OT: 26 April 1913 – K.N. MacDonald “Origin of the MacCrimmons and their Verbal Notation”



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

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