The music of John MacCrimmon, part 2

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The music of John MacCrimmon – the ‘Gesto Canntaireachd’ — Part 2

By Roderick D. Cannon

We don’t know exactly when Niel MacLeod of Gesto started collecting his music or how long he spent on it. We do know, however, that the collection had taken shape by 1815, because in that year a musicologist from Edinburgh visited Gesto and saw it. The musicologist was a man called Alexander Campbell and he was collecting material for a book of Highland songs and music that he was going to publish. In a diary he gives us a brief pen-picture of Niel MacLeod and a complete copy of one tune which he calls The Camerons’ Gathering, better known to us now as Piobaireachd Dhomhnaill DuibhBlack Donald’s March. Here’s his first page, in his own writing:

(Click on all images to enlarge.)

The tune came out in print the following year, arranged for the piano and with words by Walter Scott. If we forget the piano arrangement, and also forget Campbell’s staff notation, the canntaireachd agrees very closely indeed with the tune we know from other sources.

The next we hear of the collection is in 1827 (a few years after the old piper’s death) when Niel MacLeod writes to the Highland Society asking for financial support to publish it.

With his letter [shown right] he sent three tunes — we don’t know which ones — but he makes the important statement that he has “nineteen of such tunes” (I think he must have meant to write “nine! more” because as we’ll see in a moment, the grand total we know of is 22) and he makes the even more important statement that he believes that he is the first person to have taken down tunes in this way. That sounds like one in the eye for Colin Campbell and his great manuscript of two volumes, but we’ll see later that Gesto had a point.

With his usual genius for getting things wrong (or perhaps just for being pushed around) he didn’t get the money, or at least not soon enough. He published his book himself, then asked for a grant in retrospect, which he did get, but only just.

And before we look at the book I’ll just mention that in response to some request, Gesto also wrote a brief set of historical and traditional notes on the tunes. After many vicissitudes, that manuscript is now safe in the National Library, and here’s a page of it:

We now need to take to look at the book. I have here a bound copy of the first edition, which now belongs to the Piobaireachd Society. Only three other copies are known. All known copies have notes in Gesto’s hand, recording how he gave them as presents to friends. We are left to wonder whether he really sold any copies at all!

The title page of the 1828 book.

Here we see how Gesto sets out his stall’ saying who and what John MacCrimmon was. The tunes are “taken” — that’s his word — “from John McCrummen, piper to the old laird of MacLeod and his grandson, the late General MacLeod of MacLeod”, and it continues with a rather nice subtitle telling us his hope “that those ancient relics may be thus preserved for future generations, and tend to keep up and foster that spirit which they have in former times, and are still so well calculated to excite”.

Tune 1, Luinagiech i.e. Luinneagach.

And here’s the first page [see left], showing how the text was laid out, in lines like poetry, just words with no music.

Now, while trying to hold back on detail, I’d like to take you behind the scenes and show how we go about interpreting an old source. You can judge the results for yourselves, partly by listening to the music tonight, and in due course by reading the book.

Canntaireachd is a language and we need to learn to read it. Several people have worked on it already. There was John Francis Campbell of Islay who wrote a lengthy pamphlet in 1880; an enthusiast named Charles MacIntyre North who had some very sensible things to say; Dr. Charles Bannatyne – less sensible; and a man in Australia named Simon Fraser who learned the pipes over there from Peter Bruce, a piper who came from Gesto’s own circle. In this photograph Simon is holding up, presumably, his copy of Gesto’s book, but the picture has been edited – by hand, in those pre-Photoshop days. The book has been labelled ‘Pipe Language’. Perhaps those words tell a story. Those were the days when archaeologists were making great discoveries in ancient history, reading old manuscripts and forgotten scripts. To think that we pipers had our own secret script! Simon Fraser seems to have thought so and a good deal has written both for and against him. Among the many names are G. F. Ross, A. K. Cameron, Pipe Major Willie Gray, Archibald Campbell, Barrie Orme and William Donaldson. I don’t want to go down their roads tonight, except to mention the latest sympathetic but balanced assessments by Bridget MacKenzie in her book, Piping Traditions of the Isle of Skye. Perhaps the most objective of the early students was Pipe Major William MacLean (c.1877-1957). He was a top piper who won the Gold Medal in 1901, and he started to write a full-length transcription. Here is a sample of his work:

Willie MacLean MS, Tune 4.
Simon Fraser with his son, Jack in 1908.

I understand he offered it to the Piobaireachd Society in its early days but received no encouragement. In some ways William MacLean’s study was the best because he was not afraid to amend quite drastically when he saw that something had gone wrong. He said that he was going to give details to show where he made the amendments, but sadly he left the work unfinished and that was the main thing he didn’t do.

I have found all these earlier works very interesting but after a good deal of trial and error I decided to start again with a clean sheet and only go back to the earlier editors for comparison.

What we want is a Rosetta Stone. That, of course, is the famous stone that was discovered in Egypt when scholars were first beginning to decipher the old Egyptian scripts. As you see it has three inscriptions and the breakthrough came when scholars realised each inscription was saying much the same thing in three languages. At the bottom, Greek, which was understood; above it popular Egyptian which was harder but do-able; and at the top hieroglyphics, which had been a complete mystery.

Well, in Gesto we also have our Rosetta Stone, and it’s much easier. What I mean is that among the 20 tunes about half are easily recognisable, some even with names we still know. Here’s the list with some names emboldened.

I Luininagieh alias Aultich
II Royal Oak that saved King Charles
III Coghiegh na Shie, War or Peace …
IV Macleod of Gesto’s Gathering
V Macleod of Gesto’s Lamentation
VI The Union of England with Scotland
VII Kiaunidize [= Ceann na Déise]
VIII Lamentation for Donald Macleod of Greshernish
IX Donald Groumach
X Lasan Phadrig Chiegch
XI Marquis of Talibeardin’s Salute …
XII Kiaunma Drochid a Beig
XIII Lamentation of Mac Vic Allister [= Glengarry]
XIV Caugh Vic Righ Aro, a Lament
XV
XVI Isabel Nich Kay
XVII Lament for King James [Departure]
XVIII Lament for the Laird of Ainapole
XIX Tumilin o’Counichan
XX Kilchrist

Besides the tune we’ve heard tonight [War or Peace], others stand out: Donald Gruamach’s March, The Marquis, Isabel MacKay, MacGregor’s Salute. Lay them against the familiar versions from Angus MacKay and others, and we make progress straightaway. Here’s how it goes with Donald Gruamach:

In fact, we can sing it out with complete confidence: himbotrao hi-o-dro, hodro radin h-i-odin, hindo botria …

and from that and the variations, and the other tunes, we get the basic scale. It varies a bit depending whether the melody note comes on the down beat of the music or the upbeat. Notice how the vowels change as you go up. O and A at the bottom, IE and I at the top. If you sing the scale you can feel your mouth muscles tightening more as you go up in pitch. It’s natural. Then we get, easily enough, the grips and throws:

Vocables dro, tro, dra, tra. etc.

As we go up the scale the spellings change progressively from dr- to tr-. That, too, is natural, as the sound ‘dr’ is lower-pitched than ‘tr’. The consonant sounds have not been chosen by an editor to tell us which note is which. They have crept in, I’m sure, as a by-product, and I take it that they are a sign that Gesto was writing down faithfully what he could hear.

• Part 3.
• Part 1

March 20, 2015, the Birnam House Hotel, Perthshire. Roddy delivering his lecture.

• From the December 2015 Piping Times.