The Oban Times, 20 December, 1913
15 December, 1913
Sir,–With reference to the lecture given by Mr. J. P. Grant, yr., a report of which appeared in last week’s issue of your paper, I fear it is vain to uphold the bagpipe as a musical instrument. If it is to be maintained at all, it must undergo a transformation from its present barbaric form.
Although we agree with Mr. Grant as to the prevalence of the pipes throughout Europe, India, Asia, and Africa, it becomes nonetheless ostensible that the pipes, if anything, fall short in importance as a musical instrument, even to a German accordion; and if brought in comparison to our classical instruments, viz., piano, organ, violin, etc., etc., the pipes must be thrown aside as a crude and barbaric instrument, which, no doubt, pleased a crude and barbaric people, but which now must give way under the pressure of a higher civilisation.
Mr. Grant states that the Pathans, Burmese, Chinese and Somalis, play the chanter alone, without the bag. This, I think, demonstrates more taste and a higher sensitiveness as to correctness than that which we have in our European parts, where the bag and drones are in use. The Eastern peoples do not make any pretense as to harmony by the use of an unmodulated drones. On this point, however, the common bagpipe is elaborately designed, but fails miserably as to correctness.
The lecturer pointed out that the pipe was not to be found among the Welsh in any form. In this connection let us bear in mind that the Welsh are a truly musical race.
At the same time I think that great credit is due to pipers. It requires great patience to acquire skill in fingering. It is the task, I believe, of a great number of years, and I would fain offer my sympathy, because the results, at best, cannot please a real musician. I have heard of a master-piper who, on being asked how long a pupil should take to learn, replied: “Bheir thu da bliadh n’ deug air feadan na’m beir u air piob mhoir.”
Could his time not be better employed learning a proper musical instrument?–I am, etc.,
The Oban Times, 13 December, 1913
The Pipe and Its Music
by Mr. J. P. Grant, Jun.
St. Oran’s Ceilidh met last Thursday evening in the Free Gardeners’ Institute, Picardy Place. The Rev. J. Campbell McGregor presided, and introduced Mr. J. P. Grant, advocate, yr. of Rothiemurchus, who read a paper entitled “The Pipe and its Music.”
Among those present were–Rev. J. Campbell McGregor and Mrs. McGregor, Mr. and Mrs. John MacCulloch, Miss MacKinnon, Mr. MacLucas, Mr. Ross, Pipe-Major A. R. MacLeod, Pipe-Major Hugh Calder, Pipe-Major James Sutherland, Mr. J. J. Angus, Mr. H. McGregor, Mr. K. Maclachlan, Mr. Wm. Begg, Mr. J. Grant, etc.
Mr. Grant, in his lecture, said that he proposed to lay before his audience some facts concerning the pipe and its music which might be of interest to Highlanders in general. He alluded to the extraordinary prevalence of the pipe in some form throughout Europe, Asia, India, and Africa. The bagpipe, or that form of pipe kept continuously sounding by inflating a bag, had been found in many European countries; while among the Pathans in India, the Burmese, the Chinese, and Somalis, the pipe or chanter alone, without the bag, is still found. Mr. Grant then exhibited a Burmese and an Indian chanter used by the Pathans, a mountain race, which were both held in the hand in the same way as our Highland chanter. This similarity between our instrument and that of the Indian hill tribes had had the excellent effect of drawing the native hill regiments into closer touch and sympathy with our own Highland regiments. Many of these regiments had adopted our Highland pipe and its music. Mr. Grant exhibited two photographs of native pipe bands, which had been instructed in pipe music by pipers in Highland regiments. One of the photographs showed the instructor of one of the bands, Lance Corporal A. Robertson, Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders, Quetta, India. The photographs showed these hillmen to be stalwart, clean-limbed mountaineers, with a fine soldierly bearing. They wore plaids of Black Watch Tartan. One Regiment had lately petitioned for leave to where the kilt, but without success. Though they were fond of our pipe music, he was informed that their performances on our pipes were very mechanical and expressionless.
Mr. Grant pointed out that the chanters exhibited had a brass sole, which was loose, and intended to be rattled about as a sort of accompaniment to the music. These Eastern chanters had all small reeds, which were put directly into the mouth and blown.
