The Simon Fraser letters 5


From The International Piper, June 1981.

Letter from Dr. Charles Bannatyne, answering John Grant.

by Holytown,
October 9th 1911.


Mr. Grant, in your issue of 7th inst., makes the statement that I claim to be one of two men living who “understand the MacCrimmon secrets.” Would your correspondent point out when and where I made the claim?

I only claim to be able to read Capt. MacLeod’s Canntaireachd, and I still make that claim. Mr. William McLean, Glasgow, winner of the Cowal March prize, also reads it. He does so in the same way I do — principally by sound, and he learned it in half an hour. Captain MacLeod’s book contains no secrets, so far as I can make out. The McCrimmon secrets are contained in their many fine tunes published in old notation in well-known collection.

I am, etc.,

C. Bannatyne, BM.B., C.M.

Extracts from John Grant’s replies to Dr. Bannatyne. Says Simon’ Fraser, not Charles Bannatyne made the statement.

I hold a pamphlet printed and written by Simon Fraser, Australia, from which I give an extract as follows, viz:

The true key of all secrecy or mystery enables them (the MacCrimmons) to keep their music such a close secret, that there are only two persons living who can write or translate their music, viz., Dr. Bannatyne and myself (Mr. Fraser).

Fraser says ‘I have other information in my possession ‘which I do not wish to divulge in print without Dr. Bannatyne’s permission.”’

“and that MacLeod book contains the MacCrimmon system, not MacLeod’s own: that no one can learn a pibroch in a half hour, or any canntaireachd
system.” Grant says Simon Fraser or Charles Bannatyne would be “lost in the wilderness of a mysterious system of notation” if put to a test outside MacLeod’s book.

Reply from Charles Bannatyne.

Oct. 28, 1911, p.3.


Says send him a tune and he will prove it, and that MacLean having been taught by a system of vocables in Skye which resembled the MacLeod vocables, had no trouble.

“The Secrets of Canntaireachd.”

Albert Park,
Australia, March 4, 1912.


According to what Mr. Grant has written on the above subject, he tries to leave the impression that there is no one living now who understands the MacCrimmons’ notation or their secrets. With your kind permission, I will inform Mr. Grant that this is not correct as far as I am concerned. I am in a position to prove that I have all the scales, also the philosophy of Patrick Mor as well, and I am willing to show them and explain everything to any one who likes to call on me personally.

Respecting Dr. Bannatyne, I put him to a severe test by sending him unnamed tunes, written in the MacCrimmon notation, that are not in Macleod’s published book. The Doctor translated them, and proved to me beyond any doubt that he can translate the MacCrimmon notation. I do not wish to argue with Mr.Grant on the subject, as he has admitted that he does not understand it. If Mr. Grant thinks that he can prove that the Doctor and myself do not understand this subject, I am afraid he has taken on a contract that he will find very difficult to carry out.

I am, etc.,

Simon Fraser

Excerpts from letter June 15, 1912, from Dr. Bannatyne

When Mr. James Center first visited Australia some years ago, he met Mr. Simon Fraser, who gave him the ground of a piobaireachd in canntaireachd, and said — ‘There! you cannot play that, nor can any man living but myself.” Mr. Center sent the tune home to his father, who in turn sent it to me with query: “Is this music or a joke?” I translated the tune, which was ‘Sir James MacDonald of the Isles’ Salute’, a MacArthur tune, and returned it to Mr. Center. The canntaireachd differed slightly from Captain MacLeod’s. It was perfect, and this very perfection which Grant longs for, led me for a long, led me for a long time to credit Mr. Fraser with having made the notation. But testing all Mr. Fraser’s statements I found no errors. In the course of years I knew all Mr. Fraser’s history relative to canntaireachd — MacCrimmons’, Captain Macleod, and the Bruces of Glenelg.”

