By John KS Frater
Major General Charles Simeon Thomason, one of the leading figures of the great Highland bagpipe, died on July 12, 1911. The first President of the Piobaireachd Society (PS), he had become quite an obscure figure until fellow Sapper and piper, Brian MacKenzie brought him to life for us 30 years ago by researching, writing and talking about him. Thomason’s system of classification of piobaireachd and his method of presenting the music on paper, laid the foundation for virtually all subsequent publications of ceòl mòr, notably the Piobaireachd Society series and the Kilberry book. His approach provided the big music with musically coherent scores for the first time.
Put simply, modern day piobaireachd music looks the way it does because of General Thomason’s work and ideas. In July the Piobaireachd Society commemorated the centenary of his death with a short service at his graveside followed by a lunch and a celebration of his life and his contribution to ceòl mòr.
Charles Thomason was born in Bengal, where both sides of his family had served. Once beyond infancy, which was spent in India, he saw little of his parents. His mother died when he was six years old and he spent the rest of his childhood, adolescence and early adult life in Britain, while his father continued to work in India.
Crucially, from a piping perspective, Charles grew up at Wester Elchies, the home of his maternal grandparents, at Aberlour, Speyside. It was to grandfather, William Grant, that Donald MacDonald entrusted his manuscript, once he had abandoned hope of publishing a second book. It is that manuscript that is the basis and focus of the recent PS publication.
Thomason trained in England as an Army Engineer then returned to India where he had a distinguished career in the Bengal Engineers. His time on the sub-continent was not without significant adventure. He survived the Indian Mutiny by having the good luck to be ill in hospital, when his colleagues were massacred. He saw military action at the Siege of Delhi, disguising himself so that he could survey the walls at close quarters. He survived, astonishingly, though within rifle range of the defenders.
His monumental work, Ceòl Mòr, compiled over many years, appears to have been at least the catalyst, if not the main stimulus for the formation of the Piobaireachd Society. We see in the introduction that he “very soon came to the conclusion that the piobaireachd was the music of poetry and not of prose …” He suggested that piobaireachd, like poetry, has metre and, with his format and its derivative, the subsequent PS style, the music has a matching visual representation on the page.
An important feature of his book was his comprehensive system of abbreviations. While these were primarily a practical solution to producing a sensibly sized book, their value went beyond this. By clearing the clutter of gracenotes (think of all those crunluaths written in full in previous scores). Thomason revealed the structure of tunes, and he was the first to analyse in A, B etc phrases.
There are also some very contemporary resonances in Thomason’s approach to piping, his anxieties about the pitch of chanters for one. He bemoaned chanter pitch rising to suit bands; he challenged the view that it is not possible to produce playable scores for piobaireachd; he was concerned about the lack of musical performances of piobaireachd; he advocated development of synthetic reeds or at least using materials less affected by moisture – he himself had chanter reeds in India made from bone.
At noon on July 12, 2011 a small band of enthusiasts, gathered at Inverallan Cemetery, on the bank of the River Spey. We were delighted to be joined by George Dixon, the archivist who helped Brian MacKenzie with his research into the General’s life. Piobaireachd Society President, Jack Taylor welcomed us and Piobaireachd Society member, the Reverend Leslie Barrett, led a short service, opening with Isaiah 30:29, (a rare mention of piping in the bible). In his eulogy he told us about the soldier, patriot and musician, who in his latter years was typically to be found with pipe, baccy, two bibles (one English, one Gaelic), his book Ceòl Mòr, his chanter, disputing the latest letter in the Oban Times.
In fine weather, Gold Medallist Bill Wotherspoon gave us a moving performance of the Old Woman’s Lullaby, the tune played on the same spot 100 years ago at General Thomason’s burial. We then proceeded to lunch in Grantown-on-Spey, where it was a pleasure to hear Andrew Wright play the General’s tune, Hail to my Country. After lunch, your correspondent gave a short speech about Thomason’s life and his contribution to piping. The whole event was the brainchild of PS committee member Andrew Frater, who was thanked, along with the day’s performers, by Jack Taylor.
We do now know much more about Charles Thomason, thanks to Brian MacKenzie, to whom those interested in piobaireachd are immensely indebted. We have a scholarly appraisal by Roderick Cannon of Thomason’s great work Ceòl Mòr. We should note that Thomason took advice and help from Donald MacKay, Gold Medallist and grandson of John MacKay of Raasay, Sandy Cameron, younger brother of Donald, Keith Cameron, one of Donald’s sons, and other eminent players. He was keenly interested in the views of leading players and there is an impression of mutual respect. It seems likely that he would heartily approve of the Piobaireachd Society we have today, though maybe also wishing, as we do, for a greater participation by current competing pipers.
If you would like to know more about Charles Thomason, see the Piping Times Vol 49, issues 5 and 6 and go to www.piobaireachd.co.uk. If you are a member of the PS, the website also gives you access to conference Proceedings; see especially 1983 and 1995.
• From the September 2011 Piping Times.