OT: 12 July 1924 – J.D.R. Watt “Pibroch and Pat Mor System”

The Oban Times, July 12, 1924

Pibroch and Pat Mor System

East London, South Africa, June 3, 1924

Sir,–Having been asked by correspondents about the vowels in my tunes you published–”The Fathers Lament” and the “Tune in Memory of Neil McLeod of Gesto”–I have to say that the Sheantaireachdt was written in McLeod’s books by the MacCrimmons, as he got all his knowledge from them, and the New Notation or Perfect System (of Pat Mor) was in McLeod’s unpublished book. This is the style I used, “and I have no doubt that this latter is the style that would have still been used later on had the MacCrimmons and their pupils continued in the land teaching and composing and writing music.” The advantage of the “New System” or “Perfect System” is that each note has a separate vocable for it, with the exception of one or two which only come into use for the sake of liquid euphony.

I very much regret to note the passing of Dr. Bannatyne and Lieut. John McLennan, from whom I had theory lessons. It was Dr. Bannatyne who first put me on the track of finding the true system used by the Australian expert, Simon Frazer. I have all the Doctor’s notes by me, and I think he would have been a greater expert still had he followed Simon Frazer’s teaching.

One of the puzzles to sheantaireachdt students is the fact that certain beats seem to follow a method only known to the initiated; hence there can be no confusion. Time marks also existed different in different schools. It is to be hoped the system of the MacCrimmons will yet be printed, but human nature in the present, as in the past, dearly loves a secret. Some hold that sheantaireachdt is dead. I do not hold this idea. The soul of a tune and the soul of the composer are fully contained in the spoken words of the speaking chanter.

Differences in tunes arose because pibroch players who knew the tunes were unacquainted with staff notation, while staff notation players were unacquainted with the vocables. Meanwhile, staff notation is only a picture or skeleton of sounds requiring interpretation by the player, and the result is that there are considerable differences in interpretation.

I am glad to know that young players are taking up pibroch. It is to the MacCrimmons that we owe the original style of pibroch. They taught the MacArthurs, MacKays, Campbells, McIntyres, and others, but each of their pupils adapted styles of their own, and the original system would therefore have been lost had it not been for Neil McLeod of Gesto.

Some people go so far as to say that the various canntaireachdt styles very just as the dialects of different counties do. This is not so, for the MacCrimmon style is based upon English, though Gaelic speakers may have taught it.

I do not follow John McLennan’s style of grace notes at all; these are “off” the MacCrimmon vocables altogether as proved by the syllables of canntaireachd. A good many people seem to be under the impression that Mr. Simon Frazer, of Australia, invented the improved system of Pat Mor MacCrimmon. To admit this would be to make him more clever than the MacCrimmons themselves.

It is a very difficult matter to play properly from Gesto’s little printed book. It seems that Mr. Frazer is the last man living who can say that he was taught to play and learned from this book; and if pipers really understood this, help might be forthcoming to record all he knows pertaining to the great Masters. –I am, etc.,

J. D. R. Watt