Professor Roderick Cannon, one of piping’s foremost academics, has died after a short illness. He was 77.
Professor Cannon was born in England but had a strong Scottish background on his father’s side of the family. He was brought up in Eccles in Lancashire where his grandfather had convinced the local Boys Brigade company to adopt the pipes for their band instead of bugles. Roderick learned pipes from his father using music manuscripts written out by his uncle Angus, a WW1 veteran whose Henderson pipes were later bequeathed to Roderick.
This association with manuscripts came to fascinate the young Roddy – a fascination from which piping has received untold benefit. After a grammar school education Roderick won a place at Oxford, unusual for a northern lad from a family of few academics.
He studied chemistry, aside from piping and his family, his passion in life, and received a doctorate and later spent two years in the US furthering his studies. Whilst in Washington DC he joined the local St Andrew’s Society Pipe Band and played at all their dances and balls. On returning to the UK he found himself back at Oxford and was captivated by the extensive collection of bagpipes in the university’s Pitt-Rivers Museum. There he also encountered the work of Anthony Baines, the researcher charged with cataloguing the museum’s collection of pipes.
There were few other piping books in the university library but one was to spark a thirst for knowledge like no other – Joseph MacDonald’s Compleat Theory of circa 1760. Spellbound by this link with this golden age of piping, Roderick set to work copying it out in its entirety by hand. In 1973 an advertisement led him to his first Piobaireachd Society Conference and he often talked of the long journey from his home in Norfolk, the latter stages in the company of DR MacLennan and P/M Donald MacLeod who provided a lift from Glasgow.
There too, at Minard Castle, Roderick met other major piobaireachd figures of the age: Archie Kenneth, James Campbell, Kilberry, John MacFadyen and Seumas MacNeill. Enthralled at having found enthusiasts of a like mind, Roderick, threw himself into Society activities delivering papers at the conference and carrying out research for articles. They all displayed a thoroughness of approach, a mastery of detail, few in piping at that time could offer.
He was elected to the Society’s Music Committee and served diligently for over three decades acting as editor for a number of publications. Foremost of these was his edition of the very treatise that had sparked his fascination for ceol mor all those years ago, that of Joseph MacDonald. Taking this 18th century work and explaining it to the modern piper was no easy task. Roderick Cannon was more than up to it. The book received overwhelmingly favourable reviews and was an instant success when it was published by the Society in 1994. What appealed to this reader was the intelligence with which MacDonald’s sometimes obscure references were interpreted. They may have been the author’s calculated guesswork, but they all made so much sense.
Roderick, an ever-present at the Conference even as he became more frail in health, would always have time for a discussion on a tune and its roots, and he wisely seldom got involved in matters surrounding the competitive aspects of piobaireachd. He loved it for what it was, nothing else. His later books on the Donald MacDonald Manuscript were less well received than the Joseph MacDonald, but nevertheless still displayed all the scholarly application that ceol mor aficionados had come to expect from such a respected academic.
Roderick Cannon will be sadly missed and we extend our condolences to his family and friends.
Piobaireachd Society President Dr Jack Taylor:
Roderick Cannon’s death is a huge loss to the piping community. He was a prolific, avid, meticulous and persistent researcher on all things bagpipe. This was as well as being a physical scientist and one of the most charming men one could meet.
He wrote of his research beginnings – ‘No email, no online searching, and in the earliest days, not even photocopying. But trips to out-of-the-way libraries were always a pleasure’. This in response to receiving ‘Essays on the Bagpipe in England – A celebration of the pioneering work of Dr Roderick Cannon Ba., D.Phil’ from The Bagpipe Society.
So his interest extended beyond the Highland pipe, but I suspect this was his first love. He continued to play it regularly in later life, and he had just played Queen Anne’s Lament when we spoke on the telephone last year. He was annoyed that a small stroke had deprived his E finger of the necessary dexterity to make a speedy crunluath.
He will be remembered though for his books. ‘The Highland Bagpipe and its Music’ has a picture on the cover of a teenage Roderick, in Murray tartan kilt, playing outside Blair Castle. His greatest works were to follow – a rediscovery and re-analysis of ‘Joseph McDonald’s Treatise’, republication of Donald MacDonald’s book of 23 piobaireachd, and, for the first time, publication of Donald MacDonald’s Manuscript, all with detailed historical and musical notes. His wish was to discover what the old texts told, and he never compromised his academic principles.
He delivered this year’s College of Piping Lecture on The Music of John MacCrimmon (The Gesto Canntaireachd), and it is sad that he did not live to see the book’s publication later this year. This was but one of his many piping talks and lectures. His contributions to piping are too vast to list, but his long service on the Piobaireachd Society Music Committee must be mentioned.
Pipers have lost a colleague, a friend, a wise counsellor, a supervisor, and above all an enthusiast. Our sympathies are extended to Elizabeth and his family.
It was with great sadness I read the news of Roddy Cannon’s passing. I first met Roderick some 35 years ago and throughout this time he was always ready and willing to offer advice on any matter relating to the academic study of the bagpipe. The more obscure the question was, the more he seemed to relish the challenge of finding an answer. James Campbell, Kilberry, always held Roderick in the highest regard and would often refer to his writings, particularly ‘The Highland Bagpipe and it’s Music’, to illustrate points of importance.
I enjoyed a number of visits to Roderick’s home where his generous hospitality was always accompanied by his enthusiastic explanation of his latest area of study in meticulous, yet easily understandable detail. His skill as a university lecturer showed through in his ability to impart his deep knowledge of piping and pipe music with true passion.
Roderick was a long time member and supporter of the Scottish Piping Society of London, the committee and membership of which add their condolences to Elizabeth and the family. He will be greatly missed.
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