OT: 14 June 1924 – Malcolm MacInnes – “Canntaireachd System of Notation”


The Oban Times, 14 June, 1924

Canntaireachd System of Notation

Johannesburg, South Africa, 25 April, 1924

Sir,–It has been claimed that there existed in Skye over 300 years ago a complete system of notation for pipe tunes made up of combinations and permutations of the English vowels to represent each of the nine main notes of the chanter, and of consonants to represent the grace-notes. It is not known how the Skyemen got their knowledge of the English alphabet, or to what other use it was put.

Though the vowels were short of the number of the main notes of the chanter, and had to be manipulated, the consonants were ample for the grace-notes; but when the grace-notes became complex (sometimes as many as seven following in succession), it was an entirely different matter.

This system, like others, has more exceptions than examples; and so it is not surprising that the illustration quoted by your recent correspondent is in this plight. The illustration is the ground of “Kilchrist”:–

Hindo hodro, hindo, hodro,
Hindo hodro, hindo, hodra,
Hindo, hodro, hindo hindrie,
Hindo hodro, hindo hindrin.

In the sixteen beats given, “hin” occurs four times for note G, four times for A, and twice for something else, probably B or an EA grace-note jump to the high G (hindrie). The H is G grace, I is both main G and main A, and the n is nothing. Hodro has only five letters, but represent six notes g b g d g b. The last note quoted (rin) is curious from the point of view of the rule that consonants represent grace-notes. Here is a grace-note (n) finishing the piece–a physical and musical impossibility. The explanation is that the art of playing a grace-note without its subsequent note (the note grace) died with the MacCrimmons.

It may be thought strange that the great discovery should have been made by people other than Skyemen, especially seeing that there are still in Skye piper descendants of the MacCrimmons and of McLeod of Gesto, as well as many other pipers, and that the traditions of the pipers are perfectly complete so far as the methods of teaching are concerned. The answer is that familiarity breeds contempt, that prophets have no honour in their own country, and that distance gives a broader view, as well as safety.

A more serious objection is that on the view taken by pipers, Gesto’s work is perfectly complete. It makes no claim to be, and it is not, a complete system of notation. Canntaireachd is simply pipers’ chanting, with the additional assistance that the vocables are anomatopoeic [sic], that is, that each vocable roughly represents in its sound, the sound produced on the chanter by the note represented. Thus, roughly, the low notes are represented by broad vowels and the high by small. A, B, C, E, A (doh, ray, me, soh, doh) are um, o, ah, aye, ee. The consonants represent, though very roughly and inadequately, the grace-notes, which divide and embellish the main notes. In teaching “Donald Doo” for instance, the teacher would first show the fingering, and then he would sing:–

Hay habbra hahmbum
Hay habbra hohmbum

This, without the living voice, is of course unintelligible to those who do not know the tune and are not pipers; but pipers might make something of it even as it is, without the showing of pitch or time. I remember the way Calum MacPherson chanted “Raasay’s Salute”:–

Humbayo bahbrabun
Tahayaho brobbun

I also remember that one of his last pupils had frequent difficulty as regards grace-notes, though he remember the chant. There was no rigid uniformity; that was not necessary. But the discoverers of the complete system of pipe notation meet all these facts by the simple method of denial, and the repetition of the theory. I am, etc.,

Malcolm MacInnes