Here is the whole story condensed from Mr. Fraser’s many letters to me. My father came out here in 1836. He knew Captain Macleod well. It is an error to say Macleod was not a piper. My father said he was a good piobaireachd player and a violinist, and a fine all-round musician. Captain Macleod’s son came later to Australia, and he brought his father’s scales and manuscripts with him, and they are in my possession. Both my father and mother knew canntaireachd well. My father was taught by John Dubh lecCrimmon. My mother taught me! She was taught by her grandfather when she was a girl. Her grandfather was a celebrated piper, taught by Patrick Og MacCrimmon, and his name was Charles MacArthur. I am pleased to write to you and wish you were beside me. It is marvellous how you managed to read the oldest forms of MacCrimmon’s notation as presented in Captain Macleod’s book. Macleod took the oldest tunes and printed them, as he was under an obligation not to give the whole thing away. I shall send you from my collection any tune you like. You should be proud of yourself, because you and I are the only two men alive who know all the MacCrimmon secrets.”

Later on, when I sent Mr. Fraser a copy of Part 1 of “The Royal Collection of Piobaireachd,” he wrote, among other things, “Mr. Grant’s first tune is a palpable variation of an old pibroch called “The Menzie’s Banner.”

Says he is not going to answer any more questions on MacCrimmon notation in columns. “I know all the MacCrimmon secrets; and I am willing to teach them to any piper or any interested person who cares to call on me here.”

Excerpt from Dr. K. N. MacDonald’s letter, June 1, 1912,

21 Clarendon Crescent, Edinburgh.

Reply to John Grant on “imaginary lost secrets’ of MacCrimmon methods of playing piobaireachd.

Regarding the knowledge of the MacCrimmon music, or sol-fa notation, there can be no doubt that Captain Macleod, Gesto, noted it down exactly as it was pronounced, and as John MacCrimmon uttered it, and there is nothing to show that he did not know it as his forebears did. He was the last of them employed at Dunvegan Castle by the Chief, and it is not likely that he did anything from Gesto. Who was “‘the real MacCrimmon, who died long before Captain Macleod was born,” and why was John MacCrimmon “‘not a shadow of the great race of his forefathers, who came hundreds of years before him? No doubt some of his predecessors may have been greater pipers. Gesto held that Patrick Mor was the best of them, and he must have known as well in his day as Mr. Grant does at the present day, but as to a “lost secret that is dead to this world for ever,”’ it may be allowed to rest there. If Mr. Grant has discovered it, he should take out a patent for it. On the other hand, if Dr. Bannatyne, Mr. Simon Fraser, and Lieut. Maclennan can interpret the pibrochs in Gesto’s book, any Court would allow them to take out a patent also. No doubt the MacCrimmon notation was as perfect as it could be in the absence of staff notation, and that is, in all human probability, what John MacCrimmon had, and transmitted to posterity through Captain Macleod of Gesto. The whole question can be very much simplified by sticking to the notation in Gesto’s book, and if other people can interpret that in staff notation to suit the notation in the canntaireachd, what does it matter about a supposed lost secret, which may or may not be true? Captain Macleod did not write an autobiography of his own life. Other fellows wrote the history, and in that history the Rev. Alexander MacGregor, who knew Gesto personally, says distinctly, that “he had a large manuscript collection of the MacCrimmon piobaireachds, as noted for themselves, and part of it was apparently very old and yellow in the paper from age,” etc. He does not say that he counted them, but states: “I should think that the MS. I saw with him would contain upwards of two hundred piobaireachds, noted by the MacCrimmons themselves, and there was nothing to prevent him from comparing these with John MacCrimmon’s sol-fa and picking up the great ‘secret,’ if it existed.”

He minimises Captain Macleod’s work very much, but he has no idea of the man he depreciates so freely. I have strong evidence that Gesto could play the pipes, and was an excellent performer on the violin, and a good disciplinarian he was. He used to accompany his daughters on the piano with the violin, and was very intolerant of false notes. The consequence was that all the young ladies who frequented Gesto were the best players in Skye. He taught Sandy Bruce of Glenelg his pibrochs, and others as well. One young man he took an interest in and would say to him: “l won’t let you go till you do I hodroho, hodroho, harranin, hiechin, etc., properly.” He was the first who brought a piano and a carriage to Skye, and was all round a man of great action, and worthy of the race from whom he sprang.

I am, etc.,

K. N. MacDonald.

*Who was Simon Fraser?
*Simon Fraser letters 2
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