The Simon Fraser letters 3


From The International Piper, February 1981

Simon Fraser’s next contribution to the Oban Times is dated May 28, 1910 and September 3, 1910.


In your valuable paper dated March 5, 1910, I notice a letter signed “John Maclennan,” in which he is criticising the books of the Piobaireachd Society. I fully agree with him in his remarks on the alteration of the versions of the tunes, etc., but with your kind permission I would like to point out to him that this has been going on ever since Donald MacDonald published the first book of pibrochs about a century ago.

There are very few persons alive now who know that Neil Macleod, Gesto, printed a book called ‘The History of the Maccrimmons and the Great Pipe,’ in the year 1826. Unfortunately this book contained opinions offensive to a good many people at that time, and Macleod’s friends would not let him publish it. There was a complete history of the Maccrimmon pipers in this book, and it contained 50 of their best pibrochs. It also contained their old system of sheantaireachd, and also a new system perfected by Patrick Mhor Maccrimmon on his return from Italy in or about the middle of the 17th century. Had this book been published, I have no doubt that the ordinary system would never have been adopted. The book contained complete scales and time marks, and was very easy to read and understand. I have only seen two copies of it, and they are both now out of existence.

Macleod, being offended, published another book about 1828, a copy of which I have, and I have another of the same book printed in the year 1880 by J. R. Glen of Edinburgh. The tunes in this book are in the old system, and all kinds of devices are used to mislead, so that only an expert can translate the tunes. Different beats, which mean the same thing, occur; lines are left out; some tunes of 16 lines have only 12; beats are misplaced; some lines are not complete, and so on. As he said on more than one occasion: “I have given them something to puzzle them.”

At first the ordinary notation made little headway with pipers, as so many of the old pipers knew the language of the Maccrimmons, and they also knew it was not to be improved upon. But as they passed away, the Maccrimmon system went with them and the ordinary notation has gained ground, but good playing is fast dying out.

My old and respected teacher, Peter Bruce, used to say — ‘’The new idea may be right enough in its way, but it does not teach you how to play the tunes.” To hear piobaireachd played as I did in my young days and to hear it now is a different class of music altogether. Mechanical and meaningless playing is becoming very common; but it is unreasonable to expect more players and publishers of books to agree with you in this respect, so they are now quarreling among themselves as to the best settings of the tunes, which is the result of the ordinary system of notation.

Every Highlander who knows a good Gaelic song will tell us that it loses a great deal of the proper effect when sung in English. This is exactly the case with pibroch played from the ordinary notation unless the player knows the Maccrimmon system as well. There is some truth in what Messrs Grove and Grattan Flood say, viz. – that the pibroch is outside the realm of music, simply because it is out of its place in ordinary notation; and trying to perform pibroch on any other instrument than the pipe is an absurdity. Ihave enclosed two tunes in the old Maccrimmon system, ‘Lovat’s Lament’ and ‘Lament for Samuel,’* both very old versions, which Dr. Bannatyne will be able to translate into ordinary notation, I have heard from good authority that David Fraser never gave a correct setting of his tune to anyone, and this version is the oldest that I know of.

Respecting too many bars of music in tunes, we may take ‘Macintosh’s Lament’ as an example. In all versions in ordinary notation that I have seen, there are 18 bars of music in each strain, whereas the old version has only 16, which is strictly in accordance with the Maccrimmon notation, or sheantaireachd. ‘The Piper’s Warning to His Master’ is another tune of 16 bars in each strain, yet the second strain contains 14 bars, which should be eight, played twice over, the same as the first strain. All the Maccrimmon music that I have seen is (when properly understood) written according to strict rules. Had the first writers of pibrochs in ordinary notation taken the trouble of writing under the staff the Maccrimmon system as well, we would have had better versions of the tunes today. In J. F. Campbell’s book on sheantaireachd, page 33, Duncan Ross says: “Now we have three drones in the pipe and grace-notes.”” We always had grace-notes, for how can beats like Hiererine and Hivroro be performed without grace-notes?

Thanking you for past favours, and trusting you will find room for this letter — I am, etc.,


[To conserve space the Canntaireachd examples have not been included. Ed.]


Kindly accept my best thanks for publishing my last letter, and in answer to “Loch Duich” may I say that I do not wish to discuss piobaireachd with any correspondents unless they have a good knowledge of the MacCrimmon music.

