The Simon Fraser letters 7


From The International Piper, August 1981.

April 5, 1913,
“The Early History of the MacCrimmons: Related by Themselves to Captain Macleod of Gesto.”

Dr. K. N. MacDonald.

It appears that in 1826 the late Captain Neil Macleod of Gesto wrote a history of the McCrimmons, or McCrummens, embracing a great many tunes in the McCrimmon system of notation, together with the histories of their origin and composition, in which he was assisted by Mr Simon Fraser’s father, who was a very clear and beautiful writer, and was therefore a living witness of the following narrative, as supplied by the McCrimmons. The book was not published, for reasons which shall appear presently, but as a substitute the book of 1828, which we have now got, was brought out. Giordano Bruno, an Italian philosopher and Pantheist, one of the boldest and most original thinkers of the age, was born at Nola about 1550. He became a Dominican monk, but his religious doubts and his censures of the monastic orders, compelled him to quit his monastery and Italy. He embraced the doctrines of Calvin at Geneva, but free discussion not being in favour there, he went to Paris where he gave lectures on philosophy, when he made bitter enemies. He spent two years in England, and became the friend of Sir Philip Sidney. In 1585 he went again to Paris and renewed his public lectures. After visiting several towns in Germany, he returned to Padua in 1592, and went afterwards to Venice, where he was arrested in 1598 by the Inquisition, and sent to Rome, where he lay in prison for two years, and on the 17th of February, 600, he was burned at the stake as a heretic. His theory of the world was theistic. He was well versed in astronomy, and adopted the views of Copernicus. But he was also a believer in astrology, and wrote many works in Latin and Italian, which abound in bold and noble thought, and are rich in eloquence.

A relation of his, Petrus Bruno, about or before this time, left Cremona, in Italy, and went over to Ireland and settled there. He had to leave on account of his religious opinions. He did not believe in pantheism — which identifies the universe with God — but believed strongly in primitive Christianity, and he got access to some original documents which, to his mind, proved that the Bible had been tampered with about the beginning of the second century, and he held, therefore, that creeds have nothing to do with the true teachings of Christ.

Gesto was disappointed that his book of 1826 was interfered with by friends, and determined to leave a nut behind him, as Gladstone did with Home Rule that would be difficult to crack. ‘The Lament for the Laird of Annapole’, No. 18 in his book of 1828, is in reality a lament for Bruno, the philosopher. It will be noticed how much the letters r u n o are used in this particular tune, which is pretty stiff to translate and play; also ‘trun’ and ‘drun,’ in the finish and the ‘hi die dru’ beats, which have puzzled so many. Well, to shorten the story of Petrus Bruno, he took the name ‘Cremmon’, and added ‘Mac’ to it. Whether this is true or not, Gesto did not invent it, and it was for mentioning it that some of his friends prevailed upon him not to publish the work, which was a great loss to lovers of piobaireachd. ‘The Lost Pibroch’, or ‘Piobaireachd’, is a beautiful tune, by Patrick Mor MacCrimmon, according to Mr. Simon Fraser, and is a lament for the Saviour. This tune is in existence, and we must get a hold of it. Petrus, it is said, was the original inventor of the ‘Sheantaireachd’, or pipers’ language, which was used by the MacCrimmons, not only as music, but to conceal their religious opinions as well.

In regard to making the pipes speak, this is nothing more or less than a certain beat struck on the chanter, which conveys to those who are “in the know” what is meant by it. Donald Mor went to Italy to study, and to see if he could Prove the truth of Petrus Bruno’s contentions regarding tampering with the Scriptures. He found out what led him to believe that all that Petrus said was correct, for on his return he gave out his opinion that if Martin Luther had taken the same trouble to purify Christianity as he did to form a religion of his own, the world would have been the better for it, and instead slaughtering one another over their different creeds, people would understand that Christianity is a religion of love, and not a mixture of love and hate, for he held that as oil and water will not mix, neither can love and hate. It was for having mentioned this in his first book that brought Gesto into conflict with some people of his time, and he deferred to their wishes.

In Mr. Simon Fraser’s last letter he states that Mr. Kenneth Stewart, a friend of Peter Bruce, died in New South Wales many years ago. He was taught by Gesto, and was considered by Peter Bruce to be one of his (Gesto’s) best pupils. He ends by wishing “A happy and prosperous New Year to all the descendants of the immortal Gesto, the saviour of the MacCrimmon music” — sentiments which I most cordially endorse.”

