Obituary: Colin Campbell, accordionist

Colin Campbell, Scottish traditional musician whose accordion skills took him round the world. Picture: Contributed
Colin Campbell, Scottish traditional musician whose accordion skills took him round the world. Picture: Contributed
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Born: 7 May, 1936, in Oban. Died: 5 September, 2015, in Oban, aged 79.

Accordionist Colin Campbell fronted his own Highland Band for more than 20 years and was considered one of Scotland’s greatest-ever “box” players, with magical dancing fingers. Oban-born and bred, he toured with his band throughout the UK, including at London’s Festival Hall and Royal Albert Hall, and on several trips to Canada to get expat Scots’ feet tapping.

Colin Campbell and his Highland Band, with Colin often singing and playing solo accordion, were one of Scotland’s top bands of their era, from the mid-1960s through all of the 80s. But they also played with many other Scottish acts including the Corries, Robin Hall and Jimmie Macgregor, Jimmy Shand and his Band, Alasdair Gillies, the great gaelic singer Donald MacRae, Calum Kennedy, the Edinburgh City Pipe Band and Canada’s Cape Breton Fiddlers. Colin’s band, with his great pal Billy Ford on drums, was one of the most-travelled and possibly the hardest-working in the country and Colin, a joiner by trade, became known both in the music business and in his trade as “the Giant.” He was not particularly tall, though well-built, and the nickname came more from respect and the fact that his catchphrase was “don’t worry, leave it in the hands of the Giant”.

Resplendent in Ancient Campbell tartan jackets and often kilts, the band’s secret was a distinctive “West Coast Swing,” with their own compositions and superb arrangements, usually by Colin himself, a self-taught but naturally-gifted musician. They cut numerous albums, EPs, singles and cassettes over the years, in the days before CDs, and were invited to Canada to play on the top-rated TV series Ceilidh and with the Cape Breton Fiddlers of Nova Scotia. But away from the recording and TV studios and the big concert halls they were equally at home with small audiences in pubs, hotels or village halls, in the early days packing themselves and instruments into an old Ford Cortina “banger” with the double bass strapped to the roof.

Colin Campbell and his Highland Band represented Scotland for two years running at the Welsh International Eisteddfod, where they played with the Corries – Roy Williamson and Ronnie Browne – when the Edinburgh folk duo were at their peak with Williamson’s composition Flower of Scotland. In the early 70s, Colin’s band played every week with Alasdair Gillies on his STV programme Alasdair Sings, which occasionally beat even Coronation Street in the ratings. Mr Gillies became a dear friend and visited Colin during his illness. Colin, full-of-life and “as fit as his accordion” (his daughter Fiona’s words) until last month, was diagnosed just three weeks before his death with mesothelomia, a rare and aggressive cancer caused by earlier exposure to asbestos, presumably from his days as a joiner.

Fiona Campbell told me her father would have wanted to point out that Glasgow and West Dunbartonshire have possibly the highest incidence of asbestos-related disease in the entire UK and anyone concerned should contact the campaign group Clydeside Action on Asbestos, based on High Street, Glasgow. No-one noticed Colin’s illness until he demanded an X-Ray because of his horrendous pain. By then it was to late.

After he stopped touring with the band around 1990, Colin played solo accordion in his favourite local venues, including Oban’s McTavish’s Kitchens and the Park Hotel. (He was also known in Oban’s hotels and hospitals as their Mr Fixit, a perfectionist joiner and carpenter). .

Colin Campbell was born on Stevenson Street, Oban, in 1936, one of three children of Collie and Jean Campbell. He was a direct descendant of Sir Duncan Campbell of Glenorchy – “Black Duncan”. He went to the local Rockfield School, which he would staunchly support later in his life, and to Oban High School. A keen shinty player, he went on to play for Oban Camanachd – “the Camancheroes” – once reaching the Scottish cup final only to lose to Newtonmore.

He taught himself to play the accordion when he was ten and was only 14 when he started his own country dancing band while doing his five-year apprenticeship as a joiner. It was while playing at a dance in Oban that he met Lorna Black, a Jordanhill student from Glen Douglas, by Loch Long, who was working in Oban’s Park Hotel as a summer job. They married in Garelochhead in 1959, a marriage that lasted until they were parted by his death. Colin had recorded an accordion song for her, Lorna Campbell of Feorlin.

His daughters recalled him using his carpentry skills to carve wooden toys, notably boats with their individual names engraved. When family, friends or neighbours needed something done around the house, they called in “the Giant”.

Colin and Lorna lived almost all their married years in a house called Feorlin, just behind Oban’s landmark McCaig’s Tower. After Lorna converted the house into a B&B, Colin helped welcome and entertain guests who often returned year after year to hear him play the accordion or tell old Scottish tales, and to drool over Lorna’s Stornoway black pudding from
MacLeod and Macleod of Lewis, and her homemade rhubarb and ginger jam. She was forced to close the B&B only recently after Colin’s illness, much to the chagrin of regular guests.

Colin Campbell is survived by his wife Lorna, daughters Fiona, Alison, Lorna and Audrey, 14 grandchildren and two great grandchildren. One of his favourite tunes was Men of Argyll, of which he was proudly one.