The music of John MacCrimmon, part 1


The music of John MacCrimmon – the ‘Gesto Canntaireachd

The 2015 College of Piping Lecture took place at the Birnam Hotel in Perthshire, Scotland in March of that year. Professor Roderick – Roddy – Cannon, who had been preparing his latest book for publication – The music of John MacCrimmon – the ‘Gesto Canntaireachd’ – delivered it on the above subject.

Roderick had been through a bout of bad health at this time and he died a few months later. On the night of his lecture, though, he was in fine form and spoke as eloquently and enthusiastically as ever. At one point he had the entire audience singing canntaireachd from the Gesto manuscript. He was aided by Dr. Jack Taylor, the then President of the Piobaireachd Society, who played tasteful musical pieces to accompany Roddy’s text.

Roddy’s manuscript is at an advanced stage of pre-publication and, as reported on Bagpipe.News last week, this is expected later this year. Here, then, is part 1 of Roddy’s lecture. Parts 2 and 3 will be posted subsequently:

By Roderick D. Cannon

Dunvegan Castle, Iain Dùbh MacCrimmon’s workplace. This is the view looking from the loch. The Sea Gate can be seen in the centre, just to the left, from where we can imagine MacLeod’s piper playing distinguished visitors ashore.

The picture above is, of course, Dunvegan Castle, and the singing [Roddy’s lecture began with singing echoing around the hall. Listen to it on the sound file, below. It takes 23 seconds before it kicks in – Editor] was by the late Calum Johnston, of Barra, recorded in the 1960s. It was canntaireachd, and this talk is about canntaireachd. More specifically, it is about a book — not surprising when you think who’s giving it. The book is famous by name throughout the piping world. I almost said infamous, because so many hard things have been said about it. But I hope to convince you that it’s unique and valuable as a pointer to the way piobaireachd was played, sung, taught, and thought about in the old days.

It’s a collection of tunes in canntaireachd, apparently taken down by dictation, direct from Iain Dùbh MacCrimmon. As such it’s the only music that we have from any MacCrimmon, and the only record of canntaireachd dictated by a piper of the classical era. I suggest that we have to take it very seriously indeed. I’m glad to say that a new edition with music transcriptions and commentary will be published very soon, by the Piobaireachd Society.

Of course, we all know what piobaireachd is, and we all know who the MacCrimmons were. They were hereditary pipers to the family of MacLeod of Dunvegan, established back in the mists of time, or more soberly around the year 1600, and it’s often said that they perfected the art of piobaireachd and handed it down in an unbroken succession, from Donald Mòr, to Patrick Mòr, to Patrick Òg, to Malcolm, and to Malcolm’s two sons, Donald Ruadh and Iain Dubh. There’s some documentation for this, but that’s another story, except to emphasise the detailed research in archives done especially by Ruaridh Halford MacLeod and Keith Sanger. Our man, Iain Dùbh, was the last of his line, the last of the old hereditary pipers. In modern times, of course, members of the family have taken up piobaireachd again, and with great distinction.

We would give a lot to know what exactly a hereditary piper was, and how he spent his time. We do know a bit, and if we are content to take fragments of evidence from different places and paint a picture, it comes out quite well. The piper was paid by having land rent-free. The top pipers employed people to work their land. They played for the chief on official occasions, and presumably went out to battle when that was the normal thing. A story told by Iain Dùbh himself has MacLeod’s piper leading a raiding party and ‘inviting’ – taunting more like – the Camerons to follow him, at The End of the Little Bridge. Iain also refers to a sort of state visit when the Marquis of Tullibardine came to Dunvegan and was greeted with a suitable tune. As Keith has now discovered, it happened in 1719, and Iain himself tells us that it was Patrick Òg who played the tune. And we have several accounts of pipers playing peaceably around castle precincts – various castles of various clans — or at dinner in the evening. My favourite is from Johnson and Boswell: “the piper played regularly when dinner was served, whose person and dress made a good appearance”. Anti-Scottish and anti-Johnson writers have made much of this damning with faint praise, but I am neither anti-Scottish nor anti-Johnson, and I’m always happy to have him as a witness. On another occasion Boswell adds a nice detail: while the piper was playing an old gentleman told the story of the tune, how the MacDonalds ambushed their enemies in a church, and burned it down with them still in it. So, of course, we know what tune it was — Cille Chriosda — and we’ll hear it played this evening. It also tells us that people felt free to talk while the piper was playing. Shocking behaviour, which we would never think of.

