The music of John MacCrimmon, part 3

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By Roderick D. Cannon

When attempting to compare Gesto’s canntaireachd staff notation we have some helpful resources which we can call upon. There are some other written records of canntaireachd, especially one compiled by Angus MacKay consisting of short quotations of tunes. They are quite possibly from Angus’s father, but at any rate they are certainly authentic. Here are a couple of comparisons:

Gesto, tunes 10 and 20, and MacKay ‘Specimens.

There are too many interesting points to deal with here, but we can see at once a strong family resemblance.

Secondly, we have live recordings of canntaireachd from pipers who were piobaireachd players, Gaelic speakers and fluent users of canntaireachd. These were studied carefully by Kim Chambers, in her thesis at Edinburgh University in 1981. Here is just a short extract from one, collected in the 1970s.

The Bells of Perth with canntaireachd by Donald Ruadh Macintyre.

And here I’ve squeezed in just one that I recorded myself. It’s not piobaireachd, and the sound quality is terrible, so I won’t give you more than a few seconds. It’s an old piper from a travelling family in Perthshire, Henry MacGregor, who sang strathspeys and reels with great gusto:

I’ve played recordings like these to groups of students, some of whom, I’m sorry to say, were more amused than impressed. Of course they’re scratchy and under-rehearsed, but seriously, listening to recordings like this gives some insight into what the early collectors of our music had to go through. As old Henry MacGregor just said, “It’s easy for me playing but it’s no’ easy for me singing”. And even more seriously, what a lot of our music actually collected in just that way, then tidied up in writing and printing later on. We can only admire and thank those pipers, battling with old age, ill health, personal circumstances, but so keen to pass on what they knew.

In a moment I’ll discuss some of our own apparent difficulties and try to show that they are not as difficult as all that. But first let’s take a break from musicology and hear another tune.

Roddy’s score of Druim Thalasgair, Geto tune 15. Click to enlarge.

I had to do a certain amount of editing here. Nobody is required to take my judgments on trust, of course, and the new book will give all the information for anyone to go their own way. This tune is unique to Gesto; we don’t find anywhere else. However, it does have relationships to other tunes. In some ways it reminds me of The Battle of Waternish. And recently, Patrick Molard has discovered in the Campbell canntaireachd manuscript a tune (nameless, No. 16 in CC Book 1) which follows a similar pattern to Gesto’s tune, but uses different melody notes.

There’s a lot of food for thought there, but for the moment I’d rather hear the historical legend and listen to the music. Gesto calls the tune Drum Thaulsgire, which I read as Druim Thalasgair, ‘The Ridge of Tallisker’, and he provides a lurid legend. The MacDonalds had invaded the MacLeod territory in Waternish. The MacLeods fought back, and the MacDonalds rushed to their boats where they had landed at Ardmore. But the launching took too long, most of them were killed, and there on the beach, says Gesto, “some their bones have been frequently found”. Here’s a section of the map of Skye, and here a blow-up showing Ardmore Point.

Map of Waternish with, inset, Ardmore Bay.

The area is rich with traditions — terrible traditions. Let’s not romanticise the atrocities that happened in the days of clan warfare, but be glad of the great art that came out of some of them. Here on the map is a battlefield, Blàr Mille Gharaidh, and here is Trumpan church, one of the sites remembered for the burning of the MacDonalds that I mentioned earlier, and here, perhaps the most evocative, is Cnoc a’ Chatha, the Hill of the Battle. The photograph on the page opposite shows Ardmore Bay and the beach where the MacDonalds struggled to escape.

The beach at Ardmore Bay. In the far distance is Duirnish, where with the townships of Boreraig and Galtrigil are located.

The well-known Battle of Waternish comes to us through Angus MacKay, but Angus’s Gaelic name for it is Druim Thalasgair. That may sound like the sort of confusion that has caused earlier editors to despair of ever getting anything right in the history of piobaireachd. However, I don’t think it’s too bad. Think of our two ‘Park Piobaireachds’. Neither is a version of the other; they are just different, with things in common. The late Frans Buisman spoke of “parallel compositions”, and as so often, I think he was right. Anyway, here for us all to enjoy, is a snatch of Gesto’s Druim Thalasgair, in a recording very kindly provided by Decker Forrest:

Now I promised to mention some of the difficulties that confront us in Gesto, I don’t want to overstress these but rather to argue that some of them are actually telling us things that we otherwise wouldn’t know.

