Revisiting the Achievements of Song-Collector Alexander Campbell by Karen McAulay(i)

Karen McAulay’s career has combined librarianship with research. A librarian at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, she has been seconded to several postdoctoral research projects since attaining a PhD in music from the University of Glasgow in 2009. She has published and presented widely about Georgian and Victorian music in Britain, publishing a Routledge monograph, Our Ancient National Airs: Scottish Song Collecting from the Enlightenment to the Romantic Era, in 2013.


Alexander Campbell, the compiler of the two-volume Albyn’s Anthology (1816, 1818), based his collections largely on the tour of the Highlands and Islands that he made in search of Scottish traditional songs in 1815. He covered most of his journey on foot – apart, of course, from ferries and rowing-boats between the isles.

Eighteenth-century cartoon, three musicians stand in a circle. To the left one plays a box instrument, the musician in the middle is singing from a sheet and the musician on the right is playing the bagpipes.

‘Let Puppy’s bark and Asses bray,
Each Dog and Cur will have his day,’ 1786
Etching. Alexander Campbell is on the left. Courtesy of The Trustees of the British Museum.

Campbell (1764-1824) has been described as Scotland’s first ethnomusicologist.(ii) This may not be strictly accurate – Joseph McDonald compiled his collection a good half-century earlier – but Campbell was the first on record to expend such physical effort on his collection.

Originally from Tombea, north-west of Callander, he was proud to call himself a Highlander and a Gaelic speaker. By the time he reached adulthood he had moved to Edinburgh, and had singing lessons with Tenducci, the famous Italian singer.(iii) A music teacher and organist, he also wrote about Scottish poetry and places, studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh but never seems to have been a doctor, and once made what has been described as “a financially disastrous venture into farming”.(iv) He knew of the Highland Clearances, and in 1804 published an exceptionally long poem called The Grampians Desolate, in which he complained about the plight of Highlanders, as a fund-raiser for a charity that he set up.(v)

At what he considered the old age of 51, Campbell embarked upon a song-collecting tour of the Highlands and Western Isles. (We don’t know the circumstances behind his decision to set out on a three-month trip in late July, when anyone who knows Scottish summers would have thought it better to set off in May!)

The Travel Log

Campbell kept a diary of his trip, calling it, “A Slight Sketch of a journey made through parts of the Highlands & Hebrides”.

“On the 23rd July 1815, I took my place as an out-side passenger on the mail-coach to Stirling. On my arrival there, I armed, and apparelled myself in the ancient costume of my native mountains; and set forward for Lenrick Castle.”(vi)

Although he sometimes had company, just as often we find him tramping around in the mud, falling down hills, or slipping into turbulent streams, all by himself. He hurt his leg quite badly more than once, but rested for a day or so and then moved on. Towards the end of his trip, he was plainly getting tired and fed up, but his spirits lifted on the homeward stretch.

Grayscale image of the Pass of Killiecrankie. A moutainous scene with some trees.

‘Pass of Killiecrankie’, from A Journey from Edinburgh Through Parts of North Britain by Alexander Campbell, 1802.

Campbell was influenced and inspired by the Gaelic-speaking poet James Macpherson’s The Works of Ossian, the Son of Fingal, (1765). Although in English, these poems were, controversially, claimed to have been collected and translated from the Gaelic. Macpherson’s stirring poetry about heroic exploits, rugged mountains, misty glens, stormy weather and turbulent streams became hugely popular all over Europe. Indeed, when explorer Louis Albert Necker de Saussure “discovered” the caves on Staffa, he was told they were “the caves of Fingal”.

Engraving of Fingal’s Cave by James Fittler in Scotia Depicta, 1804.

Highland travel became increasingly popular, and the association of the caves with the great Ossianic hero further fanned the flames of interest in the Hebridean islands. Like other travellers, Campbell was to visit the caves by boat.(vii)

Unconvinced that the poems were genuine, members of the Highland Society of Scotland had started an enquiry after Macpherson’s death, travelling to the Highlands and Islands attempting to trace Macpherson’s informants.

James Macpherson, by George Romney (died 1802).

Amidst the growing interest in Scottish poetry and songs in general, Alexander Campbell was anxious to preserve his heritage, writing first a book about Scottish poetry, and then a travel guide, long before he started his song collection. His Introduction to the History of Poetry in Scotland appeared in 1798-99.(viii) Believing the Ossian poems to be genuine, he wrote a chapter defending them, arguably less harsh a judge than some of the experts in the Highland Society of Scotland. His tour-guide, Journey from Edinburgh through parts of North Britain, followed in 1802.(ix)

His real ambition was to compile a collection of Highland songs, and he asked the Highland Society of Scotland to help finance this. The society provided the funds, but stressed that they were not commissioning the research, merely helping him fund his trip.

