OT: 17 May 1913 – K.N. MacDonald “The History of the MacCrimmons”



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

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