OT: 6 August 1910 – J.D.R. Watt “Canntaireachd”

The Oban Times 6 August, 1910


South Africa, 11 July, 1910

Sir,–I have read the interesting letter of “Loch Sloy,” in your issue of 18th June last, and if you will allow me to say a few words, I have found the knowledge of canntaireachd very useful indeed. “Loch Sloy” ends his letter by saying: “Canntaireachd had a beginning, and it is near its end.” Well everything has a beginning, but this method has nearly been lost because of the rareness of its written records, and the so well kept secret of the manner of writing it.

It has been said modern sol-fa has been copied from, or has been invented from “pipers’ sol-fa,” or pipe language. Now modern sol-fa has by no means died out, but has become of increasing importance among singing classes all over the Empire, and I see nothing retrogressive either in modern sol-fa or in pipers’ sol-fa so-called. I believe pipers’ language conveys in the use of it a great amount of expression–so much so that there has arisen the “legend of pipes that talk.” Hence pipers’ sol-fa is still ahead of even modern sol-fa. I have seen friends play musical instruments from modern sol-fa as well as being able to play from ordinary notation. Pipers who know canntaireachd can do likewise, and I am sure for teaching purposes this method has its great uses, and it is extremely useful to play from both notations. I am sure learners are more richly grounded in their work by its use.

From above, it will appear southrons and strangers to pipe music and its methods must admit that there is more owing to Scots pipers then they would have credited, or more than they were aware of; and it is a remarkable thing as showing the self reliability, genius, and resourcefulness of the ancient community of Scottish pipers that they alone among the European nations used to write the manuscript music in their own peculiar manner–sol-feggi of Italy excepted–from which they could sing, play, or talk their music! I do not say anything about recording tunes, but it appears modern sol-fa is progressing still, for the children in the modern school sing at sight, and take down records of tunes by ear, which is all good practice for those who use this class of music (as apart from staff notation music), and goes to show that something “which had a beginning has not yet come to an end,” but has borne fruit at least in another direction of usefulness.

I believe also pipers’ canntaireachd may yet, in conjunction with staff notation, prove of great value to the piping community. Among musicians and singers there are those who believe in staff notation and those who believe in modern sol-fa. The same applies to pipers, but my humble opinion is that pipers will greatly benefit by knowing both systems of pipe notation, and will have the live root, or spirit, of the music conveyed to them thus, in a far better way even than other instrumentalists can ever have by their knowledge of their two notations, simply because pipe music cannot be played upon other instruments, except as a very feeble imitation only.

Dr. K. N. MacDonald in his letter speaks of ancient nations and Eastern nations making records of their music. Such is very possible, and those who live longest will see the most. There is a native tribe in Northeast Africa who rarely conversed by mouth of all, but speak to each other by beats upon a small drum–really finger-taps on the drum–even at long distances! What will telegraphists say to this?–I am, etc.,

J.D.R. Watt