These are, perhaps, the actual pipes played by Iain Dùbh MacCrimmon and Patrick Mòr MacCrimmon, though, if so, they have been much modified in later times. A recent insight of Keith Sanger’s is that the hereditary pipers may not have actually owned the pipes they would normally play. The pipes might have gone with the job and been passed down the generations.

Iain Dùbh MacCrimmon is thought to have been born in about 1721, to have taken over piping and teaching in about 1772, and to have continued for some considerable time. There are two stories that throw some light on how things were with pipers in those days. The first story is to do with land values and salaries, and tells that MacCrimmon’s farm had risen so much in value that MacLeod decided to take half of it back for himself and leave MacCrimmon the other half. The dispute ended in MacCrimmon giving up the whole farm, though perhaps not his salaried piping career. The other story tells that MacCrimmon was married, but his wife died and he later married again (as he did, in c.1796). And in the pompous words of our informant, “he made what was reckoned a very low marriage for a MacCrimmon,” and we are to suppose that the family fortunes went downhill. I think if 1 was a descendant I would be rather indignant about remarks like that, but we only have the stories that we have. Both of them are told by a minister of the Established Church, and in official publications, so it’s not surprising if we hear everything from the landlord’s point of view. I would certainly like to hear Ian Dùbh’s side of it.

And this leads me to our second main character. Niel MacLeod was one of the minor landed gentry of Skye. There I’m using the present-day English term, but in Scots Law he was what was called a tacksman. He was born about 1767, and took over his land in 1787, his chief, or superior as they said, being MacLeod of Dunvegan himself. The farm of Gesto was quite large and prosperous — and here it will be as well to look at more maps.

Map of Skye and the Bracadale district. Gesto is near the bottom.

With all respect, and indeed with some affection, I have to admit that Niel MacLeod was a difficult character. His exploits included boundary disputes with his landlord, as result of which he finally lost his tack, and became not MacLeod of Gesto at all; then attempts to get money from the authorities who were setting up the new herring fishing industry; and rows with neighbours some of whom said that he if he didn’t give over they would resign their tenancies. But he also had something of a military career. At the beginning of the Napoleonic Wars, he wrote to the War Office to ask for a commission, and although I know little of such things I do find his letter a bit odd. In those days to start off as an officer it was a case of who were and who you knew; and you paid a particular sum of money, or produced a sufficient number of recruits to serve as ordinary soldiers. Gesto said he would rather be an officer than a farmer, said nothing about what useful qualities he might bring to bear, but did say he would only accept a commission high enough so that when he left he would be entitled to half-pay (= a pension for life)! In fairness, I don’t know how many other applicants were doing the same.

Anyway, he got his commission, as an ensign in a new regiment. I looked up his Army record. It was brief. October 1795 (by which time he had got into the 42nd), regiment in camp, Niel MacLeod appointed but not yet joined; November, regiment has set sail, but MacLeod is still at home recruiting for further promotion; from March to September 1796, ‘absent without leave’; and that’s it. Pretty soon he lost his command as all his men were assigned to different regiments. From then on he proudly styled himself, ‘Niel MacLeod, J.P., Captain, 1/2-pay, Independents’. Some later writers took this at rather more than face value and seem to have imagined that the Independents were some kind of corps which might charge into battle under that banner, but no, it just means, in effect, unemployed.

This is Niel’s portrait (right), presumably painted about 1795 when he was about 30-years-old. For the rest of his life he complained of being ill-used by the military, having offered his services repeatedly without success.

I mentioned that he eventually lost his farm. He moved to Stein, in Waternish, a settlement established for the new fishing industry, and there he seems to have owned, or at any rate held, a fair amount of property.