In commenting on the difference between the scale of the pipe and that of the piano, Mr. Grant stated that it had been discovered by Professor J. H. Ellis, a famous English musician, that the scale of the pipe was almost identical with that in use in Arabia for the last 1100 years. The Professor was of opinion that the pipe had been introduced into Europe from the East during the Crusades about the 13th century personally, he preferred the view that the Celtic peoples–wave after wave of whom came West from the East long before historical times–brought the pipe with them, and left it wherever they spread. There was, however, one noticeable fact in this connection which he was unable to explain. Brittany, Cornwall, Northumberland, the Lowlands, and the Highlands of Scotland had each their own form of pipe, but among the Welsh alone of all Celtic peoples could he find no trace of the pipes in any form.
The Pipe in the Highlands
Opinions differed extraordinarily on the question of the antiquity of the pipe in the Highlands. In the absence of definite evidence either way, it seemed to him probable that it had been with them from the earliest times. The fact that little was recorded about the pipe before the 16th and 17th centuries might be explained, he thought, in two ways, first, that Highland records in which they might expect to find mention of pipes and pipers have not, for many plain reasons, survived; and, secondly, that before that date it seemed that it was the harp, and not the pipe, which found particular favour.
It was probable that the pipe was brought into popular estimation by the cultivation of certain musical families, first among whom were the justly famous MacCrimmons. They were a numerous clan, and there were at one time over 200 of the name living between Galtrigal and Loch Bracadale in MacLeod’s country, and another large colony of them in Glenelg. These men, the pipers to the Chief of MacLeod, held a farm or farms in virtue of their honourable office and profession, and the “John MacCrimmon, who composed ‘Fhuair mi pog do lamh an Righ’ (I got a kiss of the Kings hand), on being honoured by King James, was called by his fellow pipers, “King of Pipers.”
In those days the profession of a piper was held in honour. A long and careful training was required of a piper. Neil Munro had exactly caught the spirit of it when he wrote in his “Lost Pibroch,” “To the make of a piper go seven years of his own learning and seven generations before.” “If it is in, it will out, as the Gaelic old-word says; if not let him take to the net or the sword.” This was the first point, he must be musical to produce music. Having proved his ability in this direction under perhaps some local player–the laird’s piper–the young piper would be sent by the laird to Skye to be taught or finished by the MacCrimmons or MacArthurs. These two families kept what were called colleges. Here the pupils would stay for years–even 12 years in some cases.
An Indenture of Agreement
The following is an indenture of agreement for this sort of apprenticeship:–
“At Beaufort, the nynth day of March, 1743. It is contracted and agreed upon betwixt the Rt. Honble. Simon, Lord Lovat, on the one part, and David Fraser, his lordship’s servant, brother-german to William Fraser, tacksman in Beauly, his lordship’s musician, and the said William Fraser, as cautioner and surety for his said brother on the other part, in manner following, That is to say, whereas the said Simon, Lord Fraser of Lovat, has out of his own generosity cloathed and maintained in the said David Fraser for the severall years past, and has also bestow’d upon him during that time for his education as a pyper with the now deceased Evan McGrigor, his lordship’s late pyper, and that his ldshp. is now to send him upon his own charges to the Isle of Skye in order to have him perfected a Highland pyper by the famous Malcolm McGrimon, whom his ldshp. is to reward for educating the said David Fraser. Therefore, and in consideration of his ldshp.’s great charity, kindness, and generosity, the said David and William Fraser’s have become bound, and hereby bind and engage themselves conjunctly and severally, that the said David Fraser shall honestly and faithfully served the said Simon, Lord Fraser of Lovat, or his air or successor, by night and day for the haill space of seven full and compleat years from and after the term of Whitsunday next to come, and that he shall never do or commit anything inconsistent with, or contrary to, that duty and obedience which a faithful servant owes to a bountiful master, but shall serve them uprightly to the utmost of his skill and capacity. For which caused and on the other part, the said Simon, Lord Fraser of Lovat, binds and obliges himself and his ldshp.’s heirs, executors, and successors, whatsoever to maintain the said David Fraser his servant, during the space above-mentioned in Bed, Board, and Washing, and to furnish and to provide him in cloathes, shoes, and stockings, and likewise to satisfy and pay to him yearly ilk year the sum of fifty merks Scots money in name of wages during the said space of seven years, commencing from Whitsunday next, and in the meantime to send him with all due convenience to the Isle of Skye to be perfected a Highland pyper by the above named McGrimon, the charge and expense where of his ldshp. is to defray as said is, etc.
