The Simon Fraser letters 4


From The International Piper, April 1981

Fraser says he will teach other pipers “free of charge”


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 told 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 wranglingover 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 se 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. Macieod 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 Maccrimons 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 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 és 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 middie 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 Maccrimon 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.,


From: JOHN GRANT, Edinburgh


Your issue of September 23rd contains a reply from Mr. Simon Fraser, Sydney, to my letter of 24th June last on the above subject. Mr. Fraser and Dr. Charles Bannatyne claim to be the only two men living who know and understand the real MacCrimmon secrets, and to them my letter of 24th June was an intended test as to whether they really know the secrets of the MacCrimmon verbal notation called canntaireachd or not. Up to this date your readers have had no reply from Dr. Bannatyne to my letter of 24th June.

In Mr. Simon Fraser’s explanation now before me I cannot see that it is at all proof that ever he got the MacCrimmon secrets of Canntaireachd in theory or practice, and I shall deal with the most important items in his letter systematically.

Mr. Fraser says: “As Mr Grant does not suggest why Sheantaireachd was altered to Canntaireachd, I will call it by the latter term to please him.” I had no need to suggest why Canntaireachd was ever altered to Sheantaireachd, but perhaps Mr. Fraser will enlighten me where in the Gaelic language I will find his form of the word. Why does he give in and accept the word Canntaireachd merely to please me if Sheantaireachd is correct? This is no proof that either he or I are correct in the minds of those who are not capable of judging for themselves. Canntaireachd, which is absolutely correct, means to chant, or sing over, piobaireachd or pipe tunes. Sheantaireachd was never known to the MacCrimmons, or even understood in Skye. It is not a proper Gaelic word of any description. Therefore if Mr. Fraser does not understand right from wrong in the Gaelic language, on which the Mac- Crimmon verbal notation was based, how can he possibly know and understand fully the secrets of this mysterious notation?

In Neil MacLeod’s song, “An glean ‘s an robh mi og,” we find the lines:

“Greis air sugradh, greis air dannsa,
Greis air canntaireachd is ceol,” etc.

If Mr. Fraser is right, perhaps he will give me as good an explanation of the word Sheantaireachd, which he uses, or tall me where I can find it in the Gaelic language, dictionary, or in fact in any shape or form.

Mr. Fraser in the course of his letter says: “In the year 1853 my mother commenced to teach me the Canntair oachd, and the secrets of the MacCrimmons.” The next question which arises in my mind and those who are interested in the art of piobaireachd is: “Was Simon Fraser’s mother qualified to teach her son such an ingenious system of notation in theory and practice? “Was she a professional piobaireachd player?” “Had she a perfect knowledge of this verbal notation equal to that of the best of the great MacCrimmons?” Such are the necessary qualifications she would have had to acquire before she could have taught her son. We must have real proof that this system is still alive and understood.

From Mr. Fraser’s letter I understand that he intended printing a book of piobaireachd, which was to have been written in the staff notation and, below the stave, in the sol-fa system of the MacCrimmons, This is in itself proof that his verbal notation is no use without the staff notation alongside of it. On the other hand, if Mr. Fraser has the perfect system of the MacCrimmons and he can bring it back to use if it is real. I have composed not a few original tunes, and have given them in the most perfect system of musical notation in existence.

It can be read, played, and understood by all. It now lies in all parts of the world, I have sent copies by my own hand to India, Africa, Australia, and America, etc., and I have received many congratulations of success. I have not challenged or condemned others who work for the good of this art until I have been challenged or condemned, and or this basis I an defending myself.

Mr. Fraser says that the verbal system of the MacCrimmons is the only means by which piobaireachd can be properly played, and he has now to prove his point. Again I will repeat my statement that there is no more perfect system of musical notation under the sun than the staff notation. Any one with ordinary intelligence can understand and play correctly from it, whereas the verbal notation of the MacCrimmons, however perfect it may have been in its day, was only of use to the pupil when sung and the sounds represented and shown by the teacher to the pupil. In Canntaireachd there are no time marks, nothing to show the duration of any note or whether any one word represents one or more notes, whereas in the staff notation an E is always an E, and an F is always an F, a crotchet is a crotchet, a quaver is always a quaver, and so on. By this musical system no performer can mistake, the name of any note, gracenote, or their value.

I congratulate Mr. Fraser on the good- humoured manner in which he takes my letter, but | say that there is no one alive who knows or understands the MacCrimmon system of verbal notation called Canntaireachd, and up till now we have no proof that there is anyone alive who does know it.


*Who was Simon Fraser?
*Simon Fraser letters 2
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