OT: 26 March 1910 – J. Grant of Rothiemurchus (Padruig Og)

The Oban Times, 26 March, 1910

Sir,–in your issues of the fifth and twelfth instance there have appeared letters from Lieut. MacLennan and Dr. Bannatyne criticizing severely, but in general terms, the latest publication of the Piobaireachd Society. The piobaireachd loving community cannot fail to realize that the writers of these two letters are doing a real service to Ceòl Mòr in bringing to light the “haphazard ram-stam methods” adopted by the Piobaireachd Society; one has only to glance through Part IV, of the Piobaireachd Society music to recognize the general truth of the criticisms contained in these letters.

But in the best interests the piobaireachd these two gentlemen would, in my opinion, have done a better service had they pointed out each mistake in detail, and proved to the satisfaction of the least musically-educated each point in succession throughout the book, and finally given their own opinions as to corrections. This is a counsel of perfection, and is easy to give; but I suppose difficulties will arise in the matter of printing music in such an article; also anyone can understand that in connection with Part IV many hours and columns would be taken up and what (I dread to think) the two writers might consider a thankless task. These gentlemen can be sure that they cannot write to fully on this subject, since they are few who have the necessary knowledge, and many who would be enlightened.

In your last issue Dr. Bannatyne went further, and proposed a meeting of all interested in piobaireachd to settle four definite points. It seems to be a solution of the more pressing difficulties; further reference will have to be made to this suggestion later.

Another letter appeared in your issue of 12th instant, signed by a lady or gentleman who is styled “Loch Sloy.” This writer has completely missed the point of Lieut. MacLennan’s letter. To “give the devil his due” is all very well–no one grudges the little praise which may be due to the Piobaireachd Society, but “Loch Sloy’s” letter was entirely irrelevant. However, as “Loch Sloy” has raised the general question of the competence of the Society, as it is, to carry out the object of the Society, as it might be, I will venture to express the opinion on this point which I believe to be generally held by players the piobaireachd. But before coming to this some notice must be taken of a letter signed “Mal Dhonn” in your last issue. His opinion, stated in the first few lines, comes to this–that Lieut. MacLennan’s criticisms are wrong. The next half of the letter is what I believe logically to be an argument “ad personam.” It does not require much thought to see the relevance of the “tu quoque” argument used here. In the last quarter of his letter, “Mal Dhonn” merely gives an example of the power wielded by the purse–without reference to object or methods. The Piobaireachd Society has control over four or more large Gatherings, and gives good prices. The piper must be paid by someone, and it is no proof of the soundness of the Society that it has made itself a payer. It is by no means should a wealthy society can make no mistake.

It is a matter of common knowledge that the Piobaireachd Society has an enormous list of members. The business of the Society is done, I believe, by a Committee, which meets periodically in London, and by a Music Committee, whose business it is to carry out the real objects of the Society, as they understand them. I do not know who the gentlemen are who form these Committees. The outside world has nothing to do with their identity or their qualifications. It looks to the results of their labours, and judges them accordingly. What results does one find? Four published volumes, containing the names of some of the finest tunes we have. Opening a volume at random, one happens on “Scarce of Fishing,” called here “Lochnell’s Lament.” In the urlar one finds one note and two bars wrong, the former (except in the doubling of the ground) and one of the later mistakes being repeated in each part throughout the tune, the other occurring in each singling. The cadences, toarluath and crunluath beats are incorrectly printed, and the second suibhal is pointed in a most un-melodious style–on the strength of one MS., that of Sir John McCra. This, perhaps, may be called an isolated exception.

I appeal to the vast crowd, which (the Music Committee aver) attended the Society’s competition at Inverness in 1909, to give their unbiased judgment on the setting of the tune, which, I suppose, some unfortunate pipers were compelled to play under the name of “The Prince’s Salute.” It must have been a trying performance for both pipers and audience. The situation of the judges must have been unenviable in the extreme. As representing the Piobaireachd Society, I presume they would have felt themselves bound by the rules of the Society to disqualify any piper who had dared to come onto the platform and point the tune materially differently from the manner adopted by the Society. Personally, I should be sorry to think that the Society has gained and exercises such a cramping influence on individuality that no piper could afford to point the tune his own way. These two examples are not the exception; they are the rule. If one adds to these remarks the general musical criticisms of Lieut. MacLennan and Dr. Bannatyne on the last volume, which might be (in Lieut. MacLennan’s case have been) applied to the previous volumes, a “prima facie” case for the dissatisfaction emerges.

I come now to a more detailed criticism of the Society. It has, I believe, a large balance in the bank. How do they use this money? Part of it, as “Loch Sloy” writes, is well spent in giving instruction. This will be shown to be not an unqualified benefit. A large sum is spent on publishing music shown to be incorrect in quality and in quantity most unnecessarily full–the toarluath and crunluath beats being printed in all the volumes “in extenso,” and incidentally wrongly–a sheer waste of paper, time, and money.

