I now dissociate myself from my Foreword in ‘Sidelights’


By Lt. Col. D. J. S. Murray

In the year 2000 there was published Dr William Donaldson’s seminal The Highland Pipe and Scottish Society, a well written, well researched and well sourced book which one thought would have been well received by the serious piping fraternity. The contrary was the case. Its reception was hostile. It was ‘left to wither on the vine’. Why? It included a reasoned and thoughtful appraisement of the contribution of Archibald Campbell of Kilberry, making a telling point of the gap between ‘what was taught, and what was learned’. His book was regarded as an attack on the guru of modern piobaireachd. Several writers have leapt to Archibald Campbell’s defence. I’ve yet to read one who refutes Willie, point by point, or even mentions his book.

I have to admit that for years I was one of those who accepted Archibald Campbell as one of the great figures in the history of our art. I had written a highly laudatory Foreword to the first volume of Sidelights on the Kilberry Book of Ceol Mor. At the time of writing it, I was under the impression that the notes had been compiled in India, after long days spent in listening to the convoluted pleas of Indian lawyers in hot and dusty court rooms under ‘punkahs’, primitive fans operated by Indian coolies, long before the days of air conditioning and electricity. I was wrong. The conditions of service in the Indian Civil Service included one year’s leave after five years in India. Archibald Campbell had written the notes in this country. No one put me right. I now wish to disassociate myself from the views I expressed in that Foreword.

It was not until I had time to study and, above all, to think, that I began to have doubts, and then to recall my own early days when I had been a pupil of Robert Reid in Glasgow, three quarters of a century ago. Robert Reid was acknowledged as the star pupil of John MacDougall Gillies, from whom Archibald Campbell had also received instruction while on leave from India.

At that time, the Piobaireachd Society had published six books of piobaireachd and the seventh was to appear shortly after. J.P Grant of Rothiemurchus edited Book One; Books 2 to 10 were edited by Archibald Campbell. Books 10 to 15 were edited by his devoted acolyte, Archibald Kenneth. All are signed on behalf of the Music Committee of the Piobaireachd Society. None of the Music Committee ever saw any book until it was published.

Robert Reid at Cowal in 1934.

Robert Reid wrote out the six piobaireachds that I got from him in his own hand in a little manuscript music book. There were no time signatures or bar lines, but the phrases were indicated. He used his own form of shorthand for the later variations but the Ground he wrote out in full. He taught me to play the hiharin with a short ‘E’ and a long ‘A’, exactly as he plays it in the Robert Reid Archive on the Piobaireachd Society website. And he taught me to play the redundant ‘A’ in the Taorluadh and Crunluadh, the latter exactly as he does in the CD, Classics from the College produced by the College of Piping.

At no time did Robert Reid ever mention or refer to the Piobaireachd Society series. This suggests, to me at any rate, that he preferred to teach from the settings he had learned from MacDougall Gillies.

As I got to know Robert Reid better, he would relax after the lesson was over. I still recall one of his comments: “These old men, they ceòl mòr this, and ceòl mòr that, but I know what MacDougall Gillies said!” Over the years, the little book of six tunes that Robert Reid had written for me disappeared somewhere between Inverness and Japan, much to my regret. Robert Reid died in 1965, aged only 70. In my 92nd year, I still revere his memory.

Later, we moved to Edinburgh and Willie Ross took me on as a pupil. Willie was, of course, employed by the Piobaireachd Society to teach the Army Class. The very first thing he did was to tell me to provide myself with Book 7 of the Piobaireachd Society series. This was the first I had heard of the existence of these books. All the tunes Willie taught me came from Book 7. After a while, Willie told me that ‘they’ wouldn’t approve of the ‘redundant’ A in the Crunluadh, but I continued to play it in secret. He didn’t mention the hiharin, and I continued to play it as Robert Reid had taught me. Years later, after World War 2, Willie told me to play the Crunluadh a-mach variation in strict tempo just as it’s played today. I had to give up playing Robert Reid’s much more lively style of playing the variation.

