OT: 25 May 1912 – John Grant “The Secrets of Canntaireachd”

The Secrets of Canntaireachd

42 Elmfield Avenue, Aberdeen

26 May, 1912

Sir,–In your last issue I see Dr. K. N. MacDonald has been brought into this controversy by kinship ties. I am very sorry if I should give offense to the Doctor, who has done more for Highland arts and customs than many who are alive today. I quite believe every word Dr. MacDonald says regarding Captain Macleod of Gesto’s love for piobaireachd, but I have already said I must deal with the Gesto book of canntaireachd on its merits.

The question of knowledge of the MacCrimmon music arose thus: Dr. Bannatyne said that Captain Macleod of Gesto had an expert knowledge of the MacCrimmon music, and that I had not. In my last letter I said that I had a more expert knowledge of the MacCrimmon music than ever Captain Macleod had, or ever Dr. Bannatyne will have. Dr. MacDonald asks me how I can prove this. Dr. MacDonald must have misread the statement. The MacCrimmon music is piobaireachd. Their sol-fa is only their form of notation. Now I am quite prepared to show and prove my knowledge in the art of piobaireachd to be greater than either of the two I have mentioned. If either of your correspondents can put any question to me regarding it that I cannot answer then they may say my knowledge of the MacCrimmon music is less than that of those whom I have challenged.

Dr. Bannatyne says in the same issue: “it may not serve any good purpose to pursue this controversy further, seeing so much extraneous matter is being introduced; but it is my earnest wish that Mr. Grant should be given every legitimate chance of adding to his knowledge both in controversy and piobaireachd.” “So much extraneous matter”; yes, matter that Dr. Bannatyne could not contradict. “Adding to Mr. Grant’s knowledge in controversy and piobaireachd.” I am sorry to say that I have got no tips in either art from your correspondent. His knowledge has added none whatever to mind, but perhaps the best way will be to allow your readers to settle this for themselves. Dr. Bannatyne says I try, but in vain, to get away from my statement which I made that he was one of the two men living who knew and understood the real MacCrimmon scale and secrets of their sol-fa notation, and that I cannot answer this. If he can read, surely I have answered this question at least a dozen times already; but to satisfy him I will do so again. Mr. Simon Fraser said, and in public print, that Dr. Bannatyne and himself were the only two men living who knew all the MacCrimmon sol-fa notation secrets. Dr. Bannatyne did not contradict this; therefore it was a claim on Dr. Bannatyne’s part, which he has not proved.

The real MacCrimmon died long before Capt. Macleod was born. John MacCrimmon, who lived in his time, was not a shadow of the great race of his forefathers, who came hundreds of years before him thus the MacCrimmon secrets are also dead to this world forever, unless some very great surprise dawns upon us, and in the “misty Isle of Skye” some MS. written by a MacCrimmons hand it may turn, with their scale and tunes written on it.

In the preface to the second edition of “The Royal Collection of Piobaireachd,” I give the sol-fa notation of the MacCrimmons the very highest place, because it was the casket it which the jewels were preserved, and I am quite justified in doing so. The real MacCrimmon sol-fa notation must have been perfect, because from the instrumental performance of that old sol-fa notation the greatest masterpieces of the MacCrimmons have been handed down to us perfect in form, which proves that the real MacCrimmon sol-fa had a perfect scale and a perfect form.

Dr. Bannatyne says Captain Macleod had a collection of nearly two hundred tune; this has been often written, but never proved. All that we can say with safety, from what we have seen, is that he had twenty-one, and to say that some of the two hundred were written by Patrick Mor is nonsense, and Dr. Bannatyne cannot prove such to be the case–nor no other men living. Dr. Bannatyne says he published a key to the MacCrimmon sol-fa notation, whether right or wrong. Yes, he did, and right so far as his method of sol-fa notation is concerned, but certainly wrong in pure imagination so far as the real sol-fa notation of the MacCrimmons is concerned. Further, he says his scale turns Captain Macleod’s canntaireachd into music. Should it not be that it turns Macleod’s examples of the MacCrimmon canntaireachd into music? Macleod never had canntaireachd. If Macleod gave the notation of the MacCrimmons as they noted and played it, it would not require to be turned to music by means of the scale from Dr. Bannatyne. It should be in musical form without that, and would require this no more than the staff notation being turned into music. The staff notation becomes music perfectly when played, without the aid of anyone. So was, and must, the MacCrimmon sol-fa notation; but Macleod’s examples are practically useless as far as music is concerned.

