OT: 4 June 1910 – Mal Dhonn “The Piobaireachd Society’s Music”

The Oban Times, 4 June, 1910

23 May, 1910

The Piobaireachd Society’s Music

Sir,–In Mr. McLennan’s letter, which appeared in your valuable columns dated 7th of May, 1910, he says that I “attempted to run him into a cul-de-sac.” There is no need for me to say this, or make any attempt to do so, as he has walked into a trap laid by himself, for which he has not made good his escape! Further he says: “I crave your indulgence in order to let him (‘Mal Dhonn’) 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.” Mr. McLennan has put a barrier on his own path and instead of removing it first, he puts another on the top of it by still adding to his imaginative “errors” in the work in question. I have asked him a series of questions regarding his so-called “errors,” and I have not received one single satisfactory reply. I will now deal with the answers given by him.

The composers unalterably laid down the law, and said what was to be what. To this Mr. McLennan says:–” This is a very doubtful statement.” Where a doubt arises in the mind of anyone on a particular subject, it shows a certain want of knowledge on the part of the person who was in doubt. I have no doubt or hesitation in saying that the composers lay down the law, and had the sole right of saying what was to be what regarding the form which the tune was to take.

Mr. McLennan also states that “we find authors saying they composed tunes in the midst of the battle, and in other exigent situations, no doubt for the purpose of screening them from attacks.” We have some tunes composed under such circumstances, but very few. They were neither composed for the purpose of screening the authors or their party from the attacks of the enemy on the field of battle, nor were they prepared on such a heroic occasion and under such difficulties for the mere purpose of screening the composer from musical errors. The tunes which were composed on the battlefield of Inverlochy on several occasions were played for the purpose of inspiring the clansmen and leading them on to victory. These authors we ought to admire and uphold as heroes of that age for their courage, bravery, and coolness in having so calmly exercised their skill in endeavouring to lead on their clansmen to glory with a fresh tune, suitable for the occasion. These acts of bravery are inscribed deep in the annals of the past history of our nation, and it becomes us to give them every credit which is due to them. How many pipers are lovers of “Ceòl Mòr” have we got today who have even composed an original piobaireachd at their own fireside or would risk their lives and situations for their native country and its music?

Mr. McLennan further says:–“all the piobaireachd playing we have at present has come down to us from that fine specimen of a Highlander, John Bàn Mackenzie.” Admittedly John Bàn Mackenzie was not only the finest specimen of a Highland piper, but was one of the best performers of piobaireachd in his day. He did not, however, compose all the piobaireachd we have in existence now, though he taught a great many of them to his pupils. One of John Bàn’s most important good points was that he handed down the tunes he received as he got them. He was a Highlander too proud of his country’s traditions, and valued its music too highly to interfere with the settings of those tunes which he cherished so much. Therefore, as one of the old masters and teachers of piobaireachd, it cannot said of him, as Mr. McClellan accuses the teachers of the past, that he was worthy of altering the settings of tunes to suit himself.

In one of my previous letters I said that the Piobaireachd Society, having published the tunes the same as the composers wrote them, are justified in maintaining that their settings are correct. To this Mr. McLennan says: “the composers never wrote a single tune, and the Society did not write them as they were composed.” If the composers never wrote a single, may I ask Mr. McLennan who did write them, and now that he has said that the Piobaireachd Society did not write them as they were composed, will he give me his authority or any proof to support the statement? There is not the slightest doubt that the composer of every piece of music writes it down in some form or other, with which I shall deal more minutely later on.

I confirm and uphold my statement that Mr. McLennan published the tunes contained in “The Piobaireachd as MacCrimmon Played It” in a method which is entirely foreign to piobaireachd proper. I asked Mr. McClellan on what authority he maintained that he was right and the Piobaireachd Society was wrong regarding his so-called “errors.” To this question he has given me the following answer: “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.”

I have received no such letter full of incorrect spelling; and though I had that has nothing to do with piobaireachd. It is the “errors” which Mr. McLennan has already named in the Piobaireachd Society’s work, Part IV., that I refer to. I asked him to give me proof of his authority for his statements, which I have not yet received, and am still waiting patiently for in order that Mr. McLennan may maintain his point.

I said that Mr. McLennan took it upon himself to change the time and construction of every tune in his own book from beginning to end, 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”? In reply Mr. McLennan says: “I put what was wrong right, and what was straight. I was taught to play piobaireachd in time and tune, the same as the Mackays of Gairloch played them.”

