OT: 1 June 1912 – K.N. MacDonald “The Secrets of Canntaireachd”

The Oban Times, 1 June, 1912

The Secrets of Canntaireachd

21 Clarendon Crescent, Edinburgh, 25 May, 1912

Sir,–It strikes me that Mr. John Grant, of the Granite City, wastes a lot of ink and paper over imaginary lost secrets, and is so much engrossed in the verbosity of his own language that he lets his imagination–after the manner of the disciples of Aristophanes–soar like a bird into the unknown regions of space! He gives due credit to the works of the “mighty dead” on the one side, and denies them to the other side. Had it not been for Gesto’s book of canntaireachd, Mr. Grant’s work would not have been so well advertised as it has been, and he himself would not have known what he now professes. He will frighten all the pipers out of Aberdeen, as his townsmen have done to the Jews! There was nothing superhuman about the MacCrimmons; many pipers at the present day play just as well as they did. Of course, they were the princes of players in their own time, in the absence of competition, as is proved by the fact that pupils came to them from many parts of the country, and many of these pupils, in their turn, were the leaders of others; but that they had some great and surprising secret beyond the wit of man is exceedingly doubtful, or as the historians say, “involved in obscurity.”

Regarding the knowledge of the MacCrimmon music, or sol-fa notation, there can be no doubt that Captain MacLeod, Gesto, noted it down exactly as it was pronounced, and as John MacCrimmon uttered it, and there is nothing to show that he did not know it as his forebears did. He was the last of them employed at Dunvegan Castle by the Chief, and it is not likely that he hid anything from Gesto. Who was “the real MacCrimmon, who died long before Captain MacLeod was born,” and why was John MacCrimmon “not a shadow of the great race of his forefathers, who came hundreds of years before him?” No doubt some of his predecessors may have been greater pipers. Gesto held that Patrick Mor was the best of them, and he must have known as well in his day as Mr. Grant does of the present day, but as to a “lost secret that is dead to this world forever,” it may be allowed to rest there. If Mr. Grant has discovered it, he should take out a patent for it. On the other hand, if Dr. Bannatyne, Mr. Simon Fraser, and Lieut. MacLennan can interpret the Pibrochs in Gesto’s book, any Court would allow them to take out a patent also. No doubt the MacCrimmon notation was as perfect as it could be in the absence of staff notation, and that is, in all human probability, what John MacCrimmon had, and transmitted to posterity through Captain MacLeod of Gesto. The whole question can be very much simplified by sticking to the notation in Gesto’s book, and if other people can interpret that in staff notation to suit the notation in the canntaireachd, what does it matter about a supposed loss secret, which may or may not be true? Captain MacLeod did not write an autobiography of his life. Other fellows in the history, and in that history the Rev. Alexander McGregor, and in Gesto personally, says distinctly that “he had a large manuscript collection of the MacCrimmon piobaireachds as noted by themselves, and part of it was apparently very old and yellow in the paper from age,” etc. He does not say that he counted them, but states: “I should think that the MS. I saw with him would contain upwards of two hundred piobaireachds from the bulk of it, and out of that MS. he selected 20 or so, which he published as specimens.” Now it is quite clear that he had a quantity of MS. piobaireachds, noted by the MacCrimmons themselves, and there was nothing to prevent him from comparing these with John MacCrimmons sol-fa in picking up the great “secret,” if it existed.

Mr. Grant quotes the tune No. 3 in Gesto’s book at the “crunluath,” or finishing measure, and says “there are seven syllables in each movement, or group of notes, whereas there should only be five,” and asks Dr. Bannatyne and myself to explain. The first line of the last part referred to is: “hiodratatateriri,hodrotatateriri, hiendatatateriri, hodratatateriri.” (Headmasters of schools please note.) Will Mr. Grant please write out his syllables, each separate from the editor, that we may see what his divisions are for? I presume he considers the rest of the pibroch correct. This may throw some light on the subject. He minimises Captain MacLeod works very much, but he has no idea of the man he depreciates so freely. I have strong evidence that Gesto could play the pipes, and was an excellent performer on the violin, and a good disciplinarian he was. He used to accompany his daughters on the piano with the violin, and was very intolerant of false notes. The consequence was that all the young ladies who frequented Gesto were the best players in Skye. He taught Sandy Bruce of Glenelg his pibrochs, and others as well. One young man took an interest in I would say to him: “I won’t let you go till you do I hodroho, hodroho, harranin, hiechin, etc., properly.” He was the first to brought a piano in the carriage to Skye, and was all round a man of great action, and worthy of the race from whom he sprang.

K. N. MacDonald