Obituary: Alistair Campsie, journalist, author, hotelier and piper

Alistair Campsie. Picture: Contributed
Alistair Campsie. Picture: Contributed
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Born: 27 January, 1929, in Inverness. Died: 21 April, 2013, in Stonehaven, aged 84

In a long and varied career, Alistair Campsie, who has died aged 84, was a journalist, poet, prolific author, an officer in Britain’s Colonial Service in Africa, an agriculturist and a hotelier in Scotland. But he was probably best known as a bagpipe player, composer, purist and historian whose iconoclastic views raised the hackles of the piping establishment.

Campsie’s greatest influences were Robert Burns, about whom he wrote a book, The Clarinda Conspiracy (1989), and Hugh MacDiarmid, who was one of Campsie’s closest friends until MacDiarmid’s death in 1978.

Like both Burns and MacDiarmid, Campsie’s writing was unique and uncompromising. Like them, he upset people.

Like them, he was seen as a genius to some, somewhat cranky to others.

And like them, his subject matter ranged widely, from Scotland and its divided self to the human condition in general.

Campsie’s great passion was piobaireachd, the classical pipe music of the Highlands, which he studied, played and composed and upset the establishment with his colourful musings on his online magazine The Piper’s Press (www.piperspress.com).

He was an outspoken proponent of the Cameron style of piping, which he considered its truest form and which he learnt from his teacher, Pipe-Major Robert Reid, the man who once said: “Piping is a disease for which no-one has found the cure.”

The Cameron style was named after the great 19th Century piper Donald Cameron while the MacPherson style took its name from Calum “Piobaire” Macpherson, piper to the clan chief in the same century.

The MacPherson style is more clipped with nippit (nipped) phrase endings while the Cameron style is more rounded and flowing, with smoothly ended phrases.

“The Cameron style was at the very centre of dad,” said his daughter Alison. His 1980 book The MacCrimmon Legend, the Madness of Angus Mackay, questioning traditional views on piping and its history, shocked the piping establishment and led to years of mutual tirades and even legal battles.

Campsie was particularly proud of a pibroch he composed for his friend Hugh Macdiarmid’s 80th birthday in 1972. In return, the poet gave Campsie the copyright to some of his work, including the poem The Little White Rose of Scotland, which reflected the passion of both men for their country.

“The rose of all the world is not for me, I want for my part only the little white rose of Scotland that smells sharp and sweet – and breaks the heart.”

Alistair Keith Campsie was born on 27 January, 1929, in Inverness. His love of music came from his father Sandy, who played lead violin in what was then called the Scottish Orchestra, now the Scottish National Orchestra.

To feed the family, Sandy Campsie moved to England’s south coast, where his brother was based, and worked as a painter and decorator to pay the bills the violin could not.

Young Alistair first went to school in Worthing, West Sussex, but returned at the end of the war to Lanark, his mother’s home town where his parents ran a garage and a chemist.

He attended Lanark Grammar School before graduating from the West of Scotland College of Agriculture in Ayr, now part of Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC). In 1949, still only 20, he joined the Colonial Service and was sent first to Sudan, later to Nigeria to oversee agricultural projects, writing in his spare time.

Combining his two great loves, he created and edited the East African Farmer and Planter, the first ever magazine published in both English and Swahili.

So passionately Scottish did he feel that, on his travels, he carried his bagpipes rather than a typewriter, knowing he was more likely to find the latter than the former at the next hotel.

After spells as a stringer for British papers in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and Zanzibar, Campsie returned to Scotland to work for the Weekly Scotsman, later for the Scottish Daily Mail and finally for the Scottish Daily Express in Glasgow.

In 1958, he interviewed Hollywood star Cary Grant, who was in town for a preview of his latest movie Indiscreet, in Edinburgh’s Caledonian hotel.

Observing that Campsie was puffing away heavily – he was a 60-a-day man – Grant told him about the self-hypnosis technique he had used to give up the ciggies. It worked and Campsie turned it into a 1991 book called Cary Grant Stopped Me Smoking.

He was with the Mail to cover the Queen’s visit to Stirling Castle in 1961 when he met a local lass, Robina (Robbie) Anderson of Bridge of Allan, a young journalist who worked for the Stirling Observer and would later work for the Glasgow Herald. They would marry on 30 November, St Andrew’s Day, 1963, after which Campsie noted: “It was the Queen that introduced us, you know.”

After first retiring to Arran, Campsie and his wife, in 1974, bought the King’s Arms hotel, a former coaching inn in Barr, Ayrshire, close to the Galloway Forest National Park.

Five years later, they bought a hotel in Montrose which Campsie renamed The Pipers Private Hotel, with his wife running its acclaimed restaurant.

They retired from the hotel trade in 1995 but Campsie kept on writing, always ruffling feathers, mostly among pipers, on his website.

The great Glasgow-born “piper of the 20th century” Donald MacPherson, who died last year – in fact, a year to the day before Campsie passed away – described the latter as “one of this country’s finest amateur pipers”.

And an article written by the Glasgow-based College of Piping after Campsie’s death said, albeit with a hint of reluctance: “Still, piping needs people like Alistair Campsie. There are too many who are happy to keep their views to themselves, afraid to rock the boat.

“Popularity was never something he sought and we should be grateful for his passion for the music and his courage in publishing his controversial views and defending them in such witty style to the end of his life.”

At his funeral, Campsie’s wife Robbie said: “Alistair, in his lifetime, wrote many thousands of words, perhaps millions. I know, because I typed most of them. But this verse for me encapsulates the rhythms and poignancy of much of his poetry:

“And when I’m done, Rope me to an old fire boat, And launch me down, Blazing with light, On my long journey to the sky.”

Alistair Campsie died in Kincardine Community Hospital in Stonehaven, Aberdeenshire. He is survived by his wife of almost 50 years, Robina (widely known as Robbie), their sons Peter and Ione, daughter Alison, two grandsons and a granddaughter.

PHIL DAVISON