Taorluath and Crunluath Styles

by J David Hester, PhD

Here we explore the variety of crunluath and taorluath styles available to the performer.  Many of them are known, some are thought of almost as legends and myths.

Perhaps the most interesting thing  about them is their variety in the primary sources (in contrast to today’s movements) and the potential for musicality by choosing one style over another for a given tune.


Let’s begin by comparing this taorluath:

With this:

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The original taorluath movement was much more rhythmically complex and open than is performed today, and the resultant effect is quite lovely. Today it is known as the “redundant A” taorluath, and nobody plays it anymore.  And yet,  the rhythmical expression is very pretty, the movement sounds quite dexterous, and the melody is retained.

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Now look at this, just for the sake of history and curiosity:

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These are from the Hannay-MacAuslan collection, predating just about everything else we have.  Note both the absence of the second low G in the grip, and the presence of the “redundant A”.

It is worth noting that today’s taorluath movement was introduced as late as 1907 with John McLennan’s collection; thereafter the Piobaireachd Society adopted it.  When you think about it, especially after reviewing the earliest primary sources, it took a lot of hubris to overturn centuries of performance history by eliminating the “redundant A”.

Fosgailte Taorluath

You might not know what this refers to, actually.  Today, it is the taorluath movement represented by rapid-fire G-D-E triplets typically (but not always) on low A before a theme note.

But here’s the thing about them.  Take a look at these:

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How would you play these?  You could try them something like this:

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These are certainly the more familiar pattern, aren’t they? But elsewhere you may see them scored like this:

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These kind of taorluaths are called taorluath gearr.

So, there seems to be a bit of ambiguity regarding this type of taorluath. But they are only a puzzle until you realize that the periods of Late Baroque and Early Classical music was dominated by the genius of the musical performer to bend and shape rhythms and even melodies (e.g., cadenzas) according to her or his own interpretive understanding of the tune.

In the earliest version we have of this form of taorluath (from the Hannay-MacAuslan collection), neither style is specifically indicated in the score.  Apparently either it was played straight, the musician would “understand” how to play it, or it was up to the musician’s discretion which style to play.

If the last is the most likely, it is because the musician would understand cues from within the tune itself: its phrasing, its style.  For example, in the case of Donald MacDonald’s version of Old Men of the Shells (PS 225), one could justify playing the taorluath gearr style throughout by reference to the first measure of the cycle:

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On the other hand, Angus MacKay knew the cycle only in consistent triplet style:

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Nevertheless, the take away here is: there is more than one type of fosgailte taorluath, and when you come across an ambiguous score, you must decided upon one or the other.

Finally, among taorluaths comes this unique movement (from MacLachlan’s March PS 67):

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This movement is extremely difficult to play, much less to play well.  It is so puzzling, that later collections did not know what to do with it: simplify it to a 1/6th note triplet fosgailte taorluath, or transform it to a modern taorluath.  Stick with what you see, and when you get the hang of it, the result is remarkable in its musical impact.

 Taorluath a mach

Like the crunluath a mach, the taorluath a mach also maintains the rounder rhythmic structure (dotted 6/8) and avoids the low As:

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You’d be hard put to find them, but these movements do exist. (Check out Rout of Glenfruin [PS 13], for example.)


Now compare this:

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The top version not only includes an intermediary (“redundant”) low A, but suggests a 6/8 pattern with final E of considerable weight.

Crunluaths of the primary sources have two characteristics that were universally known by all pipers until the 20th century:

1. A lilting, 6/8 pattern; After all, Joseph MacDonald refers to “creanluidh” as the “round movement”.  In this regard, the more familiar and modern pibroch performance of the crunluath does not live up to its name.