Here is a passage where notes are joined in pairs. I want to point out the letter v:

The ‘v’ is not put there to identify the pitch of the note. It’s a result of the vowel sounds before and after it. In English or Scots, if we say words like ‘owing’ or ‘doing’ we can hear a bit of ‘w’ between one syllable and the next. In Gaelic we tend to close the lips and produce a ‘v’ sound — hova, hovi. Thus we find choruses in Gaelic songs such as Morag of Dunvegan:

Hó bhan ‘s na hé bhan ó,
Hó bhan ‘s na hi ho ró,
Hó bhan ‘s na hé bhan ó,
‘S milse leam mo Mhorag.

I said earlier that canntaireachd is a language but I should make clear that the well known Campbell canntaireachd is not a language. It is, in fact, a code, a written notation which can be decoded to give us a precise version of the music. Specifically, it tells the notes of the melody and the gracenotes, throws etc, which are needed to perform it. This idea was first set out in detail by Frans Buisman, and indeed Frans went so far as to say that Campbell canntaireachd, as we call it, should not really be called canntaireachd at all. He himself preferred to call it Colin Campbell’s verbal notation. That’s contrary to what has often been thought, but I do wonder if the idea was completely new even in the inner circles of the Piobaireachd Society. Archibald Campbell, Kilberry, wrote an essay on the ‘Campbell Canntaireachd’ which he published in 1961, and he remarked that Colin Campbell, “deserved to be numbered among Scottish literary celebrities”. We’d all agree that he certainly did, but it’s that word ‘literary’ which I find suggestive. Were some people over-enthusiastic about the singing side, and did Kilberry feel more cautious? For a long time I, too, had the idea that Campbell’s was a written code. But I didn’t publish it. Frans did publish it, and he must get full credit for the discovery. In research, it is publication that counts.

Gesto chant and Campbell script.

Here I show a few more comparisons between Gesto and Campbell. One big difference is to do with the notes low A and low G. MacCrimmon often uses an N sound for both but Campbell distinguishes them, M for low G, N for low A. That’s convenient for us but very unrealistic in Gaelic. Campbell is forced to write things like ‘himdarid’ or ‘hinbare’, In Gaelic, the sound combination MB occurs regularly but MD generally doesn’t. And ND occurs regularly but NB doesn’t. We hear am balach, ‘the boy’, but an dorus, ‘the door’. In English and Scots we do the same thing when we say words like ‘embedded’ with M, but ‘endured’ with N. English is not systematic in this way, but Gaelic is systematic. A sound like ‘himda’ would simply not come to the lips of a Gaelic singer. Colin Campbell is coupling symbols in writing that he would never have coupled in singing. Notice, this is not a criticism of Colin. Quite the reverse, Colin has taken the traditional material to create something unique, a music notation that can be put into writing without using blobs and ticks on the five-line stave.

Back to Gesto, here are typical vocables for variations:

They do quite resemble Colin Campbell’s but we needn’t go into that just now. I’d just like to highlight another discovery of Frans Buisman’s that solved a long-standing mystery. The crunluath a-mach is this extraordinary word of seven syllables, ‘hodrotatateriri’. What’s going on? Who could possibly sing it? Frans’s  solution is that MacCrimmon didn’t sing the a-mach variation at all like that. In order to explain to Gesto what it was, he went through the movement slowly, lifting and lowering each finger, speaking or singing as he went — HO-DRO-TA-TA-TE-RL-RI. It’s so simple when someone like Frans has the idea. (This is one of the few places where I think William MacLean went off the rails. He invoked what he called a ‘crunluath breabach a-mach’).

Very occasionally Gesto does make a difference between low A and low G, not using N and M, but using two different vowels:

Low A and low G.

I think it’s mainly a difference of emphasis. We can imagine MacCrimmon singing the crunluath of Lament for the Union like this:

hindatiri hadatiri hodatiri, hindatiri hadatiri hodatiri, HUNdatiri hadatiri hodatiri …

with the HUN syllable louder to make the contrast with hin. Occasionally, Gesto also uses spelling to indicate the length of a note:

Short notes.

The double consonant is a feature of English spelling, not Gaelic — but we remember that although Gaelic was Gesto’s first language, he would only really have been taught to write in English.

Just to recap these points: Colin Campbell invented a system of writing the notes of pipe music clearly and consistently. Archibald Campbell (again) commented that Campbell and Gesto must “have a common origin, i.e. the MacCrimmons”. More cautiously, Frans Buisman agreed that Colin’s system must have been developed from a purely oral canntaireachd. He thought it would be possible to reconstruct Campbell’s oral system, but I don’t know that he ever did that.