Sir John Macgregor Murray, a notable advisor


Sir John Macgregor Murray, 1st Bt. By an Unknown artist
mezzotint, 1795 or after, NPG D39113. Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, London.

Campbell was fortunate that an influential member of the nobility helped him plan his itinerary. Sir John Macgregor Murray – a committed member of the Highland Society of Scotland – had already been instrumental in getting an early collection of Highland tunes published – the Patrick McDonald collection (Highland Vocal Airs, Country Dances or Reels of the North Highlands and Western Isles, 1874) – and, significantly, he had visited the Highlands and Western Isles in 1800, trying to trace the sources of Macpherson’s epic verses.

Sir John had already had an illustrious career with the East India Company. He had also become Clan Chieftain of the Macgregors, and had petitioned to have the proscription of the Macgregor name lifted – so he was undoubtedly a gentleman of both determination and position. However, if there was one prevailing and notable characteristic about Sir John, it was his predeliction for recording histories and cultures. He spent much time researching his own family history, and whilst in India commissioned munshis to write lengthy manuscripts for the East India Company about customs and procedures in the regions where he was stationed. At that time, he also raised funds to finance a Gaelic edition of the Ossian tales.

By the time Campbell met him, he was old and had retired to Lanrick Castle, north of Stirling, where he was able to indulge his passions for the Gaelic language and Highland culture.

In 1815, Campbell started his journey by visiting Lanrick Castle, where Sir John wrote a number of letters for him, introducing him to knowledgeable people in Mull, Staffa, Benbecula, North and South Uist and Skye. Without help, Campbell would have had much more difficulty getting to meet the right people. Staying overnight, Campbell set off for Stirling, and Sir John – unsurprisingly – set off to judge a piping competition in Edinburgh under the auspices of the Highland Society of Scotland.

Campbell on tour

A fine 1799 map of Scotland by the English map publisher Clement Cruttwell.

Starting in Stirling in Perthshire, Campbell went westward to the Argyleshire coast, travelling from Connel (near Oban) to the isles of Lismore, Mull and Iona. He went by boat from Tobermory at the northern tip of Mull, to North Uist. He travelled to South Uist and the isles of Barra and Vatersay, before returning to North Uist.

From here, he headed for the isle of Harris, going by the tiny isle of Killegray on his way to Skye. His island-hopping took in Raasay and Scalpay before he headed back for the mainland, arriving at Glenelg some 55 miles due north of Connel.

Note that he didn’t go near Lewis, probably because James Macpherson hadn’t done so. Johnson and Boswell, who were amongst the first to try to retrace Macpherson’s footsteps in an effort to prove him a fraud, didn’t go to Lewis, and Campbell’s advisor Sir John MacGregor Murray may also not have been there.

Glengarry, Inverlochy (near Fort William), Ballachulish and Inveruran marked his return to Stirlingshire. He stopped off again at Lanrick Castle to show off his collection to Sir John, walked to Stirling then took the mail coach home to Edinburgh.

Informants and Accomodation

Sometimes Campbell stayed with the people that he met – other times he stayed at inns. One night when he was stuck for a bed, he ended up sleeping on a bundle of hay in a weaver’s cottage. Without modern communication methods, he couldn’t be sure that the people he was visiting would be at home when he got there. On one occasion, he found his clergyman host had gone out. Campbell was grateful for a stiff drink of cognac (“conniack”) when eventually the minister came home!

Soon after my arrival here, the persons most reputed for local antiquarian knowledge, oral tradition, recitation & singing, were convened. And, the fruits of my industry (in which I was assisted by Mr John Currie, Schoolmaster), are twenty-four Iorrams, boat-songs, Luineags, &c …(x)

At prearranged gatherings, Campbell met people who would perform for him, or individuals would be sent for in order for him to take down tunes. He went to dances, dinners, social evenings, and listened to all kinds of people singing songs and reciting poems – gentry and military men, servants and fieldworkers, boatmen, a weaver, and a cabinet-maker, besides amateur violinists and various pipers. (He too was treated to the “effect” of Staffa’s piper playing ‘The Lament for the Slain’ in Fingal’s Cave.) He even met a man who played his Jew’s harp for him.

A diligent networker, he made people promise to forward any extra information that they were able to gather for him.

Family genealogies and traditions

In 1815, as now, traditional musicians set great store by the history of the tunes that they performed. Campbell encountered an old man who was the 22nd male representative of the McMhuirich family, formerly the hereditary bards to the family of Clanranald. Another time, he collected songs from the grandson of McCodrum (“the celebrated bard of North Uist”).