In the course of his remarks on the website and the CD it appears that Robert Reid had changed his opinion of the Piobaireachd Society in general and Archibald Campbell in particular, as, of course, he was perfectly entitled to do. However, he modifies his opinion by saying that the ‘modern piper’ is not trained to interpret what has been published in The Kilberry Book of Ceol Mor. He is right: but I wonder if he would have been quite as complimentary had he been able to read Chapter 18 of Willie Donaldson’s book. The chapter examines in detail the sources Archibald Campbell quotes as his authority for the settings he publishes, and compares them with what appears, first in the Piobaireachd Society series, and then in The Kilberry Book of Ceol Mor. The differences between what is written in the manuscript sources that Archibald Campbell quotes and the version that he published are considerable.

The ground of ‘Catherine’s Lament’ from the John McDougall Gillies MS showing his treatment of the hiharin.

Willie Donaldson has detected more than 50 changes which Archibald Campbell makes to Angus MacKay’s original score that he claims as the source for his version of The MacDougalls’ Gathering. As Willie points out, “MacKay’s idiomatic quaver/semi-quaver rhythms arereplaced by strings of crotchets”. How the ‘modern player’, or indeed the modern tutor, raised in the ‘PS and K’ tradition, can be expected to interpret these crotchets as quaver/semi-quaver rhythms and play them as MacKay intended is beyond my understanding.

But nowhere is the gap between ‘what was taught and what was learned’ more apparent than in Archibald Campbell’s method of writing the hiharin, ‘E’ crotchet followed by ‘A’ crotchet. Robert Reid, the avowed protagonist of the Cameron school, plays it short ‘E’ followed by long ‘A’. Peter Cooke said of the Kilberry method that it has “no sanction in performance tradition”. Years before, John McLennan, father of ‘G. S’, had derided it as “the neighing of the horse”. General Thomason in Ceol Mor had differentiated between the ‘eallach’ and the ‘gairm’, two ways of playing the hiharin. Someone has got it wrong; I know whom I believe.

William Donaldson's book
William Donaldson’s book … “wonderfully researched”.

It is this writer’s contention that Archibald Campbell’s method distorts the scansion of the melody, especially where the opening bar begins with ‘hiharin’. These two even beats lead the unsuspecting performer into what amounts to a slow march with cadences. There are tunes where the Ground and variations include or end in two or four hiharin beats, as for instance The Old Men of the Shells or The Earl of Ross’s March, Played as successive crotchets, as they appear in ‘PS or K’, these jar on the ear of one trained in the Cameron tradition as expounded by Robert Reid. You can hear the difference by listening to him play The Vaunting on the Piobaireachd Society website and comparing his way with Archibald Campbell’s plodding and unmusical equal crotchet [quarter note] method favoured by the ‘modern’ school.

I appreciate that what I am writing about will appeal only to those pipers who are truly interested in the whole corpus of piobaireachd and who are prepared to spend time and thought in study and, above all in experiment by playing these older styles and interpretations. My criticism of Archibald Campbell and the Kilberry school – the “Campbell lawyers” – is that over my lifetime they have changed the way in which piobaireachd is played, and not for the better. Those whose interest is based on competition will continue to play what pleases the judges. But when they move to what ‘wee’ Donald MacLeod once called “the other end of the pencil”, and begin to judge, and have, or make time to study, then a whole new world lies open to them. As the late Pipe Major Angus MacDonald told this writer, “Since I gave up competing I’ve learned more about piobaireachd than I ever dreamt existed!”

It is, of course, necessary to be a member of the Piobaireachd Society to have access to the Robert Reid archive, where, I trust, all that I have been trying to convey will be clear to those prepared to listen with open minds and ears. And I do respect the opinions of those who have given the alternatives a fair trial and have decided that Kilberry has the answers that they want. The “Campbell lawyers” will have won yet again, as they, in Highland history, always have!

* First published in the May 2013 Piping Times.