Urlar Refrains

by J David Hester, PhD

…as a chorus of a song is to the verses, so is the ground of a piobaireachd to its variations…

Donald MacDonald, 1820

What do we know?

Urlars were refrains, played intermittently throughout a pibroch, providing a kind of auditory superstructure to the piece, breaking up the cycles of variations to remind the listener of and reorient her or him to  the original melody of the piece.

By taking a look at the primary sources, today’s pibroch musicians can find fluidity and musicality in the art form, and can experience both by simply re-introducing the performance of urlar return refrains.

The urlar return, though structurally inessential in many ways, is on the other hand musically enlivening.  To hear a pibroch performed with them would be like having spent your whole life listening to a song without a refrain and then suddenly hearing it sung in full.  The difference is remarkable and fulfilling.

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I consider this one of the most important, and yet simple of changes to pibroch performance that we can easily begin doing.

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From the “S”-like squiggles of the Hannay-MacAuslan collection, to the “D.C.” and “Da Capo Thema” of typeset books in the primary sources, the evidence is quite clear that Urlars refrains were not only performed, but were expected to be performed.

That said, until Angus MacKay’s book the urlar refrain is never found in a consistent place in tune structure.  In most cases, it appears at the end of the tune, but in several cases where we would expect it, it does not.  Angus MacKay seems to settle on its appareance just before the Crunluath motions set in, and at the end of the tune; but not even he is absolutely consistent in this regard.

Taking a look at Hannay-MacAuslan, where the most detailed information on urlar refrains exists, we see them:

The End of Great Bridge (PS 171)- after Siubhal Doubling, Taorluath Doubling, End

Young George’s Salute -(PS 55) after Thumb Doubling, Fosgailte Taorluath Doubling, Siubhal Doubling, Taorluath Doubling[, End?]

The Finger Lock (PS 132)- after Suibhal Doubling, End

Mary’s Praise (PS 67)- after Thumb Doubling, Dithis Doubling, unique Taorluath, Taorluath Doubling

The Rout of Glenfruin (PS 13)- after Thumb Doubling, Suibhal Doubling, Taorluath Doubling, End

The Sister’s Lament (PS 23)- after End

Donald Gruamach’s March (PS 102)- after Suibhal Doubling, Fosgailte Taorluath Doubling

Lament for the Sword (PS 172)- after End

Too Long in This Condition (PS 161)- after Triplet Doubling, Siubhal Doubling, Urlar Doubling (!), End

There is good reason to assume that the urlar return was played at the discretion of the musician for the purposes of providing an aural structure to the tune. As shown in the list, above, there was no set “rule” or requirement regarding where it was to be performed. But just as clearly, the list shows that it was expected to be performed.

Why did things change?

We know the reasons they were reduced and then eliminated during competition.  The details have been laid out by Ian MacInnes in his University of Edinburgh thesis (available here). The following is a brief summary of his excellent work:

Highland Society of Scotland competitions in Edinburg became formative and ultimately quite significant. They were held during Race Week, and eventually were to become the final and very popular entertainment of the week.  Their performance included highland dancing accompanied by an orchestra, exhibition pieces, parading war veterans in highland dress, competition pibroch performances and final orations.  Organizers looked to entice “good audiences”, to keep the entertainment diverse and appeal to multiple tastes, to make the entertainment appear professional and well run.

On the performer’s part, a number of rules and requirements were imposed.  The earliest competition required pipers to play four tunes, and took place over the course of three days. Edinburgh eventually required pipers to submit 12 tunes, one of which was chosen by the judges and was to be played at the rehearsal (which became, effectively, a knock-out round, allowing judges to exclude the least qualified competitors prior to the main exhibition competition), and one to be chosen by the performer. Advice to competitors for the competition included: be sober, play your own pipes, tune the pipes outside of the hearing of the audience and do not touch the pipes while on stage, face the audience, end on a note in the key of the drones.  (Much of this advice could be well be taken into consideration today, truth be told…)

Pipers could be disqualified for a number of causes, including:

  • refusal of a prize
  • disagreement on any point of the competition
  • drunkenness
  • improper conduct on stage
  • intentional performance of a wrong tune

Pipers, it seems, were an unruly lot.

In order to keep the show on time, and yet allow for the maximum of quality pipers to compete, the organizers eventually introduced the idea of limiting the number of urlar refrains. This was first proposed by J. G. Dalyell (an important member of the competition committee in the 1820; it was initially met with resistance).  But by the time Angus MacKay published his work in the late 1830s, Da Capo Thema returns were limited to their performance in the tune just before the crunluath, a last dying gasp before their complete disappearance.

