OT: 14 May 1910 – John MacLennan

The Oban Times, 14 May, 1910

Piobaireachd Society’s Music

26 Arden St.,

Edinburgh, 7 May, 1910

Sir,–” Mal Dhonn,” writing in your valuable paper of the thirtieth ult., attempts to run me into a cul-de-sac, from which escape would be impossible, and I crave your indulgence in order to let him see that instead of putting a barrier in my path, he has put me under the necessity of referring to the Piobaireachd Society’s music further than I intended doing. “Mal Dhonn” states:–

(1). “The piobaireachds were handed down to us.”

Admittedly they were handed down to us by means of one man teaching another off the fingers, and with such alterations as the teacher, by acts of omission and commission, thought fit to make.

(2). “The composers unalterably laid down the law as to what was to be what.”

This is a very doubtful statement, as we find authors saying they composed tunes in the midst of the battle and other exigent situations, no doubt for the purpose of screening them from attacks. Besides, the works of the best masters have never come to perfection without the assistance of others, and I never saw or heard tell of a Highland piper who would not be glad to get a suggestion from another so as to improve his composition.

However, “Mal Dhonn’s” statement suggests the question, How is it that there are hardly two pipers who agree as to the setting of any one tune? All the piobaireachd playing we have at present has come down to us from that fine specimen of a Highlander, John Ban Mackenzie, a man who was my father’s junior by ten years, and from him have evolved the Mackenzie, the Cameron, and the MacPherson schools of piobaireachd. And not only do the pupils of the one school argue with the other as to the proper setting of the tune, but the pupils of the same school do not agree. Further, I heard of one champion piper playing the tri-lugh of “Seaforth’s Salute” in two different ways, and, curiously enough, he got the first prize on both occasions. From employing the pupils of those different schools, I find the Piobaireachd Society have adopted two different methods of performing the same movement, which shows clearly that they have no set method of writing. Take the D movement in the tri-lugh of “The Vaunting,” pp. 6 and 7, and everywhere it occurs in Part IV., and compare it with the same D movement in “The Children’s Lament,” p. 2 of Part III., last bar of the doubling of the tri-lugh, and everywhere it occurs in Parts I., II., and III. Compare also the B movement in the ceithir-luth in “Prince Charlie’s Lament,” the last two beats of the first part, page 5 of Part IV. With the same B movement in the first two bars of the ceithir-luth in “Clan Ranald’s Salute,” page 17 of part II. Here you will find the same movement fingered in two different ways, which places the competitors in a most awkward position, and I have no hesitation in saying that the errors are in Part IV.

But perhaps “Mal Dhonn” will explain this very absurd treatment of musical notation, and say how it happens that the D B B D movements in the first bar of the ground in “The Princess Salute” are differently timed to the same movements in the third bar of the last part of the ground, p. 1, part I., as also what is the idea of writing the ceithir-luth of “Weighing from Land,” p. 3 of Part IV., and the doubling of the ceithir-luth exactly the same, note for note, in pitch and duration? Surely the composer never fixed this absurd law, as it cannot be found in any other tune, both being wrong in pitch and time?

“Mal Dhonn” says:–

(3). “The Piobaireachd Society having published the tunes the same as the composers wrote them, are justified in maintaining that their settings are correct.”

The composers never wrote a single tune, and the Society did not write them as they were composed. I have all the tunes in this Fourth Part properly written, and if “Mal Dhonn,” “String of Lorn,” “Loch Sloy,” etc., would care to have a consultation and examination of the two methods in presence of, say, two Professors of music, I am confident they will say my setting is nearest the original.


(4). “Mr. MacLennan published tunes in a method which is entirely foreign to piobaireachd proper.”

This is an assertion for which “Mal Dhonn” gives no authority but his own vague, though honest, belief. He is labouring under a mistake.

(5). “On what authority does Mr. MacLennan maintain that he is right and the Piobaireachd Society is wrong?”

On the same authority as “Mal Dhonn” would have on receiving a letter teeming with orthographical errors for saying that it was full of incorrect spelling.

(6). “Mr. MacLennan took it upon himself to change the time and construction of every tune in his own book, and I now ask him if ever he saw piobaireachd written, timed, or played as we find it in ‘The Piobaireachd As MacCrimmon Played It’?”

I put what was wrong right, and what was cooking straight. I was taught to play piobaireachd in time and tune, the same as the Mackays of Gairloch played them, and as all the ancient pipers were bound to play. I wrote them correctly, as every musician will testify. When my book appeared it was much denounced, notwithstanding which it had a sale far beyond my expectations; but when another man puts out a book which will be more simple, more concise, more intelligent, more musical, easier to learn and retain in the memory, I shall be the first to applaud him, and admit that I had been superseded. But all this has nothing to do with the Piobaireachd Society’s book. Other writers as well as myself wrote as we thought proper, and forced no man to play our settings. The Society, on the other hand, put out their tunes as the ancient music of Scotland, and bind pipers with chains of gold to play them. If, on the other hand, the Society allowed every competitor to choose and write out his own tunes, under the supervision of a Committee, the best that was in the man, both in writing, and performing, would be taken out of him, and the public would not be bored listening for hours to the eternal repetition of one of three tunes.

Your correspondent says further:–

(7). “The MacCrimmons did not write their piobaireachd in this form, but in the ancient verbal notation of Boreraig, called ‘canntaireachd’.”

“Mal Dhonn” would be perhaps nearer the mark if he had said he did not know what the MacCrimmons did or what they did not do. There is not one scrap of the existence of any one system or another that they wrote, and there is no living man who saw anyone who saw or heard a MacCrimmon.

(8). “The piobaireachd as handed down to us is in every way complete.”

A great number of them are quite incomplete insofar as pitch is concerned; but the method of writing them into beats and giving each note in the beat its proper proportion of time is entirely wrong, the performance of which is a disgrace to musical country.

(9). “I take it from Mr. MacLennan’s letter of the 18th Apri that he admits the tri-lugh of ‘Weighing from Land’ is properly written.”

I objected to this tri-lugh as well as all the others of the same class being written in two beats instead of one, and admitted that it was written the same way in several other books. I maintain, however, against all comers, that such writing is wrong, and never heard played as written. The piece is marked C, which means four steps in the bar, a crotchet to each step, and written thus three quavers marked to be played in the time of two for the first step, and a crotchet is written for the second step. Now, for the sake of illustration, give a minute to each step or beat; the three quavers in this case get one minute, and the crotchet gets another, while my contention is that the three quavers get fifteen seconds and the crotchet forty-five seconds–or one minute to the two–one-fourth to the three quavers in the time of two, and three-forths to the crotchet, and I am sure when all my opponents think over it they will admit the truth of what I say; if not, let them watch the first good piper they here play.

(10). “He does not give them (the Piobaireachd Society) the credit of writing one single tune correct.”

I wish I could, and would be glad to give them my hearty congratulations; but it is impossible to do so while my country’s tunes are being bungled, causing sarcasm and laughter among those who have an intelligent knowledge of music.–I am, etc.,

John MacLennan