OT: 16 December 1911 – John Grant “The Secrets of Canntaireachd”

The Oban Times, 16 December, 1911

The Secrets of Canntaireachd

5 Wallfield Place, Aberdeen

7 December, 1911

Sir,–In your issue of 25th ult., Dr. Bannatyne says I am in a difficulty regarding the above. Dr. Bannatyne says that I begin by asserting that he does not know the mysterious MacCrimmon notation secrets, and neither does Dr. Bannatyne know the secrets of the MacCrimmon notation. This is no mere assertion on my part, but his own words. After his attempt to prove his knowledge of the MacCrimmon notation, as contained in his letter of 20th ult., he says “the MacCrimmon Canntaireachd is dead.” Regarding the questions which I put to him through the medium of your columns, he has not given a single satisfactory answer.

Dr. Bannatyne’s reply to my question No. 1 is “Yes,” after putting Macleod of Gesto’s hat on his own head. Why did Dr. Bannatyne not simply answer “Yes” or “No” from his own knowledge, without hanging on to anyone else? Question No. 2–Dr. Bannatyne says that the MacCrimmons left their scale in the tunes published in Macleod of Gesto’s book. They never did. The Raisa MacCrimmons who invented the system of notation never saw Macleod’s book, and if Capt. Macleod had known the key or scale to the MacCrimmon sol-fa notation, he would have published it. Question No. 3–Dr. Bannatyne simply copies the title of Macleod of Gesto’s book. This is no answer. He says a reprint of Macleod’s book can be had from Messrs. J. & R. Glen, Edinburgh, for 2s 6d. This is not the case, as the last time I visited Messrs. J. & R. Glen they had not a copy in stock! To question No. 4 Dr. Bannatyne says that in the preface of my latest book, “The Royal Collection of Piobaireachd,” I say the MacCrimmon sol-fa notation is superior to the present day notation. I asked this question at him, not at myself. He has taken my answer to the question. For question No. 5, Dr. Bannatyne says vowels are sounds, and consonants are grace-notes.

He says vowels are sounds or large notes, but he does not say what name the notes have, or how the student could make them out–the same with grace-notes. To No. 6 Dr. Bannatyne says the tune he sent me privately was No. 7 in Capt. Macleod’s book. I cannot lay my hand on the copy meantime, but anyone could copy a tune from a book which is written before his eyes and yet be quite ignorant of it. Dr. Bannatyne’s answer to question No. 7 is: “The MacCrimmon canntaireachd is dead.” What is clearer than this?

Dr. Bannatyne says I am not competent to judge the power of his intellect or memory, while perhaps I may be permitted to draw attention to the fact that he considers himself capable of judging me. Dr. Bannatyne says that he will undertake to memorise any known pipe tune in a quarter of an hour by means of canntaireachd. I say that he never will, though he lives 1000 years, but the place and date for a test may be arranged. Before this challenge of Dr. Bannatyne’s is of any use, he will have to play any pipe tune in existence in a quarter of an hour, as well as to hum or chanted it over in a meaningless jargon. He has laid himself open to an examination, and therefore I alone must be his judge. Dr. Bannatyne says he mastered Curwen’s system of sol-fa notation in three days. Fifteen minutes is only a 288th part of three days.

Regarding Mr. MacLean, who Dr. Bannatyne has drawn into the matter and says that he mastered Macleod’s book of notation in an hour, and that I am not entitled to generalise regarding Mr. MacLean’s ability or memory, I am as much entitled to challenge this as Dr. Bannatyne is to make the statement.

Dr. Bannatyne says that I write saying the MacCrimmon notation was ingenious and mysterious. From the MacCrimmon tunes handed down to us a staff notation, I have every right and no hesitation in saying that the MacCrimmon notation was not only ingenious but perfect, and yet it is mysterious to Dr. Bannatyne, as he has not said or proved that he knows or understands it.

The MacCrimmon tunes which we have now were handed down to us from one decade to the other by means of one piper fingering the tunes to another–thus the tunes were preserved by musical sounds produced on the chanter quite independent of any system of notation. Piobaireachd was chanted in the time of the MacCrimmons in their own notation, called canntaireachd, and from its perfect and beautiful form, I am quite justified in saying that it was ingenious, and as Dr. Bannatyne says it is dead himself, it is therefore now a mysterious system to him and all in existence. Dr. Bannatyne says “the once mysterious hieroglyphics on the tombs of the East yielded their secrets to earnest students.”

In the Egyptian hieroglyphics their meaning was discovered by the fact that some words were expressed in Greek characters, and thus a key was furnished to the mystery of the hieroglyphics. It is almost certain that the mystery would never have been discovered were it not for the Greek inscriptions, but Dr. Bannatyne has furnished no proof that he has found any part of the MacCrimmon notation expressed either in sol-fa or the present-day staff notation. If this be considered strict, then all I can say is that it is the only logical reply which I can give to Dr. Bannatyne’s comparison, seeing that he started the question of hieroglyphics. The Egyptian hieroglyphics contained their own alphabet as a secret for over two thousand years, and probably would not have been discovered yet, were it not for the accident of inscriptions in other languages, which furnished a key. Therefore until some of the MacCrimmon notation be discovered in staff and sol-fa notation, note for note and side-by-side, they will ever remain a secret and a mystery.

Finally, Dr. Bannatyne seems very anxious that I should test his abilities in canntaireachd. This, as I have already said, I cannot do by argument, or through the medium of this valuable paper, but personally and in his presence. Many years ago I possessed a copy of Macleod of Gesto’s book of canntaireachd, and it is open to any student. Piobaireachd can only be conveyed to the ear instrumentally by means of the Great Highland Bagpipe, and be the notation in whatever format likes, it does not alter the actual performance and sound or melody of the tune when played on the pipes.

Dr. Bannatyne’s letter contains a puzzle for solution by some of your readers who are interested in canntaireachd or piobaireachd, viz.: He says “‘the MacCrimmon canntaireachd is dead,’ but all the pipers he knows use a sol-fa system of notation of their own.” Now what has to be solved is: Seeing that we all use sol-fa notations of our own just as Dr. Bannatyne does, how is it that he is the only man who has fathomed or hit on the real MacCrimmon secrets, especially in view of the fact that he says the MacCrimmon canntaireachd is dead? This places us all on an equal footing; and he says: “If Capt. Macleod’s Collection is the real MacCrimmon verbal notation.” Dr. Bannatyne has no proof whether Capt. Macleod’s Collection is the real MacCrimmon notation or not by the use of the word “if.” Canntaireachd was once clear and simple and the lifetime of the great MacCrimmons, but up till now it remains a mystery to the most ardent student in piobaireachd.–I am, etc.,

John Grant