OT: 28 May 1910 – Simon Fraser “Piobaireachd Society’s Music”

The Oban Times, Saturday, 28 May, 1910

Piobaireachd Society’s Music

Banyan Street, Warrnambool

Victoria, Australia, 13 April, 1910

Sir,–In your valuable paper dated 5 March, 1910, I notice a letter signed “John MacLennan,” in which he is criticizing the books of the Piobaireachd Society. I fully agree with him in his remarks on the alteration of the versions of the tunes, etc., but with your kind permission I would like to point out to him that this has been going on ever since Donald MacDonald published the first book of pibrochs about a century ago.

There are very few persons alive now who know that Neil MacLeod, Gesto, printed a book called “The History of the MacCrimmons and the Great Pipe,” in the year 1826. Unfortunately this book contained opinions offensive to a good many people of that time, and MacLeod’s friends would not let him publish it. There was a complete history of the MacCrimmon pipers in this book, and it contained 50 of their best pibrochs. It also contained their own system of sheantaireachd, and also a new system perfected by Patrick Mhor MacCrimmon on his return from Italy in or about the middle of the seventeenth century. Had this book been published, I have no doubt that the ordinary system would never have been adopted. The book contained complete scales and time marks, and was very easy to read and understand. I have only seen two copies of it, and they are both now out of existence.

MacLeod, being offended, published another book about 1828, a copy of which I have, and I have another of the same book printed in the year 1880 by J. & R. Glen of Edinburgh. The tunes in this book are in the old system, and all kinds of devices are used to mislead, so that only an expert can translate the tunes. Different beats, which mean the same thing, occur; lines are left out; some tunes of 16 lines have only 12; beats are misplaced; some lines are not complete, and so on. As he said on more than one occasion: “I have given them something to puzzle them.”

At first the ordinary notation made little headway with pipers, as so many of the old pipers knew the language the MacCrimmons, and they also knew it was not to be improved upon. But as they passed away, the MacCrimmon system went with them and the ordinary notation has gained ground, but good playing is fast going out.

My old and respected teacher, Peter Bruce, used to say–” the new idea may be right enough in its way to hear pibroch played as I did in my young days, but it does not teach you how to play the tunes.” To hear piobaireachd played as I did in my young days and to hear it now is a different class of music altogether. Mechanical and meaningless playing is becoming very common; but it is unreasonable to expect players and publishers of books to agree with you in this respect, so they are now quarreling among themselves as to the best settings of the tunes, which is the result of the ordinary system of notation.

Every Highlander who knows a good Gaelic song will tell us that it loses a great deal of the proper effect when sung in English. This is exactly the case with pibrochs played from the ordinary notation unless the player knows the MacCrimmon system as well. There is some truth in what Messrs. Grove and Grattan Flood say, viz.–That the pibroch is outside the realm of music, simply because it is out of its place in ordinary notation; and trying to perform pibrochs on any other instrument than the pipe is an absurdity. I have enclosed to tunes in the old MacCrimmon system, “Lovat’s Lament ” and “Lament for Samuel,” both very old versions, which Dr. Bannatyne will be able to translate into ordinary notation. I have heard from good authority that David Fraser never gave a correct setting of his tune to anyone, and this version is the oldest that I know of.

Respecting too many bars of music in tunes, we may take “Macintosh’s Lament” as an example. In all versions in ordinary notation that I have seen, there are 18 bars of music in each strain, whereas the old version has only 16, which is strictly in accordance with the MacCrimmon notation, or sheantaireachd. “The Piper’s Warning to His Master” is another tune of 16 bars in each strain, yet the second strain contains 14 bars, which should be eight, played twice over, the same as the first strain. All the MacCrimmon music that I have seen is (when properly understood) written according to strict rules. Had the first writers of pibrochs in ordinary notation taken the trouble of writing and the staff the MacCrimmon system as well, we would have had better versions of the tunes today. In J.S. Campbell’s book on sheantaireachd, page 33, Duncan Ross says:–” now we have three drones in the pipe and grace-notes.” We always had grace-notes, for how can we have beats like Hiererine and Hivroro be performed without grace-notes?

Thanking you for past favours, and trusting you will find room for this letter.–I am, etc.,

Simon Fraser