OT: 20 March 1915 – John Grant “Gesto and the MacCrimmon Notation”

The Oban Times, 20 March, 1915

Gesto and the MacCrimmon Notation

Edinburgh, 15 March, 1915

Sir,–In your issue of last week, Mr. L. Bruce has now taken up the subject and says that I still persist in saying that Gesto is not a piper. Yes, Sir, and will do so as long as his friends persist in saying that he was a piper.

There are only two points at issue in this correspondence–Was Gesto a piper? and Is Gesto’s booklet of 1828 the genuine MacCrimmon sol-fa notation, better known as Canntaireachd? As a matter of fact neither of these two questions is of any importance, or makes any difference to the piping world or piobaireachd at the present day. This, however, will not help us out of the difficulty or be a satisfactory means of ending the controversy which has arisen out of the above questions, therefore further explanation is necessary.

If Mr. Simon Fraser, Mr. L. Bruce, and any of their friends would admit frankly that Neil MacLeod of Gesto was a lover of piobaireachd, and wrote down to a considerable extent what he thought was piobaireachd in the MacCrimmons sol-fa notation; but because he was not a piper the tunes in the 1828 booklet are so irregular that to play them as they are would be enough to put piobaireachd playing out of existence for the next thousand years–making this admission, then, the correspondence on the subject will drop, and we may all shake hands and go on our ways rejoicing.

This apparently your correspondents will not do, so we must, with your permission, so on until some of the sides give in. The late Mr. Henry Whyte (“Fionn)”, in his “Martial Music of the Clans,” says:–”He (Gesto) was a great authority on pipe music, and although he could not play the bagpipes himself, or” etc., etc.

Before his death Mr. Henry Whyte proved his statement to be true by furnishing through your columns sometime ago a statement to the effect that he could also prove that the late Rev. Alex. MacGregor, Inverness, who was himself a piper, knew Gesto, and said that he (Gesto) could not play the pipes.

Now, Sir, I believe this statement to be truth, and I know people myself, natives of the “Misty Isle,” who have even heard their forefathers say that Gesto was not a piper.

As regards what is in Gesto’s book of 1828, if there were no more tunes or any other form of notation for pipe music that it, our pipe would have been silent some hundred years ago and more. No one living has ever learned a piobaireachd from it, and it only contains 20 tunes, which works out strictly at 6.666666, or 6.6 repeater of the piobaireachd to be found in “Ceòl Mòr.” Thus we prove that as the tunes are seriously irregular in form, the book is valueless to the piper.

This may not satisfy your correspondent, but he can answer the following questions at his leisure, if he is a piper:–

Why does Gesto give in tunes Nos. III and IV in his book variations headed Crunluath Mach, and write Crunluath Breabach variations below it?

Why does Gesto give a Crunluath Breabach in a tune that has not nor can have a Crunluath Breabach? (See tune No. III.)

If he were to play tune No. XII, what would it be like? Certainly not a piobaireachd. The nearest illustration which I can get it is that it would be very like singing the first bar of “Scots wha ha’e” sixteen times.

Your correspondent says that from my letters he can see that I know nothing about the MacCrimmon sol-fa notation. I tell the truth about what I know. I have never seen the MacCrimmon sol-fa notation, and neither has your correspondent. He is labouring under a delusion if he thinks that I am ignorant of what Gesto’s book and his notation is. I know it sufficiently to be able to say that it is utterly useless as pipe music.

If we were to revere the dead, perhaps all concerned should stick to the truth. Let all examine themselves to see if they are capable of being able to tell if Gesto’s work is regular or irregular, of use or of no use. Gesto has not said that he could play the pipes–it is only his friends who have said it for him.

While there is the immortal Gesto there are also the immortal MacCrimmons. Your correspondents have attempted, but in vain, to claim for Gesto what the great masters of Boreraig did not claim for themselves. Gesto may have had a love for canntaireachd and an inspiration to be able to transmit to future generations this mysterious sol-fa notation; but nevertheless the masters of Boreraig sleep in the silent tomb, with their secrets of the art in the bosom of the cold earth that has long since enveloped their stately forms. Honour to whom honour is due; let us honour the masters first. The MacCrimmons have proven themselves to be so, but this cannot be said of Gesto.

This can be clearly seen in your correspondent’s statement in the conclusion of his letter, where he says:–”If this controversy was going on 30 or 40 years ago, it would be quite easy to prove that Gesto could play the pipes.” Here we have a clear confession that it has not yet been proven that Gesto was a piper.”–I am, etc.,

John Grant