In 2000, as the new millennium dawned, William Donaldson published his controversial The Highland Pipe and Scottish Society 1750-1950. It was a landmark publication and it remains a masterly – and controversial – work. It should be part of any piper’s library.

In his book, Donaldson takes a swipe at Archibald Campbell of Kilberry and the Piobaireachd Society. Not long after it was published, John Frater defended Campbell in this article that appeared in the Piping Times in May 2008:

By John K. S. Frater

The discussion of MacDougall’s Gathering (p386-8) is a passage that illustrates some of the difficulties I encounter with The Highland Pipe and Scottish Society 1750-1950 by William Donaldson. Angus MacKay’s score and the Piobaireachd Society score edited by Archibald Campbell are reproduced — the latter without the key to the notation, surely vital in this context. The original score from MacArthur-MacGregor is not reproduced.

If I have understood William Donaldson’s book, a key part of his assertions is a criticism of the written score being used to standardise piobaireachd playing, thus stultifying development, in contrast to the oral tradition supporting a vibrant, ever changing performance culture. William Donaldson objects to Archibald Campbell updating the score by writing the double echoes in the contemporary style, implying that he would prefer Archibald Campbell to have used the style of more than a hundred years before. Immediately after criticising Archibald Campbell for introducing dots and cuts, he criticises him for removing them from elsewhere in the ùrlar. In fact, as I read that line there is no substantive difference from the original or from MacKay version – William Donaldson doesn’t show the reader the notation in the Piobaireachd Society book; the intended playing style appears to be the same, just presented differently.

A reader unfamiliar with Piobaireachd Society house style might assume William Donaldson description is correct. William Donaldson doesn’t point out that Angus MacKay, ostensibly presenting a copy of the MacArthur-MacGregor score, has changed the score for MacDougall’s Gathering — perhaps odd since in the same passage William Donaldson criticices Archibald Campbell for making changes silently.

William Donaldson objects to ossification of playing style by the permanency of written scores, but criticises Archibald Campbell for reflecting the contemporary playing style when he edits the score; he criticises. Archibald Campbell for making changes without making this explicit, but in the same example,

William Donaldson conceals elements of Archibald Campbell’ score and is silent about Angus MacKay’s changes to the score; Archibald Campbell’s score seems to guide the performer without being overly restrictive – Archibald Campbell was explicit that piobaireachd scores are a guide to playing and should not be taken as instruction or as a literal representation (see the Introduction in the Kilberry Book of Ceol Mor).

There is a delicious thread of irony running through The Highland Pipe and Scottish Society 1750-1950, for example William Donaldson castigates previous writers for not drawing on information from expert contemporary pipers, but I couldn’t find evidence that, while preparing his book, he had consulted living authorities who were involved in piping in the first half of the 20th century, such as Donald MacPherson, Donald MacGillivray, William M. MacDonald (Inverness); most significantly perhaps, we are not given the views of James Campbell, son of Archibald Campbell and himself a renowned piobaireachd expert. The last two now sadly deceased, but alive while William Donaldson was researching and writing.

Archibald Campbell and his infamous book.

It seems to me that in what we know and what has been written about piobaireachd, there are many anomalies and lots of contradictions, but I don’t think we need conspiracy theories to explain them; people make mistakes, change their views, might sometimes not tell the whole truth, some unexpected statements might simply be made by people being polite and not saying what they really think. Many of the inconsistencies will be due to confusion. In addition, many conclusions are based on data that would bear quite different interpretation. For example, looking at what we know, it is possible to portray Archibald Campbell as a hard working, selfless lover of piobaireachd, who saw it as his duty to put in writing what he had learnt, as the history of piobaireachd showed a relatively sparse literature and every half decent contribution would be welcome.

The muddle element can be illustrated by the controversy over playing an open crunluath fosgailte as an a-mach. This is presented as one of Archibald Campbell’s bullying manipulations, but William Donaldson provides the evidence that Archibald Campbell didn’t make up the idea – John MacDonald (page 379) is quoted describing Sandy Cameron playing an open crunluath fosgailte as an a-mach. It may simply be that Archibald Campbell got the wrong end of the stick or that Sandy Cameron gave different views at different times and Archibald Campbell was simply reporting what his teacher said – Archibald Campbell himself didn’t like or wish to promote the practice!

Rather than elaborating conspiracy theories, we need to recognise that writing about and discussing piobaireachd is fraught with difficulty; take, for example, David Murray’s column in the May 2004 Piping Times. David criticices Archibald Campbell for using common time for too many tunes, particularly Beloved Scotland and Lament for the Children. We don’t know why Archibald Campbell used common time for these tunes in the Kilberry book – they’re both in 6/8 time in the Piobaireachd Society books which he edited. In Sidelights, he specifically says Lament for the Children should be in 6/8. Perhaps in the study of piobaireachd, little is simple and we should recognise the easy fallibility of all? By the way, the notes accompanying Beloved Scotland in Piobaireachd Society Book 6 (edited by Archibald Campbell) are worth reading – try recognising Donaldson’s portrayal of Archibald Campbell in these notes – I can’t.

Most of us realise that Archibald Campbell and his contemporaries made mistakes and that some of their social values and personal styles have not stood the test of time. Archibald Campbell gave too much credence to the MacCrimmon legend as portrayed in Angus MacKay’s published book, but that doesn’t negate all the work he did. If we look at the Piobaireachd Society books edited by Archibald Campbell, we find considerable efforts made to give information about alternative settings. Consider, for example, some of the 2008 set tunes. Piobaireachd Society Book 3 edited by Archibald Campbell: Blind Piper’s Obstinacy – Angus MacKay setting printed as main score, but also gives Campbell Canntaireachd version verbatim in full. Piobaireachd Society Book 5 edited by Archibald Campbell: Sobieski’s Salute — gives Angus MacKay’s setting, notes differences in Campbell Canntaireachd (and observes that Angus MacKay had access to Campbell Canntaireachd); My King has Landed in Moidart – Angus MacKay setting printed as main score, Donald MacDonald’s ùrlar printed in full in staff notation, differences with Campbell Canntaireachd setting noted. It does not seem tenable to blame Archibald Campbell for pipers’ failure to explore the alternative settings he so conscientiously presented for them.

Simon Fraser photographed in 1908.
Simon Fraser photographed in 1908.

Bridget MacKenzie accused Archibald Campbell of suppressing Simon Fraser, but it may of interest to note that the original Book 9 of the Piobaireachd Society series, edited by Archibald Campbell, contains Simon Fraser’s setting of Lord Lovat’s Lament, not Archibald Campbell’s own setting. I infer from the notes accompanying the tune that Archibald Campbell wasn’t a big fan of the Fraser setting but he still published it – a lesson in tolerance that others might ponder. Much of the factual information presented by Bridget MacKenzie and William Donaldson is both interesting and helpful and they are not the only commentators to introduce an element of vitriol into their pronouncements, but I think piping would be better served if all were more circumspect, when giving piobaireachd opinions. It would be absurdly easy to portray many of piping’s greats in a poor light, but why do so? Destructive criticism doesn’t improve our piobaireachd playing. We can observe where others have gone astray and build on their legacy; we can pay due respect without undue adulation.

Please would all those writing about piobaireachd try to promote it rather than score points for themselves or their preferred style. Surely, it would be better to follow Jack Taylor’s example by recognising there may be and have been imperfections, but address them by joining in to work for improvement.

• From the May 2008 Piping Times.