OT 18 May 1912 – K.N. MacDonald “The Secrets of Canntaireachd”

The Oban Times, 18 May, 1912

The Secrets of Canntaireachd

21 Clarendon Crescent, Edinburgh

13 May, 1912

Sir,–In your issue of the fourth inst., Mr. John Grant, “author of the Royal Collection of Piobaireachd,” claims “more expert knowledge of the MacCrimmon verbal music than Macleod, Gesto, ever had.” How can he prove that, considering that he never met one of the famous MacCrimmons, and that Captain Neil Macleod of Gesto did, and noted their syllabic system of music from John MacCrimmons mouth?

Whatever else is, or may be true, there can be no doubt that pibrochs in Gesto’s book are exactly as delivered by John MacCrimmon to him. He was well qualified for the work. He was passionately fond of music, and of “piobaireachd” in particular. He knew almost every piobaireachd in existence, their names, their composers, their origin, and the causes for composing them.

My mother, who was a daughter of Captain Macleod, used to say that John MacCrimmon was very often at Gesto, and during the preparation of the book the pipes were heard late in the evening and in the early mornings; and, where such enthusiasts were concerned, every syllable must have been written down as uttered by MacCrimmon, and verified afterwards on the pipes.

If that was not the real “canntaireachd,” what was it? Is it likely that either Gesto or John MacCrimmon would let a line pass which was not accurately noted? His love of pipe music was so great that when in Edinburgh in the winters of 1831, 1832, and 1835 he very frequently called on and sat for hours with old John MacDonald, the father of Donald MacDonald, pipe-major to the Highland Society. He would make Donald (then about 80 years old, whose father was still alive and upwards of 100 years) play “piobaireachds” to him, all of which he himself would articulate with his pliant lips in the MacCrimmon noting style.

From this it is clear that he had a thorough knowledge of the MacCrimmon system as rendered by John MacCrimmon. He had, moreover, a large MS. collection of the MacCrimmon “piobaireachds” as noted by themselves, and part of it was apparently very old and yellow in the paper from age, with some of the writing getting dim. He had upwards of 200 “piobaireachds,” from which he selected 20 that he published as specimens, consisting of 43 pages–not 42 as mentioned by Campbell of Islay.

Gesto held that the vowels a, e, i, o, u, were the roots of the syllabic notes. The vowel “i” (pronounced as in Gaelic and Latin, ee) was the root or index of the highest note on the chanter, and the “u” the lowest, and “o” the next lowest, then “a” and “e” represented the middle notes of the chanter.

It was thus the case that such vocables as hi, tri, ti represented the high notes, and ho, hu the lowest. These they combined by rules of their own, as hio, hiao, hiuo, hi dro to hachin, hidrototatiti, hidrototutati, hidrototututi, hiodrotohachin.

Now the question is, did Macleod, Gesto, note correctly the syllables as other by John MacCrimmon? I believe he did and that he understood the system thoroughly; and he must have repeated every line to MacCrimmon and receive his approval before he published them. Of that we may feel absolutely certain, and whoever can interpret the syllabic music as it is noted in Macleod’s book can play as the MacCrimmons played.

Any heaven-born genius who may think he can do better, by all means let him do so, but it won’t be as the MacCrimmons played. In order to prove this, the candidates would have to undergo an examination on Captain Macleod’s book, as we have no other certain reference. Each would have to be taken into a separate room and asked to interpret a line like “I him hotrodin hiodro hietrieo hachin” or any other line; and if he did it correctly, naming the tune, he would have the MacCrimmon style. If, on the other hand, he failed, it is somebody else’s style he has got.

It would be very interesting to get specialists like Dr. Bannatyne, Dr. Fraser, Lieut. McClellan, Mr. Grant, and a representative of the Piobaireachd Society to display their skill at the interpretation of the “canntaireachd” as noted in Captain Macleod’s book, alias the MacCrimmon style of playing. I am, etc.,

K. N. MacDonald, M. D.