OT: 2 August 1930 – A. MacKay “Controversy”

The Oban Times, 2 August, 1930


Cape Town, South Africa, 4 July, 1930

Sir,–A great deal has been written in your columns in recent years about and the correct method of playing certain taorludh movements.

The controversy arose, if I am not mistaken, from the fact that one of your correspondents noticed that Angus MacKay wrote the taorludh movement with three A’s and that evidently only two were being played by modern pipers. This was a case of putting the cart before the horse, as traditional methods must always take precedence in a matter like Piobaireachd, which has been handed down orally for centuries. No piper thinks of taking modern notation as an infallible guide to Piobaireachd playing. Played as it is written, it would be rather a sorry business.

It would facilitate matters if we remember that modern musical notation is comparatively a recent innovation in pipe music. The men who endeavoured to reduce it to modern notation did their best to convey the theme to paper, and the wonder is they did it so well. Admittedly the music suffered by being compressed and cut into junks to fit the bars and foot rule.

If we also bear in mind–which has already been pointed out by our correspondent–that MacDonald, who was one of the first to harness Piobaireachd to staff notation, also wrote his book for the pianoforte and had to use three A’s to denote the toarluadh movement for that instrument, it throws some light on the matter, as MacKay who wrote at a later date would be influenced by MacDonald’s system of notation.

One of your correspondents sites Gesto’s Canntaireachd book to prove his contention with regard to the taorludh movement, but after a life-time’s intermittent study of this book I would hesitate to be dogmatic as to how John MacCruimein played it, or if he played it at all as we know it. My impression is that he did not.

The matter of the three A’s in MacKay’s toarluadh was noticed over forty years ago to the writer’s knowledge, but was accounted for by the circumstances of the case, and no object would be served by making mountains out of very small molehills. MacKay himself did not play it as written, neither did any of his pupils, and I’m sure this can be borne out by some pipers living to-day.

Time and rhythm is a sure guide in musical matters, and if the so-called redundant A cannot be played in time or interferes with the emphasis on the theme note it is wrong in that particular movement.

Considering therefore the unreliability of written records let us have recourse to the traditional style of playing, which after all is the best and final tribunal. Pipers are nothing if not conservative in sticking to what they have been taught, and there must be men who know how it was played by MacKay’s pupils or those taught by MacKay’s pupils, such as the Camerons, for instance. Once that is ascertained let us agree to accept it as final.

Agreement on any subject, however, was never a characteristic of the Highlander–more’s the pity–and unfortunately we cannot settle the matter with the claymore nowadays!

May I say in passing that in the opinion of the best judges modern notation with bars is the curse of Gaelic music, vocal and instrumental, especially when rendered by those who have little knowledge of the rhythm of Gaelic poetry or of the language which gave it birth. The same holds true in Piobaireachd. It has suffered at the hands of well-meaning but not always competent enthusiasts.–I am, etc.,

A. MacKay