By Bridget MacKenzie
This article is based to a large extent on material kindly supplied by George Moss’s nephew, Jim (Hamish) Hamilton, Aberdeen, to whom I give my thanks
George Moss (1903-1990) was an important figure in Highland piping who has not received the recognition due to him. Such men as he, too frequently dismissed as mad eccentrics because they held true to traditional teaching in the face of advancing modernisation, are now being reconsidered and attracting fresh attention. John Johnston in Coll was one of them, George Moss another. He continued to play piobaireachd in the old style, with its richness of ornamentation and musical phrasing, as well as the (so-called) redundant A, the spread birl and other details scorned by the modernists — and he continued to assert that he was right and they were wrong, or, at the very least (since he was a courteous man) misguided.
His vast store of knowledge was either disparaged or ignored, and he suffered, too, from having a non-highland surname — despite his impeccable piping pedigree and an abundance of highland genes in his ancestry.
The surname Moss came into the family in the early 1870s when a girl called Christina MacKay married Archer Moss. She was a maid at the big house of Guiseachan, Tomich – near the mouth of Glen Affric, lnverness-shire, at the head of Strath Glass, some 20 miles south-west of Beauty. Archer was an English footman, brought in from the south by the Tweedsmouth family who owned the Guiseachan estate. They came north every summer for the ‘Season’, fishing and stalking, and brought with them their household of servants.
Christina and Archer Moss had a son called Kenneth, but when the boy was only an infant, his mother died. The child was then brought up at Guiseachan by his MacKay grandparents (Christina’s father was a gardener there), and before long Archer’s employers took him back south, never to return.
When Kenneth grew up he, too, became an estate gardener. He married Margaret MacKenzie, whose mother was of the piping Frasers. They had several children, including their son George and their daughter, Mary, who became the mother of Jim (Hamish) Hamilton.
Kenneth’s in-laws were the piping Frasers, pipers to Lord Lovat; their ancestry included David and William Fraser, Lovat’s pipers in the ’45. They were also related to Simon Fraser in Australia. Simon’s father Hugh Archibald Fraser, before he emigrated 1832, had been a friend of lain Dubh MacCrimmon and Neil MacLeod of Gesto. ln Australia, Simon learned piobaireachd from Peter Bruce, whose father Alexander was a first-class player, a MacCrimmon pupil.
The Fraser pipers in Scotland had extensive knowledge and were renowned for their skill. They did not enjoy as much prestige as the MacCrimmons, who were prolific composers, nor were they as famous as the MacGregors, the Maclntyres or the MacKays, all in the public eye as successful competitors, but they made their mark in the piping world.
Most of the Frasers known to us belonged to the comparatively small area of Strathglass, the parish of Kilmorack, around the village of Beauly, on the border between Easter Ross and lnverness-shire, and many of them were associated with the Fraser chief, Lord Lovat, at Beaufort Castle. They must have suffered during the years after the ’45 Rising which led to the execution of Lovat and confiscation of his lands. In 1757, however, Lovat’s son Simon was able to raise 800 men, with ‘thirty pipers and drummers’ (How many of each?) to form a new regiment, the Fraser Highlanders. They went off to Canada, where they still make their mark on Canadian (and world) piping.
Two pipers not recruited for the regiment, possibly too old in 1757, were Lord Lovat’s favourites, the brothers David and William Fraser. Lovat described David as “a very modest pretty [= handsome] young fellow, my piper and domestic [indoor servant]”, and of William, in 1740, he wrote “a very excellent lad an excellent Piper certainly one of the best pypers in Scotland”.
Lovat had planned in 1743 to send David, then in his twenties, to Malcolm MacCrimmon in Skye, but this scheme came to nothing when the ’45 Rising intervened. Both brothers were sent south to fight for the Jacobites throughout the campaign ; both survived unscathed (and unpunished) and came home, David to live in Kirkhill, near Beauly, and William on the family farm at Wester Dounie, both within easy walking distance of the castle. William, the elder brother, was still living in 1768. but it is not known when he died: David survived until 1812, when he died at 96, still with all his faculties. He was the composer of Lord Lovat’s Lament, presumably made in 1747 when Lovat was beheaded. The lament was popular with competing pipers throughout the next two centuries.