“Here follows testing clause, etc.
John Forbes, witness.
Hugh Fraser, witness.
In describing the old form of Highland bagpipe, the lecturer showed pieces of a bush which he had cut in Argyll, which is still called “Craobh nam piobarean,” or the piper’s tree, from the tubular branches of this bush; they made reeds also of Spanish cane. Mr. Grant insisted on the need there was for the increased attention of pipers to Ceol Mor. In olden times a man was not deemed a piper unless he was well-versed in this the deeper and grander major music of the pipes. He also commented on the work the Piobaireachd Society were doing in the way of raising the standard of piping in the Army and in teaching piping in the Outer Isles, where many promising lads were being taught through the Society’s agency by Mr. John MacDonald, while on periodical visits, and by local pipers.
Mr. Grant’s paper was listened to with keen appreciation by the audience, to accompany imparted much of his own enthusiasm.
Votes of thanks to chairman and lecturer terminated the meeting.
The Oban Times, 13 December, 1913
The Bagpipe Scale
6 December, 1913
Sir,–Having had the pleasure of listening to a lecture of unique interest, delivered in Dundee by Dr. Fraser, from Falkirk, on that subject, “The Bagpipe,” of which he has such a world-wide knowledge, will you kindly permit me to ask Dr. Fraser a question through the medium of your widely-circulated paper?
Dr. Fraser stated that the scale of the bagpipe is of Aryan origin, the same scale, in fact, which gives to our Gaelic airs their peculiar character and charm. In the light of the statement, may I ask, how the Doctor reconciles his further statement that pipers, bagpipes, and bagpipe music were as much a part of Lowland life, as they are commonly supposed to have belonged to the Highlands?
So far as I know, there is no trace of the Celtic scale in what is commonly known as “Scotch Music.” Were it the case that bagpipes had been as commonly played by the Lowlanders as by the Highlanders of Scotland, would this not have had the effect of leaving a vital impress on the music of Southern Scotland? Would the tunes and airs, like those sweet melodies of the North, not be found to be composed in the Celtic scale?
I never had the privilege of listening to a more enjoyable lecture, and I shall be very grateful if Dr. Fraser or any we’re well kindly enlighten me on this point. May it not have been a fact that the pipers in the Lowlands were highly and pipers, who had taken the wise course of going south for money-making purposes, for as the old proverb still runs in the north-east of Scotland: “if ye ha’e tae tak’ tae the beggin’, aye haud Sooth.”
At the same time, may I ask if I am right in believing that a representation of the bagpipe has been discovered in the East during modern excavations?–I am, etc.,
A Mere Lady
From the Dundee audience
The Oban Times, 7 August, 1915
27 Comely Bank Street, Edinburgh, 2 August, 1915
Sir,–In reply to your correspondent “Morar,” I have pleasure in giving such information as may be of some assistance, if not value, to him.
I am of the opinion that the story in reality is a myth, or fairy legend, although there may be truth in all the same, to some extent.
So far as I am led to believe, the cave is in the beautiful and far famed Island of Skye, near Dunvegan Castle, the seat of the MacLeod of MacLeod. The tune which the piper played was “The Cave of Gold,” not “MacCrimmon’s Lament.” There are several laments for MacCrimmons, and also a tune called “MacCrimmon Will Never Return” (commonly known as “MacCrimmon’s Lament.”)
The MacCrimmons were the fathers of piping, and the greatest and most ingenious race of pipers that have ever lived. They were the finest piobaireachd players that ever fingered the coveted instrument, and it was their superiority as performers that gave rise, or origin, and to this ancient legend.
It is said that one day when a young MacCrimmon was playing his enchanted pipe near the piper’s study, a hollow ledge of a precipice on the shores of Dunvegan, he met the “Fairy Queen,” who handed the youth a silver chanter, by which he could charm the otter from the sea, the deer from the hills, and the lark from the clouds. No pipe ever played with such fragrance, and never before or since has any chanter piped such powerful strains, for the rich grandeur of the theme of “The Cave of Gold” burst its beauteous chords asunder as this youthful minstrel entered the Cave of Gold. The fairy theme died away in faint and broken accent till the piper was heard no more. The price of this fatal pre-eminence was the hard condition that after a year and a day the young MacCrimmon should renounce his life on earth and enter the Fairy Kingdom through the Cave of Gold, from which he never returned.