April 12, 1913,

Extracts from a letter from John Grant, Edinburgh, April 7, 1913.

“Origins of the MacCrimmons and the Verbal Notation.”

Ridicules the Simon Fraser theory.

The essence of imagination” to connect the MacCrimmon system of notation and religious purposes.

To say that Petrus Bruno was the father of the MacCrimmon family was “pure nonsense.” — No proof of Italian Origin. — Are purely Highland. Patrick Mor MacCrimmon going to Italy a “fairy tale.” Travelling in the middle of the 17th century too expensive.

Says r u n o is found in “almost every tune” in Gesto’s book, especially Nos. 6 & 14.

Says MacCs outwitted everyone, including Gesto. Gesto’s system imperfect.

April 26, 1913, p.3.

“Origin of the MacCrimmons and their Verbal Notation.”

Letter from K.N. MacDonald, April 13, 1913.

reply to John Grant’s April 12th letter. Says he “endeavours to belittle” Gesto’s work, Quotes from Albyn’s Anthology by Alexander Campbell.

visited Gesto in 1815. Quotes 4 lines from “Isabel nich Kay” and says.

The melody to which the above verse is adapted was taken down with all possible care from Captain Neil Macleod of Gesto’s MS. collection of pibroch, as performed by the celebrated MacCrimmons of Skye. The melody to the pibroch of “Donil Dubh” was taken down at the same time, i.e. September, 1815. The process was tedious, and exceedingly troublesome. The editor had to translate, as it were, the syllabic jargon of illiterate pipers (which was distinctly enough jotted down in Captain MacLeod’s own way) into musical characters, which, when correctly done, he found to his astonishment to coincide exactly with musical notation.

NOTE: but K. N. MacDonald doesn’t refute John Grant charge that r u n o is found in other pieces throughout the 1828 book,

May 3, 1913

“The MacCrimmon Canntaireachd.”

Letter from John Grant, 28th April, 1913 answer to K.N. MacDonald letter of April 26th. Notes that little use has been made of the 1828 Niel MacLeod of Gesto book and that oldest traditional history and writings on MacCrimmons say they were Skye natives.

March 21, 1914,
Letter from Simon Fraser

“The MacCrimmons and their notation”

No. 6 Verner St.,
Geelong, Victoria, Australia,

February 3, 1914.


In a copy of your valuable paper I have just seen a letter from Mr. John Grant. With your kind permission, I will reply to it. Mr. Grant, in reply to the late lamented Dr. K.N, MacDonald, says that the MacCrimmons never used their notation for religious purposes, and it is only I who says so. I simply told Dr. MacDonald what John Dubh MacCrimmon told Neil Macleod, A. Bruce, and my own father, and what Charles MacArthur told my grandmother, and my mother also told myself.

I have no feeling against Mr. Grant. He is mistaken in his ideas. The very fact of his saying that the Hiodratatateriri beat is a Breabach proves this. There are three different forms of crunluath in “Coghiegh nha Shie,” but Mr. Grant does not know what they are, and therefore cannot play or translate them. I can do both, for I was shown often enough by the late Peter Bruce.

As Mr. Grant cannot interview me himself, perhaps he may know some good piper in Australia, whom he could get to call on me. If he does I would show the piper how to play, read, and translate all those beats that have puzzled Mr. Grant.

Mr. Grant does not like the idea of the MacCrimmons being of Italian origin; but Mr. Grant is not alone in this matter.

That does not alter the fact that they were Italian, and that is the great reason why they were such splendid players, and, as Peter Bruce used to say, that is no disgrace, when we know that the greatest master of the violin (Paganini) was an Italian. If Mr. Grant will look over Macleod’s book of 1828 he will not find drun or trun in any other tune; he will find the letters r u n o in other tunes, but not ‘r u n’, the three centre letters of Bruno.

Mr, Grant says that there are no writings by the MacCrimmons in existence. According to John Dubh, this is easily explained. After the battle of Culloden everything belonging to them in the shape of writings was destroyed, on account of the stringent oath that had to be taken at that time respecting kilts, piping, etc. I am very sorry that Mr. Grant and myself are so far apart, as I could soon convince him that he still has a lot to learn. Hoping he may find some good piper in Australia that will call on me, and by doing so that he may learn something to his advantage.

I am, etc.,


*Who was Simon Fraser?
*Simon Fraser letters 2
*Simon Fraser letters 3
*Simon Fraser letters 4
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*Simon Fraser letters 8