Clearly, the Fraser piping tradition continued to flourish, as in later years several Fraser pipers distinguished themselves in various ways — though not as competitors on the boards. The well-known 19th century pipe-maker, Duncan Fraser, worked in Greenock, where he was a friend of Donald Cameron’s brother Sandy (who kept an inn in Greenock). Duncan belonged in the north, being one of a line of illegitimate Frasers in Strafhglass, where he had learned his trade as a pipe-maker and was known as a piper himself before he moved south. He made a pipe for the young Archie MacNeill, and there was a comment about the modern appearance of his instruments. Duncan died in 1901, aged 81.
Two prominent army Pipe Majors were Frasers from the Beauly area (when a record states a person was born in Beauly, it often means merely that the birth or baptism was registered there; the child may have been born anywhere in the parish, up to 25 miles away).
Gregor Fraser joined the Gordon Highlanders in 1856, and was their Pipe Major for ten years (1867-1877), described as “a fine stamp of a Highlander”. The ‘Notices of Pipers’ quote the History of the Gordon Highlanders as saying he was “a Pipe Major of the old school, whose quaint remarks and pithy sayings were long remembered”. He retired in 1877, to live on Culloden Moor, near Inverness.
Henry Fraser, known as Harry, was born in the Aird, the district to the south- east of Beauty and part of the Lovat estate which includes Beaufort Castle. Harry was one of the Lovat Fraser pipers at Beaufort, but left to join the Scots Guards in 1882. He was Pipe Major of the 1st Battalion for ten years (1888-98) and then Pipe Major in the 2nd Battalion from 1898 to 1903. He retired to become Pipe Major of the Lovat Scouts, based in Beauty.
The piping Frasers in the Beauly district were related by various marriages over the years to the piping MacDonalds in Glenurquart, to whom John MacDonald, lnverness, belonged.
There were piping Frasers in Gairloch, Wester Ross, as well. Duncan Fraser in Talladale, on Loch Maree, was himself listed as a piper in 1880, and his forebears had been connected by marriage to the family of lain Dall MacKay, the Blind Piper of Gairloch, whose wife was a Fraser. Another piper, Kenneth Fraser, probably Duncan’s brother, lived not far away, at Shieldaig on the south side of the Gairloch. It is not known if these Gairloch Frasers had links with Beauly.
George Moss’s grand-uncle, Alick Fraser (1830-1926), was an important figure in a long line of Fraser pipers; he had a strong influence on George, training him in both playing and knowledge of the music. From the age of five, the boy was desperate to learn about piping, so his parents sent him to spend each summer with his Fraser kin. His father’s employment as an estate gardener meant frequent changes of venue, with concentrated activity during the spring and summer months; George’s interest in piping gave him stability and continuity, with his mother’s family, when his father’s attention had to be elsewhere.
Following several years at Taymouth Castle, Kenneth Moss went to Achnacarry, as head-gardener to Cameron of Lochiel. it was there, around 1912, that George, living on the estate, began his association with Sandy Cameron and the rest of Lochiel’s pipers. Sandy, son of the great Donald Cameron, had fallen on hard times, and had been found destitute in London, by Lochiel’s son.
The Camerons took him in to Achnacarry and put him in charge of the dogs. It was said that one day he was exercising four or five of the estate dogs on leads, with all the loops twisted round his right hand, when a hare got up and the dogs took after it. The leads tightened round his hand and crushed it, so that he was never able to play the pipes again. The Camerons gave him a pension, and kept him at Achnaharry until his death.
Sandy Cameron was an alcoholic (like his brother Keith), and although Campbell of Kilberry claimed to have much information from him about the nature of piobaireachd, it was said at the time that Lochiel lent him Sandy for a mere three weeks, and the information given was possibly not always accurate, depending on how much drink he was given at Kilberry.
