OT: 17 December 1910 – Ceol Mor “The Scottish Piper’s Union”

The Oban Times, 17 December, 1910

The Scottish Pipers’ Union

12 December, 1907 (sic)

Sir,–Your issue of 10th inst. contains details of the 1st meeting of the Scottish Pipers’ Union, held in Glasgow on 26th ult., on which I wish to make a few remarks, but before going further, I just wish to make my point quite clear regarding my statement that the Scottish Pipers’ Union would be intended to be in opposition to the Piobaireachd Society. I think that the following information gives good foundation from our remarks:

It is quite true that Dr. Bannatyne in his recent correspondence made no attack, or even reference, to the Piobaireachd Society when advocating the need for the Scottish Pipers’ Union. On the other hand, it cannot be said that in the past he has been in favour of the Piobaireachd Society. I would like to draw his attention to a letter which he wrote to “The Oban Times,” dated 7th March, 1910, which runs as follows:–” Part IV. of the Scottish Piobaireachd Society’s music has just reached me, and I noticed that Mr. McLennan, in your last issue, ably criticises the publication in detailed fashion.” I am a continual reader of “The Oban Times,” and I read Mr. McLennan’s letter, which condemned the settings of every one of the Society’s tunes, and Dr. Bannatyne upheld his criticism as gospel.

A correspondent, under the “nom de plume” of “Mal Dhonn,” challenged Mr. McLennan to prove his statements regarding the incorrectness of the Piobaireachd Society’s settings, but Mr. McLennan failed to do so, and the Society came out victorious, yet Dr. Bannatyne upheld Mr. McLennan’s criticism. If he is able to prove what he upheld, why did he not do so when Mr. McLennan failed? I merely recall those facts in order that I may ask Dr. Bannatyne one question, viz.: Has he nursed his unfavourable ideas towards the Piobaireachd Society until they have developed into a Scottish Piper’s Union, which he now admits was an idea of his own? In another letter, dated 15th March, 1910, he made some suggestions to the Piobaireachd Society, under four headings, which I need not detail here, as the Society ignored them. Will he have those suggestions carried out now in this Scottish Piper’s Union? The Piobaireachd Society deserve great credit for the good-natured manner in which they have received the criticism of those who have for many years attempted to harass them with unsuccessful attacks.

In the course of his remarks at the meeting held on 26th ult., Dr. Bannatyne said: “the kind of Society he would propose to be formed would be one where pipers could meet together and have an opportunity of discussing things pertaining to their own particular work or profession.” From Dr. Bannatyne’s address it seems that piping and pipe music is the all-important thing. Dancing comes in in the background. If dancers are not to kneel down to pipers and be ruled by them, why do not they demand a fair share of mention in the title of the Society? It would only be fair to call it the “Scottish Piper’s and Dancer’s Union.” In fact, if I was a dancer, I would put forward a proposal to call it the “Scottish Dancers’ and Pipers’ Union,” which would not sound so like the “Scottish Pipers’ Society,” which, I hope, will never vanish to give place to any other organisation.

Regarding the judging of pipe music, Dr. Bannatyne says: “anyone, to judge piping, should not only have a good knowledge of playing–although he might not be a great performer–but should have a sufficient knowledge of the music and everything else before he was competent to judge such a difficult thing is pipe music.” This statement means that a competent judge must have a sufficient knowledge of the music and everything else, yet he need not be a great performer. Everything else, I would say, must include good performance, and if it does not, why not be a good performer? A great performer would be a great judge. If a man cannot perform a certain performance he is utterly incompetent to judge it.

The judging of piping is much more difficult and dangerous than the judging of dancing. The performance of a dancer is visible to the eye, but the piper’s performance is not. For instance, take a games committee who are still recognising the old-fashioned and unfair method of judging the competitors of piping, where the piper is allowed to play any piobaireachd out of a grand total of three hundred tunes. He often chooses a tune which is seldom or ever played in a competition. Now take the position of the judge in this case. He is a bold man who would sit down and attempt to judge a competitor who plays a tune that is entirely strange to him. It often happens that under this system of judging the judge has to ask someone else the name of the tune even, and he knows no more about it or its construction than the wind that carries the notes from the piper’s chanter to the distant hilltop. In such a case, how can a judge tell if a competitor has played all his tune complete? How can he say that he has not when he is ignorant of the piece?

Let me now, in a kind-hearted and unprejudiced manner, put forward the simple yet perfect method of judging adopted by the Piobaireachd Society. Many try to find fault with them, but few acknowledge or point out their good qualities. The Piobaireachd Society publish every year six to nine tunes, to be played at their competitions for the ensuing year. In this way the piper has time to practise the tunes, and the judge has an opportunity of studying them also, and this enables him to give a perfect decision. This method of judging is perfect; the old way is impossible and absurd.

Dr. Bannatyne made reference to the formation of the Piobaireachd Society, and stated that it was started at the suggestion of one man. That may be so, but it was not the point in question. He said hundreds of pipers and dancers wanted this Scottish Piper’s Union, not himself alone. Where were all the hundreds of pipers and dancers on the day of the first meeting held in Glasgow, if they wanted a Union? There were about sixty in all present, and there were only twenty-eight who signified their intention to join the Union. Why, there are hundreds of pipers and dancers in Glasgow alone. Where were they? Take Scotland all over, which could run into four figures of pipers and dancers–they were not even represented, nor given the opportunity of being so by post or other suitable manner.

There also appears in the report of the meeting the remark, “one of those present remarked that as a reader of ‘The Oban Times,’ he had seen the correspondence in that paper by “Ceol Mor.” It would be interesting to hear ‘Ceol Mor’ at this stage.” “Ceol Mor” would never think of interfering with the natural course of this new ideal by standing up and causing any unpleasantness.

After the Committee was formed we have the following announcement, viz.: “The Chairman remarked that the formation of such a committee met the views of their friend, ‘Ceol Mor,’ ‘The Oban Times’ correspondent.” “Ceol Mor’s” warning note evidently touched some chord when it haunted the whole procedure of the meeting. I must ask the Chairman of the meeting what authority he had for saying that “the formation of such a committee met the approval of their friend, ‘Ceol Mor’,” more especially in view of the fact that “Ceol Mor” was not present at the meeting, being unavoidably prevented on account of having to attend to a more vitally important duty.

What about my last letter, which appeared in “The Oban Times” a fortnight ago? Where is the answer to it? I expect an answer from your correspondent. According to what he has already written about pipe music, he should have no difficulty in doing so. Failing this, I must put forward my undoubted claim to be the victor in this controversy, and also in the knowledge of the theory and practice of pipe music.

I am glad to see that at the meeting Dr. Bannatyne called me his friend. I have no ill feeling towards him, only that we do not quite agree in our ideas on this subject.–I am, etc.,

Ceol Mor [John Grant, bookseller, Edinburgh] [to the reader: this is not Pipe Major John Grant]