Again, one of the objects of the Society is to correct those tunes already in print, which are found to be wrong. But we find the mistakes corroborated by this Society, which may, I fear, by its name, command among an ignorant posterity an influence greater than that of Donald MacDonald and Angus Mackay. These are acts of commission. Turn to a glaring act of omission. There are still throughout the Highlands and elsewhere to be found old people who know tunes, complete or fragmentary, which, unless they are collected at once, are in danger of being lost forever. Again, in Canada there must be a large field for the collector of old Highland heirs all kinds. Why does not the Society expend some money on this pressing and necessary work?

I am credibly informed by piobaireachd players, amateur and professional, that the Society is guided by a number of well-meaning enthusiasts, and it is no secret that they are blind enthusiasts on the subject of piobaireachd music. At the risk of a charge of plagiarism, it seems necessary to explain that no man can be considered either an authority on, or even tolerably conversant with, the subject of piobaireachd, unless he has (1) “a thoroughly trained ear, combined with great musical taste and executive skill” (Piobaireachd Society, Part I., Introduction); and (2), as Lieut. MacLennan points out, a knowledge of the universal rules of the science of music. In England, and among those uninitiated in the art of playing of piobaireachd it is a matter of common belief that if a man blows through a blow-stick into a sheepskin bag–it is all one to them whether he plays well, or can with difficulty stumble through “Highland Laddie” and “Gabhaidh sinn an rathad Mòr” (played as a strathspey)–that man knows all there is to know about the great Highland bagpipe and its music. Like most popular beliefs founded on ignorance, this is a fiction. It would be as true to say that a player of a street piano-organ must be an authority on Beethoven. This unfathomable ignorance, combined with a small numerical proportion of practical amateur players, are the main factors which destroy all chance of success for a large Society, filled necessarily with the uninitiated. From the Society’s point of view, the situation must without doubt seem hopeless; for outside the Society they see a large majority of amateur piobaireachd players in or out of this country. In their Society how many can be found who can themselves play even two? The number, I am told, is small–infinitesimal in fact. And yet this Society professes to dictate to the piping world what is correct and what is not correct; and their dogmatism does not end there. Unfortunately these dictates are carried into practice. The Society’s paid instructors are bound, willy-nilly, to perpetuate the blunders originated or corroborated by this Society. Further, at the competitions held under the Society’s rules, the judges are selected from the ranks of the Society. The Society has also “made it a condition that all judges appointed by it must be thoroughly conversant with the tunes selected for that year’s competitions.” (Piobaireachd Society, part I.” Preface). In view of what has been said above, the competence of the Society’s judges, with one or two honourable exceptions, must be a matter of grave doubt; and it is manifestly improbable that these one or two exceptions can judge at Oban, Inverness, Lochaber, and Portree.

The Society is, indeed, in a bad way. Why is it that the Society, whose objects are in every way admirable and deserving of the support of all lovers of Ceòl Mòr, has failed so lamentably? The answer has already been foreshadowed. I can almost see in my mind’ s eye the various stages by which this state of affairs may have come about. The promoters of the scheme, anxious to obtain the support, financial and moral, which was necessary and deserved, appealed to the uninitiated public. It became the fashion to join the Society, and in a short time its own mother would not have recognized it. In short, the men who asked for support got it–floods of it–and were drowned by the deluge. This is the only possible theory which seems to prove the lamentable facts.

Dr. Bannatyne’s suggestion is, therefore, but a half measure. It does not strike at the root of the evil. This proposal is virtually an acknowledgment that the Piobaireachd Society is unable to perform its functions; for he would invite “all interested in piobaireachd music,” whether members or not; and it must not be forgotten that these four points to be settled are among the elementary problems which ought to have been tackled by the Society in 1902 when it was formed. Further, any decision come to by this meeting, valuable as it might be, would be unofficial so far as the Society is concerned–the Society which has for years refused to accept suggestions coming from outside.

Tab some years ago articles appeared in your paper under the heading of “The Passing of the Piobaireachd,” by “A. M.” What is “A, M.” about? His articles were the cause of the Piobaireachd Society being started. I can imagine what “A. M.” would have wished to see. It would have been a small society of amateur players, who alone, after passing some practical test, could be full members. To this inner ring would have been jointed outside circle of associates, with no voice a purely musical matters. A committee of members would carry out the real objects of the Society, possibly publishing the results of their efforts, not with the dogmatic infallibility of the ignorant, but with a tentative hope to encourage the love for Ceòl Mòr, adding full and copious notes, showing their reasons for agreeing with or disagreeing from all other settings.

When “A. M.” dreams, as no doubt he did, of such a society, and wakes to the cold reality of the Society as it is–the laughing stock of all piobaireachd players–he cannot fail to see the real tragedy. I can only hope that “A.M.” is not absolutely discouraged from making further efforts. His former articles created such a lively interest in the question that I cannot but think, as I hope, that if he were to take up the pen or the dirk once again for Ceòl Mòr, he could either reform or give the “coup de grace” to the Society, which, far from promoting, is effectually damaging the cause which he and many others have a heart. If he were to do this I am confident that he would be supported by all piobaireachd players, in the Society or outside it, amateur or professional.–I am, etc.,

Padruig Og. [John Grant of Rothiemurchus]