May 31, 2010

Old School: thoughts on ceol mor with four piping legends – James Campbell of Kilberry

As a high school student in 1989, Iain Speirs, the son of course of the equally famous Tom Speirs and grandson of the truly renowned Jock Speirs, dreamed up a project that merged academics with his passion. He decided to investigate where piobaireachd stands as a living art with prominent active competitors of the time, and with four legends of the game: Captain John A. MacLellan, MBE, Seumas MacNeill, James Campbell and Lt.-Col. David Murray. While the other three have since died, Col. Murray is still going strong.

The 17-year-old Iain Speirs keenly forwarded a set of questions to the piping luminaries, and then arranged to meet in-person with each, recording the interviews, the material from which he used for his school project.

The third instalment is with James Campbell of Kilberry, who was 73 years old at the time of the interview.


James Campbell was born in India on July 27, 1916, to a family of wealth and aristocracy, and a wealth of amateur “society” solo piping tradition. His father was “Kilberry,” Archibald Campbell of Kilberry, who served as President of the Piobaireachd Society for decades and was the driving force behind and primary editor of the Piobaireachd Society’s Collection, the first attempt to develop “standardized” settings for competition pipers and adjudicators to follow. “Kilberry” received instruction from John MacDougall Gillies and was a primary mover of the Cameron school of piobaireachd. Archibald Campbell compiled and published The Kilberry Book of Cèol Mòr, his personal settings of tunes that tend to be either loved or loathed by pipers. Archibald Campbell was a puisne judge in the High Court at Lahore, and James Campbell’s mother was the younger daughter of the Lieutenant-Governor of Bengal.

Aside from being a keen amateur piper, who was sent to Pipe-Major Willie Ross for instruction, James Campbell was a soldier who fought with distinction in Italy in World War II. He was wounded twice in the war, and received the Military Cross for acts of exemplary gallantry in November 1944 after the battle of Monte Spaduro.

Before returning to the United Kingdom to become a barrister and as director of studies in law at Pembroke College, Cambridge University. He would become a don at Cambridge.

James Campbell allegedly concentrated on light music until he heard Lewis Beaton play “Lament for Mary MacLeod” and Ross perform “Lament for Sir James MacDonald of the Isles.” These tunes converted his mind to Cèol Mòr, which he focused on for the rest of his piping life.

Amazingly, by the age of 21 James Campbell was judging high-level piping competitions. He was a member of the Piobaireachd Society’s Music Committee, with which he would serve for more than 40 years, rising to become its honorary president in the 1970s. His own written contributions to piping included two Side Lights on the Kilberry Book of Cèol Mòr.

A steady presence at piping events in Scotland right up until his final years, James Campbell died at age 87 on December 6, 2003.

Twenty-one years later, Iain Speirs recollects his meeting with James Campbell:

I recall Mr. Campbell coming to the house on Christiemiller Avenue in Edinburgh for his tea and afterwards I interviewed him at the kitchen table. Listening back to the interview alongside my other interviewees, his answers weren’t as detailed and I wonder whether his opinions on the subject either weren’t as strong as the others, or whether he was more reticent to express them. Either way, he was a fascinating man and took great interest in the project.

James Campbell’s contributions to piping, like his personality, were subtle and often behind-the-scenes. Nonetheless, his legacy can be felt in numerous aspects of piobaireachd, as we know it today.


  1. Something about his position and status made me long for some plain and ordinary piobaireachd players. And then there’s all the reputation stuff that makes you (me) kind of dread the article before even reading it. But then once started, he sounded quite reasonable and talked sense. He seemed to have a kind of stilted way of answering and sometimes I wanted to say-just tell us what you think about the question’. At times I wondered how much he really knew about the subject. Compared to the other two interviews it seemed more shallow and the ‘good’ at the end, and the question ‘Have you heard of John McColl’ made me wonder if he was pompous. But I found all that interesting, and was glad to read it, but somehow, I don’t think I’ll read this one again – unlike the other two which I read several times. Thanks for it though. I’ll be interested to see what others thought.



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