The constraints faced by organizers today are as complex as those faced by the first organizers: Highland games have a lot going on, and it is important to organize the large numbers of competitors while juggling the schedules of many events.  Even bagpipe-only competitions have to balance the constraints of time against the desire to entice a substantial number of professionals to the event.

This situation needn’t be viewed as unalterable.  Depending on the tune, the amount of time which urlar refrains would extend the tune would roughly equal the time currently spent on the boards by professional and open amateur pipers in tuning their pipes. To hear pibroch tunes restored to their full musical structure would surely be more pleasing to judges and audiences than tuning!

It is additionally unclear why very few students and performers of pibroch ever play the urlar refrains in contexts without the constraints of scheduling, such as during practice or at recitals. None of the professionals that have been interviewed for this site (so far) have attempted it.

In fact, the performance of a restored pibroch by professional caliber pipers is such a rare event, articles have been written on it (The Voice: Bill Livingston’s performance of War or Peace), and competitors can specifically recall particular competitions where competitors (e.g., Jack Lee) did so.


After spending several years studying them, working with Jori Chisholm to identify and recognize the symbols in Hannay-MacAuslan, and then performing them in concert and at competitions, here are some reflections for your consideration:

1. Urlar return refrains are musically powerful.  I have yet to meet any pibroch performer who has tried playing the da capo thema returns (no in practice, certainly not in competition).  Most assume it will extend the songs too long.  Others fear it will disrupt the growing tension leading to the crunluath and crunluath a machs.

Instead, I have found neither assumption to be true.  On the one hand, while the songs are indeed lengthened, they are not more trying on the hearer.  The refrain refreshes the memory of the listener, bringing to her or him a kind of anchor on which to ground the intervening variations.  Indeed, they offer a kind of respite from the technical “finger work” that can, quite frankly, sound both boring and trying for the listener.

On the other hand, the performer is not tired out by the lengthening of the song.  In fact, the performer uses the refrain as a kind of pause, a place to recoup and prepare for the next set of variations.

Nor is the tension at all disrupted.  As seen below, the musicianship of the ancient performer was intuitive enough to know when to play them and when not to play them.  Tension is maintained, even when a break may seem counter-intuitive to the modern performer.

2. Not all urlar return refrains are created equally. The transcriber of the manuscript is careful to note where the performer introduced the da capo thema at the time of the transcription. There are some interesting results:

a. Some pibroch have no urlar return  at all – Sister’s Lament (PS 23)
b. Some pibroch have urlar returns, but none at the end (a simple “crioche” is indicated, meaning no urlar is to be played at the end) – MacLachlan’s March (PS 67)
c. While there is a tendency to place urlar return refrains at similar points in the structure of songs (before the taorluath, or before the crunluath, or both), there is no set rule – compare Young George (PS 55 – e.g., btwn every major variation) with Donald Grummach (PS 102 – e.g. btwn two taorluath variations but not before the crunluath variations)
d. Some pibroch have many returns (Too Long in This Condition PS 161 –  4 stuck between 5 major variations), some have very few (Lock on Fingers PS 132 – one before the toarluath and one at the end).

In short – urlar return refrains, as reflected in the primary sources, appear to be played based on the intuition of the performer.  There is no set formula for them.

3. These old pipers were consummate musicians.  And it is a deep loss that we do not trust them enough to follow their lead and play these songs in the splendor of the fullness that urlar return refrains bring to the material.

4. Pibroch was a fluid art form.  We know from manuscripts and written reports that performers brought sometimes significant differences to the same tunes.  But what we have done by recording all these differences into a definitive canonical structure is not only to capture them all (a very important piece of conservation), but also presented the songs in a way that leads to significant misunderstanding.

Pibroch performers clearly had a set of musical tools available to them as part of the idiom: singlings, doublings, suibhals, dithis, triplets, taorluaths, crunluaths, lemluaths, fosgailte style – all these were at their disposal.  And it is not necessarily the case that the pattern and structure we know today was set in stone.

Consider Too Long in This Condition (PS 161) – No siubhal or dhithis. Urlar leads to triplet variation and doubling, and from there to a siubhal and it’s doubling.  Which then goes into an urlar variation before heading into the crunluath variations.

Not only does this suggest a great deal of variability in the traditions (dependent on location and tuition), and assume a very high level of musicality, but it also helps to understand why da capo themas happened at all: as variations got piled up, both performer and audience would welcome a return to the theme as a reminder of what the performer was improvising from.

These points are but a few I’ve assembled.  But they represent insight into how pibroch was played, and suggest a very simple way by which today’s performers can re-enliven the idiom for themselves, whether while practicing or perhaps even in competition (which I have done).

By taking a look at the primary source material, today’s pibroch musicians can find fluidity and musicality in the art form, and can experience both by simply re-introducing the performance of urlar refrains.

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