A Day at Piping Live! and Stories of the Big Spree

It was a pleasure to perform at the National Piping Centre yesterday as part of the Piobaireachd of the Day series sponsored by the Piobaireachd Society, writes the Editor.

From the moment of arrival until departure late afternoon, the staff at the Centre did everything to make the experience enjoyable – crucial for someone like me who had not done a recital in Scotland for seven or eight years.

Indeed it was my first opportunity to play in the main NPC auditorium for 20 years. An overgeneorus introduction from announcer Fergus Muirhead and there was the small but appreciative crowd as I marched in playing a few quicksteps.



Another set and I sat down to chat to the audience. I reminded them of the benefits of membership of the Society: you can buy the tie, wear the kilt pin, sport the bag cover.

More than that you have the satisfaction of knowing you are doing your bit to help preserve our classical pipe music. And then there is the small matter of ‘Talk Piobaireachd’, the online sessions, and the forthcoming beginner classes free to members.

Up with the pipes again and into an MSR (a not too difficult one, deliberately so) and then a hornpipe and a couple of jigs. Back to the chair and a blether about my tune for the day, the Big Spree.

This was the second tune in Book 1 of the Society’s collection dated 1925. The editor, Sheriff Grant, must have encountered some flak for adding taorluath and crunlauth variations to his setting, this against the weight of evidence from traditional sources.

Still, he was perhaps following the lead of General Thomason who set the tune similarly, but less successfully, in his book ‘Ceol Mor’ circa 1905.

The Sheriff won out. His setting became universally popular and is still frequently played almost 100 years after first publication.

I posed the idea that there might have been quite a contretemps between Sheriff Grant and that other piobaireachd titan, Archibald Campbell of Kilberry.

Campbell’s ‘Kilberry Book of Ceol Mor’, published 25 years later, ignores Grant’s setting and its subsequent popularity.

I told the story of the Scotway competition held in Glasgow City Chambers in the ’80s. The great Donald MacPherson was to play the Big Spree.

The Big Spree from the Kilberry Book

Maestro perfect, he was sailing to the first prize when for some inexplicable reason he broke down just as he was about to tackle the taorluath.

The curse of the ancients? Was some external force telling Donald not to go against the weight of tradition and repeat the Sheriff’s heresy?

At the conclusion of the contest, the judges discussion. One wanted to give Donald first saying that he had intended only to play the setting in the Kilberry Book.

Pull the other one said the other two. He would never submit a tune without the T&C for such a prestigious competition. Donald got nothing.

On with the tune to conclude my recital. Thanks to everyone who forwarded the flattery. It is appreciated.

Downstairs to the Centre bar where I had a chat with Stuart Liddell and some of the lads from the Inveraray band. They were getting ready for the evening’s quartet contest – a sell out. Stuart was pleased with his tune in the Silver Chanter but thought his pipes could have been slightly better.

He was looking forward to today’s Masters solo piping. I wished him well and left for home.

Thanks to Finlay, Alberto, Helen, Fergus, Hazel and all the Centre staff. Their friendly, uber-professional approach made Piping Live! a rewarding experience.


2 thoughts on “A Day at Piping Live! and Stories of the Big Spree

  1. I enjoyed the performance! So good to be listening to Piping Live while in Connecticut. It was much more than I expected with all the light music and the historical background. Well Done.

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