A major problem that faces all editors of piobaireachd from Joseph MacDonald onwards is how to accurately express a fluid and free rhythm within the ridged barred structure of written music. Joseph was certainly aware of it. According to his elder brother Patrick, who had the problem of turning the collection of Gaelic song airs left by his brother into the published work, Joseph had attempted in his manuscript to accurately reproduce what was sung. (Now there is a manuscript worth finding if it still exists).
Of course none of this would have been a problem for the composers and players of the pipe music which subsequently has come down to us today. Their world was comprised of predominantly monoglot Gaelic speakers within a still relatively strong indigenous and mostly aural culture. Musically, apart from dance and work songs which need some sort of ‘beat’, the principal ‘medium’ was song. But although the sung verse and its accompanying music were bound together as one, at that time it was the words that were of prime importance. They were listened to and had to be understood, therefore the performance was word driven, that is, the music adapted to the sung words rather than the other way around.
Traditional Gaelic song therefore had a free rhythm where the tune could vary from verse to verse. To a piper, how he played or ‘sung’ when using canntaireachd was a natural extension of this musical flexibility. So when the Campbell Canntaireachd first came to the attention of the modern piping world it was viewed, apart from bringing to light a number of lost tunes, as an authentic way back to that earlier time.
It is always easy to criticize as a result of hindsight, but the modern research notably by Frans Buisman has shown that what appears in the manuscripts is an adapted written notation rather than what was actually sung.
But those who first attempted to transcribe what was there into a modern written musical form deserve some credit. They were not examining it as a study of written ‘canntaireachd’ as a medium, but were simply trying to reconstruct the music, especially those lost tunes. With the state of knowledge available at that time, their assumption that it was a standard form of canntaireachd, and that what was in the CC manuscripts were what was ‘sung’, is understandable. But from then on in the early Piobaireachd Society circles the die was cast.
In reality there were probably quite a number of different versions with a much stronger oral Gaelic base. As it is put by Rona Lightfoot in a translated quote by Josh Dickson in his ‘When Piping Was Strong’
‘You know how the canntaireachd is in the PS Book…… I can’t make head or tail of it…….I have no need of it. I keep my own canntaireachd, [My teacher] Angus Campbell would understand it [my own canntaireachd], my brother would understand it……[anyone] anywhere else would understand it, so long as they speak Gaelic. It’s as if you make a word of the note’.
It is here that we can return to the quote from Eric Hamp used in the previous bout of impishness: the vocables merely had to convey the melody and placement of the decorations. To someone immersed in that cultural environment, they already knew how to play the embelishments in the same way that today pipers know what to play when ‘T’ or ‘C’ is placed below the musical stave. But what was far more important is that canntaireachd could convey every musical nuance which is far more difficult to capture using written music.
Canntaireachd would therefore have been a primary means of transmission and at that time not just restricted to pipers. Anyone could ‘sing’ canntaireachd, and in that aural culture that included both sexes. There is an account of when John MacKenzie was a pupil of John MacKay, how MacKay would turn his back to the pupils while playing and his sister would sing the words of the canntaireachd while her brother played. The possibilities which existed in that aural environment are best imagined through a hypothetical story in which each individual stage is perfectly feasible.
MacCrummen’s mother in law is visiting her daughter in Skye. MacCrummen has just composed a new tune and it’s a stotter, but he is only playing it within the family as he wants to keep it unnamed until the next ‘big’ event that MacLeod at Dunvegan wants commemorated with a tune. For once a mother approves of something her daughter’s husband has done and proceeds to learn the tune herself in canntaireachd. On returning home she sings it to her son who is also a piper who agrees that it has the makings of a great tune. He in turn learns to sing the tune from his mother and when he has it, gets his pipes going and with the canntaireachd singing in his head lets it flow out through his fingers onto the chanter. Now though he has a choice to make, does he give it a name and if so should it give some sort of nod to MacCrummen? Well, he remembers that although the idea of copyright in Gaeldom was first established by the actions of Columba, that was for tangible words written on calf skins. With music aurally transmitted there was no written evidence and he could in any case always blame it on his mother’.
So, just a story for Christmas, but possible within the cultural environment of the time. Not though repeatable today. Even including Ireland it would now be impossible to find a monoglot Gaelic speaker, let alone a whole community of them which was also untouched by the communication methods of this modern world. It is a past which can never be recaptured.