OT: 2 July 1910 – Mal Dhonn

The Oban Times 2 July, 1910

Sir,–In the columns of your valuable issue dated 18th June, Mr. MacLennan has intimated his desire to terminate this controversy. On the 28th day of February, 1910, he wrote a letter that appeared in “The Oban Times” dated 5th March last, which he entitled, “the Piobaireachd Society’s Publication.” May I compare this letter with the start of great brilliance which appeared on the horizon of piobaireachd, but which since then has been gradually diminishing in brightness till now, when I use Mr. MacLennan’s own words, “I shall conclude,” it shows that it is flickering to its lowest ebb, and may vanish into oblivion.

Mr. MacLennan says: “‘Mal Dhonn’ should stick to the point rather than theorise on what may or may not be in some house in Skye.” I am glad to see that he admits I have theorised on this point, as without theory no subject can ever attain perfection. “That has nothing to do with the Piobaireachd Society’s book,” says your correspondent. I quite admit that; but on the other hand this quotation above referred to by Mr. MacLennan does not contain the whole sum and substance of my last letter. It was in reply to a remark previously made by Mr. MacLennan on the possibility of our still being able to see some of the MacCrimmon MSS. I maintain that I have stuck to the point all along, with the persistence of one who knows at least something of what he is writing about. On Mr. MacLennan’s part, instead of giving me answers to my questions, he departs from the point, and has picked me up in some little remarks which I have made throughout my letters by way of illustration, and sliding over the main points, he thus shirks the necessity of giving me the answers which I look for, but in vain.

Mr. MacLennan says: “‘Mal Dhonn’ declined to meet me in presence of two Professors of music.” I did declined in the Mr. MacLennan and his professors of music, and I gave him my reasons for doing so. If the reasons already given are not sufficient, I beg further to say that such a meeting would serve no good purpose. Mr. MacLennan’s challenge regarding the correctness of the tunes in question appeared in the columns of “The Oban Times,” to be read and dealt with if considered necessary by the public; and the public alone are in this case the sole arbiters in the correspondence which we have carried on. In other words, Mr. MacLennan began this conflict in the public prints, and in the public prints only he must produce evidence, or proof, to uphold his statements already made. If I met him either in presence of two professors of music or alone, that would neither settle the point in question nor satisfy the public, who are aroused to the highest point of enthusiasm as to who is right or who is wrong. No; I am prepared to meet Mr. MacLennan fair and square as he began, viz., in controversy only, and I allow the public to judge for themselves whether or not I have any knowledge of the subject which I am writing.

Mr. MacLennan says:. . . “or he will meet ‘Mal Dhonn’ in presence of any number of professional pipers.” I never made any such offer, nor is it within my power to command half-a-dozen of our best professional pipers to rally around me in order that I may meet Mr. MacLennan with a view to settling our differences. I have begun alone, and I am prepared to fight my battle alone with the knowledge which I have gathered through experience.

Mr. MacLennan concludes, he says, because “‘Mal Dhonn’ shrinks from putting his knowledge of the literature, poetry, or music of the Gael to a test.” In order that I may put my knowledge of the music of the Gael a little further to a test, I will here give my decision on several points–which I have not as yet done–which did not escaped my attention: “The minim the standard note,” or “with piston regularity” (well said, “Loch Sloy,” you have supplied me with the phrase which I had been looking for). Let us turn our attention to page 8 of “The Piobaireachd As MacCrimmon Played It”; on the left hand corner of this page we find “The Clan Chattan’s Gathering.” The Gathering was chiefly played in the time of war in earlier years. The piper in most cases aided the Chief by playing this tune, which was heard in the distance by the clansmen, who gathered around their standard. The fiery cross was also used as a means of collecting the clansmen. I take this opportunity of asking those interested in the great “Ceol Mor” of the Celts, and more especially in this type of piobaireachd, this question–if the Chief of the Clan Chattan had asked his piper in the olden days when this custom was so prevalent, to play the Clan Gathering as given by Mr. MacLennan in his book, page 8 above referred to, would the clansmen have recognized it? No. For what reason? Because Mr. MacLennan gives the groundwork entirely composed of notes of the same length or value. Just think of it for one moment seriously. Here we have a beautiful piobaireachd, which should have 68 notes in the ground of varied length or value, transformed into a melody which gives 18 minims. In the first case, we see the tune written in its original form, with a volume of inspiring melody, of which every note told the clansman what was required of them, and which they recognised and understood. In the second case we have a groundwork monotonous as the eight-day clock. One has to listen to the notes, which never vary in length, far from original, and no one could recognise it to be the same tune, because it is meaningless and void of natural feeling.

