We have uploaded some letters that will interest the ceòl mòr enthusiast. The letters were published in The International Piper over several months in 1980 and 1981 and are correspondence between Simon Fraser (1844-1934) and others.

Simon Fraser was a pupil of Peter Bruce, Glenelg, who in turn was a pupil of Donald Ruadh MacCrimmon. Simon’s father, Hugh Archibald, learned canntaireachd from Donald Ruadh’s brother, Iain Dùbh MacCrimmon and also from Captain Neil MacLeod of Gesto. First of all, a little introduction to Simon Fraser, some more information on the letters, and then the first of the letters:

Who was Simon Fraser?
Simon Fraser was Charles MacArthur’s great grandson. His father had been a pupil of lain Dhu MacCrimmon and a friend of Alexander Bruce who in turn was a pupil of lain Dhu’s brother, Donald Ruadh MacCrimmon. Simon emigrated to Australia and there met Alexander Bruce’s son Peter, from whom he learned his piping.

He became a devotee of piobaireachd and through Peter Bruce learned, or developed a style of ceòl mòr which has considerable differences from that extant at present times.

At the turn of the 20th century he, with others, conducted a protracted correspondence on ceòl mòr in the columns of the Oban Times — particularly on the canntaireachd work of Capt. Niel MacLeod of Gesto.

Through the good offices of Mr. John Pearson of North Dakota, the Inter- national Piper has been permitted to publish these letters which provide fascinating reading. John Pearson says of himself and the letters: “The Simon Fraser letters to the Oban Times were collected by John Pearson, a reporter for the Bismarck Tribune in North Dakota, U.S.A., during the fall of 1974 at the Oban Times archives, with permission from A. E. Cameron, editor. The collection may not be complete, but probably is the most comprehensive collection of Fraser journalism.

Pipe Major Willie Gray.
Pipe Major Willie Gray.

Pearson is finishing his masters degree in journalism from the University of Montana. His thesis subject is the journalism of Alexander K. Cameron of Cohagen, Mont., (1882-1956), a disciple of Simon Fraser, correspondent to the Oban Times and a friend of William Gray of the Glasgow Police Pipe Band. Cameron apparently bridged a gap in communications between pipers in Australia and Scotland, by introducing Gray to Fraser and winning him over to the controversial old piper’s ideas.

We think these letters have still an important place in piping and they should not be under estimated, as indeed the settings of Simon Fraser have often been. Dr. Barrie Orme of Australia, a pupil of Simon Fraser’s son, Hugh, has much of Simon Fraser’s music which he has now published.

The Simon Fraser letters
The introduction, above, revealed a source of traditional piobaireachd music which has in many ways remained untapped. Fraser had his disciples and was in close touch with pipers in Canada, South Africa and India, in which latter country he had a correspondence with the enthusiastic piobaireachd student, G. F. Ross. In Canada he corresponded with A. K. Cameron whose views on piobaireachd playing largely agreed with Simon Fraser. His South African disciple was J. D. R. Watt who emigrated from Scotland. Watt published in the mid 1930s, The Empire Collection, two books of music which contained a comprehensive treatise on piping a-la Simon Fraser. G.F. Ross also published two books on piobaireachd playing which contained _ material collected from Simon Fraser.

It would appear that the opinions of many within the piping fraternity about Simon Fraser’s postulations through the columns of the Oban Times and through the writings of Watt and Ross and that also of A.K. Cameron who contributed his views through the Oban Times, was that they were a group of piping fanatics who were determined to upset the traditional methods of playing in Scotland.

The one thing that cannot be denied this far flung group of pipers is their enthusiasm and dedication to piping. They were all isolated from the main- stream of piping, although piping in Montana did have numerous infusions from such pipers as D. C. Mather, Farquhar Finlayson and Donald Sutherland who all emigrated to that part of the U.S.A. Both Sutherland and Finlayson went to Australia, with the former returning to Oregon.

Simon Fraser put great credence on ‘Canntaireachd’ or ‘Sheantaireachd’ as he called it. He maintained that the true expression of ceòl mòr could only be imparted through its use. Needless to say, over the many centuries that piobaireachd has been extant, the medium of canntaireachd has been the favoured method of teaching ceòl mòr. It appears, however, that Simon Fraser maintained that there was only one correct system of vocables — that of the MacCrimmons, passed to him by the Bruces of Glenelg.

However, canntaireachd, whatever the system, is only of use if the listener knows the precise key of the vocables being used, so that the vocables, being said, or preferably sung, may be properly identified as representing certain gracenotes, groups of gracenotes and main text notes.

As a major means of notating music it has great drawbacks. None of the systems of canntaireachd which have survived indicate time, only pitch and embellishment are indicated. Thus when used in a written sense, (except by those pipers who are familiar with canntaireachd systems and are often able to sense the intended melody) it cannot be taken as a certainty that any one interpretation is the one intended by the writer of the score.

Another enthusiastic piper who devoted much time into research in all branches of bagpipe music was Dr. Charles Bannatyne. He also corresponded wholeheartedly in the columns of the Oban Times which paper gave space unstintingly,so that pipers, in particular, could air their very diverse views.

Thus introducing some of the principals who will be involved it only remains to print the letters which were collated by Mr. John Pearson during his researches into the Montana pipers — a treatise not as yet quite completed, but when ready, may hopefully, be serialised in this magazine.

The Simon Fraser letters 1

James A Center.

Warnambool, Victoria, Australia, February 12th, 1908.


