Calum Campbell

Hebridean piper out of a long tradition


Malcolm Campbell, piper and joiner: born Balivanich, Benbecula 13 April 1937; married 1962 Morag MacRury (died 2001; four sons, three daughters, and one daughter deceased); died Creagorry, Benbecula 11 January 2005.

Malcolm Campbell, piper and joiner: born Balivanich, Benbecula 13 April 1937; married 1962 Morag MacRury (died 2001; four sons, three daughters, and one daughter deceased); died Creagorry, Benbecula 11 January 2005.

Calum Campbell was a central figure in a rare community of musicians devoted to the music and culture of the Highland bagpipe.

He came of a family long steeped in the Hebridean oral and instrumental tradition. His father, Calum Iain, was a noted piper and tutor. His cousin Angus Campbell, who died two years ago at the age of 102, was one of the most respected Hebridean performers of ceòl mór - often referred to as the classical music of the bagpipe - of the 20th century.

By Calum Campbell's day, the forces of modernity and improvement had wrought enormous changes in Hebridean piping. In 1909, the Piobaireachd Society introduced tuition in the southern Outer Hebrides by "scientific means" - that is, by musical notation - to what was still a largely ear-learned community of Gaelic musicians, for whom function and timing far outweighed technical proficiency as aesthetic priorities. The society's tutors found a land in which a practice chanter rested on the window-sill of every house and "every father and two or more sons could discourse on the national instrument".

The courses continued until 1958. By then, being considered a good piper in South Uist and Benbecula did not mean being able to play reels for a wedding dance for hours on end with perfect rhythmic lift, as it had a generation or two earlier. Rather, it meant performing to precise technical standards as learned from notation, as it did elsewhere in Scotland. But Campbell himself proved that the substance of the old ways survived none the less: a keen ear, a rhythmic lilt on the dance floor and a gift for extemporaneous melodic nuance.

It was clear from early on that he had inherited much of his forebears' musical facility. Having been tutored by his father in the rudiments of the pipe, he began taking prizes as a boy in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War. In 1946, he gained a prize in the "under-14s" category at the summer games held on Askernish Machair, South Uist, the first year that the games had been held since the outbreak of war.

He began making his mark as a senior piper in 1952 and 1953, and by the 1960s was a regular prizewinner, known for performing difficult pieces "in a masterly way, on a beautifully toned instrument", as one observer recorded in 1961. His crowning year may have been 1982, when he swept the boards of the local Flora MacDonald Cup with first places in the ceòl mór, march and jig events.

Having worked as a joiner for many years, in 1984 he started to teach piping professionally throughout schools in South Uist, Benbecula and North Uist. He stood down just a few years ago.

Campbell was known as much for his compositions as for his performances. The tunes he composed, like the songs of village bards in earlier times, commemorated mainly local events and personages, such as his march Bain's Welcome to Creagorry and his jig Hercules the Bear, composed in 1980 when the flight of the famous beast in Benbecula during the filming of a television commercial caused headlines nationwide.

In 1997 he composed a lament for Legend, a touring public sculpture by Diane Maclean. The piece combined sculptural form (a curving line of stainless steel following the contours of the hillside) with a sensor-activated voice recording of a 19th-century Gaelic poem interwoven with the sound of the piper.

Calum Campbell was swept out to sea with his daughter Murdina and her husband Archie and their two children, as they tried to escape their flooded home in hurricane-force winds.

Joshua Dickson

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