OT: 5 March 1921 – Malcolm MacInnes “Piobaireachd and Canntaireachd”

The Oban Times, 5 March, 1921


Piobaireachd and Canntaireachd


P. O. Box 1135, Johannesburg, 27 January, 1921

Sir,–This discussion has lapsed into irrelevancies. Dr. Bannatyne, in the course of his efforts to make canntaireachd a complete vehicle for conveying pipe music, quoted J. F. Campbell, and gave a wrong derivation of the word. He also connected the word “meomhair” (memory, brains, genius) with a word “meoir,” alleged to be the plural of the word “meur” (finger), without explaining why the alleged connection is found only in the plural. It would appear that Dr. Bannatyne has abandoned Campbell on these points.

I should never think of suggesting that “meoir” has not been seen as well as heard. It is the form in the Bible, and Mackenzie has it in his “Beauties” at least twice, and in reference to piping. Mary MacLeod, the poetess of Skye, is made to refer to the fingers of Patrick Mor MacCrimmon as “meoir Phadruig”; and MacKinnon, in the “Dubh-Ghleannach,” in the course of an excellent description of good piping, is made to speak of “meoir grinn.” As regards the Bible, I can only say that I presume the form “meoir” might be Irish, but that a Johannesburg Irishman, who is proud of his knowledge of Gaelic, assures me that “meoir” is not known to him. As regards the other two cases, I suggest that the collector of the songs may have been influenced by the Bible. In the “Dubh-Ghleannach” our local version (besides some other differences where I consider our rendering much better than the “Beauties”), “meur bhinn.” What the exigencies of rhythm may account for, it is hard to say. I agree that “meur” is a particularly nasty word to handle. Though no speaker of Gaelic will have any hesitation in saying, “Tha mo mheoirean fuar” (my fingers are cold), or in rejecting “Tha mo mheoir fuar,” I think I present an apple of discord when I ask a translation for “I lost the point of the finger” (“Chaill mi barr na–?”).

Dr. Bannatyne said, “the word comes from ‘can oran,’ to sing a song. It has another name, ‘meoghair,’ a sound related to ‘meur,’ a finger. Here we have memory associated with singing and fingers.” He now says that “meoghair” is meant to be a sound in the truestic sense in which every part of speech–including the word “silence”–is a sound. This is so, but it would seem to spoil the reasoning, even though fallacious–if reasoning there was.

As regards the other irrelevancy, “can oran,” I say that no speaker of Gaelic ever said, “can oran” for sing a song. “Seinn oran” may be permissible, but it smacks of English–literal translation. The Gaelic idiom is “gabh oran.” Could Do’null Drobhair of Lochalsh (apostrophising the Elysian fields where dwelt his sweetheart, and where drank and sang the hefty Highlanders) have said “A’ cantainn oran ‘s bhiodh stop an urr’ aca.” He said, “A gabhail oran.” And even here there is evidence of inflectional decay, for the collector writes “orain” instead of “oran,” the genitive plural.

I have never met the word canntaireachd as a living word among the people, and I have not met anyone who has. We have, of course, the word “cainntireachd,” which means anything from a sgeulachd (telling of tales) to “gearradaireachd) or “gearradh cainnte” (combats of wit). Where Neil MacLeod got it, and what he meant by it, it is, of course, impossible to say, but it Mr. Simon Fraser (Australia) is a speaker of Gaelic, or is sure of the accuracy of his ear, it seems to me that his word is the right one for the main subject of discussion. He calls it “seanntaireachd,” which would be that Gaelicised form of the word “chanting”–nearer in fact than “sionnsair” or “seannsair” is to its original–chanter. On this theory the word “canntaireachd” was manufactured by someone who thought he was putting matters right, as has happened in the case of the spelling of some words in English, and somewhat as J.F. Campbell try to do with “meoir” and “meomhair.” As regards references to dictionaries and grammars, these were compiled mostly, if not entirely, by scholars whose birth and circumstances made it impossible that they should know the language as spoken in its purity by the people, and it is on this language that dictionaries and grammars are based.

Gesto uses “o” for note C and note B (the living voice being the indicator of the pitch). Dr. Bannatyne, in “dururaw,” alters this, and he puts “aw” for B and “o” for C (when anyone with an year would puts “o” for B and “aw” for C). He has altered Gesto’s “botrie” to “bitri,” and when challenged he states that “both are used by Gesto and have separate meanings. [“] To this I wish to reply that I have gone carefully through Gesto, and have failed to find one “bitri.” A friend has done the same, with the same result. The Dr. Mike state where they are and what they represent. In his “Big Spree,” he puts “hio” for EC and “hovi” for CE; and for FC he puts “heo,” and for EF “hive.” This, as regards E and F, is the reverse of Gesto and of tolerable onomatopoeia and mimiery (making, of course, the legitimate assumption that “i” is sounded like “ee” in “fee,” and “e” like “ay” in “hay.” When pipers chant E and F they cannot help making them sound “ay” (e) and “ee” (i) respectively, e.g. (Madelina Sinclair). Hi hayrachim harrachim haburray hiri. And this is just what is done by Gesto in “Ishabel Mackay,” which he begins “I hirerine ho botrie (E)” “Hiarerla ha botri (F),” and “Kiaunidize” (Ceann na diese (ear)), which I read as “The Earl of Ross,” “I him botrao hievio va,” where “evio va” is–what any piper would guess–E F B D (a note for each vowel).

As regards Dr. Bannatyne’s “dururaw,” where does he find that I called this a cadence? I described it as the closed running D and C grace notes on the B; and I think that any piper would understand the movements from that description, though not perfect. It is the second beat in the last bar of Mather’s Strathspey “Duniquoich.” I call it “bubudo”–Harrachim bubudo harrachim boro. Dr. Bannatyne calls it a tripling. It would be a tripling on the low G if the B also were made a grace note. There is no third of a kind–nothing tripled.

It should be made known also that Gesto uses “a” (sounded “ah”) for D and for C in the same tune–as any piper would do with the voice, and that “hien,” which Dr. Bannatyne uses for the fairly long E A beginning “The Big Spree” is a frequent form for the A with G grace note beginning subhal, etc., On the A, e.g., “hiendan” (“dan” being the short second part of the beat A with E grace note). And yet this is called a system!

Presumably in support of his contentions as to written chanting, he supplies what he calls a floating form of “MacLeod’s Lament” sent him un-named. Unless great minds think alike than has been believed hitherto, this bit of canntaireachd is mine. An enthusiast wrote me for some grounds as I would chant them, and I sent him this one. Of its intermediate history I know nothing.–I am, etc.,

Malcolm MacInnes