For more than nine years, the young George Moss, with his thirst for piping knowledge, had the benefit of talks with Sandy, as well as instruction from him, to add to all that he had been given by the Frasers. This was at the same time as he was going each summer to his Fraser relations ; he received particularly good tuition from his grand-uncle, Alick Fraser, at Guiseachan. Alick, from his ancestors, had inherited the piobaireachd chant (canntaireachd), which he could sing from the age of 10, and he passed it on to George. Throughout his life, George always stated that all that he received from Alick Fraser was essentially the same as what was taught by Sandy Cameron.
Sandy Cameron told George that his father, the great Donald Cameron (1810-1868) received tuition, early in life, from a Fraser (“a relation of my own” said George”) who was taught by his relative, David Fraser, piper to Lovat. This is likely enough, since the Frasers and Camerons lived in the same district, and certainly would have known each other. George added: “It was commonly told that Donald had said that the Frasers were more reliable than the MacKays, and that John MacKay was well ahead of Angus in pibroch matters”.
George was a clever boy, whose parents felt he was destined for higher things than gardening for a living. When he left school, he applied for work with the Bank of Scotland. He passed the banking examinations with distinction, and was offered a position, but the stipulation was that he had to wear a dark suit, white shirt and tie for his work – and he would not receive any pay until the end of his first month of employment. “So how will l be able to buy a suit and shirt and tie?” he demanded. When no solution was offered, he told the bank what they could do with their job. He went to serve his time in horticulture, to the great disappointment of his parents.
In his adult life, George continued in his quest for piping knowledge, and followed up every chance to discuss the subject with experts. He once took a job with the forestry near Oban in order to be near John MacColl, from whom he had tuition – though John warned him that as a professional earning his living from piping, he had to conform to the new rules, although brought up in the older tradition. Later, George went to Angus MacRae, in Callendar, another first-class player. [Angus was born on Harris but later lived in the Stirlingshire village of Callendar – Editor].
George was an accomplished Gaelic scholar who could write with equal ease in both English and Gaelic. During his lifetime he contributed to various Gaelic publications, such as the Gaelic journal Gairm. He also participated in various forums dealing with Gaelic topics on Radio Highland. And he maintained a lively flow of correspondence on piping subjects to many of the papers and magazines of his day: he wrote frequently to the piping column of the Oban Times, and the International Piper, where he crossed swords with several so-called piping authorities of the day.
An interesting example of these exchanges of view appeared in the letters column of the International Piper in 1979, July to September issues, where piping musicologist, R.W. Gould King, was presenting a series of articles on ceol mor. George Moss’s responses make interesting reading. George had criticised some aspects of Gould King’s account as being “interesting but unreliable”. He then explained why the term Crunluth Duinte should not be given to the movement gAdCeafaE, “for two reasons. 1. Because it is not a ‘duinte’ but a corrupt form of ‘fosgailte’, and 2. Because the name has been applied correctly to the real ‘Crunluth Duinte’ for the last four centuries.” He then explained this more fully. “The ‘fosgailte’ type of variation opens from (usually) low A, or low G, up to the melody note, hence the name. The ‘duinte’ type closes from the melody note down to (usually) low A, or low G, hence the name. Also, it does not agree with what Sandy Cameron actually played and taught”.
This brought a response from Gould King: “Mr. Moss implies that he has not only heard Alexander Cameron play, but was taught by him. Perhaps Mr. Moss would state where and when these events took place.” We might have expected Mr. King to have done his homework: there was no need to question George’s integrity in this insulting manner — but this letter shows what George was up against. Gould King went on: “Whatever was done four centuries ago, like the so-called redundant A is no longer done today. I would suggest that Mr. Moss would achieve more if he adopted a more positive attitude whereby his criticisms are supported by facts.”
George responded: “Mr. Gould King’s comments on a tune from D. MacDonald’s MS. were excellent, except where he brought in those Kilberryisms that do not occur in, or have any connection with, MacDonald’s or any other M.S.”
