OT: 27 July 1912 – Fionn “Captain Neil MacLeod’s Book of Canntaireachd”

The Oban Times, 27 July, 1912

Captain Neil MacLeod’s Book of Canntaireachd

Glasgow, 22 July, 1912

Sir,–In your issue of last Saturday, Mr. John Grant, in a postscript to his letter, makes reference to my work “The Martial Music of the Clams,” published in 1904, and inquires on what authority I stated in that work that Captain MacLeod of Gesto did not play the pipes.

I am glad to be able to give my authority for the statement, and as the question at issue is of considerable importance perhaps you will allow me space to refer to one or two things regarding Gesto’s Book of Canntaireachd.

This book was first published in 1828 for Captain N. MacLeod of Gesto, by Lawrie & Coy., Edinburgh. It has since been reprinted and published by Messrs. J. & R. Glen, Edinburgh. A copy of the first edition came into possession of the late J. F. Campbell of Islay in January, 1880, and in that year he wrote some notes on Canntaireachd, and had a tune out of Gesto’s work transliterated into notation, and it is there printed with the Canntaireachd syllables underneath the notes. Copies of J. F. Campbell’s pamphlet can still be had from his publisher, Archibald Sinclair, 47 Waterloo Street, Glasgow.

About that time the clan historian, the late Alexander Mackenzie, Inverness, was collecting material for his “History of the MacLeod’s,” which was published in 1889. On page 193 of that History I read:–

“Captain Neil MacLeod (Gesto) was a great authority on pipe music, and although he could not play the bagpipes himself, he knew almost all the ‘piobaireachds’ ever composed, as well as their origin and history. In 1828 he published a small book containing twenty ‘piobaireachds’ to illustrate the MacCrimmon system of pipe music notation, known as ‘Canntaireachd.’ The curious book is now very rare, but there is a copy of it in the library of the Gaelic Society of Inverness, presented by the late Rev. Alexander McGregor, himself an excellent piper, and personally acquainted for many years with the author of the book. Curiously enough, it was only in 1880 that the late J. F. Campbell of Islay, cared[?] to know for the first time about the MacCrimmon notation and Gesto’s book, though the Rev. Mr. MacGregor delivered a paper in which he gave specimens from it eight years before, on 24th October, 1872, before the Gaelic Society of Inverness; and this paper was afterwards published in the Society’s Transactions for that year. . . . Knowing the Rev. Mr. MacGregor to be intimately acquainted with the ‘Canntaireachd’ notation, the booklet, and its author, we called his attention to Mr. Campbell’s pamphlet, requesting at the same time that he should supply us with a brief statement of what he knew of the whole subject. Mr. MacGregor’s reply is of special interest to all connected with the MacLeod’s of Gesto, and deserves to be given in a sketch of that family. This is done now exactly as it reached us. The rev. Gentleman writes:

My dear Ceilteach,–I was in Edinburgh during the winters of 1831, 1832, 1834, and 1835, and almost all these years old Captain Neil MacLeod of Gesto, in Skye, resided in Edinburgh. . . . During the day he was seldom or never absent from the Advocate’s Library, and I have heard it said that he even passed several nights there, having more than once been accidentally shut in at the close of the day. . . . . He was a tall, gaunt, thin-faced man, with long nose, grey hair, white hat, tartan trousers and plaid. He was known as the ‘Parliament House Ghost,’ and at times the ‘Advocates’ Library Ghost,’ as he frequented these places day and night. I saw him daily, or almost so. He was crazy about ‘piobaireachd,’ but did not play himself. He knew, I believe, almost every ‘piobaireachd’ in existence–their name, their composers, their origin, and the causes for composing them. When strolling to and from the Advocates’ Library, 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, while his father then also alive, was upwards of 100) play ‘piobaireachds’ to him, all of which he himself could articulate with his pliant lips in the MacCrimmon noting style. He had a large manuscript 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. Other parts were evidently more modern, and on different paper. Donald Ban MacCrimmon, who was killed at the rout of Moy the day before the Battle of Culloden, was (Gesto said) one of the best of the MacCrimmon performers; but the best of them all was Padruig Mor MacCrimmon.

For many ages these pipers noted down there ‘piobaireachds,’ and Padruig Mor had a daughter who was very expert at noting, and could play herself when asked as a favour to do so. I should think that the manuscript I saw with him would contain upwards of two hundred ‘piobaireachds,’ from the bulk of it; and out of that manuscript he selected twenty or so, which he published as specimens. The MacArthurs, pipers to the Clan MacDonald of the Isles, noted their ‘piobaireachd’ also, but with different vocables. Gesto had one very old looking leaf of their noting, on which the vocables appeared very faint, but I did not look much at it.

Gesto told me that the vowels, a, e, i, o, u, where the roots of the syllabic notes. The vowel i (pronounced it is in Gaelic and Latin, ee) was the root or index of the highest note on the chanter, and u the lowest, and o the next lowest, and then a and e represented the middle notes in 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. I could easily fancy that it would be a very simple matter to fix on syllables or vocables to represent every bar in pipe music, as it is such regular music in its construction. Any piper of any knowledge who can play the ‘urlar’ of the tune, and also the first ‘siubhal,’ can easily play the ‘taobhluth’ and the ‘crunluath.’ If you give yourself the noting of the first ‘siubhal’ of any piobaireachd, I could easily note down all the other variations, should I have never heard nor seen that ‘piobaireachd’ before. This regularity in pipe music renders it an easy matter to frame syllables for the ‘urlar’ and for the first ‘siubhal,’ or variation; and if you have that on some fixed principle, it is easy to add the rest.

This is all I have to say on the subject of the ‘Brochan Ileach,’ and it is enough, my dear ‘Ceilteach.’–Yours, gu dileas,

(Signed) Alasdair Ruadh

1 September, 1880.”

I may add that “Alasdair Ruadh” was the Rev. Alexander MacGregor’s pen name in “Gael” and the “Celtic Magazine.”

Your readers will now see that I did not make the statement which appears in my “Martial Music of the Clans” without good authority. Hoping you will excuse the length of this communication–I am, etc.,