When Piper James Center was in Australia last year I challenged him to play from the ‘canntaireachd,’ or ‘seantairachd,’ as my teacher, Peter Bruce, called it, and gave him a tune written in that notation. Mr. Center admitted at once that he could not play it, but said that he thought Dr. Bannatyne knew the system.

I got into communication with Dr. Bannatyne, and he wrote me to the effect that Mr. Center had sent him the tune in ‘canntaireachd’ to translate. Dr. Bannatyne rightly stated, without hesitation, that the tune was Sir James
Macdonald’s Lament
. I was surprised to learn from the Doctor that none of the Scottish pipers knew canntaireachd. I was taught the correct scale of the MacCrimmons in this system by my mother when I was a boy, I later on learnt the pipes by this system from Peter Bruce. My father was well acquainted with A. Munro, who composed Glengarry’s Lament. Munro taught the tune in a day or two to the other pipers who played it with him at MacDonell’s funeral, and taught in the MacCrimmons’ ceantaireachd. I myself teach my pupils by means of caantaireachd and ordinary notation combined, and by this means I am enabled to turn out good players in a shorter time than by ordinary notation. It is the true way of teaching piobaireachd, and I venture to say that the man who is able to read the old system is in possession at once of all the much-prized and guarded MacCrimmon secrets.

Dr. Bannatyne forwarded me several un-named tunes in canntaireachd, and I was able to read them and name them to him. I forwarded several unnamed tunes to him, and he sent me correct translation of them by next mail.

His system and mine differ slightly, but anyone who knows the rules of the old system can read any system. Dr. Bannatyne sent me a specimen of Angus MacKay’s system, differing from both his and mine, yet I had no difficulty in reading it. I think it would be to the advantage of all pipers to learn canntaireachd. They would then be better players. It is the true language of piobaireachd music, and is no more retrogressive compared with ordinary musical notation than sol-fah is.

In a controversial letter in your columns last August, a writer asked Dr. Bannatyne “What is your knowledge of canntaireachd?” If you excuse me answering the question, I should say that Dr. Bannatyne’s pipe language is complete, and find no difficulty in arriving at the conclusion that Dr. Bannatyne must be the best authority in Scotland on piobaireachd.

I am etc.,

Simon Fraser,
Pipe-Major, Warnambool Pipe Band,
Victoria, Australia

March 30th, 1980


Mr. Fraser, who wrote from Australia to the Oban Times last week on this ancient system of pipe music, has sent to me the scale by which it can be read by anyone. I was able to read it by means of a key which I evolved some years ago, and details of which were published in your columns at that time.

Mr. Fraser informs me that his mother taught him the notation in the Australian bush in 1853, and that it had been handed down in her family for several generations, having been taught to his great grandfather by Patrick Og MacCrimmon, Mr. Fraser was taught piping by Peter Bruce, who also knew the system. He is mentioned as a prize-winner by Angus MacKay at the Highland Society of London’s pibroch competitions in 1838. He was a native of Glenelg.

The following is the scale, each note having a grace-note. In addition I give a tune, The Stuarts’ White Banner, in the notation, both as given by Mr. Fraser and by Angus MacKay. I have parts 60 tunes in MacKay’s canntaireachd which are interesting because of the fact that in 1848 MacKay knew no MacCrimmon canntaireachd. Here is Fraser’s scale:

The tune given shows the vocables, and the gracenotes and embellishments they signify.


cheo dra he re re, he re re he vo chin,
cheo dra he re re, chea varla cheo vindun
cheo dra he re re, he re re he vo chin,
Chea hindun chea bodin, chea hindin chea hundun

cheo dra he re re, chea varla cheo hindun,
cheo dra he re re, he re re he vo chin
cheo dra hedrin veo, cheadrin vea cheo hindun
heiririn heiririn.

The vowels in each vocable are pronounced separately.

The tune in Angus MacKay’s cantaireachd:

hio dalla hiridi, hiridi hio hin
hio dalla hiridi, hia radia hio hin hem,
hio dalla hiridi, hiridi hio hin.

hia hin hem hia o hio, hia in in hi hin hem,
hio dalla hiridi, hia radia hio hin, hem,
hio dalla hiridi, hiridi hio hin
hio dalla hiharin hio, hia harla hia hio hin hem, hi anana hianana.

Both styles of this ancient piper’s notation are fine examples of onomatopoeia, and are interesting as showing the similarity of impression made by the same sounds on different brains with a like training. Mr. Fraser, who sent me the scale he was taught, is in business Victoria, and an Australian friend informs me that he is the foremost teacher and judge of piping in the Antipodes.

I am, etc.,

Charles Bannatyne M.B. C.M.

East London, South Africa, 23rd November, 1908


A friend of mine drew my attention to a letter from Mr. Simon Fraser Warnambool, Australia, on the subject of Canntaireachd, which appeared in your paper, ‘The Oban Times’, about February or March last. I have been much interested in this, as I have had by me a few of the canntaireachd notes got from various sources, and I have been working with the object of trying to translate Neil MacLeod of Gesto’s little book of pipe tunes, published in the canntaireachd.

I have succeeded to some extent, but not altogether, as I had not the complete key to the MacCrimmon system, but from what I already know of the subject, I should say I believe the canntaireachd method is the best style for making pupils get the best style of playing, and if at the present day this system could be revived and used in conjunction with ordinary staff notation, I believe better players would result, apart from the fact that the subject is very interesting itself to anyone who takes an interest in this old style of conveying music from one ear to another.

I am ,etc.,

J. D. R. Watt.

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