John Lorne Campbell of Canna was a Scottish patriot of unique stamp, a scholar of exceptional quality, and a generous friend to many both at home and beyond the shores of Scotland. His roots lay in the old heartland of the Scottish Kingdom, in Argyll, where his pedigree of the Campbells of Craignish and Clann Thearlaich bear witness to the single-mindedness and fierce independence of spirit which was Campbell's own mark.
The eldest son of Col Duncan Campbell of Inverneill on Loch Fyne and his American wife, Ethel Waterbury, of New Jersey, he was educated at Cargilfield School, Edinburgh, and Rugby. He went on to St John's College, Oxford, to read Rural Economy under Professor Sir James Scott Watson and Celtic under Professor John Fraser of Jesus College, graduating in 1929 and receiving his MA in 1933.
An interest in Gaelic from boyhood was fostered by Fraser, the gamekeeper's son from Glenurquhart who became Campbell's mentor. Campbell began work while at Oxford on a Gaelic anthology which became his first publication, Highland Songs of the Forty-Five, in 1933. He always averred that Fraser had taught him the principles and discipline of editing which subsequently served him in such good stead and naturally made him impatient of carelessness and low standards in such fields of scholarship.
The editorial apparatus of this work put up an important scholarly marker and presented a thesis which Campbell followed through his long career. When Highland Songs of the Forty-Five was deservedly republished by the Scottish Gaelic Texts Society in 1984, beside making amendments and additions he was able to restate with conviction after half a century that:
. . . the Rising of 1745 was the natural reaction of the Jacobite clans and their sympathisers in the Highlands against what had been since the coming of William of Orange in 1690 a calculated official genocidal campaign against the religion of many and the language of all Highlanders.
After Oxford, Campbell's career took a fresh and momentous turn. Invited to Barra to study crofting conditions and colloquial Gaelic, his arrival in the Outer Hebrides on 4 August 1933 marked the beginning of a long and extraordinary life's work of recovery and transmission of the Gaelic song, literary and linguistic record. Sharing in the coterie which Compton Mackenzie had established at Northbay in Barra, Campbell himself stayed with the exceptional John Macpherson, county councillor and postmaster, known to all as the "Coddy".
With him, and other Barra notables such as Neil Sinclair, the Sgoilear Ruadh, and Annie and Calum Johnston, he began to explore this unusual world of the Hebrides, then still, as in his own words, "like the old Highlands of the early 19th century". Here Campbell became the pioneer of the modern collection and preservation of Gaelic song and story. He worked outside the conventional institutional framework of the universities, which arguably has given his work a freshness of approach in the study of Gaelic literature and history.
With Compton Mackenzie, John Lorne Campbell took an interest in the political and economic life of the Outer Hebrides and together they founded the Sea League, which took its title from the 19th-century Land League and its philosophy and dynamic from the fishery policies of Norway, Iceland and the Faeroes. They called for the closure of the Minch to trawlers in order to safeguard the livelihoods of Hebrideans deriving from traditional drift-net and long-line fishery.
Campbell's own robust comment on the episode delivered in 1975 sums up some of his own convictions on Scottish political life:
Personally I have never been more thoroughly convinced of the justice of any cause than I was of the Sea League. The situation was a revelation of the attitude of the Westminster government and the Scottish Office towards the Hebrides. The islands were despised because they were poor, and they were poor because their economic interest in the greatest source of wealth accessible to them, the sea, had been sacrificed to those of the English trawling monopolies.
When later he published Macpherson's Tales of Barra, told by the Coddy in 1960, he rationalised his approach to modern Celtic studies as "getting inside the tradition" and the need of the student (like himself) to learn, not the stilted language of the litterateurs and the grammarians, but a dialect of Gaelic, since "the dialects of the Outer Hebrides are more vigorous than the modern literary language, and contain many words and expressions that are not in the printed dictionaries". Over a period of about 30 years of perseverance and intense dedication, he amassed a sound recording archive of some 1,500 Gaelic songs and 350 folktales. Approximately one-tenth of the recordings have been published, for example the 135 waulking songs in three volumes of Hebridean Folksongs edited as a collaborative effort with Francis Collinson from 1966 until 1981.
Campbell was also a pioneer of technical methodology. His recording work advanced in step with contemporary developments; beginning with an Ediphone Recorder using wax cylinders, he progressed to a Presto Disc Recorder, both obtained in New York as state-of-the-art equipment. He would often recall ruefully the difficulties and suspicion which he met with in trying to get his equipment (which has achieved so much for our culture) through the bureaucracy of customs.