Dr. Bannatyne made up a key arrived at by the hints and helps of others, and he will see this admission in his findings on canntaireachd, published in “The Oban Times” of a few years ago, in the words as they actually did appear in the paper:

The writer (Dr. Bannatyne) believes that he was the first in recent years to point out that piobaireachd has a fixed structure, that each part of that structure has a definite Gaelic name, which not only denotes the form but mode of playing it. In addition to these facts, it was demonstrated to the writer (Dr. Bannatyne), by means of an MS. piobaireachd, which belonged to John Dall Mackay, by Lieut. MacLennan, of Edinburgh, that when the old pipers began first to write music, towards the end of the 18th century, they wrote on a nine line stave, each line representing a note of the chanter; and further, that they designated each part by the definitive names before referred to. In these facts, the writer (Dr. Bannatyne) found his way to the discovery of the secrets of canntaireachd.

No credit is due to Dr. Bannatyne or anyone for pointing out the piobaireachd has got a fixed structure, etc., as he has said heretofore. This is staring any intelligent piper in the face by studying the music of piobaireachd. The rest of the quotation is an admission of the fact that the aid of Lieut. MacLennan, Edinburgh, was the chief factor in the production of an imaginative MacCrimmon sol-fa notation scale.

Not to speak of laying the Gesto book notation alongside the staff notation, for results, let us see what a minute study of the Gesto book notation says, viz.: Take tune No. 3 at crunluath, mach, or last part. In this example there are seven syllables in each movement or group of notes, whereas there should only be five syllables. What explanation does Dr. Bannatyne or Dr. K. N. MacDonald give for this? Can such nonsense be a correct notation, based on a scientific principle, such as the real MacCrimmon sol-fa notation must have been? One other reference will suffice meantime, viz.: Take tune No. 18 at the crunluath and its doubling–is there any resemblance between the two? There should be no difference in the syllables or notes in the singling and the doubling, except where in the singling the long or the notes are converted into crunluath movements. That is to say, with the exception of about six movements in the singling of the crunluath variation, which would have thirty-two movements or groups of notes altogether, the rest in the singling and doubling should be the same. In this tune referred to, in those variations not one of the movements or syllables agree. What do your correspondents say to this? Can such facts be blotted out, or can this notation be anything more than a stumbling block to Dr. Bannatyne, as well as to J. F. Campbell of Islay?

Your correspondent says that the greater part of my last letter was taken up in praise of myself–not so, but information which your correspondent asked for. Your correspondent has not failed in praise for himself. He has told us that he can memorise any known piobaireachd by means of canntaireachd in fifteen minutes, and that he can learn any one canntaireachd in half an hour. What is this but praise of himself? He cannot fulfill this. Dr. Bannatyne said my tunes were all very fine specimens of original piobaireachd, but now he turns around and says no; but this won’t hold good, for at his request I give here his letter from his own hand, viz.:

Salsburgh, by Holytown

5th May, 1908

Mr. John Grant,


DEAR SIR,–Your collection reached me this morning. It is nicely got up, and is a credit to both your originality and to your patriotism. You have struck a line all your own in the formation of many of your variations. Exception might be taken to some of them on the ground that they follow no law shown by the MacCrimmon tunes, but after all, this may be a matter which lies with the composer. On melodic grounds, no one can find fault with them.

I am pleased to note your large subscribers list.–I am, yours faithfully,


Surely there is nothing more true than this, and how Dr. Bannatyne turns round and changes his mind he can explain best himself. This is an unsolicited testimonial, and according to the Doctor’s verdict on my work in the recent issues of your valuable paper it proves that he is not a master of piobaireachd nor the judge of it.

Your correspondent goes on to say that it will soon be apparent to anyone who studies Mr. Grant’s works that the estimate of his knowledge to be derived from them is very much less flattering than his own estimate contained in your columns of last week. Whatever knowledge may be derived from my works, it remains with the critic to prove that he can do more, or prove or find any real fault with them. I must remind your correspondent that he is only one man, and others cannot fail to find my work to be only what I have prepared and published it for, viz., the revival of the composition of a lost and forgotten art. On the other hand, one cannot rely upon Dr. Bannatyne’s opinion; he is never in the same mind, as can be seen from his letter here produced, and he has given us none of his works piobaireachd to study, criticise, or prove his knowledge or skill.

Readers who have a love for piobaireachd, beware of imitations, and mark what Dr. Bannatyne says:

If any of your readers would like to become pibroch composers à la mode, here is a (Dr. Bannatyne’s) recipe. Take phrases and cadences from every known pibroch, write them down on separate slips, mix them up in a hat, then get somebody to draw them out separately, string them together as drawn, give them names, and print them, then pose. This is one method of composing; the other is born in a man. All the born pibroch composers are dead.

Now the reason why we have never had any original piobaireachd composed by Dr. Bannatyne is because he has used his own prescription or recipe, got disgusted, and now is a complete failure so far as composition of piobaireachd is concerned. By his recipe you will know him and his compositions, if ever they appear.

In conclusion, let me finish with a more important question: Can Dr. Bannatyne prove that the key he has published is the real MacCrimmon scale? If he had admitted to begin with that it was his own invention, not the MacCrimmons’, he might have been saved all this trouble.–I am, etc.,

John Grant