The Campbeltown Book of Piping by Iain Duncan — a review by Duncan Beaton
When I left the countryside of Argyll for the ‘big city’ of Glasgow in 1965 I felt like a 16 year-old pioneer, naively unaware that plenty of others had made a similar journey before me. One day as I walked past the large sheds used by the company as engine testing cells the strains of bagpipe music could be heard, replacing the roar of engines. The company had its own Grade 2 pipe band, under Pipe Major George Campbell senior, and the relative soundproofing of the test cells made them ideal for some lunchtime practice.
That’s how I met Iain Duncan. Iain had also made the journey from Argyll, in his case Campbeltown, to Glasgow. He had joined the same company as me, as an 18 year-old commercial trainee, and after settling in got his bagpipes sent up from home. Iain had started with a practice chanter, given to him at the age of 8 by his father Archie. Although both Archie Duncan and his mother’s brother Dugald McShannon were accomplished pipers, Iain recounts the story behind his taking up the pipes as told in his family. On the day he was born a tinker piper was heard playing down on Low Askomil Walk in Campbeltown.
So he is well qualified to write this book, Leabhar Piobaireachd Ceann-Loch-Chille-Chiaran — The Campbeltown Book of Piping. It chronicles the town’s pipe band history and the individuals who have given, and continue to give, great service to Campbeltown.
The dominant kindreds, stretching back to the 18th century, were the McCallums and the MacAlisters, both weel-kent Kintyre family names. Iain includes a family tree showing how so many of the town’s pipers through the generations, right down to today, descend from John MacAlister and Archie McCallum who were both alive around 1750. MacAlister was town piper and appointed first piper to the Argyll West Fencible Regiment between 1778-1783. In 1783 he won the prestigious Falkirk Tryst Competition, his prize bearing a silver plate inscribed Iain MacAlasdair, Priomh Phiobaire na h-Alba, ‘John MacAlister, Scotland’s Chief Piper’.
John McAlister’s granddaughter Mary married Archie’s great grandson William McCallum, and their son Ronald McAlister McCallum was Campbeltown’s first pipe major. From him the tree spreads out to include many of the piping greats. 52 of the 122-page total covers mini-biographies of many of these talented people, up to present times. Iain’s uncle Dugald McShannon married Jean Grant, a granddaughter of Ronald M McCallum. His son Ronald McShannon followed the father into the piping scene. Both Ronald and Dugald, and Iain’s father Archie, appear among the biographies.
Ronald M McCallum’s grandson, also Ronald McCallum (1905-86), had a long career as a piper in the Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders, fulltime and part-time, between 1930 and 1967. In 1936 he moved to Strachur on upper Loch Fyne to take up a position as Gardener to Miss Joan Campbell at Strachur Park. His role included being Pipe Major of Strachur Pipe Band, a role suspended during the Second World War but resumed in 1946. During his time at Strachur the band competed in Grade 1 and was a force to be reckoned with. Miss Joan, a daughter of Lord George Campbell and granddaughter of the 8th Duke of Argyll, had a deep love of the bagpipe, and had spent a great deal of money in creating her own pipe band. From giving lessons to gifted local pupils she progressed to gifting them MacRae bagpipes and kitted them out in uniforms of Ancient Campbell tartan jackets, waistcoats and kilts. The march Miss Joan Campbell was written in her honour, and the tune manuscript appears in the book.
In 1951 Ronnie moved to Inveraray as personal piper to the 11th Duke of Argyll. His grandson Stuart Liddell is currently Pipe Major of Inveraray & District Pipe Band, Grade 1 World Champions in 2017 and 2019 (and due to Covid, still current World Champions). Stuart is a wonderful piper in his own right, winning gold medals at prestigious events like the Northern Meeting and Oban’s Argyllshire Gathering. He has also to date won the world famous Glenfiddich Piping Championship at Blair Atholl Castle three times, in 2009, 2014 and 2020.
One of Stuart’s keenest rivals is his second cousin once removed, Willie McCallum, a great grandson of Ronald McAlister McCallum. After a successful career with prize-winning bands Willie’s phenomenal solo career to date has seen him win 8 Glenfiddichs and numerous other awards.
One of the most famous episodes in the history of Campbeltown Pipe Band was their involvement with Paul McCartney and the band Wings. McCartney and his American wife Linda Eastman had bought High Park Farm, just north of Campbeltown. On August 9, 1977 the McCartneys and their band travelled to a bothy on the farm that had been converted to a recording studio and recorded the song that was to become the worldwide hit single Mull of Kintyre. A month earlier Pipe Major Tony Wilson (1932-94) had announced to the pipe band members that he had been approached by Paul. The pipe band segment was recorded outside “to add natural echo from the surrounding landscape”. It was nailed in one take. The promotional video was filmed with Wings and the pipe band at Saddell beach, and the tune went on to be a worldwide Christmas hit in 1977.
A list of 34 pipe tunes penned by people with Campbeltown connections, along with manuscripts for the benefit of players, is included in the book. They include marches, jigs, strathspeys and reels, and one piobaireachd, Salute to our Forebears by the author’s cousin Ronald McShannon. This book is a joy to read, not only for aficionados of the bagpipe and its music, but for someone with longstanding connections with Campbeltown and Kintyre.
Iain Duncan can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org