Reading through the correspondence as published in the International Piper in 1979, George comes out of it better than his adversary. Eventually, George wrote: “l regard Mr. King with respect. He comes out in the open, unlike some other P.S. [Piobaireachd Society] people who brush the truth under the carpet, and suppress, victimise, or ignore, all who prefer the real thing to any interior imitation”. It is not surprising that he was disliked by the piping establishment.
These exchanges of letters form another parallel between George Moss and John Johnston. Both wrote many letters about the state of piobaireachd, a subject close to their hearts, and from the writings of both we have the impression of fine intellect going to waste, a feeling of frustration from lost opportunities, perhaps of being cut off from the mainstream of piping life. Both had great knowledge and great skill, but others with less received more recognition.
George Moss lived for many years in Ross Cottage, at Charleston, on the northern shore of the Beauty Firth, the village immediately to the west of North Kessock, looking across the water to Inverness. There as a teenager, and beyond, Jim Hamilton used to visit his uncle for piping instruction. He learned an enormous amount about piobaireachd, both the techniques and the theory, from his uncle, passing on his vast knowledge. George had other pupils, both privately and at local schools.
Some of his knowledge was recorded for the School of Scottish Studies in Edinburgh, in an interview with Peter Cooke, and part of the interview was published as an audio tape in 1978. Extracts from this tape were broadcast by the BBC in the 1980s. The discussion demonstrated the depth of the detailed understanding that George had of the intricacies of piobaireachd. He spoke with the confidence of a master, of one who had pondered long on the reasons for each detail.
George competed with a fair degree of success in his teens and early 20s, but opted out when he began to be ridiculed by those in authority who informed him that his ceol mor interpretation was now “irrelevant”. Ironically, however, he did make a brief appearance at Oban in 1933, and was placed third in a special piobaireachd competition organised that year by the Piobaireachd Society. First prize went to Pipe Major J. B. Robertson. This was the last time George competed.
In the early 1950s, George suffered a serious lung condition which rendered him unable to blow a pipe or chanter for the rest of his life. By 1983 his eyesight had deteriorated so badly that he was almost blind. Despite this, he still maintained a lively correspondence on piping topics, writing with the aid of a powerful magnifying glass.
It was not only George’s ‘old style’ playing which led the piping establishment to under-rate him. He suffered also, most unjustly, because of his name. Seumas MacNeill, for example, once said he couldn’t be taken seriously because his name didn’t begin with ‘Mac’ (Seumas, whose piping pedigree could not approach George’s). Certainly, other good pipers with names not starting with Mac- were penalised: David Mather, for instance (but he had the additional handicap of an English accent), John Bain, an excellent player from Applecross, piper to Lord Middleton, was highland to the core, but when he entered competitions his employer made him prefix Mac- to become MacBean. Willie Boa, in Poolewe, was obliged by his laird to compete under his mother’s name, MacRae.
The main reason, however, that George Moss was not considered ‘sound’ was his determined opposition to the modern doctrines on the Kilberry school as published by the Piobaireachd Society, and he was not alone in this (though probably the most vociferous). He felt strongly that the new standardised versions of ceol mor were killing the music, and, being George, he did not hesitate to say so. He was not, however, rigid or narrow-minded in his views. For example, although he believed the open C was correct and was played in the old days, he himself played (and taught his pupils to play) the closed C, because he felt it was better suited to modern chanters. He indignantly refuted Tommy Pearston’s claim that the open C was a false note – and D. R. MacLennan supported George in this.
Many of George’s letters have survived in which he expresses his dismay, his dislike of the music as published by the Piobaireachd Society. A typical example: in response to a comment that no piper of any standing now would consent to play the so-called ‘redundant A’, George let fly: “This ought to be, ‘No piper with adequate knowledge would omit that note’. Pupils of Robert Reid play it. Sandy Cameron’s real pupils all played it & their pupils still play it. In short, your use of the term piper of any standing is incorrect and misleading.”