There are several points in piobaireachd that cannot be put into the ordinary notation. If this were possible it would have been done long ago by that great master of the pipes, Patrick Mhor MacCrimmon, for according to Macleod he understood the ordinary notation well, and was about the first that translated their system. If it was an improvement no doubt Patrick Mhor would have adopted it.

I would respectfully suggest that ‘Loch Duich’ prevail upon the Piobaireachd Society to send a good piper out to me, and I will undertake to teach him all I know free of charge. I think this would be a step in the right direction, as I was taught to sing from the sheantaireachd long before I got a chance of learning the pipes. I have been very successful as a teacher and my own sons prove this, as one of them has beaten every piper he has met so far. I teach on the same lines as the old teachers — by singing the beats as well as playing them on the chanter. I have been sold that one of the best teachers in Europe teaches the violin in the same manner — by singing the notes to his pupils.

I would advise all those who have been writing on piobaireachd to read Andy Williams’s “Story of Notation’, page 218, as they will find his remarks very interesting.

I quite agree with “Loch Duich” that the minim should be the long note, as it is strictly in accordance with Patrick Mhor’s time-marks in his improved system of sheantaireachd. I have been playing the violin from the ordinary notation since 1862, so I ought to know whether the pipe music, or piobaireachd, can be played properly from it or not.

I had started writing a book, with the language written under the notes, but owing to differences of opinion and jealousy among pipers I have — for the present, at any rate — abandoned the idea. However, if the Society falls in with my suggestion, I will give them all the assistance I can gratis. As the old Cremona theory has been touched upon I enclose a letter I wrote to a paper here some little time since, which you can republish if it will interest your readers. It is from Macleod’s History:

It is a strange coincidence that, while Piper Fraser and his critic are wrangling over pipe music in Australia, the same subject is being warmly discussed in Scotland at the present time. Letters upon letters are being published in ‘The Oban Times’ on the correct settings or versions of different pibroch tunes, and some of the letters, like my worthy friend’s, (Mr Mac) are very amusing. Dr Bannatyne has written to me on the subject, and sent for my versions of four different tunes in the Maccrimmon notation, which I sent to him a short time ago. Mr. MacDougall Gillies has also requested me to write the Comely Tune in the ordinary notation, which I have translated and sent him also. You will see by this that I am in communication with the two best authorities in Scotland on pipe music, as Mr Gillies is the champion pibroch player of the world … You will see by Fionn’s letter on the Maccrimmon ancestry that he is pleased that a Mr Macleod agrees with him that the ‘Cremona origin of the Maccrimmons must be abandoned.’ Why so, Mr. Fionn? Don’t you like the story? Now Mr Editor, I will, to the best of my ability, explain this rather delicate story with Highlanders in the long ago. The Maccrimmons left Cremona, Italy, some four or five centuries ago, and went to Ireland, settling down there. Their fame as pipers soon began to spread, and one of the Macleods went over from Scotland to Ireland to hear them play, and he was so deeply impressed with their fingering of the chanter that he induced Dun-coloured John and his Donald to go to the Isle of Skye with him to found or start a college for pipe music. The oldest known pibroch is a Lament composed by one of these pipers (while in Ireland) on King Brian. According to this, Ireland can therefore claim to be (perhaps) the first country where pibrochs were composed and played. It is not known what the real name of this celebrated race of pipers was, but they took the name of Cremmon or Crimmon, and as they settled in a part where the Mac (Gaelic), or son (English), was generally used, such as MacShane, MacArthy, and numerous other Macs, it seemed proper to them to adopt the name of Maccremmon or Maccrimmon. Regarding the Maccrimmon language or system of teaching, this was begun in Ireland, and afterwards rendered more perfect by Donald and Patrick Mhor in Scotland. Patrick Mhor went over to Italy about the middle of the 17th century, and studied the Italian Solfeggi for over two years, and on his return he perfected the system that I use, and which Mr Mac calls my bush music. As this system cannot be improved upon by translating it into the ordinary notation, then if it is my invention or bush music, then it must be good. I have two books of the old Maccrimmon music, and can read or translate it all. I hardly think Mr Mac would have much of a chance in playing pibrochs against me. Of course, he may (like others) argue that the Maccrimmon music is retrogressive and of no use, but this only applies to something that can be improved upon, and a person must be conversant with the subject before he can tell whether it is right or wrong —
I am, etc.,


*Who was Simon Fraser?
*Simon Fraser letters 2
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