OT: 11 May 1912 – John Grant “The Secrets of Canntaireachd”

The Oban Times, 11 May, 1912

The Secrets of Canntaireachd

42 Elmfield Avenue, Aberdeen

6 May, 1912

Sir,–It is my intention to take part in this controversy till it terminates. Unlike your correspondent Dr. Bannatyne, I am not dragged into the matter, and if he had nothing at stake he would not have written his letter of 29th April. I will repeat my statement: I can stand my ground with Dr. Bannatyne, and carry my point to the end without the aid of anyone. If Dr. Bannatyne is afraid to traverse the road that he has paved himself, let me lead him back to its source, so that we may survey its attitude. By doing so again I say I am the honourable sportsman, giving him and myself the chance. He has said that when John Grant is cornered, he finds refuge by changing his front–right-about-face–or bolting to the cover of a side issue. Dr. Bannatyne has made a cap for me, which, in the eyes of anyone who is possessed of ordinary reason, is not a good fit, and quite uncalled for.

Now, Sir, let me make one in return of the compliment. Even if I had changed my front–although this is a false accusation–that is nothing. I am always on the field, and if my prey flies about in the manner described by Dr. Bannatyne, that is not my fault; I must pursue. I have answered everything put to me in detail by your correspondent; he has not. He has not taken time to take a right-about-wheel, or face the front as he ought to, but turned to the rear, fled from the field, shut himself up in his stronghold, only coming out when my back has turned, so to speak.

May I ask who is the most honourable sportsman? Who has the beam in his eye, or who is capable of putting wrongs right? There being a beam in my opponent’s eye, I cannot look for him to clear out mine, as it is only natural that the beam in Dr. Bannatyne’s eye would reflect a shadow in the eyes of others.

Dr. Bannatyne published in your columns some years ago a lengthy article on the MacCrimmon verbal notation called canntaireachd. In it he gave a scale made up by himself from Captain Macleod of Gesto’s book of sol-fa notation; and he admits there that he got a clue to making up that scale, not from Macleod’s book itself, but from suggestions or explanations given him by men who knew nothing about canntaireachd whatever. What can the result be? Only imaginary, and the unsuccessful attempts of one man, to whom this notation is a mystery.

I also said in one of my letters that Mr. Simon Fraser, of Australia, had issued pamphlets or put into print the following statement, for which, perhaps Dr. Bannatyne was not directly responsible, viz., Mr. Fraser said Dr. Bannatyne and himself are the only two men living who know and understand the verbal notation of the MacCrimmons called canntaireachd. If Dr. Bannatyne did not accept this honour, or indirectly claim it, why did he not contradict Mr. Fraser’s statement? This is how the matter stands, a true explanation, and where Dr. Bannatyne made his claim–for it can be nothing else–to know the secrets of the MacCrimmon notation.

Dr. Bannatyne raised no point, he says, and so the onus of proof lies with me. Well then let us see: Dr. Bannatyne has published a scale which he says is the MacCrimmon scale, only under the shadow of Gesto’s book. Now he must prove that this was the scale used by the MacCrimmons–not me. Let me correct your correspondent’s statement. He states that I said there is no MacCrimmon notation. I never did. What I said was that there is no notation in sol-fa as used by the MacCrimmons, written by a MacCrimmons hand, in existence today.

Dr. Bannatyne says that I am traducing the honour and veracity of Macleod of Gesto, who published a book of what he said was the MacCrimmon notation called canntaireachd, and asks whether Captain Macleod or John Grant is to be believed. With all due honour and respect for the dead, who cannot answer for themselves now, I have no intention to do anything but deal with the Gesto Collection on its merits. If I were to publish a book in Greek and say that it was English, and died shortly after, would a master of the English language just say that it was English because I was dead, and not able to answer for myself? Not likely; And I would not expect him to do so.

Captain Macleod published a book of what he said was the MacCrimmon sol-fa notation called canntaireachd. This is no proof that it was so. Macleod of Gesto was not a piper even, and what happened is that Macleod published tunes in a notation that may resemble the MacCrimmons style of canntaireachd, but I have no hesitation in saying that it is not based on a scientific principle, and that his book contains no fixed scale, whereas the MacCrimmon verbal notation must have had a scientific foundation and a perfect scale; that is proved by the form of their tunes handed down to us. I have Macleod’s book of music which he calls the MacCrimmon Canntaireachd, and I can study it and place the tunes alongside the present-day staff notation, just the same as Dr. Bannatyne, and I could make up a scale from it that would not be the real MacCrimmon scale.

The matter really stands the us: Dr. Bannatyne has made up a scale as best he can from Macleod’s book, but it is his alone–not MacCrimmon’s. Your correspondent may say that Macleod had a personal acquaintance with the MacCrimmons if he may, but to say that he had an expert knowledge of their music is perfect nonsense. How could a man have a perfect knowledge of any music when he cannot play it? One may have a portion of the knowledge of music and yet not play it, but before he can have an expert knowledge of it he must be able to play it, and this is where Macleod and Dr. Bannatyne err.

Now we come to a nut, and let us crack it when it is ripe and within our grasp. Dr. Bannatyne says: “Mr. Grant has neither an acquaintance with the MacCrimmons nor an expert knowledge of their music.” I am sorry that fate has separated me from a great piping race as regards personal acquaintance with them; but I have a more expert knowledge of their music than Macleod of Gesto ever had, or Dr. Bannatyne ever will have. I will let the dead rest, but if Dr. Bannatyne can put anything to me that I cannot answer regarding the MacCrimmon music, I will give him credit for more than I can in the meantime.

Dr. Bannatyne says he possesses both editions of my publications of original piobaireachd, and I am glad to hear it, for it is more than I can say about him. He has written not a little about his canntaireachd, but he has not printed a note of it in book form, or brought it back to use. What he has written has passed on and is forgotten, while my efforts are smiling fragrantly before the eyes of those who possess them. I may inform Dr. Bannatyne that success has only one meaning. I published an issue of 500 in the first edition, of which only a few remain in stock. Two years later I published a second edition of 500 copies, containing 21 original tunes, and nearly 300 copies have been sold. That is part of my success. The book lies in the pipers’ musical repository all over the world–India, Africa, New Zealand, Australia, America, and so on; and I have received, and possess in black and white, many congratulatory letters of praise on reviving the composition and publication of a lost art. I have been requested to compose piobaireachd more than once by Highland noblemen, and commanded to appear in the presence of nobles of highest rank in Britain to play my compositions. What does this point to but success and appreciation in the highest sense?

Still Dr. Bannatyne, who has never given us an original note of piobaireachd, says:–”But Mr. Grant’s tunes do not resemble the form of the 300 and odd pibrochs which have descended to us from the old masters of the art.” I challenged Dr. Bannatyne to point to me where they do not resemble the form of the pibrochs of the old masters of the art. It is peculiar that when Dr. Bannatyne acknowledge receipt of the first edition to me he was highly satisfied with the forms of them all, and congratulated me on their fine melody. How can a man who has never composed a piobaireachd in his life challenge or find fault with another who has composed and given him in printed form over a score of them?

I have never lessened the honour attached to the masters of old. I uphold their achievements in the highest sense of the word. I am to protect their masterpieces, which I have inherited, from degradation by unskilled masters who may tamper with them today, and uphold without fear the composition, cultivation, publication and preservation of the ancient art of piobaireachd, which up till now no one else has done.–I am, etc.,

John Grant,

Author of the Royal Collection of Piobaireachd.