Rare Picture, Campbells of Kilberry and the Founding of the Piobaireachd Society

Together the two individuals in the above image helped change the course of piping history. Can you guess who they are?

The handsome woman on the left is Lady Elspeth Campbell, and on the right John Campbell, Kilberry. I am indebted to his great-grandson, also John, and now the Piping Steward at the Argyllshire Gathering, for forwarding the photograph from his family collection.

By Robert Wallace

‘It shows Lady Elspeth Campbell and my great-grandfather, John Campbell of Kilberry,’ writes John. Lady Elspeth was the daughter of Lord Archie the brother of the Duke of Argyll. The photograph was taken at the Gathering, on the games field at Oban, in the first years of the last century.’

It is to John Campbell, Younger of Kilberry, the man in the picture also known as ‘Jock’, to whom we must give credit for the founding of the Piobaireachd Society. Lady Elspeth was a member of his original PS committee.

Something on both; Lady Elspeth first. Bridget MacKenzie in her comprehensive ‘Piping Traditions of Argyll’: ‘Miss Elspeth, the niece of the Duke of Argyll, was daughter of Lord Archibald Campbell, founder of the Inveraray Pipe Band. She herself was a capable player at the end of the 19th century. She was among the founder members of the Piobaireachd Society 1903.’

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Bridget also notes the tune ‘Miss Elspeth Campbell’s March’ by Thomas Douglas: ‘Douglas was a native of Cowal…..he published several works in David Glen’s Collection including Miss Elspeth Campbell.’

This competition 2/4 is one of our classic marches, surprisingly more popular with the bands than the soloists. Could do with a resurrection. There’s a challenge for all you great Argyll pipers.

Have a listen to Shotts playing it back in 2018:

Now to John Campbell. In 1902 he circulated a letter among Argyll gentry: ‘I have the honour to inform you that it is proposed to form a Society, having as its objects the Preservation of Old Highland Piobaireachd, and the diffusion of knowledge concerning them.

‘It is, I think, an undoubted fact that very few Piobaireachd are at present generally known or played even by the best Professional Pipers, and that many of the most beautiful are never heard at all.

‘It is proposed, in the first instance, only to invite those who have the above mentioned objects really at heart, and who have themselves some knowledge of piping, to become Members, Will you kindly let me know, by the 1st of November, whether you wish to become a member of the Piobaireachd Society.’

With these simple words from John Campbell the classical pipe music of Scotland was saved. The landed classes rallied round, Lady Elspeth, MacLean of Pennycross included. Twenty odd years later the first book in the Society’s series appeared. John Campbell’s son Archibald went on to edit a further nine and to write the Kilberry Book of Ceol Mor, still a best seller.

The Army School is founded by the Society, paid teachers sent round the country, set tune contests begin, and manuscripts, books, and assorted documents collected, this priceless archive now cared for by the National Library of Scotland.

Today we have more piobaireachd players in more countries around the world than at any time in history, a fact I never tire of repeating as you will have noticed.

And next time you hear someone disparaging the Campbells, remember piping owes them. Look at the lady and gentleman in the picture; tip the bonnet.

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