By Roderick Cannon

The piobaireachd MacCrimmon will Never Return is famous from the setting published in Angus MacKay’s book, and from the song which is still sung, both in Gaelic and in an English translation. But the oldest pipe setting we have is much less well known. It is one of four piobaireachd collected by the Rev. Patrick MacDonald, and published in his book, A Collection of Highland Vocal Airs (Edinburgh, 1784). In his preface, MacDonald said that he had taken the tunes from the playing of “an eminent performer” in Lochaber; but that not being a piper himself, he was unable to notate the grace notes. He had however taken the greatest care with the melody notes, and he felt that if any imperfections were later discovered in his transcriptions “they will not be thought very material, unless perhaps in the quick variations”. Even with these, he had “made as near an approach as he could to the notes that were expressed by the performer”.

MacCrimmon Will Never Return score
Ex. 1.

On examining the music we can certainly agree that the imperfections are “not very material”. There are a few errors in the melody notes, which may be misprints or may be errors on the part of the transcriber, but these are easily corrected by referring to the corresponding places in other variations, This can be done because the structure of the tune is quite a simple one, an example of the so-called ‘primary piobaireachd’. But it may not have seemed so simple to Patrick MacDonald, who was probably quite unfamiliar with the intricacies of piobaireachd composition, and this would account for the errors.

The gracenotes are easily supplied, since we have other versions of the same tune, and other piobaireachd of similar form to compare with. Looking first at the variation which I have marked VII, the arrangement of low A and low G triplets shows that this is a Taorluath Fosgailte or ‘tripling’ type of variation (hindaento hindaende, etc.), and part VI is the corresponding Siubhal. Turning back to the Ground and parts II-III, these are marked “Slow” and “A little quicker,” and most of the long E notes are preceded with gracenotes taken off the preceding note, i.e., B or D gracenotes. Evidently these represent ‘throws’ on E (dre), as in the Ground and Thumb variation of Angus MacKay’s version. Finally, parts IV-V have fewer grace- notes in the original, and may be transcribed with single gracenotes as in the Siubhal variation. There is no Crunluath variation, but the player is directed to repeat the Ground after variations III, V and VI.

MacCrimmon Will Never Return, Roddy Cannon transcription

A complete transcription into modern notation is shown in Ex.2. A Crunluath variation has been added along the lines of the Taorluath, and the directions to repeat the Ground have been omitted. The usual abbreviations for tripling and crunluath movements have been used.

The main problem in transcribing the tune is the placing of the bar lines. Again looking first at variations VI and VII we see that the first principal note is B, and in each case this is preceded by low A. MacDonald has placed the low A before the bar line, so that the down-beat falls on the B. As far as variation VII is concerned, this is probably a correct representation of what most good pipers would play, but the conventional modern practice is to put the low A after the bar, as shown in Ex. 2. In the case of variation VI, this is a Siubhal with long A’s and G’s and short melody notes, so again it is necessary to place the bars as shown in Ex. 2, and not as originally written by MacDonald.

In the earlier parts of the tune the bar lines present a different problem. In parts I-V inclusive, MacDonald draws the first bar line after the note B instead of just before it. In parts II-V, the notes preceding the bar are low A, B, matching the corresponding notes in the last two variations, but in the Ground the initial low A is missing. The result is that the Ground agrees in both melody and accent with the third variation of Angus MacKay’s setting. It also agrees with the accent of the opening words of the song:

Cha till, cha till, cha till mi tuille.

The unaccented word cha fits the unaccented note B, and the accented till fits the long note E. So MacDonald’s setting of the Ground is evidently correct, even though it does not line up with the Siubhal and Taorluath. The same kind of accent-shift has been noticed in other piobaireachd, for example, Weighing from Land, and The Glen is Mine. (See notes in the Piobaireachd Society books.)

In the transcription, Ex. 2, I have used MacDonald’s bar arrangement in the Ground and Thumb variations, but I have moved the bars in parts III-V to conform with parts VI and VII. The alternative would be to follow MacDonald’s arrangement in parts I-V inclusive. As always in these cases, the difference seems more important in theory than in actual practice.

Interpreted in this way, MacDonald’s setting is a clear and straightforward tune, with a strong melody, and variations different from Angus MacKay’s. Whether or not it is a better tune than MacKay’s is a point which could not be debated. But it has a distinct character and seems well worth playing in its own right.

Notes on example:

The melody notes marked with numbers appeared differently in the original, thus 1, low A; 2, D; 3, E; 4, low A; 5, low G; 6, D; 7, 8, 9, 10, low A.

• This article appeared in the April 1978 Piping Times.