This beautiful piobaireachd, which was composed to commemorate the event, has never been recorded; but as this legend lives and lingers by the peat fires of the imaginative West, so does the tune, for I have heard it chanted by an eminent son of the Isle of Skye, and hope someday to rescue it from oblivion.–I am, etc.,
To be included at a later date: currently on order.
The Oban Times, 24 May, 1913
Edinburgh, 19 May, 1913
Sir,–”It is not my business (says Dr. K. N. Macdonald) to prove him (Mr. Grant) ignorant” of the MacCrimmons’ music. This is the meagre answer which your correspondent gives to my question on Gesto’s book. It is true that it is not Dr. MacDonald’s business to prove me ignorant, or he would have given me at least some satisfaction. I challenge your correspondent to prove my lack of knowledge on the subject.
Like Duncan Ross, Dr. Bannatyne, and Simon Fraser, I can play from the Gesto book also, and when I do play from it the tunes have variations that are most irregular in erroneous.
Dr. Bannatyne and Mr. Fraser probably can play canntaireachd and translated best when they are in their own room, with the door closed. We have no proof that they can master it, or prevent to be a scientific method of noting piobaireachd. This pamphlet of 1828 is one Gesto thought was canntaireachd as the MacCrimmons played and taught it, but not being a piper or a master of piobaireachd, Gesto was writing down most in perfect settings.
Dr. MacDonald says that there are no hard and fast rules in the construction of piobaireachd, and that “the MacCrimmons varied in their arrangements.” Dr. MacDonald give me the name of a single tune composed by a MacCrimmon with a plain crunluath, finishing with a crunluath breabach? This happens in Gesto’s book, but your correspondent cannot see it. He should get as many of the MacCrimmon piobaireachd as he can lay his hands on, and study them. Then Dr. MacDonald may see the glaring inaccuracies that lie in the leaflet of 1828.
The late J. F. Campbell of Islay, in his book on Canntaireachd specimens by Gesto says: “My interpreter (Duncan Ross) could read the whole book, but he could not explain a line of it. It was like asking a thrush to explain the songs which mother nature had taught him.” On the strength of this, what authority was Ross on Gesto’s booklet? In J. F. Campbell’s book we also read: “That’s ‘hiririn,’ said the piper, and played three notes deftly. ‘Is hiririn the name of the finger or the note?’ (said the enquirer) ‘or what else is it?’ ‘No,’ said the master, that’s ‘hiririn’.” At the end of Campbell’s book we find that the syllable “hin’ represents E, G, and A, and “do” G, A and B. Let a scholar of a public school, high school, Oxford, Cambridge, or Eaton study this, and what will his conclusion be?–Perfect rubbish!–I am, etc.,
The Oban Times, 17 May, 1913
The History of the MacCrimmons
21 Clarendon Crescent, Edinburgh, 6 May, 1913
Sir,–”To all whom it may concern, these present”–as the lawyers say–are intended to intimate to the piping fraternity that I am getting, at an early date, a full account of the early history of the MacCrimmons, from Gesto’s book of 1826, [sic] which will set the question of their origin at rest for all time coming. And here again Gesto is the outstanding hero of the business, for without him it would have been lost forever.
The evidence should be convincing, on the authority of John Dubh MacCrimmon, that the MacCrimmons were of Italian origin, and that Petrus Cremmon, or Crimmon–not Petrus Bruno, an accidental “lapsus paenae” on the part of my informant in the first instance–went over from Cremona, in Italy, to Ireland, sometime in the fourteenth century. But I must not anticipate too much until the full history is before me in all its details.
The late J. F. Campbell of Islay took the greatest interest in “the famous book of 1828,” as it was “a bit of nearly forgotten folk-lore, and as a peculiar species of written language, it had a special interest for scholars who seek to learn how language and writing grew.” And further: “So far as I know, Scotch Celts are the only people who have written that sort of natural music separately. The book of Gesto (1828) is the only book of the kind, and the Scotch manuscripts have no equivalent in ancient writings, so far as I have been able to find,” and when Dr. Bannatyne’s book is published the whole subject will be brought to the notice of professors of English literature and of history; and who knows but that at Oxford Don may yet be heard coming to his class:
“I hodroho hodroho haninin hiechin,” and “Hiundratatateriri, heindatatateriri,” etc.