On the playing of the shake on low A (also known as the hiharin) George wrote:
“Writing the shake on low A as E-A, in a tune from a M.S. which gives it as AAA, is falsification. So is the cutting out the middle note in Taorludh, when all MSS have that note. Writing low A shake as E-A means transferring, to the E grace-note preceding it, the beat belonging to the 1st melody note A, the traditional teaching was that the cadence E is never stressed, but flows smoothly between beats …
“Mr. P. Cooke’s suggestion that the shake on low A may have been played differently in different positions, by some players, is possible, but irrelevant. That is, I would not be concerned with the possibility of mis-timings, etc, played by somebody somewhere sometime. I am interested in the correct way, or ways; and transferring, to an E gracenote preceding it, the duration and accent belonging to the melody note is not one of them.
“Sandy Cameron played different versions and timings for his own amusement. Both he and John MacColl stated that the correct, orthodox, original melody notes of MacLeod’s Salute, as played by the old masters were A A A B A G
and their timing was not altered by embellishing them with cadence GED gracenotes.
The mistiming you mentioned
was named ‘Donald Mor’s Rundown’ by some one with inadequate knowledge of his subject. He omitted to mention that that particular corruption did not arise until about 200 years after Donald Mor’s time.
“No matter how Angus MacKay wrote that group of notes, in his playing he put the beat on the low A where it belongs. Even when he wrote the E grace-note as a melody note, he gave it only half the duration (length) that Kilberry & Piob Socy give it. You may ask, how do I know how Angus played. The answer to that is: from Sandy Cameron. He heard Angus playing in his (Sandy’s) father’s house at Brahan, near Dingwall. His father, Donald Cameron, was the last piper to the last Lord Seaforth, in Brahan Castle. Sandy was very young then, but Angus MacKay’s methods of playing were fixed in his memory, by his father and brothers discussing them, not only at the time, but frequently afterwards”.
George fought a good battle against the modern trend, but in vain, and in doing so he lost credibility with the piping establishment. Although many pipers agreed with him, some of them were obliged to teach in the new style while privately adhering to the older, such as Willie Ross at the Castle [Edinburgh]. Willie taught the new style to his pupils entering for competitions but when tuning his own pipe he would go into the older style – and his mother, who had taught him much of his piping, hated the new style and was constantly reproaching him for teaching “such rubbish”. Since his job as piping instructor in the Army School was funded by the Piobaireachd Society, and he was preparing his pupils for competitions, Willie had no choice but to conform, to his mother’s disgust.
One famous player who does seem to have recognised George as an authority was the great John MacDonald, lnverness. ln September 1948, shortly before the Northern Meeting, he held a small gathering of some leading players, mainly his own pupils, at his house in the town’s Percival Road to discuss the best interpretations of such difficult and controversial works as Red Hand in the MacDonald Arms and Lament for the Laird of Anapool. Those invited included the ‘two Bobs’ from Balmoral (Robert Nicol and Robert Brown), Donald MacLeod (who won the Clasp a few days later) and William M. MacDonald, lnverness, all of them John’s pupils — and John’s friend Willie MacLean.
One who was not a pupil and must have been invited for his expertise, was George Moss. This tells us that John appreciated George’s deep knowledge of piobaireachd traditions, and accepted him as an authority. Even though John himself, whose salary was paid by the Piobaireachd Society, was obliged to teach the Society’s settings, it is clear that he had reservations; this inclusion of George Moss on his panel of experts shows that John still held the old style of playing in high regard, and realised that George was a fountain of knowledge on the subject. This must have been one of the few occasions when George felt his worth had been fully acknowledged.
An amateur player and judge who agreed with George Moss’s views was Somerled MacDonald — and Seton Gordon made a stand, which cost him his place on the Music Committee [of the Piobaireachd Society].
Today, George’s nephew and pupil, Jim Hamilton in Aberdeen, can play piobaireachd in either style, and in his teaching he makes sure his pupils are aware of the differences. He feels he owes it to his uncle.
• From the March 2015 Piping Times.