Obituary: Roderick David Cannon, Emeritus Professor of Chemistry

Roderick Cannon: Chemistry professor had a passion for bagpipes and was a renowned authority on the subject
Roderick Cannon: Chemistry professor had a passion for bagpipes and was a renowned authority on the subject
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Born: 20 October, 1938, in Salford, Lancashire. Died: 9 June, 2015, in Norwich, aged 76

Roderick Cannon, who has died suddenly at home aged 76, was a professor of chemistry whose scholarly pursuits stretched far beyond the world of science to include the study of the bagpipe and its music.

As a chemist, he was an inspiring teacher and gifted researcher who published many original papers. Among his early scientific achievements was his book Electron Transfer Reactions, which has come to be regarded as a seminal work.

In Scotland, however, he was perhaps better known for his outstanding contribution to the understanding of our national music. His meticulous analysis of long-forgotten manuscripts rescued important strands of Highland piping tradition from obscurity. His work enhanced the piper’s repertoire as well as shedding new light on the way pipe music had been handed down and is performed today.

His interest in the bagpipe, however, was not confined to Scotland. As befits a son of Lancashire (albeit one of strong Scots extraction), Cannon played a vital role in the revival of the English bagpipe. His enthusiasm for all things piping also saw him contribute to the music of the bellows-blown bagpipes associated with the Lowlands of Scotland.

Roderick “Roddy” David Cannon was born in Salford in 1938 and brought up in the Manchester suburb of Eccles. His father was an engineer and his mother a Latin teacher. His passion for piping was inherited from his Scottish relations on his father’s side.

Although not a piper, his Scottish grandfather had a good understanding of the music and had persuaded the local Boys’ Brigade company to form a pipe band. It followed that an uncle, named Angus, became a piper, as did Cannon’s father, Malcolm. When the young Cannon joined the same BB company, he was taught the pipes by his father using music that had been painstakingly copied out by his uncle, who had served as a piper in the Royal Scots during the Great War and whose pipes were passed on to his nephew.

Educated at Manchester Grammar School, Cannon won a place at Brasenose College, Oxford, to study chemistry. There, his interest in piping was stimulated by visits to the Pitt Rivers Museum, where he was delighted to discover its collection of bagpipes including instruments from Northumberland, Ireland, Romania, Bulgaria and Hungary.

He also came across a copy of Joseph MacDonald’s Compleat Theory of the Scots Highland Bagpipe, a rare book dating from the 18th century. MacDonald was a son of the manse from Durness, who wrote down all he knew about piping on a voyage to the subcontinent to work for the East India Company. Cannon was so fascinated by the book that he undertook the arduous task of copying it out by hand.

His scientific expertise saw him gain a BA and DPhil at Oxford, specialising in inorganic chemistry. His studies took him to the US where he did post-doctoral research at Georgetown University in Washington DC, where he joined the local St Andrew’s Society Pipe Band.

His post-doctoral studies continued at Bristol University before he finally settled at the University of East Anglia in 1966, where he taught and carried out research until his retirement in 2000.

In the meantime, he had become a member of the Piobaireachd Society, the body devoted to the study of the most traditional form of Highland bagpipe music. He delivered many papers at the society’s annual conferences, where other pipers greatly appreciated his depth of knowledge and the way he could apply his academic mind to the music. He was a member of the society’s music committee for 30 years, a post that kept him in touch with some of Scotland’s most famous pipers. Among his books on piping were A Bibliography of Bagpipe Music and two volumes of the Donald MacDonald Collection of Piobaireachd. He also produced a modern edition of the Joseph MacDonald book he found at Oxford – a publication that was notable for his erudite footnotes. His most recent book, The Music of John MacCrimmon (The Gesto Canntaireachd), will be published by the Piobaireachd Society later this year.

The existence of bagpipes in England had been recorded in various works of art and literary sources including Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. But by the 20th century, English bagpipes had all but died out, apart from the bellows-blown pipes still played in Northumberland.

Cannon published three ground-breaking articles in the Folk Music Journal which brought together evidence of the strong English piping tradition that once existed south of the Border. These articles inspired other enthusiasts to make and play Leicester small-pipes, Cornish bagpipes and the English Great Pipe. His role in reviving English bagpipes was recognised when he was appointed the first patron of The Bagpipe Society in 2014.

Cannon was also a devotee of the bellows-blown bagpipes associated with the south of Scotland. He was president of the Lowland and Border Pipers’ Society from 2000 to 2006.

He was a key contributor to Out of the Flames, a book, that reproduced the William Dixon collection of tunes compiled between 1733 and 1738 in Northumberland. Thought to be the oldest known pipe music manuscript, the Dixon manuscript had been rescued from a fire at the beginning of the last century and is now regarded as the most important source of tunes for the Border Pipes.

A true polymath, Cannon’s interests were nothing if not broad. He was a loyal footsoldier for the local Labour Party. Through AgeUK he became a visitor at Norwich prison, befriending elderly and frail lifers. Railways, and especially steam engines, were an abiding passion, dating from his boyhood hobby of collecting engine numbers.

An enthusiasm for choral singing, and a scholarly interest in hymns were features of his later years, as were his linguistic studies. His fascination for languages resulted in him learning Gaelic, a project that saw him befriend an elderly lady from Eilean nan Ron, who lived near the family home in Norwich. Through his delight in learning from her, he brought her native tongue back into her life.

Those who knew Roderick Cannon – whether through chemistry, piping or any other of his interests – regarded him as a kind, thoughtful and modest man. His students saw him as a friendly and considerate mentor, whose lively sense of humour quickly banished any suggestion that they might be dealing with a dry academic.

North of the Border his contribution to Scottish music has been inestimable and he will be sorely missed by his many friends in the piping world.

He is survived by his wife Elizabeth and their daughters Sarah and Martha.