There is no law to compel anyone to believe in Gesto’s “famous book of 1828,” unless he likes, but barring a few possible printer’s errors, the tunes in it are as they were played by the MacCrimmons. Your correspondent, Mr. John Grant, asks a great many questions. It is not my business to prove him ignorant, and I am about the last man he should have the temerity to ask for information in his difficulties. He can “wait and see” what Dr. Bannatyne’s book will do to enlighten him. At any rate, it would be very bad taste anticipating what it may, or may not, prove. There is no hard and fast rule as to the arrangement of a pibroch–at least the MacCrimmons varied in their arrangements.
In MacCrimmon’s ” ‘N ann air Mhire Tha Sibh,” on the birth of Roderick Mòr MacLeod in 1715, he has just got the urlar, or groundwork, and first variation and second variation with its doubling. One cannot dictate to a composer of pipe music whether he must have a “crunluath,” with or without a “breabach” (“kicking movement”). If Mr. Grant is determined not to be convinced, he must be consigned to “outer darkness,” and left there. The pipers of the present day don’t require to study the ancient system, as the staff notation is easier, and many of them could not read a line of it.
In 1880 Mr. Duncan Ross, piper to the Duke of Argyll, “who learned tunes orally in Rosshire for the chanting of John Mackenzie, who was Lord Breadalbane’s piper and the pupil of the Skye school, read the book of 1828, and played from it at sight. Ross could play 20 tunes out of the printed book, though he had never seen his familiar oral canntaireachd written or printed before.” He was bilingual, and did not utter a murmur against it. Campbell says:–”On 21st May, 1880, after waiting patiently, we gathered the scattered elements needful for analysing this curious compound the thoughts, sounds, and shapes. Gesto’s book was opened at the tune called ‘The end of the little bridge.’ Ross, the Argyll piper, read the book, and sounded the symbols on a chanter with breath and fingers. His brother Adrian with voice only, chanting at intervals sounds which both brothers learned from oral chanting, and both can chant and play upon a pipe like the old slender reed of Virgil’s pipers.” Neither of these competent men found fault with the “famous book of 1828,” and they had it for months under their consideration.
Simon Fraser and his son, the champion piper of Australia, can also play from it, Dr. Bannatyne, and others; but Mr. John Grant apparently cannot. This is the crux of the whole matter.–I am, etc.,
K. N. MacDonald
The Oban Times, 17 May, 1913
18 Mentone Terrace, Edinburgh, 10 May, 1913
Sir,–I know of no paper which has taken so keen and sustained an interest in the music, history, and traditions of the MacCrimmons of Boreraig, Skye, as “The Oban Times.” The correspondence upon the subject published by your paper would, alone, form an interesting and instructive volume. It therefore goes without saying that among your readers the wide world over there are many to whom the name and fame of the MacCrimmons appeal. To those this letter is addressed. We may differ upon the question of the alleged origin and the MacCrimmon system of notation as preserved to us, but I think I may affirm with confidence that every academic disputant will at once fall into line when the matter of the reputation the MacCrimmons have borne for generations is under consideration.
Your own columns, both Gaelic and English, have referred to the fact of the existence of a scheme for perpetuating the memory of the MacCrimmons by the erection of a suitable memorial in their honour in the Island of Skye, but so far the response has not been quite what was expected.
That a memorial will be erected within the next twelve months, humanly speaking, is certain; the only question is what the quality of that memorial will be. A sum of about £50 has already been subscribed, in which is included a moderate estimate of the subscriptions promised, but not yet received. The subscriptions very from the wealthy man’s five pounds to the crofter’s sixpence. Is it too much to expect to raise an additional sum of £50 within the next few months? Highlanders are often asked to subscribe (and they subscribe willingly) to schemes which have little connection with the Highlands. This time they are asked to honour themselves by showing honour to a family of men of rare musical genius, the inception of which is concealed from us by the mists of antiquity, masters of their art in the highest sense of the term, founders of a College of instruction, in which pupils from many clans far and near were perfected in the playing of the pipes, and composers of pibrochs which today are unrivaled in majesty of conception and sweetness of melody.