I do not agree with Mr. McLennan regarding this statement, as I maintain that he put what was right wrong, and what was straight crooked. The MacKays of Gairloch never play piobaireachd as given by Mr. McLennan in his publication, nor did they teach anyone of their pupils in such a method. I also asked Mr. McLennan in what other collection I could find piobaireachd written as he gives it in his own book. To this he carefully avoids giving any answer.

Mr. McLennan says: “the Piobaireachd Society put out their tunes, and bind pipers with chains of gold to play them.” The tunes do not belong to the Society, nor do they lay any claim to them. They are public property, and are only selected by the Society as the tunes to be recognized and played at their competitions by competitors who wish to play for a place in the prize list according to merit. The Society do not bind pipers to play their tunes with chains of gold. All the competitors come forward of their own free will and accord to take part in the Piobaireachd Society’s competitions for one purpose only, in the true spirit of the piobaireachd player, to have their skill tested in this ancient and noble art. The successful competitors, of course, receive prizes–if in medals, etc., they are in every case cherished by the winner as a champion piper, and a momento of their excellent performance. If the competitor receives a prize in money, it is not intended as payment for his work, but in many cases may cover the expense of his long journey to the place where the competition is held. Pipers bind themselves with chains when they go to a competition for the mere greed of gold. This type of piobaireachd player has no love for his national music and in nine cases out of every ten the golden fetters never fall on his shoulders of all.

Before one can excel in the art of piobaireachd playing, he must necessarily practice very hard, and have a love for this special class of pipe music, which enables him to play with fine feeling and technical correctness. It would be the saddest day in the history of our national music if the Society adopted the method suggested by Mr. McLennan to allow each competitor to choose and write out his own tunes. They would require a paid staff of competent men, fully qualified in the proper construction of piobaireachd, to revise, and in many cases, correct, their settings. There is also the danger that the competitor will not trouble to learn new tunes every year, and again we would have many of them at our largest and best gatherings playing the same old tunes year after year.

I said in one of my letters that the MacCrimmons did not write their piobaireachd as given by Mr. McLennan in his publication, but in the more ancient verbal notation of Boreraig, called “Canntaireachd.” Mr. McLennan and replies that “Mal Dhonn” would be perhaps “near the mark if he said he did not know what the MacCrimmons did, or what they did not do. There is not one scrap in existence of any one system or another that they wrote.”

The MacCrimmons were famous for the beautiful manner in which they wrote down their music. We also have it on good authority that the MacCrimmons were a well educated race of pipers, and it is quite impossible for them to carry all the tunes in their memories which they composed and taught. Who knows but in some lone sheiling in the “Misty Isle” there may still be some of the MacCrimmon MSS.? Though we have not seen them, or perhaps never will, that is not proof that this great race of pipers did not commit the music to paper in their own notation for convenience and preservation. The best educated and most eloquent orators that ever spoke could not deliver the same speech twice in succession, word for word, if it was necessary, without writing it down. The same applies to music; no tune can ever have a fixed setting unless it is written down on paper there and then in some form or other. A man might compose a tune today, and if he had not written it down or played it regularly on account of attending to other duties, five years after this he could never play it note for note to save his life. This is proof that the MacCrimmons did write down the music.

Mr. McLennan asks “Mal Dhonn,” “String of Lorne,” “Loch Sloy,” etc., to meet him in presence of two professors of music to see his settings of the tunes. May I ask what the professors of music are to be present for? Are they professional piobaireachd players, and thoroughly equipped with the proper knowledge of the construction of piobaireachd, or are they the ordinary professors of pianoforte music, etc.? Are the settings of the tunes so strange to those which we have already seen that they are to be interpreters? I have all the tunes in my possession as well as Mr. McLennan, and, speaking for myself, I have no desire to accept this kind invitation.

Finally, Mr. McLennan says: “admittedly they (piobaireachdan) were handed down to us, with some alterations as the teachers thought fit to make.” I am not aware of any teachers making alterations in piobaireachd to suit themselves. On the other hand, they were too eager to preserve them in their proper form to alter them, and did not do so. If every generation of teachers made such alterations in the form and construction of piobaireachd as Mr. McLennan has done himself, in his publication, we would have had to exclaim: “Alas! The piobaireachd has passed for ever.” Happily it has been protected from such an untimely death by those ancient masters of the art in the days that are gone, but not forgotten. They stood by the great “Ceòl Mòr ” of the Celt, and preserved it untarnished, sometimes at the cost of their lives, and we have now good reason to pronounce the patriotic benediction: “Let piobaireachd flourish in its ancient, complete, and traditional form!”–I am, etc.,

Mal Dhonn