It appears to me that several of our present day Celts are athirst for something fresh in the form of piobaireachd to attract public taste, in a very limited scale, only to be wiped out in a few months, not to speak of years. To those admirers of piobaireachd I would convey this message–that should they see the necessity of preserving this ancient art in its original and proper form, to go back to Angus Mackay’s book, with all its errors, taking care at the same time to have their eyes and ears open to see the music properly written and hear the beautiful melody which it contains. Failing this collection, on the widest scale, go to that priceless gem in the eyes of the real lovers of piobaireachd, Major-General Thomason’s “Ceol Mor”; there they will find rivers of clear and natural melodies, which will never dry nor fail to quench their thirst for piobaireachd proper.

Mr. MacLennan says: “He (‘Mal Dhonn’) shrinks from having his identity disclosed.” If Mr. MacLennan did not want his own identity disclosed, and desired to be put on the same footing as all comers, he ought to have secreted his name under the wings of some substitute. It does not matter one whit to me what a man signs himself as. I value his knowledge on the subject which he deals with by what he says in his correspondence. I can assure Mr. MacLennan that behind “Mal Dhonn” there is a man in the flesh, but this will not help Mr. MacLennan to answer my questions.

Mr. MacLennan also says: “I shall no longer trespass on your valuable paper chasing after this “Will-O’-The-Wisp.” I cannot admit liability of dealing with anything in my recent letters except piobaireachd, or wandering at random after the nearest object which might be guilty of stealing my attention to the real subject, which is too dear to me, although Mr. MacLennan admits that he is not chasing after a new form of pipe music.

I have read Mr. MacLennan’s letters of criticism on the Piobaireachd Society’s work year after year till I could stand it no longer. As I have already said, I entered this field of my own free will, and sacrificed my valuable time for the love of piobaireachd and it alone, so that I may be able to say that I had done something to prevent it from losing its value or being transformed into a meaningless jargon. This being so, and Mr. MacLennan having promised to trespass no longer on your valuable space, let us once and for all congratulate the Piobaireachd Society on all their labours; let them flourish for all time; let them continue to uphold the ancient customs of their forefathers pure and spotless. By this means the Society’s name shall be engraved deep in the hearts of the Celtic people, who had added fame and lustre to our nation, and handed these down from father to son for endless generations.

The Piobaireachd Society is composed of noblemen and gentlemen–noblemen because they would not interfere with anyone’s work; gentlemen because they cherish the cultivation of an almost forgotten art, which without their aid might in time fall into oblivion. When we think over those facts, why should anyone make an attempt to ridicule their work, which, after all, has proved to be less faultless than their annual critic, Mr. MacLennan, would have it to be?

If I have to conclude with this and what I have already said, I wish to pay my highest tribute of gratitude to the Editor of “The Oban Times” for the enormous space which I have taken up in his columns. “The Oban Times” is the only paper in the length and breadth of Scotland which favours piobaireachd. The Editor must be congratulated on his untiring efforts to place all correspondents on a fair and equal footing and sacrificing his valuable time and space to the furtherance of this ancient and noble art. This valuable paper is read by Celts all the world over, and as a continual reader myself, I can assure the Editor that there is no one who appreciates more highly the good that has been done for piobaireachd in the correspondence area in this paper that I do, although, I am, etc.,

Mal Dhonn