Scotland’s Traveller Pipers and Their Link to Campbeltown

Former RSPBA historian Iain Duncan has followed up on Andy Hunter’s piece on traveller pipers published last week

It’s a strange thing how few photo images of the Travelling People were taken in times past. It’s possible that back then precious few would own a camera, even the ‘old’ box or bellows camera, which were a devil to focus.

My friend Angus Martin has retrieved the only ‘traveller’ image he knew about. It’s a great photo (above) of the Kintyre Travellers encampment and these conditions remained the same right up until local authorities, in fairly recent memory, began to house the families and attempt some degree of integration.

By Iain Duncan

Most readers will likely be totally oblivious to the conditions the Travellers lived in. The photo was taken by one Dugald Semple around 1935 and was published in his book ‘Looking at Nature‘ (1946). 

I recall well growing up in Campbeltown in the 50s and 60s and the presence of the tinker families. They would pour into town on particular days from their campsite at the Lintmill, some two miles outside the town on the Machrihanish Road. 

Some of the seniors would partake of a drink or two. Well, who could deny them that, but we young kids were very judgemental.  I remember one in particular, the piper, Sandy Townsley would venture into the town’s housing schemes playing his pipes for anything anyone would give him, which would be money or food mostly. 

Being the son of a piper, Archie Duncan, and being brought up in the family piping environment, I was very critical of Sandy’s piping technique. It was bereft of doublings, grips, taorluaths, birls and gracenotes – which didn’t leave much to provide expression to the music. 

His rendition of Scotland the Brave, which I can still hear, was very open and off the standard melody. He relied on occasional pinky strikes for birls and taorluaths and underblowing the high A to emulate a strike and grip.

Over the past couple of years I have communicated a lot with Angus Martin of Campbeltown, a prolific author of local history with multiple publications to his credit.  In one of the passages Angus sent me he makes mention of Alex McPhee and it’s just possible this is of the same family as the Ecky Macphee discussed by Andy Hunter.

The locales mentioned were most certainly within the itinerary of the tinker families who would make Kintyre their home for part of each year.  Angus also alludes to the thought that had those pipers received formal tuition they might have gone on to greater things, a hypothesis I can only agree with, but the chasm between the tinker community and the renowned Campbeltown piping fraternity was too great to even consider that.

I’ve transcribed some of Angus’s words: ‘Certainly, by definition, ‘Travellers’ travelled, but particular families – Townsley, Williamson and MacPhee – based themselves in Kintyre for generations and later settled there. 

‘Equally certainly, the standard of piping among Travellers was often rudimentary, but adequate for the purpose.  Many pipers depended, to some degree, on their instrument as a money-earner. 

‘To my knowledge, Sandy Townsley, was the last piper in Kintyre of Travelling stock.  Obviously since Travellers did not enter piping competitions there is no record of their musicianship, but there is every likelihood that had the best of them gone on to receive tuition at a high level, some would have made a mark on the competition circuit, and I recall reading about one such, but the source eludes me at present. 

‘Alex McPhee was an Army piper during the Second World War – not the first such Traveller – and I have seen a published photograph of him in uniform and with his pipes.’

In another Angus Martin extract from Kintyre Magazine No. 82 p 33: ‘Sandy Townsley was a keen piper and bought, in a pub in Corrie, Arran, a set of bagpipes for £15, which he later sold in Lochgilphead for £30, a price he bitterly regretted as having been too low.

‘He wasn’t exactly a story-teller and seldom discussed his travelling life, but over the years I winkled out details from him: the many camp-sites his family used; seasonal farm work in Kintyre and Arran; visits to cities – including Belfast – to pipe on the streets for money.’

Lorn MacIntyre, author of the book, The Summer Stance’: ‘I prefer the word ‘tinker’ (and particularly the Gaelic word ‘ceàrd’……. to the more politically correct ‘traveller’. Surely ‘traveller’ is a misnomer, because they no longer travel. The name ceàrd-staoin, a tinsmith, has in its acoustics the echo of their skills, a delicate hammer fashioning tin into kettles and teapots, and repairing these items when they came round the doors in early summer……

‘Some of them wintered in the city, at sites such as Vinegarhill in Glasgow, before going on the road for the good weather, in the days before motorised traffic increased, their carts pulled by horses at a leisurely pace towards traditional stances where they had pitched bow tents and lit campfires for generations….’

From sleevenotes to the ‘Stewarts of Blair‘ album on Topic: ‘The descendants of auld Jimmy Stewart of Struan, who crossed from Perthshire into Aberdeenshire via Glenshee and the Devil’s Elbow about the middle of the last century, are now scattered up and down the high roads and the low roads of Scotland, and there is a flourishing colony of them in Canada.

‘There can be few more musically gifted clans or families in all Europe. Pipers, Fiddlers, melodeon players, tin whistlers can be counted among them in dozens, and you practically never encounter an indifferent performer. Alex’s father, old John Stewart, was one of the finest pipers in Scotland….’

4 thoughts on “Scotland’s Traveller Pipers and Their Link to Campbeltown

  1. Dear Helen Madden,
    By sheer chance I have come upon this post and the Bridget (nee Townsley) may be my mother!?
    If it is her than she married a german ex-soldier in Scotland (Heinz Meinberg). But she had only 3 children (2 mis-carriages).
    In approx 1957 or thereabouts my family moved to Germany and then migrated to Australia in 1959.
    If this is her please reply.

  2. I think Sandy Townsley was my uncle. Having grown up in Glasgow but visited Campbeltown for many years during my childhood, I’ve always wanted to trace the Townsley clan in particular cousins. We lost all contact in 1965. My uncle Sandy had sisters – Mary, Bridget Elizabeth and Rachel Townsley. Mary had children and one daughter was I think called Lillian or Lily. Bridget emigrated to Australia. Any further history I would welcome .
    Thank you
    Helen Madden

    1. Hello Helen,
      If you care to contact me directly (Robert Wallace will give you my email) I can put you in contact with two people who might be able to advance you more recent information to you.
      Iain Duncan

    2. hi,helen i new a bridget,mary ,rachel townsley from campbeltown if its the same family they bridget and rachel stayed in park square, i also grew up there as a young boy in the seventies, bridget had a large family of boys, sandy,charlie,george,duncan,jake,willie etc hope this helps eddie mcgougan

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