Latterly, when magnetic tape recorders became the norm, Campbell used a Grundig Tape Recorder and a Phillips Portable Recorder. Working alone in the field, he gained some recognition of the importance of his task with a two-year grant of pounds 250 from the Leverhulme Foundation in 1949.
The linking of Scotland and Nova Scotia was another facet of Campbell's innovative approach to Gaelic studies. Having begun productive recording work in Barra and South Uist in 1936-37, he then visited eastern Canada and Cape Breton in particular to discover the Gaelic oral tradition among the descendants of 18th- and 19th-century emigrants very much alive even after a separation of over 100 years. Single-minded, but never narrow, he also recorded the history and traditions of the Micmac Indians, the aboriginal inhabitants of the Maritime Provinces, while he was in Nova Scotia. The significance of Cape Breton for Gaelic tradition was, in his own words, as "a Highland community where there are no lairds" and its richness is reflected in his own recently published Songs Remembered in Exile (1990).
Wishing to play a more active part in Hebridean affairs, John Lorne Campbell adopted the persona of laird and farmer when he bought the islands of Canna and Sanday in 1938, midway in the Minch between the mountainous seaboard to the east and the Outer Hebrides of the Uists and Barra to the west. He would observe that, on a very clear day, the hills of Donegal can be seen from the highest point of the island. The spatial and temporal circle was complete, uniting the ancient culture province of medieval Scotland which so few have had the knowledge and imagination to grasp.
From the mid-1930s, Campbell was a tireless advocate of the need for public and academic recognition of the importance of the oral culture of the Scottish Gaidhealtachd. He was one of the main instigators of FIOS, the Folklore Institute of Scotland (and its President from 1947), whose main objective was to lobby for official recognition of the importance and value of the Gaelic oral tradition in Scotland and the urgent need for support in organising the recording of it by modern methods.
He himself developed the case for systematic collection of Gaelic folksong on a properly organised basis, preferably by the endowment of a body in Scotland similar to the Irish Folklore Commission. The efforts of the Folklore Institute of Scotland together with other interested parties led to the creation of the School of Scottish Studies at Edinburgh University in late 1951. In contributing to the founding of this new archive, he endowed it with copies of more than 300 of his own wire recordings of traditional song.
Campbell was the author of 16 books and a great many articles, but one or two of his research topics stand out for their continuing contribution to Celtic studies. Gaelic stories taken down from dictation and recorded on the Ediphone in South Uist and Barra between 1933 and 1938 were published privately in Sia Sgialachdan in 1939. This book drew the attention of the Irish Folklore Commission to the Hebrides and they sent Calum MacLean to carry out recording work on their behalf, an initiative which undoubtedly helped to prompt the subsequent establishment of the School of Scottish Studies.
Campbell traced the literary remains and lost Gaelic folklore collection of Fr Allan McDonald (1859-1905), parish priest of Daliburgh and Briskay, and much of this corpus has been published. His reappraisal of the work of Marjory Kennedy Fraser (1837-1930), author of Songs of the Hebrides which had "popularised" Gaelic folksong, continues to have ramifications for the understanding of traditional folksong.
No celebration of Campbell's life could omit his marriage of 60 years to Margaret Fay Shaw of Glen Shaw, Pennsylvania, whom he met in South Uist in 1934 where she was collecting traditional Gaelic songs. This rare partnership brought together her musical talents with his lexical skills, creating the treasure-house of their lives and work in Canna.
The Isle of Canna was presented by John Lorne Campbell to the National Trust for Scotland in 1981, together with his library, archives and sound recordings. This gift of his life's work to Scotland was a gesture of enormous magnanimity and it is to be hoped that an outcome can be devised to realise and reflect his vision.
Undoubtedly Canna with its wealth of resources could become a place of pilgrimage and a centre for advanced scholarly research in Celtic studies. Here we would be made aware of a reorientation of Scottish history from east coast, lowland, to west coast, Hebridean; and towards a baroque grandeur of Highland history where the source is not the product of a hostile Edinburgh and Westminster bureaucracy but an unrealised store ranging from the rich oral literature of an ancient people to distant European archives.
John Lorne Campbell, Scottish Gaelic scholar: born Argyll 1 October 1906; FRSE 1989; OBE 1990; married 1935 Margaret Fay Shaw; died near Fiesole, Italy 25 April 1996.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies