• From the December 2000 Piping Times.

The Kilberry Book is the most popular collection of piobaireachd ever published. Despite largely unwarranted controversy surrounding it and its author, it has sold, and continues to sell, hundreds of copies annually throughout the world. Its success has been founded on the easy access it provides to most of the popular classics in the ceòl mòr repertoire and also on the erudition ye introduction, a classic of the genre. The compiler/author was Archibald Campbell of Kilberry, the Secretary of the Music Committee of the Piobaireachd Society from 1928 to 1963. His son, the highly respected James Campbell, Kilberry, has graciously allowed the Piping Times to reprint this talk he gave to the Piobaireachd Society conference earlier this year.

By James Campbell

James Campbell
James Campbell.

The idea of producing the Kilberry Book of Ceol Mor must have been conceived many years before the actual publication and if one had to pinpoint a moment of time when the work began, a good guess would be some time in 1939. It was in 1939 that the eighth Piobaireachd Society book had been completed and published and at that time my father had no thoughts of further Piobaireachd Society books. As he said in a later letter to Alistair Anderson [later Society president]: “So far as I am concerned there will be no 9th Piobaireachd Society book. I have come to the end of my tether. For one man to have something to say about 166 piobaireachd in these days is enough.” So it is possible that once Book 8 was out of the way he got down to this new and quite different enterprise. In this he was no doubt encouraged by the prospect of the necessary leisure which his impending retirement from his lectureship at Cambridge would reprinting and distribution of the Society’s books, a business made increasingly frustrating by the wartime difficulties of publishers over shortages of paper and shortages of trained staff.

Archibald Campbell of Kilberry.
Archibald Campbell of Kilberry.

That, then, is the background to my story, which is based on letters written by my father, mostly to Alistair Anderson, who was a colleague on the Music Committee with experience in dealing with publishers. And before referring to the letters it would be well to identify some others whom we encounter in the course of the story. There is J. P. Grant of Rothiemurchus, the President of the Society. There is Sir George Campbell of Succoth, the Honorary Secretary. There is Mr William Aitken, Sir George’s factor, who was the anchorman in the business of the Society’s administration. There is Mr Harper, the long-suffering representative of the Society’s publishers, Aird and Coghill. There is Mr Knox of John Smith and Co, booksellers of Glasgow, who distributed the book. And then there are cameo appearances of four others who need no introduction – Robert Brown, Robert Reid, Seton Gordon and John MacDonald.

Well, the story breaks cover in a letter to Alistair Anderson dated 9™ July, 1944:

“For a long time I have been tinkering with a private collection of my own and I have never got it put together; 124 tunes and a preface which attempts to give a description of what pìobaireachd is and the history of what we know about piobaireachd. My ambition is to get it into print, chiefly in order to preserve it, because I have been fortunate in my time to have some very good teaching, though minus the chance of sufficient practice in youth to take advantage of that teaching. I fear that the cost of printing would be very great and no publisher would, I imagine, finance it, though I would give him the thing for nothing. I believe that the preface could interest several people, but the market would, in any case, be very limited. It may be flying high to think of providing pipers with a second Angus MacKay’s book, but that would be my idea. About eight or nine of the tunes are not in the PS books because there are no ‘critical’ notes or alternative settings. If you have the leisure to look over it, I could send it to you and, if you think it worthwhile, perhaps you might ask Mr Harper for a rough estimate of what it would cost to print. I have tried to make the music a little more abbreviated than the PS books. I doubt if anything could be done about it just now, but it would be handy to know the sort of thing to expect. I would like to sell it at 25/- [£1.25] or 30/- [£1.50 – about $2US] hoping to recover at least part of the cost of printing.”

The next letter comes nine days later, on 17 July, 1944.

“I am sending you the book. I am insuring it in the hope of its escaping mutilation. Will you send me a postcard to say that it has arrived, and then will you give it a detailed examination at your leisure and tell me what you think of it? You will be the first piper to see it. The preface may be criticised as too long for a preface and too short for a book. I could have got more lore from Sandy Cameron I suppose, but while being with him and with Gillies [John MacDougall Gillies] I was always trying to learn how to play things, and | would rather write a treatise on the method of playing a selection of tunes bar by bar, than write a historical descriptive article on the piobaireachd. You will observe that I have rather yielded to impulse at the end of my preface …

“No doubt I am wrong on many points but I have tried to act on evidence and to discount fairy tales. I might have scotched more strongly the fairy tale that piobaireachd 1s a very ancient product – that is to say our piobaireachd which we play today. Some of our favourite tunes are known to have been composed after 1700, e.g. the Fingerlock, the Vaunting, the Prince’s Salute, the Glen is Mine, the King’s Taxes, Lament for Donald Ban, Patrick Og, Kinlochmoidart etcetera. If you could get a rough idea of the cost of printing it would be very kind. My own ambition, inspired by conceit, would be to get into print for the sake of preserving the stuff. I would contemplate printing say, 100 copies, hoping to sell 30 or 40 pretty soon and others by degrees. The other point of view is, is the book a thing which would stimulate interest in piobaireachd? On this I should like to have your outspoken opinion. If there 1s, there may be a sort of duty to print and publish it. In any case the initial outlay will be considerable, and an ultimate loss pretty certain. I could hardly ask the Piobaireachd Society for assistance, partly because of my own position in the Society, and partly because I would not consent to recasting the book and making it a corporate production instead of an individual production.”

28 July, 1944:

“I am glad you got the book safely. I am inclined to think that something of the kind is required: a plain statement about what a piobaireachd is. Personally I played the stuff for years without really knowing what it was. And it cannot be explained without examples and numerous examples. Therefore a dissertation on the nature of piobaireachd would be in the preface of a collection and ought not to be too long, and mine, I fear, is rather long. However, I should rather like to add a paragraph or two about the way to play piobaireachd.”

A further letter followed a week later:

“I daresay that the publication project may come to nothing but what I feel is that if I can see it through the press I must not be too much of an old man, and I am now getting on. It is the sort of thing that I would like to buy myself, but the number of people interested is far too small for publication to be any better than a hazardous undertaking.”

Then ensued a gap of four months, during which Anderson perused the book, obtained a rough estimate and posted the book back. The following are extracts from two letters written in December 1944.

“The book arrived safely and thank you very much once more for all the trouble which you have taken about it, and which was considerable. The estimate is disappointingly large and the feasibility of printing and publishing problematical. It is a pity, for I think that something of the kind is required. I don’t suggest that I am the person to produce it, but I have produced something (probably with less effort and labour than most other people would have to expend) and | know of no one having done the same.

“The trouble is that the advance of old age waits on no one and nothing, and that, as time goes on, I shall get too slack or too ga-ga (and probably both) to undertake arrangements or to write around asking for support, or to perform the very difficult task of detecting mistakes in the proofs (which, if Aird and Coghill do the job, are bound to be numerous). However at the present moment there seems to be nothing to do but wait for easier days.

“Polite acquaintances are fond of observing that 68 (on which I am verging) is nothing – look at Winston Churchill, but I don’t know. Churchill never had all those Punjab hot weathers.”

Click here to read part 2.