Going back to Gesto’s text, I’ve deliberately left to the end the problem which many pipers today might think is the biggest of all, and for which, frankly, I don’t have an easy answer. The dreaded ‘Cadence-E’! When and where should it be played, and how? Is it long or short, before the beat or on it? Should we even talk about ‘beats’ in piobaireachd? I can be precise and clear only in or two cases. I’ll mention those here and in the book I’ll try and steer a way through the minefield.

In one tune at least I’m quite sure that MacCrimmon sang long, or longish, introductory notes which were probably E as they are today. That’s Gesto’s Tune 10, that we recognise as Duntroon’s Salute. Here’s how Gesto printed it, and how I’ve edited it:

Cadence E — Gesto Tune 10.

I can’t get away from singing two syllables like this:

hin-do ra-din hee-yin do, ho-dro-va-o hee-yin do…

Gesto himself is not very consistent in his spelling. Did MacCrimmon sing the tune more than once, in different ways? I’m happy to say ‘yes’ to that, but when it came to devising a text for pipers to play in the book that’s to appear, I did some tidying up. In another case I think cadence E’s were sung, but not always where we expect them. Here’s the ground of what we call In Praise of Morag, and here’s how I play it myself:

Cadence E? — Gesto Tune 2.

Put a cadence on bar 2, but not on bar 3, then on bar 4, not bar 5, etc, and I’m sure you’ll catch the rhythmic pattern, which, of course, is much easier to put across in singing than in playing. It makes good sense to me. But it does have the rather startling effect of leaving out the E in bar 5. Surely that’s a ‘hiharin’? Bad enough to play the E too short, or too long, but to leave it out altogether?! I think court martial and firing squad will be waiting for the editor who publishes that.

And finally, is it confirmed elsewhere that we can have the double beat on low A, with no cadence-E? Amazingly enough, the answer is yes. We have three tunes in which that happens. All are in Angus MacKay’s book of all places — and have been published by the Piobaireachd Society — and one at least is accepted by pipers today. That one is MacGregor’s Gathering, and it’s also one of the Gesto tunes. Here’s the start of it:

At the top you see what Alexander Campbell wrote when he visited Gesto, and at the bottom the way it will appear in the forthcoming book. The words of the song are Thàinig Griogalach, etc, with no room for a long E, but the canntaireachd is hodin hiererine, and that hiererine is Gesto’s regular spelling for the echo beat on A, otherwise known as eallach, hiharin or whatever.

Click to enlarge.

I’ll say no more about that tune, or that subject. I’d like to go straight on to our final tune, which is Cille Chriosda, or Glengarry’s March.

Of course, it’s very well known, much loved, and played in different ways within recent traditional memory. I’ve done some editorial things to it in the matter of gracing and timing, but I leave it to you to enjoy the music, and if anything seems amiss, make sure you aim your shots at me and not the piper!

The story of the burning of the church also varies and one legend puts it in Easter Ross, another in Skye — Waternish again. Please welcome Jack Taylor again, to play Cille Chriosda [Jack’s performance kicks in after 23 seconds – Editor]:

The cemetery and ruins at Trumpan..

Before I thank my supporters I’d just like to put my head on the block for the last time by reading a bit from the book:

Beyond … questions of piping repertoire and style, the major contribution of Gesto, it may be suggested, is the canntaireachd itself. Here we have the actual words sung by a traditional player. Later records in staff notation are of course vital, and without them there would be no piobaireachd today, but even so they have limitations, which the Gesto canntaireachd helps us to overcome. Everything we have learned about Gesto shows that he did his best to record what he actually heard, and in places the form of a vocable written by Gesto gives a clue to the sound of the music over and above what we can get from staff notation. Allied with the known music texts, the Gesto canntaireachd is the next best thing to a sound recording.

I’d like to thank the sponsors who have so generously ensured that the new book will indeed appear; Jack and Decker who have brought the tunes to life for us; and three people who have a special role: the late Frans Buisman with his meticulous scholarship; Mrs Nan MacQueen who has guided me so patiently through the Gaelic, and my daughter, Sarah, who is once again the Design Editor for this series of books.

• From the January 2016 Piping Times.

L-R: Dr. Jack Taylor, Roderick Cannon and Dugald B. MacNeill at the College of Piping Lecture, 2015.

* Part 1.
* Part 2.