OT: 3 April 1926 – A. Fuaim “The Piper’s Challenge” [Report]

The Oban Times, 3 April, 1926 

Taorluath and Crunluath
Meeting in Edinburgh.

Pipe-Major John Grant, Edinburgh,
Pipe-Major William Gray, Glasgow

Unique Piping Demonstration and Discussion

Special Reports.

For some time past a controversy, conducted through the courtesy and medium of the Editor of the “Oban Times,” has been proceeding between Pipe-Major Grant, Edinburgh, on the one hand, and Pipe-Major Gray, Glasgow, on the other, as to the correct interpretation and execution of the Toarluath and Crunluath notes in Piobaireachd. 

Epistolary statements from each of these gentlemen not being successful in establishing any definite result on the points at issue, it was ultimately arranged that the two principles would meet, debate, and give practical demonstrations on the pipes in the Oddfellows’ Hall, Forrest Road, Edinburgh, at 8 p.m. On Thursday, 25th March, under the auspices of the Tir Nam Beann Society. 

A brief sketch of the opposing arguments may not be out of place here before proceeding further. Pipe-Major Grant avers that the Taorluath and Crunluath notes, as written by Angus MacKay in his book, are all absolutely necessary and therefore correct, that they can be played in time and rhythm, and that he, himself, was taught to do so, and can, in fact, execute these notes. 

Pipe-Major Gray, on the other hand, contends that the Taorluath and Crunluath notes are not, in practice, played as written by Angus MacKay, that they cannot be played in time and rhythm, and that he, himself, is unable to execute them as they are detailed. He states that in every case Angus MacKay included a redundant “A,” except in the “D”combination, and that effect was never, and cannot be given to that note. 

Widespread interest has been aroused in the controversy amongst the Piping Fraternity, a fact which was, at once, obvious when, on the night of the proceedings, the hall was soon crowded beyond its limits. Many notabilities were present in the persons of Sir John Lorne MacLeod, Mr. Alistair MacKillop, Mr. Burn-Murdoch, Sheriff Jamieson, Mr. Parkhouse, Mr. Seton Gordon, Mr. Duncan Cameron, J. P., Mr. Somerled MacDonald, Mears W. And A. Cameron, Mr. R. Johnston MacDonald, and most of the leading Pipe-Majors, past and present. 


Pipe-Major Grant led off the debate. He traced the history of the Piobaireachd from the time of the great MacCrimmon Masters. He explained their position as hereditary pipers, how they devoted their whole lives to their art, how perfect their productions were, and how they invented and developed the system of “Canntaireachd.” He narrated how they founded the school at the Castle at Dunvegan, Isle of Skye, and how the various Chieftains sent their pipers there to be taught by them–the hall-mark of ability. He mentioned the famous pipers who originated from Borreraig–the MacArthurs, the Mackays, the Macleans or Rankins, the Campbells, and the MacIntyres. 

The MacCrimmons. 

He detailed the MacCrimmon system of teaching:–The teacher playing with the pupil, then by silent fingering, and lastly by means of “Canntaireachd” chanting. The seriousness with which they regarded their profession he revealed by stating that an apprenticeship lasted from seven to eleven years before proficiency was attained. The MacCrimmons left no MSS. or, at least, none has ever been discovered, and naturally, as Pipe-Major Grant pointed out, the manner and execution of playing by their pupils became the accepted and correct method. Pipers taught in this way were said to be traditionally trained in their art. Then came the advent of Angus MacKay, himself a pupil of the MacCrimmons, who collected and put in staff notation the first really serviceable book of pipe music. 

Angus MacKay. 

Angus MacKay devoted his whole life to his task. He took infinite pains to ensure that his work was correct, and although it contains various errors, Mr. Grant contends that it ill behoves anyone now to alter the compilation of that great man who did so much towards preserving the noble music of Caledonia. It has been said, continued Mr. Grant, that Angus MacKay’s work was adapted for other styles of music beside the bagpipes, and therefore various notes were inserted to allow these musicians to obtain the effect of the Piobaireachd, but he himself could state, from personal knowledge, that Piobaireachd music was unique in itself and could not be played on any other instrument. 

Pipe-Major Grant’s Claim. 

