Clan Donald Magazine No 1 (1959) Online
The Clue of the Black Book by Mairi A. MacDonald.
The story of Joseph MacDonald's "Compleat Theory of the Scots Highland Bagpipe" has a plot which rivals that of many a detective novel - a mystery which a black notebook in the Library of the University of Edinburgh helped to solve.
The "Theory," compiled about 1760, was printed and published by James Johnson, Edinburgh, in 1803 and shortly afterwards practically all trace of Joseph MacDonald and his "Theory" seems to have been lost.
The discovery of a copy in 1927 in a saleroom in Inverness caused quite a stir in the piping world, where it was hailed with the assurance that it would settle certain points in the execution of piobaireachd about which the leading pipers were at variance.
The late Mr Alex. MacDonald, who had purchased this copy, published a second edition of the "Theory" in 1928. He, unfortunately, died suddenly on the eve of its publication.
A great number of leading pipers studied the work, but all were confused and perplexed by its contents. The "Theory" contained written instructions with regard to the playing of the bagpipes, as taught by the first masters of the instrument, and examples of the various types of bagpipe music, complete with the intricate variations of the piobaireachd. These written directives were illustrated by staff-notation examples of the music referred to, but the written directive and the staff-notation failed to agree. The consensus of opinion was that Joseph must have been an extremely careless notation scribe - so careless, in fact, that the work was worthless and should therefore be returned to the limbo where it had already been for over a century.
The more I studied the meticulous accuracy of the written word, however, the more I became convinced that Joseph was anything but a careless student of his subject, and that there must be some very adequate explanation of the highly intelligent work that was in his "Theory." My first step towards the solution of the mystery was to find out everything possible about this man Joseph MacDonald.
Joseph, I learned, was one of the sons of the Rev. Murdoch MacDonald, minister of Durness, Sutherland, a man of no mean ability in both literary and musical spheres. There were two particularly promising musical members of his family - the older, Patrick, who published his "Collection of Highland Vocal Airs" in 1784, and the younger, Joseph, eventually acknowledged as a musical genius. When Joseph was about sixteen he was sent to Haddington and later to Edinburgh, where he enjoyed an exceptional and extensive musical education.
Although Joseph loved Italian music, he loved his native music above all other, and, upon his return to Strathnaver, some years later, gave all his attention to its study. He collected and noted down all the airs he could glean - especially those suitable for the bagpipe. This was during the period when a great part of our music might otherwise have been lost, as it was unlawful for a Highlander to play the bagpipes.
In 1760 he went to work with the East India Company, but before leaving home completed a copy of his choice native airs. One of Joseph's letters to his father gives us an illuminating glimpse of his character and ambitions:
"There is nothing brings to my mind a more natural and soothing joy than the playing and fingering our sweet Highland luinings (ditties), jorrams (rowing songs), etc., when by myself, for, alas! I have none capable of sharing the pleasure with me ...What would I give now for one night of my own beloved society to sing those favourite, simple, primitive airs along with me? 0! that I had been more at pains to gather those admirable remains of our ancient Highland music before I left my native country. It would have augmented my collection of Highland music and poetry, which I have formed a system of in my voyage to India, and purpose to send home soon, dedicated to Sir James MacDonald or some such chief of high rank and figure in the Highlands, in order that those sweet, noble and expressive sentiments of nature may not be allowed to sink and die away, and to show that our poor, remote corner, even without the advantage of learning and cultivation, abounded in works of taste and genius."
Fate intervened at this date, however, for Joseph MacDonald died in the East Indies of a malignant fever when only twenty-three years of age. His effects, including the manuscript of the "Theory," were collected and brought home to his brother Patrick by a fellow bagpipe enthusiast, Sir John Murray MacGregor, to whom later the work was dedicated. In consideration of these facts, how could I agree that a man of such ability and repute could have allowed this travesty to flow from his pen?
My next move, in the hope of solving the mystery, was to try to discover the original manuscript of the "Theory." I learned it had been handled often in the Signet Library, Edinburgh, by a distinguished member of the Piobaireachd Society in his student days. Over the years, unfortunately, this manuscript had mysteriously disappeared.
