OT: 15 June 1912 – K.N. MacDonald

The Oban Times 15 June, 1912

21 Clarendon Crescent, Edinburgh, 8 June, 1912

Sir,–Judging from Mr. John Grant last letter in your issue of the 8th inst., he is like one having “eyes to see and cannot see.” He has got his own notions on the above subject, which amount to a sort of monomania; and, like Rachel in the wilderness, he is not be comforted.

Accusing his opponents of ignorance is not the highest form of inductive reasoning, and when he imputes incapacity he wavers still further from the perpendicular. What will archaeologists say 500 years hence on reading these letters from “The Oban Times”? If I “don’t know anything whatever about the MacCrimmon sol-fa notation,” all I can say is that I find amongst my papers two of Gesto’s pibrochs noted by myself in staff notation; and they read and sound well. He certainly errs in asserting that I can’t play the pipes. It is now 65 years since I first tried the chanter–first with straws for reeds and holes made with red-hot umbrella wires, and from that onwards and since the forties of the last century I have listened to the finest of pipe music, first from Sandy Bruce, of Glenelg (one of Gesto’s pupils), and often from many others; and though I spent some time in foreign lands, I never forgot the glorious “piob mhor.” When I last lived in Skye I had a full-size pipe, a reel pipe, a bellows pipe, and a miniature pipe, and I could play them all, and taught a pupil who is now a splendid piper. I intended enclosing a photograph of him playing at the mouth of the cave at Harlosh, in Skye, but cannot lay my hands upon it at this moment. I have, moreover, four violins, a violoncello, and a phantom fiddle; I could play the flute, and to Jewish harps or trumps, at the same time, with the “ludags.”

Now, since I have got proof that Gesto taught Sandy Bruce his pibroch, and four of his own sons, viz., John, Norman, Donald, and Kenneth, the natural inference, in the absence of absolute proof, is that he must have taught these pupils not from the violin entirely, but from the chanter, illustrating the “canntaireachd” as he went along. No young pupil could at once played “I hin ho dro ho” without some illustration. I may also tell Mr. John Grant that I have often seen people dance to the “puirt a beul,” and to the music of the comb covered over with paper on one side, so that so far as Highland music is concerned, I know it as well as need be; and I know also the Captain MacLeod, Gesto, knew pipe music thoroughly, and what he wrote down in his book of “canntaireachd” was exactly what came from John MacCrimmon’s mouth and nothing else.

It is an insult to an honourable man’s memory to say that he deliberately wrote down any material of his own separate from what John MacCrimmon recited to him, and what John MacCrimmon recited was what his forebears practised. There was no occasion to hide anything. People were more honest in these days than they are at the present day, so Mr. Grant need not break his heart over the subject. If there is anything lost it is that the pibrochs have not been noted properly. I quite agree with Dr. Bannatyne that the people who could compose pibrochs are dead long ago. I composed one, but can’t lay my hands on it amongst thousands of papers.

Mr. Grant still harps on tunes No. 3 and No. 18 in Gesto’s book, but declines to give his five syllables instead of seven syllables. I gave the first line of the “Crun-luath” of No. 3 to a headmaster of a school, an M. A., And he says “8, 7, 8, 7″ syllables. I make out seven syllables in each, but the M. A. says–” but properly there are four accents in each, the hio and the hien being taken as one, with the accent on ‘o’ and the ‘en.’” Now we should like to see Mr. Grant’s five syllables and proof that the seven are wrong. Dr. Bannatyne has answered his query about No. 18 in Gesto’s book rather effectively; so it is unnecessary for me to improve upon the opinion of such a competent player as Dr. Bannatyne.

Perhaps the unkindest cut of all is the following;–” in February, 1880, Ross, the Duke of Argyll’s piper, who learned tunes orally in Ross-Shire, from the chanting of John McKenzie, who was Lord Breadalbane’s piper, and a pupil of the Skye school, read the book of 1828 (Gesto’s), and played from it at sight,” and found no fault with it. He was musically bilingual. Now, if the famous John Ban Mackenzie, who was taught in the MacCrimmon school, or Ross, his pupil, could read MacLeod’s book “at sight” and made no deprecating comments about any of the tunes, we are bound to conclude that he and the book of 1828 were right and in the proper style of the MacCrimmon playing, and that Mr. Grant is hopelessly wrong and under a cloud!–I am, etc.,

K. N. MacDonald