2. An intervening low-A grace note after the initial grip, known now as the “redundant-A”.

A third characteristic of the MacDonald scores (as well as Angus MacKay) is something people since David Glen no longer perform:

3. A long(er) final “e”

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The crunluath, like the taoluath, underwent this transformation away from the “redundant-A” style of old to its modern version only in the last century.  In fact, it is within living memory the folks such as the legendary Robert Reid played it:

You may wish to listen to this by George Moss, taught by Sandy Cameron:

George Moss playing Donald MacDonald

That modern performers have no inkling of the controversy is a testimony to the weightiness of the publishing medium as a means of transmission in the last century.  Fortunately, we are now in a position to review the original primary sources ourselves, where we see the “redundant-A” style universally.

One more, and perhaps the most fascinating and important crunlauth captured in only in Hannay-MacAuslan. It is a crunluath to a dari.

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Although this crunluath is unique to this source (and only found in the final measure of the urlar of Sword’s Lament PS 172), the interpretive and compositional implications of this beautiful movement are enticing: shifts in key in final variations could take place by the simple replacement of the edre with the dari.  A remarkable new beauty be brought into existence.

Crunluath a mach

One more comparison.  Consider these versions of crunluath a mach variations:

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With this version:

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In the older books and manuscripts, traditions surrounding the crunluath a mach are notable in the way the notation attempts to capture the rhythm of the particular school being transcribed.

The MacKay crun a mach, for example, is pretty straight forward, with equal emphasis on the first and last notes:Screen Shot 2014-06-02 at 1.20.52 PM

David Glen (who is a secondary source) captures a later style that emphasizes the middle note of the phrase:

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The crunluath a mach movement in Hannay-MacAuslan is also played “open”, but without the full grip (typical of that collection).

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Note how in the primary source examples weight is given to the theme note, while the typical structure of the crunluath is maintained.  In the modern version, the theme note is heard only throught the flurry of gracenotes leading to the final E, and the rhythmic structure is inverted and emphasizes the final note.  The focus is upon virtuosity, not melody.

Authentically “Open” Fosgailte Crunluaths

Quite frankly, this is a style of performance everyone knows they are playing wrong, but they just won’t do anything about it.  Simply put, the Gaelic word “fosgailte” means “open”.   There really is no reason to play this with grace notes down to the low “A”.

However, for a variety of reasons (mostly historical, and mostly attributed to a couple of notable individual’s desire for consistency), today they are played “closed.”

The open style is simple, and it is elegant.  The result is a very light, open feel to the movement.

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In a stroke of complete oddity, the Piobaireachd Society in the mid-20th century decided that there could be a fosgailte crunluath a mach cycle, which is characterized by these crunluaths being played “open”.

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10 thoughts on “Taorluath and Crunluath Styles

  1. The oldest source, Joseph MacDonald’s Treatise, is not shown here; yet he was at pains to represent the precise way many of these movements, which he called ‘cuttings’, were played by the pipers in the north. Generally, he did not use the ‘redundant A’ in his settings, as I recall. It might be helpful to display his detailed notes to compare with these later versions. This could include the later cuttings which extend beyond the crunludh, going back down the scale and up again. These sound very grand when played.

    My initial take on all these styles is that various individuals (and their pupils) interpreted the desired effect in different ways, and that later generations found a simplified technique preferable, leading to the orthodoxy of today.
    A parallel can perhaps be drawn with Cape Breton styles of piping, and gracenotes in particular, which crossed over with emigrants in the 19th century – but which differ from the styles favoured by pipers in Scotland of today.

  2. On looking at Joseph MacDonald’s Treatise, I see his tuludh is similar to the Hannay/MacAuslin version above.
    But ” Note both the absence of the second low G in the grip, and the presence of the “redundant A”.”
    If there is an A instead of a second G in the grip, can the following A (marked by an E cutting) be described as ‘redundant’?
    It is the only A and the rhythm of the movement is the same as if one had played two G’s in the grip.

  3. That seems a typically enigmatic pronouncement of his. Could you enlarge on what ‘redundant’ means, in the case of a tuludh , which might be represented as a vocable ‘himhimhin’ (gdg A) or alternatively (Joseph MacDonald’s style) ‘himhinhin’ (gda A)?

