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(By Katie Laing)
WHO in the Western Isles could forget the terrible events of January 2005, when three generations of the same family lost their lives as they tried to flee the hurricane that hit the islands.
Murdina and Archie MacPherson and their two children all perished, as did Murdina’s father, Calum Campbell, when the cars in which they were travelling were swept away by the sea. It is thought they left Murdina and Archie’s home in South Uist for fear of it being flooded.
Calum, who was 67, was well known as a piper and piping instructor and had also composed some tunes. The sheer number of them, though, did not become clear until his son Niall embarked on the difficult task of sorting through his father’s effects.
These tunes have now been put together in a new book from Lewis-based publishers Acair, working with various members of Calum’s family and staff from The National Piping Centre in Glasgow, in particular Roddy MacLeod MBE.
Ceòl Chaluim – The Pipe Music of Calum Campbell of Benbecula is a fitting tribute to a Hebridean who contributed so much to the music of this part of the world.
Roddy MacLeod hailed it as a “very welcome addition to the published repertoire of pipe music” and said that he had been unaware of just how much music Calum had written until staff at The Piping Centre began typesetting them.
The same was true of Calum’s family. In his introduction to the book, Niall said he would find pipe tunes in “boxes and folders, drawers and cupboards”, adding: “Some of them I was aware of, others I had never heard before.”
Niall found 60 or 70 tunes in various stages of completion and took them to the Piping Centre where Roddy agreed that 50 of them were complete tunes by Calum while the rest were second or third (even fourth) parts to pre-existing tunes.
Calum’s sister Catriona Garbutt, who wrote another introduction to the book, and her daughter Marion had an integral role in proofing the music.
Roddy gave all the compositions the thumbs up, telling Niall they were all “good tunes”. They had also all been signed and dated by Calum himself – a sure sign that, for his perfectionist dad, they passed muster.
Niall said: “The one thing I know is that if he had his name upon it, he declared it suitable as a good tune. I wouldn’t have been comfortable publishing something that he wasn’t satisfied was decent.”
Calum was a Hebridean piper out of a long tradition and this is evident in his tunes which, like the songs of village bards in earlier times, commemorated many local events and personalities. Most famous of them was Hercules the Bear, composed in 1980 about the animal that escaped while filming a TV advert in North Uist.
The tune is one of Niall’s personal favourites. “Quite a lot of his tunes mimic what the sentiment was. He was clearly envisaging Hercules jumping over the peatbogs and fences and almost sticking two fingers up, saying ‘you can’t catch me’.” Hercules the Bear is, naturally, a jig.
Calum’s compositions have another pleasing trait, as well as their sense of humour and light touch on life: onomatopoeia.
The Pumping Station, for example, written in 1956, mimics the noises of the engines in the pumping station in Balivanich where Calum’s father had worked, while Marion Margaret MacRury is about an aunt who was particularly proficient at picking winkles and the tune mirrors the sound of the winkles dropping in a bucket.
Another of Niall’s favourites is Harry in a Hurry. Written about an old cousin who was “so deliberate and slow”, Calum composed a tune that was quite the opposite.
This was one of the tunes played by renowned singer Julie Fowlis at a preview for the book in The Piping Centre back in August. The book was formally launched on Wednesday October 14 at The Royal National Mod in Oban. Julie was taught by Calum at Carinish Primary School and said he “introduced me to the music of the pipes and opened up a new world to me,” adding: “For that, Calum, I am forever indebted to you.”
Another esteemed piper, Fred Morrison, wrote the foreword. He recalled first hearing Calum play in the late 1970s and being drawn to his “musical, expressive and individual” playing. Of the book, he said: “For his music to be shared with everyone at last is a fitting tribute.”
A second concert is to be held to mark the launch of the book, this time in the Balivanich Hall, on November 12. A documentary on the making of the book, by Mac TV, is also in the pipeline and is due to be shown on BBC Alba at the end of December.
While there is an element of catharsis – “this is the first time we’ve been able to talk about it and look at music and at piping” – the whole process has been quite arduous.
And having been through it, Niall believes a lot of our heritage is at risk of being lost because of that acute mourning period, when loved ones cannot look at the creative works that have been left behind, and the subsequent uncertainty about what to do with the material when they can finally face it.
“I think a lot of our heritage gets lost because of this healing period. Quite often, people don’t really acknowledge that they have come out of it.”
He added: “The first tune was written in 1956. If it’s one person’s lifetime of works and it gets lost in a box then that’s tragic for our heritage and I think Acair should be commended for encouraging people to do this.”
He said they were also “very, very pleased with the help we’ve got from The Piping Centre”. Again, without them, the book would not have been possible.
He admitted it would be “quite a big thing” for their family to finally see their father’s book. “It never leaves you,” he admitted. “The tragic element is always there.”

Ceòl Chaluim – The Pipe Music of Calum Campbell of Benbecula is available from www.acairbooks.com, priced £10.95.