OT: 12 January 1929 – Malcolm MacInnes “Noting in Pibroch”

The Oban Times, 12 January 1929

Noting in Pibroch

Ostaig, Isle of Skye, 27 December, 1928

Sir,–I am pleased to see that Mr. A. K. Cameron still writes with vigour; and I wish him the compliments of the season in far Montana. As he is yet accessible to the means of grace, I am making one more effort for his salvation.

The argument is, shortly, whether the toorla movements is gdgeA or gdgAeA (excepting, of course, the toorla on low G, which cannot be done in this manner for the want of a sixth finger). The pipers, the new books and myself, hold that the first is and always has been the correct fingering: Mr. Cameron and a few others support the second. I think it is correct to say that they used to base their case mainly, if not entirely, on the old books, but that they claimed tradition when it was pointed out that the old books were not written by the old pipers, but by music theorists to whom the pipers played. Their claim to tradition is totally unsupported. Mr. Simon Fraser I dealt with some years ago. I still have his letter to myself. He actually wrote that Captain MacLeod of Gesto’s canntaireachd deliberately misled, and that he himself was in possession of the genuine vocables.

One ought to be convinced that the new noting is correct, since it is played by all the pipers, and since Angus Macpherson writes that he got that style from the fingers and the chanting of a man (presumably his own father or grandfather) who got it from the fingers and chanting of Angus Mackay. That the old pipers knew little about theory is plain from what their shining lights left in the way of manuscript. It is mostly a matter of putting down a sequence of untimed notes, and leaving the reader to construct his own tune. And the problem is further tangled when a second person times the tune wrongly and publishes it without disclosing the full facts. This is the case, for instance, with the Big Spree; at least it would explain the utter impossibility of the style accepted by Thomason and the Piobaireachd Society.

Some years ago, when I knew the tune only in Thomason, I wrote that the initial EA are merely introductory notes, and that the first the is on the C. naturally, I am glad to see in the P.S. book that this is the style of one of the MSS. this does make a tune:–

Hayum bah: bubudo: ahum: bay ah, ha
Hay o: brah hay: ho: brobun.

The style attributed to Angus Mackay is impossible; and this alone ought to render valueless all old noting, when it conflicts with tradition, or, I venture to add, with what is musical and rhythmical.

In my last letter I drew attention to what should be conclusive as to the noting of toorla, namely: that in every case it’s rhythm corresponds to what can only be three syllables–three low G’s (separated, of course by a grace note); and I gave illustrations from the Prince’s Salute and the Finger Lock. Mr. Fraser, instead of dealing with this, runs away into the very different question of the styles of the tunes. When I say that the two A’s dislocate the rhythm, he asks me if there are not to A’s in the toorla on low G. Of course there are; and I am not aware that anyone has ever written it otherwise. But is it not wonderful that Mr. Cameron, when looking at the low G toorla, and listening to it, cannot see that its rhythm is altogether different from his own style of the toorla on the other notes, while it is practically the same as the rhythm of the new noting? Incidentally, I may say that I would not disapprove of playing below G toorla as G.GA (instead of G.A A). It was simply be a difference of style–not a fundamental difference involving dislocation of rhythm. I can’t even say that the good players emphasise the first G so much that it is difficult to say that the second syllable is not a G.

This brings me back to the question of the two A’s; and I have no hesitation in saying that the man who, when the point is being watched, thinks that a competent player is playing an A before the jump onto the final A off the E grace note, is musically deaf. It is a very marked rattling and crunching of low G’s with D grace between—gdgeA. The C toorla (hahm-burum) three syllables are Cg, dg, eA.

But though the rattle of a syllable between the toorla note and the final A ought to be the heaviest low G, in practice it certainly is not in every case. One must be playing at his very best to get it. It frequently becomes (in the case of C) CdgeA, CgdAeA, and even CdAeA. All these produce the necessary musical quantity, and to the eye the fingers do the same round movement; but the timing of the little finger and the first finger (gdg) is wrong. I go as far as to say that the writing of the two A’s is responsible for much of this bad production, for the first note and two A’s fill up the time, they are easier to do than the low G work and the one A, and a full low G work cannot be done along with them without dislocation of rhythm. Personally, I attach very much importance to the proper production of the round movement–the low G’s to be just long enough; but, if I may judge by some decisions at competitions, the taste of people in authority is different.

As against Mr. Cameron, I maintain, and it cannot be denied, that to A’s coming after the full gdg dislocate the rhythm, and as against some of our best pipers and judges, I submit that the full gdg grip is better than a part of it supplemented by an A. Mr. Cameron says that I spoke of the syllables in the theme of the Finger Lock. I did not. I said there were three syllables in the beats of the toorla, and proved it by pointing out that they were placed to correspond in quantity to what could only be three syllables, namely, three low G’s, separated by grace notes.

Mr. Cameron professes to have a MacCrimmon system of chanting, and he uses it for the Finger Lock. He begins with “Hio.” I say deliberately that the man who chants the cadence of gEdB as “Hio” does not understand the rudiments of the pipers’ chanting. It ought to be “Hayaho” (or something like that.) “Hio” is nearly as inadequate as the Piobaireachd Society’s “dre” for “derere” of the croola. Gesto is frequently short in the croola, but only one syllable–“tiri” for “tiriri.” Of course, he was a pioneer, and was not writing for perfection–a thing for which the system was never intended.–I am, etc.

Malcolm MacInnes