  4. Joseph MacDonald’s comments are interesting in two ways, one is his very detailed attempts to notate things accurately (and to try and explain what he was doing), but secondly was his system of writing the movements down in “plain notes” (i.e as fingered on the pipe) and “at large” (i.e. an impressionistic sketch of the intended sound expression). I am seeing a kind of “combined” plain and at-large notation in some of the early sources, especially I am thinking of Donald MacDonald’s printed book, where he explicitly says it is to be played on fiddle, keyboards etc. (are Angus MacKay’s printed settings similarly intended to be multi-instrument?)

    I think that for the earliest notations, the main notes (stems down) might be intended to give us a kind of outline profile of the swing and melodic contour of the movement, while the wee notes (stems up) indicate the specific pipe finger movements to play to get that effect. I am less confident in the idea that the combination of big and wee notes is intended to be read “straight” as suggested here.

    But I also think that the system developed in the early 19th century took on a life of its own, so I am not sure the late 19th century notations have this “dual use” aspect to them. I think by then it had become conventional, and pipe-specific. And the comments in this post are then quite applicable.

  5. In the light of the above comments, the later ‘cuttings’ recorded by Joseph MacDonald (abandoned by all later sources), what he called ’17th and 18th cuttings’, are especially interesting, as they show these sequences of notes played on both low A and low G, with no paused or held notes internally, He described them as especially grand, and it may be possible to revive them now, much as scientists speak of ‘de-extincting’ the Wooly Mammoth’.

  6. Another point about the ‘redundant A’ is that both Colin Campbell, in the NetherLorne Ms, and Neil Macleod, in the Gesto Collection, record the taorludh as ‘darid’ and ‘darit’.

    These are vocables, used instead of staff notation, and neither collection was intended for publication under the standardizing influence of The Highland Society. Neither of these vocables contains a ‘redundant A’. ‘Darit’ is the actual word of John MacCrimmon. It sounds just like the ‘modern’ style.

    If one looks at the MacGregor/MacArthur Ms, taken by a top piper from the chantering of the last of another famous dynasty of pipers, one sees, not a finished product as in the Hannay/MacAuslan Ms or Donald MacDonald’s Ms, but a work in progress, incompletely written out. The tunes which contain taorludh and crunludh variations do not have these written out in full, as with the other two just mentioned; what is written is the theme note, an A, and another A. No gdg or gda grips – except for the first bar, or so. This means that the scribe, MacGregor, did NOT write what MacArthur played, but only a structure. It is a formulaic structure and suggests there was some convention to use it widely adopted around the early part of the 19th century, when recording taorludh and crunludh variations.
    This observation lends force to Simon’s about the middle A, the so-called ‘redundant’ note, being a formal one, not actually played.

    If one considers these three of the oldest primary sources, the conclusion one might reach is that the ‘redundant A’ is a modern illusion or mirage, caused by a conventional style of recording the taorludh and crunludh variations.

  7. “Neither of these vocables contains a ‘redundant A’. ‘Darit’ is the actual word of John MacCrimmon. It sounds just like the ‘modern’ style.”

    That’s a tough rack to hang your hat on, Ronald. Aren’t there instances of written vocables NOT sounding like the ‘modern’ style of playing the embellishment?

  8. This article is fantastic. I am so happy that you shed light on the Fosgailte and A Mach movements. The contemporary style makes no musical or historical sense.
    Canntaireachd vocables don’t necessarily sound out the individual notes in the movement, so “darit” can mean either sequence of notes.
    It’s likely there were several different ways to play these movements existing at the same time in the past. The so called redundant low A was a result of MacDonald making it easy for other instrumentalists to play piobaireachd but may have also represented a way of playing. Jimmy MacColl and my teacher, Colin MacRae, suggested these massive variations were played with a number of different rhythms now long forgot. This is not speculation, but was remembered by Colin’s teacher. It also makes musical sense.
    The “official” settings of the last 118 years were divorced from the playing community, at least until John MacDonald of Inverness could train up a new generation. Anyone who played differently was dismissed as “an ordinary piper” or a “country piper.” Although the Victorian pipers moved on from their Georgian forebears, they were still a lot closer than we are.

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