John Lorne Campbell, 1906-1996 – folklorist

John Lorne Campbell, 1906-1996 – folklorist – Obituary

D. Ellis Evans

The death of Dr John Lorne Campbell on 25 April 1996 has robbed the scholarly world of folklore studies of one of its most gifted, robust, fiercely independent and kindly friends. His voluminous work on Scottish Gaelic oral tradition and Highland and Hebridean history came to be known and respected internationally.

He was born on 1 October 1906, the eldest son of Colonel Duncan Campbell of Inverness in Argyll. His mother, Ethel Waterbury, was an American from New Jersey. Campbell was educated at Cargilfield School, Edinburgh, at Rugby and at St John’s College, Oxford. At Oxford he read Rural Economy, was a leading member of the University’s Gaelic Society or Club, and came under the strong guiding influence of John Fraser, Sir John Rhys’s successor as Jesus Professor of Celtic in the University. It was at Oxford that the boyhood interest in Gaelic was fostered to the point at which he began serious study of Gaelic lore and learning. This resulted in his first publication in 1933 of Highland Songs of the Forty-Five (republished, with corrections and additions, in 1984 by the Scottish Gaelic Texts Society, of which he was a Vice-President). In that volume he declares his “great indebtedness” to Fraser. In all his publications he carefully and generously referred to the encouragement and support of so many people.

Many readers of this journal will be aware of his lifelong work recovering, recording and transmitting so much of Gaelic song and literary and linguistic sources, initially from Barra but eventually from a much wider Hebridean world. Campbell was undoubtedly a pioneering scholar in the field of collecting and recording Gaelic song and story, benefiting from being untrammelled by the distractions and conventions of universities. In a letter to me in April 1980 he declared how he had been “very lucky to have studies under Fraser, and to have had the opportunity, including financial independence, to undertake the fieldwork which I later did and which could be dovetailed in with my way of life here [i.e. on Canna]. Had I become a wholetime professional academic (which Fraser suggested: it would have meant a year in Germany and a year in Ireland) I might well, in Scotland, have become involved in some unpleasant feuds and politics later on. As it was, being an amateur and non-competitor I was able to maintain friendly relations with scholars who had little in common …” Not that Campbell was averse to blazing rows and controversy with educationists, the Highland Development board, the Scottish Office and all kinds of bureaucrats. He once told me that he had “a nose for official excuses and propaganda.”

His marriage in 1935 to the musically talented Margaret Fay Shaw of Glen Shaw, Pennsylvania, whom he had met in South Uist in 1934, was a vitally important event which aided his becoming such a distinguished pioneer in the collection and preservation of Scottish Gaelic song and story, amassing a huge sound-recording archive and publishing, inter alia, an extensive three-volume edition of Hebridean folksongs (1969, 1977, 1981). He also recognised the richness of Cape Breton Gaelic tradition, reflected in his Songs Remembered in Exile (1990). He published sixteen books in all. He was particularly proud of his book on Canna, The Story of a Hebridean Island (1984), his Gaelic in Scottish Education and Life (1945, revised 1950) and his privately printed re-issue of Notes on Alexander Carmichael’s “Carmina Gadelica” (1982).

In 1938 he bought the islands of Barra and Sanday. In 1981 he presented the Isle of Barra and his library, archives and recordings to the National Trust of Scotland. He played an important role in the establishment of the Folklore Institute of Scotland and became its President. All this aided the setting up of the School of Scottish Studies in Edinburgh in 1951.

At Oxford his postgraduate work on the Scottish Agricultural Township never produced for him his B.Litt. degree. In 1964, on the other hand, in view of his exceptionally valuable contributions to the study of Gaelic folklore, language and literature, also the history of the Catholic Church in the Isles, he was granted permission to supplicate for Oxford’s prestigious D.Litt. degree (he was also awarded a D.Litt. by Glasgow University and an LL.D, by St Francis Xavier University, Nova Scotia).

Campbell of Canna was a fine Scottish patriot and a distinguished scholar who valued and recognised the cultural and patriotic qualities possessed by others such as John Fraser, Compton Mackenzie, James Carmichael Watson and William Matheson, to mention only a few. His work on Gaelic folklore and folksong, on the musical rhythms of Gaelic poetry, also more indirectly on Gaelic dialect and lexicographical study, will endure. He was a caring and generous man and a wonderful correspondent. He told me in a letter: “My point of view is that we should aim [in Gaeldom] for a world where a man will be at no disadvantage if he knows no English.” He died in Fiesole, in Italy, which he had come to love and know so well. Many of us will have felt a real personal loss at his passing and will treasure so many happy memories of him.

Jesus College, Oxford

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