Quite unexpectedly the first clue to the mystery presented itself when I was reading a chapter on Scottish music in Logan's "The Scottish Gad" (1878):
"The appoggiaturas in modern music are usually the next in degree to the chief note, and any great departure from this rule is accounted a barbarism. In Scots music they are some degree distant, and appear very graceful. This is most remarkable in pipe tunes, to which instrument they are indispensable."
Was it possible that Joseph's original notation had been tampered with before publication and that the meddler had mixed up those two apparently almost identical musical ornaments, substituting appoggiaturas -notes of definite length- for grace notes which know no time value, and are produced by a mere flick of the finger? If so, who was responsible for this tampering?
I applied the supposition that Joseph's grace notes had been treated as appoggiaturas and calculated how the staff-notation extracts should have been noted in such a circumstance. To my joy I found that I had discovered that this was the fundamental error that underlay all the "careless" work of the "Theory". Had the "ornaments" been read as grace-notes, and the staff noted accordingly, written directives and staff-notation would have agreed.
I re-applied myself to the unsigned introduction in the "Theory" addressed "To the Public." Here, after a short description of the discovery of the manuscript and the work of Joseph MacDonald, was a discourse upon bagpipe and harp music followed by a strange digression in praise of Ossian's work and its translation. Why, I ruminated, should the writer of this introduction digress from his subject and make opportunity for such an oration?
It was now 1947, and Edinburgh was preparing for the first Festival. The different libraries had been invited to contribute any very interesting old manuscript in their possession, and what had turned up amongst those lent by the University Library but the manuscript of Joseph MacDonald's "Theory."
No time was lost in getting to Edinburgh to examine "the find." The member of the Piobaireachd Society already referred to was the first to inspect the manuscript and almost stunned those present by immediately declaring that this was not the manuscript he had handled before.
The only conclusion possible was that there must have been two manuscripts. There, in front of us, lay a medium-sized notebook, bound in glazed black covers, the pages of which, cut from paper of Dutch manufacture extensively used in the 18th century, were covered with closely written copperplate, and neatly constructed notation tables. On the last page was a coloured sketch of a Highland piper playing a three-droned bagpipe, each finger correctly placed on the chanter. This was obviously the work of a piper and an artist - the work of Joseph himself. We had before us Joseph's original manuscript of the "Theory."
The work was undoubtedly the work of a genius - careful, neat and inspired. Faultlessly accurate notation tables agreed in every case with the written directive, and so ably was the work executed that the music simply leapt at one to explain and express all the intricacies of this wonderful instrument. The use of appoggiaturas had in every case been avoided. Now it was clear that the "Theory" we had known had been printed from the manuscript which had gone astray, a manuscript which had without doubt been prepared by someone other than Joseph or Patrick.
Idly turning the pages back again we saw what made us all gasp - "Eldin, 1833." The MS. had been acquired by the University Library from the estate of a collector, Mr D. Laing, who had bought it in 1833 at the sale of Lord Eldin's Collection. John Clerk, Lord Eldin, was an antiquary and a firm friend of Dr Blair - champion of Ossian's poems and their translation by Macpherson. Now we were again confronted by the dubious work of these antiquaries. The unnecessary laudation of Ossian's Poems and their translation, amounting almost to advertisement, contained in the preface " To the Public" confirmed this. At last the mystery was solved.
Patrick at the time of the publication of his brother's "Theory" (1803) was seventy-four years of age - an old man; and none too rich. It would seem that, anxious to have the "Theory" published, he handed it over with a letter of dedication to the antiquaries. Not knowing much about bagpipe music, they had employed some "hack" to "dress up" the manuscript for publication. This person, mistakenly under the impression that Joseph's notation must be old-fashioned, tried to alter it into the more fashionable notation of his own day, with the disastrous results that confront us in the printed "Theory."
The first manuscript found, which had eventually gone astray, was that of this "hack." We are now, however, in possession of Joseph's own manuscript, accurate and illuminating in every detail - a monument to the genius of one whose work has survived death and time.
Condensed from "The Joseph MacDonald Theory" which appeared in
The Scots Magazine, December 1953.
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