I shall be delighted, on behalf of my Committee individually to acknowledge any subscriptions forwarded either to me at the above address or to you. Perhaps you might be willing to open a subscription list in your columns.–I am, etc.,
Fred. T. MacLeod
The Oban Times, 3 May, 1913
The MacCrimmon Canntaireachd
Edinburgh, 28 April, 1913
Sir,–Apparently Dr. MacDonald’s main idea is to make an attempt to prove that “in reality I can know little about the MacCrimmons or their music,” other than what Gesto and your correspondent have told us. Dr. MacDonald’s own knowledge of the art of piobaireachd in any shape or form is not incomprehensible or insurmountable.
In my last letter I said Gesto never wrote a perfect system MacCrimmon Canntaireachd, and Dr. MacDonald asks–” how does he (Mr. Grant) know?” I may ask how does Dr. MacDonald know whether Gesto’s book is MacCrimmon Canntaireachd or not? To save time, I will give your correspondent a chance to prove me to be ignorant. Let me ask your correspondent a few questions on the book that he has crowned Gesto for. In tune No. 3, why does Gesto write a heading for the last part of the tune, “Crunluath-a-mach,” and write a Crunluath Breabach variation below it? How could Gesto or any other man get a Crunluath Breabach in a tune that is not constructed for a Crunluath Breabach? In tune No. 18, in the Crunluath again, why does the doubling entirely differ from the singling? Or, to save misunderstanding of my question, why does the doubling of the Crunluath differ entirely from the Crunluath? In all other settings of this tune, the doubling of the Crunluath is a facsimile of the Crunluath, except the movement here and there in each variation, which cannot agree. In the Crunluath of this same tune there are only three syllables to each group of notes or movement. If Gesto knew what he was writing, he could have seen and understood that there are five syllables in a Crunluath movement. Why does Gesto not write his Crunluath movements in five syllables each, as they ought to be? Finally, meantime, why did Gesto not give the variations in his book their proper names?
I shall be glad to have answers for the above questions.
Dr. MacDonald calls the Gesto Book of 1828 the “Famous Book of 1828.” Let me ask your correspondent what would have become of ancient piobaireachd today if there had been no other collection but that of Gesto’s now in question? Can any piper play from it? Can or does any master teach from it? Is there a single time mark in it? Are there three-score of pipers out of the thousands who play the pipes, in April 1913, who possess a copy of the booklet of 1828? How many thousands of pipers have never even seen the book?–and when they do see it, its contents are hieroglyphics to them.
Your correspondent asks me how I know that the MacCrimmons were not of Italian origin. May I ask Dr. MacDonald how he knows that they were originally Italians, or if he can produce any authentic proof of his statement? The very oldest writings and most reliable traditional history of the MacCrimmons go to say that they were natives of Skye at so early an age that their origin is lost in the mists of antiquity, and so deeply buried in oblivion that Dr. MacDonald can scarcely hope to be their true biographer. I consider that I am safe enough in saying that up to this date our proof is that the first of the MacCrimmons was found in the “Misty Isle,” and the last of them died there. All this happened, of course, before the Doctor was born, and he cannot boast of living with the MacCrimmons or of being taught by them personally to play the pipes anymore that I can.
Dr. MacDonald says that the Gesto book of 1828 is most valuable to antiquarians and scholars. When a book gets into the antiquarians’ hands and becomes very valuable there, then it is sealed forever, and becomes obsolete. Up till now I was never aware that scholars made any use of Gesto’s book of 1828 in any school, or even in the Universities of Edinburgh, Oxford or Cambridge. Neither is the book of 1828 made use of by masters or students in science or philosophy. While this little pamphlet of 1828 is in the antiquarian’s shop, if there was no other notation for pipe music except it, it would take some time to count the sets of bagpipes that would also have to be stored there–not to speak of practice chanters, and perhaps pipers too, if no other occupation could be found for them.
