OT: 23 September 1911 – Simon Fraser

The Oban Times, 23 September, 1911

Sydney, 9 August, 1911

Sir,–In your valuable paper dated June 24th, I see a letter from Mr. John Grant, and with your kind permission I will reply to it.

As Mr. Grant does not suggest why Sheantaireachd was altered to Canntaireachd, I will call it by the latter term to please him. As I have abandoned the idea of publishing a book of piobaireachd only, I will give Mr. Grant some information that I have never mentioned to anyone outside my own family before. I kept this to myself purposely for my book, but on taking a tune to a printer he told me that special type would have to be made to print the tunes as I had written them. As Mr. Grant says he would like to see the old notation restored, I will explain how I came to be in possession of the MacCrimmon secrets. My great-grandfather (on my mother’s side), Charles Macarthur, was taught by Patrick Og MacCrimmon, and he taught my grandfather; and my mother being very fond of piobaireachd, he taught her how to read and sing the Canntaireachd. Charles Macarthur was a great favourite with Patrick Og, and he took great pains with him to make him not only a great piper, but also a composer.

In the year 1853 my mother commenced to teach me the Canntaireachd and the secrets of the MacCrimmons, and along with my father’s assistance they gave me not only the “casket,” but also several “jewels” that have never been published. My father, who was a relative of David Fraser, Lord Lovat’s piper, was born in July, 1796, and in the year 1812 he became acquainted with Neil MacLeod, Gesto, who introduced him to John MacCrimmon, and the two of them learnt the Canntaireachd from “John Dubh,” as he was generally called. Neil MacLeod, Gesto, was a fine player, and so was his son Norman MacLeod, who died in the year 1847. He played in my father’s house shortly before he died. My father knew John Bane Mackenzie well, and heard him play several times. Mr. Grant will now understand that I have my information from a very reliable source. The MacCrimmon secrets have been very useful to me, as they helped me to turn out the best pipers in Australia, my son being the present champion all-round player.

As to the ordinary notation, I started by playing the violin from it in 1860, and have used it ever since for that instrument, which I make as well as play. The first lessons I had upon it after learning the scales were strathspeys and reels, and I thought I was doing very well till I heard a Mr. John Smith, who had been playing in Edinburgh for 18 years. I had to learn all over again, for although I could play the notes in time, still the spirit, or “birr,” was not there. It is just the same with piobaireachd–there is a something in the playing which cannot be put on paper.

I would strongly advise Mr. Grant to read Abdy Williams’ “Story of Notation,” p. 218, where he says:–

Musical notation, however perfect, can never entirely represented composer’s meaning. Much must be left to the imagination of the performer, and only deep and prolonged study and experience can enable him to render the printed or written notes satisfactorily.

 This is only a portion of what Mr. Williams says about classical music, and as piobaireachd is the classical music of the pipes, these remarks can be applied to it also.

I may also mentioned that there are two different scales in the MacCrimmon notation–the old one, and the one perfected by Patrick Mhor on his return to Italy about the middle of the seventeenth century, and which was published in your columns some time ago by Dr. Bannatyne who, I may mention, has translated successfully any pieces I sent him.

The old scale is as follows:–

Hin hin ho ho ha hie hi hi hi or di dili  
G A B C D E F G A    
Di-u hi-n O Being used as E very often.  
A E F E                  

As MacLeod was a particular friend of my father’s, I do not wish to find fault with him further than this–that he should have put all the lines in, and written his 1828 book according to the proved scale of Patrick Mhor. The old scale, as will be seen, made one vocable to answer for two, and sometimes three, different notes. In “The Comely Tune” three lines are left out through the whole piece, which is very puzzling except to the expert the MacCrimmon music. I have two versions of this tune, and the verses in it are very interesting, and show what a clever man and deep thinker Patrick Mhor was.

In conclusion, I may say that I am not in the least annoyed at what Mr. Grant has written, as no doubt he thought I was inventing something of my own, and I can assure him that I shall be only too pleased to help anyone to restore the old notation, which I know to be perfect. The MacCrimmons were, as Mr. Grant says, very clever, and although others may try to imitate their system, there is no one as yet who has improved upon it. As my old and respected teacher used to say, “the new system may be all very well, but it does not show you how to play the tunes.”–I am, etc.,

Simon Fraser