Taoruath and crunluath variations / Peak piping / Duncan to exhibit

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Part of The Big Spree as it appears in the manuscript of John MacDougall-Gillies.

We have been asked about why some pieces of ceòl mòr are played these days with taoruath and crunluath variations when formerly they weren’t – or, for the most part, weren’t.

It’s a good question and our correspondent has made particular reference to The Big Spree, one of the tunes that was played at last week’s Piping Live! during one of the Piobaireachd of the Day recitals.

The tune, An daorach mhòr in Gaelic, is said to be a Perthshire piece It appears in General Thomason’s book, Ceol Mor and later, in Book 1 of the Piobaireachd Society’s collection, published in 1925 (edited by Sheriff J. P. Grant of Rothiemurchus). The tune appears here with taorluath and crunlauth variations where hitherto it was commonly played without them.

In 1948, in the Kilberry Book of Ceol Mor, Archie Campbell did not include taorluath and crunluath variations.

The cuttings above show advertisements placed in, we think, the Oban Times in 1932. On behalf of the Piobaireachd Society, Campbell states: “… Provided also that no Taorluath or Crunluath variation may be played.” Campbell then goes on to explain:

“A certain number of piobaireachds which have neither Taorluath nor Crunluath variations are to be found on record,  both in the manuscripts and in published books, and these are seldom, if ever, played nowadays. Various theories have been propounded to explain their existence. One is that they are very ancient and date back to an early stage of piobaireachd development. The peculiar structure of some of  them may support  such a view, or may equally support a rival view that they are mere incomplete fragments of partly-forgotten tunes.

Archie Campbell of Kilberry.
Archie Campbell.

“A more plausible conjecture may be that at no time did those who built up the piobaireachd regard the Taorluath and Crunluath as necessary adjuncts to every tune, that in many cases these variations were tacked on in later days for competition purposes, and  that in others the tunes happened to be left as they were.

“The Piobaireacbd Society itself, within the last few years, has appended Taorluath and Crunluath variations to The Big Spree with the object of making it better known through the medium of competitions, and, it must be admitted, has by no means improved that beautiful tune, by so doing. We may very well query whether some of the longer piobaireachds were always as long as they are now, remembering, as we must, that the old orthodox way of playing a piobaireachd  was to play the Urlar twice always, and three times if there was a  Crunluath.

Donald MacPherson in Glasgow’s City Chambers in 1980 at the Piobaire Os Cionn Chaich competition

“There are limits to what a single set of cane reeds can achieve, and it is not unreasonable to suggest that no true artist would strain his medium of expression to the danger point of breakdown.

“However that may be, the Piobaireachd Society has before it two patent facts, one that this peculiar class of music exists, and the other that it is not played. If the Society is to avoid the accusation of failure to carry out one of its declared objects, it may not acquiesce in the neglect of a particular branch of piobaireachd music, minor though it may be.”

We are aware that the great Donald MacPherson played The Big Spree in the 1980s at a competition held in Glasgow’s City Chambers. However, he broke down just as he was – as some believe – about to go into the taorluath. The reason? We have it on good authority that Donald stopped simply because he thought his pipes were drifting out of tune. Donald broke down very rarely but if his pipes were not right he was known to stop. 

• Listen to Jack Lee play The Big Spree at the 2015 Glenfiddich Piping Championship:


A piper from Colorado, USA, has set a Guinness World Record for the highest piping performance in North America.

Bruce Parkman of Colorado Springs piped for around 15 minutes at the summit of Pikes Peak yesterday afternoon. Rising to 14,115ft. (4,302m) the mountain is the highest in the southern Front Range of the Rocky Mountains.

Mr Parkman, pictured on a previous trip, is President of the Mac Parkman Foundation for Adolescent Concussive Trauma and he made the ascent in honour of his son, Mac who took his life in the area last year.

In 2007, Willie Park the College of Piping’s Shop Manager, climbed to the Everest Base Camp in Nepal (17,598ft. or 5,364m). Park was on a sponsored walk to raise funds for the building of the College’s Lecture Hall. John Saunders also played his pipes at Everest Base Camp although we are uncertain as to the year. Perhaps readers could remind us?


Duncan Brown, who has captured on canvas some of piping’s iconic figures, will be exhibiting in the Scottish Borders next month.

The piper from Larkhall in South Lanarkshire will exhibit 120 of his paintings on the life of Robert Burns at the A’ the Airts Art Gallery in Sanquhar from September 24.

The exhibition will last for one month.

Duncan Brown at work in his studio, and, inset, piping at an Armistice Day commemoration.