Niel gets a mention in a satirical poem by a local comic which went the rounds in the 1820s, attacking the new minister of the local parish church, a Mr Souter. Poor Mr Souter came to Duirinish in 1814, not knowing Gaelic, but he seems to have made a brave attempt (for which he has my admiration). Not brave enough for Gilleasbaig Aotrom (‘Archie the comic’), however, who wrote:

Nuair a théid thu dhan chitbaid
Ni thu urnaigh bhios gleusda
Bidh cuid dhith ‘na Gaidhlig
Is cuid dhith ‘na Beurla,
Cuid dhith ‘na Laideann
Is cuid dhith ’na Greugais
Is a’ chuid nach tuig cach dhith
Bheir i gair’ air Fear Gheusdo.

‘When you go to the pulpit you make a prayer that’s well polished. Part of it in Gaelic and part in English, part of it in Latin and part in Greek, and the part that nobody understands — it even makes the laird of Gesto laugh’, which was evidently no small achievement. The true pronunciation of Geusdo is with a long eu as in ‘gate’.

All in all, Gesto’s relatives, colleagues and superiors give him a pretty bad press, and he certainly provided the material. But I have been able to glean some more generous assessments. Our great friend, Alan Beaton, who died only recently, was a direct descendant of the family. He told me his father had a proverbial expression, Gliocas Fear Gheusdo, ‘the wisdom of the Laird of Gesto’ which could apply to anything witty or pungent that someone said, and the tradition in the area was, that however odd a character, Gesto had something of a rapport with the humbler people in the neighbourhood, to the extent that if someone was having trouble from his landlord, Gesto would be a good man to go to for advice. How good we do not know, but perhaps it’s not fanciful to suppose that Niel MacLeod could get along with John MacCrimmon, when other people could not.

Left: Gesto house, now in ruins. Right: View of Gesto farm. Gesto himself claimed that quite a large area had been his ancestral lands, but by the tie we get to know him it was probably more modest. If you stand on the side of Boust Hill here you are looking down at what must have been the best grazing area, with the house on the left and the farm steading in the centre.

Writers who came later lambasted each other furiously on the question of whether Gesto himself was a piper. They all seem to have agreed that if he hadn’t got his gold medals and clasps he needn’t waste people’s time by talking about the music. As this tiresome argument went on a reader wrote in to the Oban Times, who himself had come from Skye and heard the gossip in the ceilidh houses when Gesto and his followers were still remembered. And he contributed a sentence in Gaelic from what Gesto actually said when teaching:

Thoir gribeag air a’ mheur ’s bogadh air an lùdaig, togail air a’

chorraig, ’s buille chruaidh air màthair na lùdaig, is ni u ho dro ho.

He’s explaining how to play the opening phrase of that very well known tune Cogadh no Sith, ‘War or Peace’, The words agree with the music pretty well. The notes don’t have names like our A, B, C etc. They are called after the fingers. The little finger is lùdag, and our E- finger is màthair na lùdaig, ‘the mother of the little finger’; and the gracenotes are named in the same way. My own Gaelic teacher also has names for the fingers òrdag, sgalabhag, meur fad’, mac an Ad, lùdag. My conclusion for now is that Gesto did know something about piping, and could teach at least to some extent.

A point worth mentioning perhaps is that in that little quotation we hear the words of canntaireachd spoken, not sung. That must have been quite normal when tuition was given in Gaelic, and we have some hints of it also from Gaelic literature. Here is a bit of poem by John MacCodrum, a contemporary of John MacCrimmon. He is satirising (to put it politely) a bad piper who jammed the phrases together in a meaningless way

A’ sparradh o-draochain an earball o-dréchain,
A’ sparradh o-dròchain an toin o-dro-bhi

From Di-moladh air droch phiobaire.

Now, it is time for some music, and here is Dr. Jack Taylor with our first tune Cogadh no Sith – War Or Peace:

We just heard Jack play in the arrangement prescribed by Gesto, the ground repeated at intervals along the way, and at the very end the Crunluath a-mach interpreted from Gesto’s words. In thanking Jack I’d like to make it clear that while we discussed our selection of tunes together I tried to hold back from dictating how they should be played, especially when it comes to expression. I was sure I was going to learn as well as enjoy, and how right that was.

* Part 2 .
* Part 3.

• From the November 2015 Piping Times.