OT: 12 February 1921 – Malcolm MacInnes “Piobaireachd and Piper Saints”

The Oban Times, 12 February, 1921

Piobaireachd and Piper Saints

 Johannesburg, S. A., 18 December, 1920

Sir, Mr. J. MacLennan, in a courageous and convincing introduction to his most valuable book, says, among other things that suggest a commendable intolerance of humbug “the pipers who survived the battle of Cologne not only kept the Pibroch among themselves, but were unfortunately unable to exhibit it in so mysterious a form as not only to impose on, but perplexed, the understanding of their pupils;” and then he goes on to quote authorities to show that the Pibroch had “neither time, rhythm, melody, cadence nor accents.” He states that this is also his own opinion of Pibroch as rendered by the best players of to-day.

That the opinion is correct requires no other proof than the attitude of every audience, Highland or non-Highland who find that, with some exceptions the ground is played with such lapses that they wonder what has become of the melody.

Mr. MacLennan makes another quotation which suggests Sheonaid Vore’s description of the Sunday prayer of the local elder “It begins, goes on, and ends no one knows when or how or where.” (Seonaid said, “Thug e ‘n sin iomradh air aimsir ‘s air bárr, ‘s air na gamhna, ‘s air a h-uile rud a thogair a fheir.”) And though it is true that this is an exaggeration, it is equally true that it is only an exaggeration, for the statements can be truthfully made of Pibroch as played by many.

I do not know what Mr. MacLennan’s authority is for the allegation of imposition: but I am inclined to agree with him as a matter of probability. MacPherson published for a gullible public, and as being as old as Ossian, poems clearly written for one who had read Virgil and Homer, and in quite modern Gaelic, whose idiom is frequently English, and whose source is frequently the dictionary. Just as spurious are some of our songs. The words of “Over the Sea to Skye” are not from the Gaelic, and there is nothing Gaelic about the music. “Loud the winds howl” is false. The author of “Sound the Pibroch” must have had little knowledge of the campaign of Prince Charlie when he spoke of the clans as crying their slogan “From John o’ Groat to Isle of Skye”–a tract of country which contributed but a few isolated stragglers.

The canntaireachd humbug is being tried on us even at the present day: while in the domain of the “collection” of chants and songs, going on recently, and now the greater and perhaps the better quantity is composed and written at the desk and the piano.

There is, therefore, room for a bold man who knows his business to challenge the so-called authorities and ask them to produce their credentials. Though Mr. MacLennan, unfortunately, called his book “The Piobaireachd As MacCrimmon Played It,” it should have been–”As MacCrimmon Ought to Have Played It”–he does not rely upon tradition. He relies upon the principles of music–coherent melody with rhythm and accent; and many hope that he will be spared long, and that he will find time to publish more and write a fuller introduction.

General Thomason, the compiler-editor of the monumental work, “Ceol Mor,” held the same views: and it seems a pity they did not collaborate, for two heads are better than one in arranging the best set of the tune, provided the heads are candid and not swollen. That each of these individually, notwithstanding much ability, required assistance, is obvious from the mistakes made–though the correctness of “Ceol Mor” is marvellous, considering the number of the tunes and the abbreviated system of notation. It is a minor point that in all the books of pipe music, the spelling of the Gaelic is atrocious, but it seems extraordinary that Thomason should not have got correct spelling when hundreds would have readily obliged him.

The C at the end of the second bar of the ground of “I got a kiss” is, of course only a misprint for B; but the mistake is unfortunate, and should have been easily prevented. The putting of an F and an E in the first bar of the siubhal and subsequent parts is a more serious business. It is very far from the run of the ground, which reserves the climax of the F to the fifth bar, the second last, and maintains the usual musical balance. Mr. MacLennan’s early introduction of the F is not justified by the ground, nor, in my opinion, is it justified on the score of musical effect: in fact, the effect is entirely spoiled, as the point should be as late as possible when you introduce the delightful yell of the F.

I do not think Mr. MacLennan can father the style on MacCrimmon. In “MacCrimmon’s Sweetheart,” MacLennan has at the last note of the second bar and the first note of the third bar, B and A, instead of the usual C and B. I hope this is a misprint; and I also hope that if so it will be corrected, as his authority would carry a much worse phrasing of notes. I notice, however, with humble satisfaction, that the cadence on the last notes of the bars of the third variation are put severely as demi-semis, without pandering to the drawling that is involved in noting the middle note as a semi-quaver.

I am forced to close abruptly, and in case I do not return, I will some up my opinions shortly. Pibroch is not popular, the reason is that so few tunes are played intelligibly. The reason for this is the slowness of playing, which is so extreme that rhythm is obliterated, length being given not only to the main notes, but to the passing notes. It is as if in singing “The Land of the Leal” one dwelt so long on the “We’re” that the audience could not distinguish it as any shorter than the subsequent first syllable of “wearin’.” This is due to too unquestioning a following of the masters, the canonised pipers, to playing what is supposed to please supposed authorities and judges, and to the extreme difficulty of producing Pibroch notes thoroughly as well as smartly. The pipers of to-day are as good as those of the past, and probably better; and there should be no more canonization, although this may be a bit rough on Dr. Bannatyne!

Rhythm and measurable time should be declared the first essential, with discretion as to pauses, but with a stern ban on the lengthening of passing notes. As regards competitions, the tunes should be published in ample time, and the same discretion allowed in the playing of them as in the case of other music. Living, moving and having one’s being in a particular tune produces wonderful results. The best style should be published by a competent committee, which should include musicians other than pipers.

I am, etc.,

Malcolm MacInnes