OT: 13 July 1912 – K.N. MacDonald “Captain MacLeod of Gesto As a Piping Authority”

The Oban Times, 13 July, 1912

Captain MacLeod of Gesto As a Piping Authority

21 Clarendon Crescent, Edinburgh, 6 July, 1912

Sir,–in the recent controversy on Capt. Neil MacLeod of Gesto’s book of Canntaireachd, published in 1828, the main points at issue were the following:–

First–Did Capt, MacLeod possess sufficient knowledge of the bagpipes and the syllabic notation practised by the MacCrimmons to produce such a work, and was his work accurate?

Second–Did he, or was he able to, play the pipes himself–for if he was it would cut the grass from the feet of his traducers, and did he teach others?

All these questions can be answered very effectually in the affirmative. After some search among relatives and others, the unanimous voice of those consulted was that he was considered a well-known authority on pipe music. Some said he was a good player on the violin, and was a strict disciplinarian in superintending his daughter playing on the piano, as of their friends who came to Gesto. He had such a fine ear for music that he could not bear to hear a false note, and he let the fact be known among his friends. Others said that he could tune the pipes better than his piper, and taught his own four sons and two others as well. Besides these, he taught his own daughter Jessie to play pibrochs, Marches, and laments on the piano by illustrating them on the chanter or pipes; and it is in connection with this daughter of Gesto’s that I have got absolute proof that he not only was an authority on pipe music, but that he also played the instrument, which, of course, proves his competency for the task which he undertook.

Miss Jessie MacLeod–my aunt–was a splendid player of pipe music, far and away the best in Skye. She could play “A Ghlas Mheur,” and many other pibrochs, taught by her father. Miss Mary McEwen, a great-granddaughter of Gesto’s, who lived with this Miss Jessie MacLeod for some years up to the time of her death in 1882, writes me as follows:–” I am very pleased to answer all your questions, and only wish I could remember more of what I heard ‘Aunt Jessie’ say about her father and his music. I used to visit her very often at Caroline Hill (on the Skeabost estate, Skye), and lived with her for some years until her death. When she told me about her father having taught her to play these lovely pibrochs, she mentioned how cross he used to get if she struck a wrong note on the piano, and how patiently he would play it over on the chanter or pipes. She also often told me that he played the bagpipes for her, and was always pleased to play them. Aunt Jessie played the piano a great deal after her accident, and it was during that time she talked so much about the old times, and would say that she never knew such an authority on pipe music as her father. I think Gesto did keep a piper. At least she spoke of an elderly man who played at their dinner parties, and he was taught by Gesto.”

Now, in the absence of Gesto himself, his daughter Jessie, and John MacCrimmon, the above seems to me to amount to absolute proof that Capt. MacLeod of Gesto was the most competent person living in his time to produce the Canntaireachd of 1828. When to that is added the evidence of Mr. Simon Fraser, Australia, adduced by Dr. Bannatyne, and that of the old man in Dundee mentioned by Lieut. MacLennan, both of whom knew Gesto, and heard him play, the evidence is overwhelmingly in favour of Gesto in his work, and the truth and accuracy of the same. Those who can interpret the notation Gesto’s book have got all that is necessary of the MacCrimmon’ secret of pibroch playing, and those who can not, do not possess the secret, however much they may think they do, and do themselves more harm than good by throwing mud at the name of an undoubted and acknowledged authority on the subject.

Gesto’s book of Canntaireachd is the only one of its kind in existence, and it must not be allowed to be driven off the face of the earth as the work of an incompetent hand. It should be treasured as our strathspey music and the great Highland bagpipe itself are, being the absolute property of the Highlanders alone. No other race of people in the world can produce anything exactly similar to them or so characteristic of a musical nation and its folklore. Consequently they should be conserved and fostered as much as possible, and handed on to our successors as he found them. I would suggest a new edition of the Canntaireachd, with the MacCrimmon notation on one page and the interpreted music in staff notation opposite. This would preserve it as long as music lasted.

I am pleased to have been instrumental in bringing all these facts concerning the Canntaireachd to the notice of all true lovers of pipe music, and to have settled a question which might have been kept open for an indefinite period of time through inaccuracies and falsehoods being transmitted to future generations, and it is to be hoped that the truth now revealed will stay the hands of all irresponsible interlopers for all time coming.–I am, etc.,

K. N. MacDonald