Mr. Grant stated he was taught by Pipe-Major Ronald McKenzie, a pupil of John Ban Mackenzie, who was taught by Angus MacKay, and who, in turn, was taught by John “Dubh” MacCrimmon. Surely that is the direct line, he added. Positively he could assert that he received the assurance of Ronald MacKenzie that John Ban Mackenzie always played the Taorluath as written by Mackay. Is there any reason, he demanded, why Angus MacKay should insert the “A” in all his tunes if he did not intend it to be played? Is there any reason why John Ban Mackenzie should say he played it, and as a matter of fact taught Pipe-Major Ronald Mackenzie to do so, if he did not? Is there any reason at all for these men to tell falsehoods about the matter? To my mind, he continued, there is none. 

These great pipers, traditionally taught, played the Taorluath and Crunluath notes giving effect to the “A.” I play it in the same manner, and I demand to know from Pipe-Major Gray, and also from Pipe-Major Ross, whose name has been brought into the controversy, what authority they had in altering the compilation of Angus MacKay as they have done in their books. I say emphatically they are wrong, and if they cannot play the Taorluath, as written, then they are not proficient in their art and are not Piobaireachd players. All the standard works on the Piobaireachd include the “A” in the Taorluath. Are all these works wrong? 

Pipe-Major Grant then intimated that before proceeding to the actual test of playing he would vacate the platform in favour of his opponent if he desired to make any remarks. 

Pipe-Major Gray signified that he did not wish to say anything at that stage, and requested Mr. Grant to carry on with the actual playing. 

Before complying the latter explained the different forms or species of tunes of the Piobaireachd, viz.: –The Salute, the Welcome, the Lament, the Farewell, the Gathering, the March or Challenge, the Battle Tune, and the Warning, giving in each instance a short description as to when and how they were used. 

Macintosh’s Lament. 

The Pipe-Major then selected “The Macintosh’s Lament” from Angus MacKay’s book, as being an exceptionally fine example of the Taorluath and played the piece through on the Chanter. Concluding, he asked Pipe-Major Gray if he had rendered the Taorluath giving effect to the “A,” and was greatly taken aback when met with a direct negative. He played the single note again and again, but was unsuccessful in persuading Mr. Gray to admit the correctness of his execution. 

Pipe-Major Gray’s Claim. 

Pipe-Major Gray stated emphatically that the redundant “A” could not be rendered in time and rhythm, and that the Taorluath was not played by the hereditary pipers or their pupils the way it was written by Angus MacKay. He said he was taught in the direct line through Pipe-Major J. MacDougall Gillies, and he could authoritatively state that neither he, nor John McColl, nor the Cameron’s ever played the “A” in the Taorluath. He had also the authority of Pipe-Major Ross and Pipe-Major McLennan for stating that, in practice, the “A” was always omitted. 

Quoting from Angus MacKay’s book he read:–” He hopes the public will treat with leniency any defects that may be perceived.” Many errors had been discovered in Mackay’s book, and it was obvious the redundant “A” was also in that category. Why was Mackay not uniform? Why did he not insert the “A” in the “D” note? 

“I am not here as an orator,” continued Mr. Gray, “my time is limited. I must catch a train from Glasgow, and, so far as I am concerned, Pipe-Major Grant has signally failed to convince me from his playing that he is correct in his assertion. As a further test I will ask him to play the ‘Leumluath’ in ‘The Glen is Mine’.” 

Pipe-Major Grant did so, but beyond a smile and a significant shrug of the shoulders which indicated his opinion Pipe-Major Gray made no remark. 

Sir John Lorne MacLeod in a few words thanked both gentlemen for their demonstrations of the niceties of a very fine point, and the proceedings terminated. 

The whole affair from the point of view of an impartial spectator was left in a very unsatisfactory state. Neither side is, in any degree, any further forward. 

Pipe-Major Grant, who conveyed the impression that his whole object was the preservation of the traditional playing, proved himself from his discourse a very fine Piobaireachd student. He was more a student been a practical player, and from his lack of accomplished execution was unable to convince his audience as to the correctness of his contentions. Nevertheless, if, perhaps, a really proficient Piobaireachd player had been called upon to execute the disputed note, it is a matter of conjecture that verdict might have been returned. 

Pipe-Major Gray had a very simple task. He did not prove Mr. Grant was wrong. He simply, baldly and pointedly stated that Pipe-Major Grant had not given effect to the “A,” and that, in fact, he had played the note in a similar manner to himself. 

The test was badly organised. Expert and disinterested judges should have been appointed to decide on the merits of the dispute as demonstrated by the opposite side and though the writer prefers not to give any opinion, he feels that for the future guidance of those who study and play the Piobaireachd the point should be thoroughly and officially inquired into and a definite decision made. 

A. Fuaim.