Finally, let me ask, if Gesto knew anything about piobaireachd, why has he not given us a clear definition of this ancient art? Gesto gave us nothing to help us. He is now gone forever, and we must let him rest in peace. Piobaireachd stands undefined or explained by anyone today, as it did centuries ago, and my last question to your correspondent shall be–Is he capable of making piobaireachd clear and simple to the anxious student or placing it on a scientific basis, as it ought to be? If he is, that I will not rest till I see him crowned with Highland honours.–I am, etc.,
The Oban Times, 26 April, 1913
Origin of the MacCrimmons and their Verbal Notation
21 Clarendon Crescent, Edinburgh, 13 April, 1913
Sir,–I am sorry to see by “The Oban Times” of the 12th inst. that Mr. John Grant has taken the subject of the MacCrimmon system of musical notation, and especially Gesto’s part in transmitting it to posterity, so much to heart, as in reality he can know little about it. His endeavour to be little Captain MacLeod, Gesto’s, faithful translations of the system of the MacCrimmon notation, as taught by themselves to their pupils, have arrived too late upon the scene, as Gesto’s name is already famous in more than one history of music. So long as these last and are reproduced, the name and fame of Gesto in the MacCrimmons will be indissolubly linked together for all time coming, and nothing that Mr. Grant can say or do will turn back the hands of time.
Mr. Grant says: “Gesto never wrote a perfect MacCrimmon system of canntaireachd.” How does he know? He was not there when Gesto and John MacCrimmon were working together, the one reciting and the other writing down what the piper uttered. And as regards accuracy, I need only mention that when Alexander Campbell was compiling his “Albyn Anthology,” he visited Gesto in 1815, and in quoting for lines from “Isabel nich Kay” (“Isabeal Nic Aoidh”), he says:–
The melody to which the above verse is adapted was taken down with all possible care from Captain Neil MacLeod of Gesto’s MS. collection of pibroch, as performed by the celebrated MacCrimmons of Skye. The melody to the pibroch of “Donil Dubh” was taken down at the same time, i.e., September, 1815. The process was tedious, and exceedingly troublesome. The editor had to translate, as it were, the syllabic jargon of illiterate pipers (which was distinctly enough jotted down in Captain MacLeod’s own way) into musical characters, which, when correctly done, he found to his astonishment to coincide exactly with musical notation.
Others have also recorded that–
The merit of illustrating so remarkable a fashion belongs to the late Captain MacLeod of Guesto, or Gesto, who published twenty pieces in the original language, as obtained by him from the diction of noted performers.
So there is no occasion for my “fitting a crown to his head;” it is there already, and both he and the MacCrimmons occupy a pretty high niche on the temple of musical fame, which neither Mr. John Grant nor anyone else can destroy. I would advise him to “wait-and-see” what the famous book of 1828 will be like when translated into modern staff notation. If Mr. Grant will look at my last letter again, he will see that I don’t contradict myself when I say that “Petrus, it is said, was the original inventor a sheantaireachd, or pipers’ language,” and that “Donald Mor and Patrick Mor afterwards perfected the system.” That is very different from asserting that the latter invented it!
How does Mr. Grant know that the MacCrimmons were not of Italian origin, and that that origin is “pure nonsense”?
Though Mr. Grant does not know it, Gesto’s book of 1828, compiled from the MacCrimmon system of verbal notation, is one of the literary wonders of Europe, and, indeed, of the world. It is the only original work of its kind in existence, and on that account alone is most valuable to antiquarians and scholars. In its own way, it is as valuable as the “Eddas” of the North–the source of all Scandinavian poetry–composed in the sixth century, or the ancient poem of the “Niebelungen Lied” of the Germans, which had long been utterly forgotten, when in the eighteenth century it was for the first time printed from an MS. in the old library of a noble family. One hundred years ago England possessed only one tattered copy of “Childe Waters and Sir Cauline,” and Spain only one tattered copy of the noble poem of the “Cid,” and the Gesto’s book is now the only one on the MacCrimmon system of notation in existence.
So that instead of trying to blot it out by persistent depreciation, as Mr. Grant does, it should be prized by all Highlanders worthy of the name as one of our most valued treasures. We shall soon have the MacCrimmon system taught to piper pupils at Portree and Dunvegan in Skye, and who knows but that some descendent of these famous pipers may yet be seen at Dunvegan wielding the baton of the MacCrimmons! In any case, I feel confident that “MacCrimmon’s Lament” and the “Lament for the MacLeods of Gesto” will be played centuries after Mr. Grant has been gathered to his father’s.–I am, etc.,
K. N. MacDonald