The Simon Fraser letters 2


From The International Piper of January 1981.

Simon Fraser’s next contribution to the Oban Times is dated September 11, 1909 and describes the Secrets of Canntaireachd. He writes:

I take up my pen to explain to the best of my ability the mysterious music called ‘Sheantaireachd,’ or pipe language, as taught by the Maccrummen pipers to their pupils in the Isle of Skye. To begin with, the pipe is mentioned in the Bible in three places, as follows: 1st Book of Samuel, x chap., 5th verse; and in the Book of Jeremiah, xviii. chap., 36th verse. It is from this verse that the Maccrummens took the idea of the form of pibroch called the ‘Lament’. The verse is as follows: “Therefore mine heart shall sound like pipes for the men of Kir-heres; because the riches that he hath gotten are perished.”

The Maccrummens were very religious, and it was owing to this that they took the vocables of


from the Bible and other sacred sources. All the vocables used by them were constructed from this last verse, and from the iii. chapter of Genesis, 24th verse, “So he drove out the man,” etc.

The word drove makes two vocables, as dro-ve, also the word tree as te-re. By adding the vocable Ho, as Ho-dro-te-re, we get what they called a beat used often in pipe language. The words used often by them as follows — “Christ will be our Savior if we would follow his teachings,” are taken from these two verses, also the true key of all secrecy or mystery which enabled them to keep their music such a close secret that there are only two persons living who can write or translate their music — namely Dr. Bannatyne and myself.

Some people say that the Maccrumens were not educated and had no fixed system or scales for teaching the pipe, and knew no other language than Gaelic. Anyone acquainted with the pipe language knows that all this is a fallacy. Put a piece of music written in this system before a man who is a good Gaelic scholar, and he cannot read it or make anything of it, thus proving at once that he does not know anything about it. Several reasons have been advanced as to the Maccrummens’ motives for keeping their secrets to themselves, but the most feasible one was their strong religious convictions. They looked on the pipe as a medium by which they could express their feelings of joy and sorrow.

When a beloved one passed away they would take up their pipe and play those mournful pieces called ‘Laments,’ and to express their feelings of joy they played what is called the ‘Salute,’ and what is called the ‘Gathering’ they played to call the clan or clans together. They taught their pupils verbally, and never, except to a favourite pupil, divulged their secrets of writing or noting down their music. When writing down their music they always took care to do so in such a manner that no one but themselves could read it. Neil MacLeod, of Gesto, Skye, had a book printed in their language, containing 20 pieces or tunes, but it is difficult to translate owing to the many devices employed to mislead. Some of these plans were such as not placing the vocables according to scales, leaving out some, putting others in which should not be there, and giving no time marks, a very important part in music.

This book is itself a very interesting study to anyone acquainted with the system.

The beat called Thor-odin is taken from Scandinavian mythology — Thor, God of Thunder, and Odin, God of all Goodness. Da-ri and tra-di are vocables taken from the Greek notation of four-lined music, trinitie, three vocables from the Trinity, using ‘ie’ instead of y. On account of its sacred source the Maccrumens did not use this much, excepting in such tunes as the ‘Lost Pibroch,’ which was considered by them as


of all pibrochs. The ‘Lost Pibroch’ is mentioned in the first verse of the words adapted to the ‘Children’s Lament’ composed by Patrick Mor Maccrumen on the death of seven out of eight, in one 12 months. The English version is as follows:

“Hear me, dear Savior, Oh hear me how, All my dear children but one are laid low; Spare him, dear Savior, spare him to me, To play the ‘‘Lost Pibroch” in memory of Thee”

The ‘Lost Pibroch’ and its meaning I will explain in the book of Pibrochs I am writing in ordinary notation, with the pipe language written under the staff. To write down all I know about the Maccrumens from a religious standpoint would take up too much space in this article, but I have shown that they took their ideas from the Bible, the greatest all books. Although I have heard the pipe and and its music ridiculed, I don’t think this would occur so often if it were known where the ideas of the music were taken from. No other instrument can be made to play the ‘Pibroch,’ so that the pipe is perfect in this class of music, and whatever may be said of the ordinary notation in favour of other classes of pipe music, the Maccrummen notation is the only perfect one for pibrochs. Very few pipers or publishers of pipe music will admit this I know, but as they don’t understand the Maccrummen notation, it is only natural they should do so.

The late Hugh MacDonald, of Sydney who was the best all-around player ever I heard, from the ordinary notation, told me that he did not think any piper could play pibrochs from the ordinary notation correctly, unless he understood


as well, Dr. Bannatyne says the same, and I have no doubt that he is the best judge of pibrochs in Scotland. I sent him the correct scales of the Maccrummens last year, and he had it printed for the first time in The Oban Times. The scale is as follows:

The original time mark was the dot (.) or full stop used in reading or writing. The dot (.) was placed in various positions, of which I give an example thus: Hun, (G) means a minim as in ordinary notation, and as can be seem, is very simple. The vocable dro means four notes struck in one, as it were and gives the exact sound when properly done on the pipe. This note or beat is very hard to understand, even with good readers from the ordinary notation, unless shown by an expert, and it cannot be performed on any other instrument but the pipe. To experts in pipe language very little time marking is required, as the beats themselves explain the time a good deal in the way of accent — as for example the beat Ho-dro, the accent being on the vocable dro being twice the length of Ho.

All lovers of pibroch will regret that the Maccrummens did not leave some books written according to the proper scales and time marks; if they had done so there would have been more players today, and the music more widely known, and less mechanical and meaningless playing heard. Although there is a Pibroch Society in Scotland at present, I doubt very much if ever it will produce players equal to the Maccrummens, Macarthurs, Campbells, MacKays, and others, as these all played from the old notation, which has almost disappeared. The prediction that caused one of the Maccrummens to compose the ‘Lament for the Great Music’ seems to lave come to pass, unless some enthusiasts take the matter up and have hooks of the old notation printed and taught by experts, — I am, etc.,


* Who was Simon Fraser?
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