OT: 2 April 1910 – John Grant (Mal Dhonn)


The Oban Times, 2 April, 1910

29 March 1910

Sir,–In further reference to my letter which appeared in the valuable columns of your paper under date 14th March, I may state that I hold no brief for the Piobaireachd Society. I take my stand for the real love of the ancient art of piobaireachd, and I will now venture to criticize the Piobaireachd Society’s publication, Part IV., a little more minutely on its own merit.

The volume in question comprises nine tunes in all, and there is only one error of any consequence to be found in it, and it is a mere detail. In the third part of the ground of “The Stewart’s White Banner,” there are five bars given, whereas there should only be four. The complete ground should have sixteen bars, and the melody ends there, and the same with all the other variations. To make this beautiful tune correct, all that is required by those who know and understand the construction of piobaireachd is to draw a double line across the staves at the end of the fourth bar of the third part of the ground, score the seventeenth bar out with their pen, and also where it occurs in the following variations. Any piper who has to play this tune at the Piobaireachd Society’s competitions, and knows that it is complete without the extra bar which must have been added by someone in error, if he is worth his salt will play it as having sixteen bars all through. I can assure you that it will be the means of convincing the Society that the groundwork and variations of the tunes are complete with sixteen bars.

Mr. MacLennan, in his letter dated 19th March, says–” Mal Dhonn carefully avoids giving any mistakes I made in my criticism, because he cannot.” As I did not do so in my previous letter, I shall now take the liberty of pointing out a series of his misconceptions in minute detail. He says:–

The suibhal-ordaid of “The Stewart’s White Banner,” is egregious nonsense.
The crunluath and doubling of “Weighing from land” are marked 6-8. The signature should be C, or 2-2.
“Prince Charlie’s Lament,”: the beats here are mixed up. The first A should be a grace note, capital E, C, and D tied together for the first beat, and capital E alone for the next beat, and the third bar should be treated the same way. “A Boilich,”: the crunluath is not written in accordance with the time signature.
“The Mackenzies Gathering,”: there are four beats in each bar; they should be reduced to two. All the variations or badly timed.
“Lord Breadalbane’s March,”: the crunluath here is marked 6-8 time, but written in 2-2.
“Captain MacDougall’s Lament,”: the two beats F E, E F, in the third bar of the first part of the ground, and everywhere they occur throughout the ground and variations, are both tied in time wrongly.

On what authority does Mr. MacLennan maintained that he is justified in saying that all the above-mentioned are errors? Has he any satisfactory proof to put forward that he is right and the Piobaireachd Society are wrong? No. Piobaireachd was handed down to him by tradition in the same manner in which it has been to the Piobaireachd Society and me also. The tunes were in every case composed long before Mr. MacLennan or I was born. The composers laid down the law and said what was to be what, and no one can tamper with them now in any respect.

The letters written by Mr. MacLennan criticizing the Piobaireachd Society’s publications, as well as the method adopted in the notation of the volume of piobaireachd which he published himself, are all based on his idea that piobaireachd should be marched to. One may as well ask himself the question, why don’t pipers march to their strathspeys and reels, or play piobaireachd in a march competition? When piobaireachd or Ceòl Mòr is reduced to a level with Ceòl aotrom or the march, strathspey, and reel, then it would be the most commonplace, and would no more be a classical music; and, as I have already said, though I hold no brief for the Piobaireachd Society, yet I admire them in their labour’s for the reason that they published their piobaireachd in its traditional form.

In your valuable issue of March 26, Mr. MacLennan says:–”take the tri-lugh fosgailte of ‘Weighing from Land’; will ‘Mal Dhonn’ say that ever he has heard the variation played as written?” Yes; I will give here the names of six tunes where he will find it written in the same way, viz:–” The Waking of the Bridegroom,” “Dispraise of MacLeod,” “Abercairny’s Lament,” and in Angus Mackay’s book he will find–”The Viscount of Dundee’s Lament,” “The MacNab’s Salute,” and “The Earl of Ross’s March”–all written in a similar fashion. This is only a few tunes so written, and can easily be played in the time given. The last mentioned, viz., “The Earl of Ross’s March,” was composed about the year 1600 by Donald Mòr MacCrimmon, one of the great masters of the art in the olden days.

Surely this is sufficient proof that the variation in question has been timed and played similar to that given in the Piobaireachd Society’s book by the very originators of piobaireachd in its early stages.

Mr. MacLennan also states that–

“Mal Dhonn” compares the book with mine, with Mackays, and with a book in his own possession. All that has nothing to do with the correctness of the book in question. “Mal Dhonn” appears to me to have taken up a defense he cannot maintain, and makes the best show he can by throwing out a few harmless side feints.

I may say that I have made piobaireachd a life study, and therefore I feel warranted in driving home my defense, as well as maintaining it, especially in view of the fact that I not only compared the Piobaireachd Society’s tunes with Mr. MacLennan’s, the Mackays, and with a book in my own possession, but also with some of our best professional men’s ideas of today. I have played them all over without any difficulty, and so can anyone who can play piobaireachd at all. If Mr. MacLennan is prepared to sacrifice his own publication as being unworthy of comparison, I am prepared to withdraw the book in my own possession also; but for Angus Mackay’s book, it is a sufficient basis comparison for anyone who requires to use it as such. I further maintain that with a few exceptions, the settings of the tunes in Mackays book can all be thoroughly relied upon.

Tradition says that Angus Mackay himself wept over the errors which his book contained when he received the first issue from the press in its complete form, as it was then too late for him to remedy them. It is not necessary for me to flatter his publication, but as one who cherishes the volume which he has handed down to us, I am desirous of paying him a tribute for his labours. Angus Mackay was a pioneer of piobaireachd, and it ill becomes us in our day to throw cold water on his magnificent work. His collection is a memorial of his achievements in piobaireachd, and he was as well as a composer one of the finest performers on the great Highland bagpipe of his day. His collection was for many years out of print, and was almost a priceless treasure among the real lovers of piobaireachd in those days. It has lived, and will continue to live, not only till we become old and feeble and unable to fill the bag, but till the last performer on the piob mhor lies cold beneath the sod. Have we in our time any original productions in the ancient and noble art of piobaireachd to put forth as a challenge to the old masters of the art? No! We cannot produce a single bar worthy of the slightest comparison with the great masterpieces of Donald or Patrick Mòr MacCrimmon, etc.

For the last two hundred years, I may say, the art of piobaireachd composition has been lost, and for this reason alone it behooves us to help and encourage the Piobaireachd Society to have those tunes which we have inherited kept fresh in our minds by hearing them played at their competitions. If piobaireachd proper is to hold a high position now that it has occupied in the past, if it is to be interpreted to the ear through the bagpipe, it must be done in its traditional form, unpolluted by errors of unskilled masters of the art. By this means only will we have reason to congratulate ourselves in that we have followed the footsteps of the MacCrimmons, one of the greatest and most authoritative race of composers and piobaireachd players Scotland has ever seen or ever will see.–I am, etc.,

Mal Dhonn