles a pupil at school turning round asking the meaning of simple words of his teacher. If I were to give him a full answer to his question it would be no test of my knowledge or anything new to him. Were I to repeat what his interpretation of the words are, which have all appeared in your columns from time to time, it would be exactly like a man asking a question and putting the answer in my mouth at the same time.

Of the nine words which he quotes there are only three known in piobaireachd–the rest are experimental models, confined to himself and his friend Dr. Bannatyne to a certain extent, and certainly by no on else. We have the fairy tale of the MacLeod MS. of 200 tunes, and the true story of the burning of Elgin Cathedral. In the first case we are left without a vestige, and in the second we are left with the ruins of the Elgin Cathedral. This proves that there was an Elgin Cathedral; but your correspondent offers no proof of the MacLeod MSS.

Next comes Dr. K. N. MacDonald, a thoroughly wholehearted Highlander and on whose contribution few remarks from my pen are unnecessary. After his Biblical prelude he goes on to state that I said there were five syllables in the variation mentioned in “War or Peace.” If he reviews my letters again he will see that I said there are seven syllables in each word, whereas these should only be five in a crunluath mach. I agree with his M. A. friend that the syllables are for the first word: hio-dra-ta-ta-ter-ir-i. This proves that I am right in what I have said. MacLeod and Gesto heads this variation as crunluath mach, and under that title gives a crunluath breabach, which is absurd.

The question regarding tune No. 18 was never answered by Dr. Bannatyne, and Dr. MacDonald was afraid to place his foot on foreign ground.

It is not somewhat amusing, but not the least amazing, to read Dr. MacDonald’s following remarks:–” I (Dr. MacDonald) quite agree with Dr. Bannatyne that all the people who could compose pibrochs (piobaireachdan) are dead long ago.” But mark, Dr. MacDonald says he composed a piobaireachd! That is practically like a man signing his own death warrant; and what is more, Dr. MacDonald’s palace is built of glass, and he should avoid throwing stones! When Dr. MacDonald lays his hands on this tune I should like to see his work, and in return I will send him one of my latest masterpieces. One other reference and I leave the Clan MacDonald. The Doctor now agrees with what I said–that the MacLeod of Gesto tunes are not rightly noted, and surely this is an end to his story. Dr. MacDonald’s own admission is: “If there is anything lost it is that Gesto did not note his canntaireachd properly.” Therefore I am perfectly right, Dr. MacDonald is hopelessly wrong, and the cloud is in his own eyes.

As your space must be exhausted, I ask you to leave over my reply to Dr. Bannatyne till next issue.–I am, etc.,

John Grant

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