P/M William MacLean and the Gesto Canntaireachd

Robert Wallace: William MacLean’s transliteration of the Captain Niel MacLeod of Gesto MS was  produced by him in 1910. A copy has been in my possession for some 30 years and, as others who have similar will testify, the work is neatly laid out in a delicate hand. MacLean has edited what he sees as omissions and errors in the tunes and marked these with inverted commas.

There are 20 tunes, all eminently playable, and a fulsome introduction. In this he refers to the Rev Alastair MacGregor, ‘a recognised authority on pipe music’ who met MacLeod of Gesto on many occasions, 1831 – 35 in Edinburgh, and wrote of his (MacLeod) having ‘a large manuscript collection of the MacCrimmon piobaireachd, as noted by themselves…..’.

MacLean avers, ‘here then, one should think, is clear proof that Captain MacLeod did not write the tunes, as some have maintained, from the chanting of MacCrimmon……they are undoubtedly extracts from the MSS of these celebrated composers.’ Fascinating, if fanciful, to think that the MacCrimmons actually had pre-Nether Lorn manuscripts of their own and that their beautiful tunes were, in their day, passed on not solely by oral tradition as the received wisdom would have it.

Quoting the research of the Rev. Neil Ross (my how these piping ministers neglect their flocks) MacLean goes on to give detailed descriptions of the MacCrimmons as first ‘in time and importance’ of all the accepted piping families.

Though no doubt there will be some errors in MacLean’s work, it is deserving of our attention. He was, after all,  taught by Calum Piobair and left us the famous ‘porridge spoon’ description of his time spent under his tutelage at Cat Lodge. This and the recordings of his playing by the School of Scottish Studies, Edinburgh University, provide a vivid link with piping in the 19th century. They have helped debunk the debunkers intent on subverting the ceol mor tradition as we know it.

The fact that we know he was one of the top pipers of his day and was taught in the traditional manner by such an authority as Calum Piobair gives his work special meaning for pipers. In short, he was a player. He knew what would cut it in performance and what would not. The result is a book of tunes which are easily playable from the page by anyone with a reasonable ceol mor education.  I hope they will find favour with pipers interested in alternative – but easy to follow – settings of the great music and that William MacLean’s ‘labour, not of necessity, but of the greatest pleasure and interest’ will have been worthwhile. Download the book for free here. You can also download the original Gesto Canntaireachd, the book from which MacLean worked, from the ppresshop gratis.

MacLean’s Gesto Introduction

The William MacLean  transliteration of the Gesto MS has a  front
cover which reads: ‘A Collection of Piobaireachd or Pipe Tunes Transliterated by William MacLean from The Canntaireachd published in 1828 by Captain Neil MacLeod of Gesto’.

Next page: ‘A collection of Piobaireachd or Pipe Tunes as verbally taught by the McCrummen Pipers in the Isle of Skye to their Apprentices. Taken from John McCrummen, Piper to the Old Laird of Macleod and his grandson, the late General Macleod of Macleod By Captain Neil MacLeod of Gesto. (published 1828). In the hope that these 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’.

There then follows a contents page listing:

l. The Comely Tune
2. The Royal Oak (known to us as In Praise of Morag)
3. War or Peace
4. MacLeod of Gesto’s Gathering
5. MacLeod of Gesto’s Lamentation (known to us as the Young Laird of Dungallon’s Salute)
6. The Union of Scotland and England (The Pipers Curse) – Lament for the Union
7. The Heads of Corn (known to us a the Earl of Ross’s March)
8. Lament for Donald MacLeod of Greshornish (MacLeod’s Salute)
9. Donald Gruamach
10. Squinting Peter’s Flame of Wrath
11. The Head of the Little Bridge
12. Lament for Alasdair Dubh of Glengarry (our ‘Alasdair Dearg’)
13. Cumha Mhis Righ Aro (Lament for the King of Aro – also in Thomason’s ‘Ceol Mor’)
14. Nameless
15. Isabella MacKay
16. Lament for King James (our Lament for Colin Roy MacKenzie, interesting because here we have variations which predate Angus MacKay, the man credited with their creation, though Maclean appears to have missed a page of the dithis).
17. Lament for the Laird of Anapool
18. Tumilin O’Counnachan – (Irish Tune) – one of the few, if any, known piobaireachd connected with Ireland.
19. Cill Chriosda – Glengarry’s March
20. Marquis of Tullibardine’s Salute (Marquis of Argyll’s Salute) – attributed by Gesto to Patrick Og MacCrimmon.

After this there is a lengthy introduction which runs to 19 pages and is signed in a flowing hand ‘William MacLean’. Read it in full here. If Gesto’s composer/source attributions are to be taken on board – and why should they not be? – then the qualifying tune list for the Skye Gathering, all MacCrimmon associated pieces, may require an overhaul.


William MacLean was born in 1878 at Tobermory, Mull, from a Raasay family. He was related to the famous MacKay piping family (John and Angus etc) of that island. He was taught by his father and Malcolm Macpherson, ‘Calum Piobair’. He joined the Cameron Highlanders in 1914 and was pipe major of the 5th Battalion. He won the Inverness Gold medal in 1901 (Lament for Donald Duaghal MacKay), after a lay-off the Oban in 1912 (MacCrimmon’s Sweetheart) and the Clasp in 1913 (Unjust Incarceration). When aged 77 he made a number of recordings for the School of Scottish Studies, Edinburgh University, which provide an important link with piping in the 19th century. He composed a number of tunes among which were Raasay Highlanders, Braes of Badenoch, Bessie McIntyre, Lachlan MacLean, Willie Gray, Duart Castle, Battle of Arras and a piobaireachd, Salute to the Children.

MacLean died at Kilcreggan in 1957. His obituary in the Piping Times contained the following comments from David Ross, Rosehall, a MacLean student: ‘About 1923 we spent a holiday together at Oban staying at the old Queen’s Hotel. John MacDonald, Inverness, was also there and after the evening meal I was practising one of my tunes, MacIntosh’s Lament. When I had finished John MacDonald found fault with the third last bar in the ground (Angus MacKay’s setting) which differs from the Piobaireachd Society setting. Willie MacLean disagreed being a great Angus MacKay man and a heated argument developed. Neither of these piobaireachd experts would give way. It ended by them agreeing to differ, but this made no difference to their friendship or the respect they had for each other.

‘Some years again later they clashed over the way the modern pipers were being taught to play the crunluath breabach, Willie claiming that John MacDonald was responsible for this new method creeping in. Willie said it was inconsistent and not in keeping with the taorluath and was incorrect and it had not been handed down to him that way. All this rather surprised me as these two men represented the same school and were both taught by the celebrated Malcolm Macpherson [Calum Piobair].

‘Another incident took place at a piping ceilidh after the Northern Meeting. Several of the pipers had given selections. George MacLennan was there reading a book and taking no apparent notice of the playing. When Willie struck up and played The Pretty Dirk. George Maclennan immediately dropped the book and started to listen, which I thought was a great compliment.

‘He [MacLean] was a beautiful piper – strong fingers which he lifted well off the chanter and kept a well tuned instrument. His tuning up notes were a delight to listen to. His timing and expression in the ground and suibhal were lovely and I regret such timing is not heard today.’

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