OT: 7 December 1912 – K.N. MacDonald “Capt. MacLeod’s Collection of Piobaireachd”

The Oban Times, 7 December, 1912

Capt. MacLeod’s Collection of Piobaireachd

21 Clarendon Crescent, Edinburgh, 30 November, 1912

Sir,–the above work being now “sub-judice,” must be taken as it stands. It is a mistake to think that a pibroch must have 17 variations besides the “urlar.” Donald Mor MacCrimmon–and he should have known–has only four variations in “Iomarbhardh Mhicleoid” (MacLeod’s Controversy), composed of 1603. The number of variations depends on the will of the composer, as will be seen in the above pibroch and in “Fingal’s Victory at the Carron,” 211 A.D. No one would listen to 17 variations of a second-class or even a first-class composition. They are altogether unnecessary.

On the cover of the Gesto book of 1828, the following title appears–” A Collection of Piobaireachd or Pipe Tunes, as verbally taught by the MacCrimmon Pipers in the Isle of Skye, to their apprentices. Now published as taken from John MacCrimmon, piper to the old Laird of MacLeod and his grandson, the late General MacLeod of MacLeod, in the hope that these ancient relics may be thus preserving for future generations,” etc. Now, if the succeeding generations did not take them up, that was not his fault but the fault of those who did not, or could not interpret them. In the face of the above, how can anyone say that Gesto was deliberately deceiving the public by passing off jargon of his own as MacCrimmon notation?

What ever they are, he did not invent them. He simply wrote them down from his own original knowledge of the system and to John MacCrimmon’s dictation, and what John MacCrimmon had was what he learned from his predecessors, and it is well the tunes have been preserved for they will now be handed down to succeeding generations for all time, just as they are and as the MacCrimmons left them. Of that there need be no doubt.

I would like to ask who inspired or authorised your correspondent, Mr. John Grant, to search into secrets–and dogmatise upon them–that were never divulged except in Gesto’s book of 1828? Mr. Simon Fraser, who knows the system well and can play by it, says that Gesto’s book is absolutely correct, and the “genuine old MacCrimmon notation.” It strikes me that Mr. Grant jumps at imaginary straws when he says that “Fionn’s” letter of the 22nd July “proves beyond all doubt that Gesto could not play the pipes.” It does nothing of the kind. What the Rev. Mr. Macgregor (“Alastair Ruadh”) said in his letter to Mackenzie, the historian (“The Clach”), was–”He was crazy about piobaireachd, but did not play himself.” There is a vast difference between “could not play” and “did not play.”

Gesto was an old man in 1831 to 1835, when “Alastair Ruadh” knew him, and before that time he had given up playing, as he wrote to Mr. Simon Fraser’s father in 1828 that he had ceased playing. Mackenzie says he “could not play the bagpipe himself,” but Mackenzie was an inaccurate historian, and made a hash of more than one family in his histories. He says that Gesto knew almost all the “piobaireachd” ever composed, as well as their origin and history, which, of course, he learned from “Alastair Ruadh,” who also says, “he knew, I believe, almost every piobaireachd in existence, their names, their composers, their origin, and the causes for composing them.” How anyone can do that and carry a bundle of 200 pibrochs about him and sit for hours with an old piper repeating some of them in the MacCrimmon notation, and yet not be able to play, is beyond one’s comprehension, and borders upon the absurd.

Against it we have the evidence of Gesto’s own daughter, Jessie, who told Miss McEwan, a living witness, that he had great pleasure in playing for her and taught her the “Glass Mheur,” which Mrs. McEwan, another living witness, heard her play, and now the news which comes from Australia–without any collusion–that “Gesto excelled in heavy tunes such as the ‘Glas Mheur,’ ‘Sir William Wallace’s Lament,’ ‘Cumha na Cloinne,’ and many others,” is, to say the least of it, exceedingly remarkable. Anyone who could stand up and play with John Bane Mackenzie, who was taught by the MacCrimmon notation and afterwards was piper to Lord Breadalbane, must not only have been able to play, but [was], as Mr. Simon Fraser says, “a splendid piper.” “Alastair Ruadh” is also in accurate in saying that Gesto lost his case (which is incorrect), and that he was ruined and ultimately rented a cottage in the village of Stein–all of which is wrong.

I happen to have a copy of his will, in which he describes himself as a “Captain on half pay, with rank in the Army, of Gesto Place, in the village of Stein, consisting of seven houses on a certain extent of land, as by charter obtained by me from the British Society for extending the fisheries and improving the sea coasts of Scotland, dated London, June 28, 1827.” Another instance of “The Clach’s” accuracy and that of his henchman, “Alastair Ruadh!”

But I am not done with “Alastair” yet. He also omitted to mention that Gesto was a poet, as in his own “Life of Flora MacDonald, the Heroine,” he attributes a poem entitled “Farewell to Skye,” to Gesto. There was one good point about “Alastair Ruadh,” however. He was clever, and believed thoroughly in the poems of Ossian, which Gaelic scholars of much Fiedler capacity do not believe.

Arguing and bothering about a subject that one knows very little is like beating the air and quoting from histories which are far from being true records is like sailing on the ocean without a compass and getting amongst the breakers as a necessary consequence.

The next act of the drama will be the promulgation of the MacCrimmon secrets to the world, and he who doubts that let him “wait and see.”–I am, etc.,

K. N. MacDonald