Letters to the Press

The Oban Times, a weekly newspaper published in Oban, Scotland since 1861, was well-known in the early 20th century as the pre-eminent forum for the discussion of topics relating to the Great Highland Bagpipe. Contributors to the weekly “Correspondence” section (i.e., “Letters to the Editor”) often quarreled with each other with a tone they probably would not have used if standing face to face. In that respect, their collective writings come across as early examples of some e-mail threads today! John Grant himself has been singled out by some as the worst offender in this regard. In his book The Highland Pipe and Scottish Society 1750-1950, William Donaldson wrote:

He was often dogmatic, long winded, and rude, and his main value lay in his knack of irritating people more musically aware than himself into correspondence. (p. 341)

Although there is some truth to this it doesn’t paint the whole picture. Lots of other writers were just as guilty of the faults Donaldson describes. In the early 20th century these bagpipers and students of piping were concerned about major changes taking place in their “world,” and they weren’t going to allow them to take place without a fight. It is no wonder their exchanges sometimes came across as brutal. There were several broad topics that correspondents discussed in the years Grant was most active. I have collected, I believe, all of these letters, and will post them on this page as I complete transcribing them. Not only do they make interesting reading, but they also allow us to see just what “bugged” the piping world during these years, and who got the last word in the arguments.  In addition to these letters, I have also included some from other newspapers that Grant clipped and saved. These newspapers are: The Edinburgh Evening Dispatch [ED] The Edinburgh Evening News [EN] The Northern Scotsman [NS] The People’s Journal [PJ] and The Weekly Scotsman [WS]. I would like to express my debt of gratitude to the staff at the main office of the Oban Times, especially Stella at the front desk, whose kindness and jovial disposition made my week there so memorable.

Addendum: Since commencing the task of transcribing the letters of the “Correspondence” Section of the Oban Times as they relate to bagpiping, I have decided to broaden my task by including other interesting articles dealing with the music of the Gael.  From time to time contributors provided the poetry of Gaelic songs for publication in the Oban Times, written in the sol-fa method created by the English Congregationalist minister and music pedagogue Rev. John Curwen.  I will provide a modern musical transcription of these along with any explanatory text offered by the contributor.  I will include the suffix [Mus] following the titles that contain my transcriptions for easy reference.  Many thanks to William Lamb, editor of Keith Norman MacDonald’s “Puirt-à-Beul: The Vocal Dance Music of the Scottish Gaels” and Taigh na Teud (www.Scotlandsmusic.com) for permission to quote his English translations of the contributions made by Dr. MacDonald.




The Scale of the Highland Bagpipe Chanter

The correct pitch of the bagpipe chanter was a huge concern among pipers and lovers of the bagpipe. Apparently no two chanter makers used the same scale, nor were interested in complying with a standard. Compounded by the capriciousness of reeds, bagpipers were left with such diverse intonations as to make unisons among two or more pipers impossible. The discussion, beginning in November 1906, continued until July 1907, with one lone Australian addition bringing up the rear the following November.





The Piobaireachd Society’s First Series, Part 4

When Part 4 of The Piobaireachd Society’s first Series appeared in print, the sides were clearly drawn for those for and against the Society’s work. John Grant (Mal Dhonn) was on the side of the Society, with John MacLennan the chief antagonist.

Charles Bannatyne stirred up a hornets nest when he dared propose the beginning of “The Scottish Pipers’ Union,” which some saw as an affront to the Piobaireachd Society and the Scottish Pipers’ Society.


The Great Highland Bagpipe and its Music

Beginning with “Ardrishaig”‘s inquiry on the history of the bagpipes, John Grant entered into a free-for-all with Charles Bannatyne over the matter that lasted until June. Other contributors weighed in on one side or the other.

Captain MacLeod of Gesto a Piping Authority on Canntaireachd?

Did Captain MacLeod of Gesto have THE system of Canntaireachd passed down from the MacCrimmons, or was it a fabrication in an attempt to provide a modern means of communicating their “secrets?” John Grant takes on all comers as he protests that the MacCrimmon method has long died and the Gesto method is made up. Once again, the gloves come off in the battle of the pens!! It gets nasty!!


The Piobaireachd Society’s First Series, Part 5

Rather than wait for John MacLennan’s anticipated diatribe against the new edition, Grant took the upper hand and published his favorable review first. He had no idea that MacLennan’s would appear immediately following his in the same 27 July 1912 Oban Times. The two parried for several months before the Gesto Canntaireachd controversy once again reared its ugly head.




Gaelic Song and Piobaireachd

Beginning with the 26 June 1915 “Oban Times,” John Grant took a Mr. Calum MacPharlain to task for comments the latter made concerning the influence of Gaelic Song on the Bagpipes. Several individuals entered the discussion, and Grant was his usual adamant self. The discussion then veered away into the topic of what key(s) the chanter played in. Grant insisted the only key possible was A Major, while everyone else postulated that several other keys were possible.











The Redundant “A” Controversy

Beginning with the following letter, a war of words developed between those for and those opposed to actually playing the extra “A” Angus MacKay and others included in the printed Toarluath and Crunluath in their published collections of piobaireachd. The two main combatants were William (Willie) Gray and John Grant. For a good accounting of the controversy, see William Donaldson’s “The Highland Pipe and Scottish Society 1750-1950.”






The MacCrimmon Memorial

An un-authored proposal is made to erect a monument to the MacCrimmons in Boreraig, Skye. Dedicated in August 1933, the erection of the cairn elicited opinions about its construction and dedication. Meanwhile, the Redundant “A” controversy continued to smoulder.