As well as hearing songs, Campbell heard bagpipe music played by notable pipers of the day, such as Lieut. Donald MacCrimmon, from the famous MacCrimmon piping school on Skye; and Captain Niel MacLeod of Gesto, an alumnus of the MacCrimmon school. Harp music also attracted him; he received a transcription by Margaret Maclean Clephane of music that came indirectly from Murdoch McDonald, the last Harper to the Laird of Coll. Campbell had heard an “improved harp”, and felt that harp music in general was due a revival.

And I myself, while in Mull, was delighted with the tasteful execution on the improved harp, of Mrs McLean at Cuinish. This instrument, as an accompaniment to the voice, is well adapted to support, & give effect in what is called Musical Expression …(xi)

Material Collected

Growing more selective as time went by, he spent one particular evening listening to a weaver singing,

song after song, Luineag after Luineag, interspersed with many stories of considerable length, and various merit – Most of the pieces … I had heard repeatedly in Lochaber, and other Highland districts.(xii)

Campbell gathered fiddle music, pipe tunes, harp airs, and tunes that he described as “pretty national melodies” – sometimes played on the piano. His collection included short songs, “ancient love songs”, rowing songs, and “mouth-music”:

… dancing to port-na-beul – people singing as they dance, in place of a musical instrument. This effect is droll enough; and gives an idea of what one might conceive to be customary among tribes but little removed from a state of Nature.(xiii)

There was also Gaelic poetry, some of which Campbell declared to be “Ossianic fragments”, later writing of tracing the steps of “our Celtic Homer”.

For each piece that he took down, then repeated them back to the performer – or the people he was staying with – to “authenticate” them. There’s no mention of his carrying an instrument.

After the first month, Campbell noted that in Mull he had gleaned “forty-seven original melodies, mostly vocal, with a stanza or two of the original words to each – the plan I uniformly followed – in order to identify the songs … to which they are chanted … “

Campbell tried to write simple “classical” song settings, but sometimes breaks some of the most basic rules that classical musicians would follow today. This raises questions about his level of musicianship – regardless of the fact that he had trained with an eminent singer, and worked as a professional musician. Nonetheless, he knew what he was looking for, believed he could spot an authentic Highland melody, and thought he could tell the difference between a Highland and a Lowland melody.

Twelve months after his return to Edinburgh, he was to make another music-collecting tour to the Scottish Borders in October 1816, again logging the trip. However, this tour was curtailed by illness, after three weeks. He had covered a circle roughly defined by the Borders towns of Peebles, Ettrick, Hawick, Jedburgh and Melrose, and spent time with James Hogg and Sir Walter Scott, besides taking detailed notes about famous Borders pipers, from Sir Walter Scott’s uncle, Mr Thomas Scott.

The second volume of Albyn’s Anthology was not meant to be the final one. He never published his intended third volume. His collections met with a mixed reception, and did not achieve a great popularity – probably due to the fact that his arrangements left much to be desired! However, he did preserve a lot of songs that might otherwise have been forgotten. From a musical point of view, the tunes make good source-material, and musicians nowadays make their own settings of them.

Meanwhile, the publications and the travel logs’ significance lie in telling us where he went, and his methodology. Campbell left an intriguing piece of social history, demonstrating the depth of this particular Highlander’s love for his homeland, its traditions and its heritage.


i) For a more detailed discussion see: Karen E. McAulay, ‘Twelve hundred miles in pursuit of song: An early ethnomusicological log’ in Wire Strings, April 2008, 4-9.

ii) Mary Ann Alburger, Making the Fiddle Sing: Captain Simon Fraser of Knockie and his ‘Airs and Melodies Peculiar to the Highlands of Scotland and the Isles’ [1816] Dissertation for the degree of PhD, University of Aberdeen, 2001. 2 vols.

iii) Giusto Ferdinando Tenducci, ca. 1735-1790.

iv) Francis Watt, rev. John Purser, “Alexander Campbell”, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography accessed 23 Jan 2006

v) Campbell, Alexander, The Grampians Desolate: a poem, Edinburgh: Manners & Miller, 1804 raising funds for The Fund of Aid for Waste Land Cultivators. (Reprinted Montana : Kessinger Publishing, [n.d.]

vi) “A Slight Sketch of a journey made through parts of the Highlands & Hebrides; undertaken to collect materials for Albyn’s Anthology by the Editor: in Autumn 1815.”Edinburgh University Library, MS La III 577

vii) In this context, Nigel Leask’s Stepping Westward: Writing the Highland Tour c. 1720-1830 (Oxford University Press, 2020) provides an excellent lead into the related field of Highland travel writing.

viii) Campbell, Alexander, An introduction to the history of poetry in Scotland … together with a conversation on Scotish song. To which are subjoined, Sangs of the Lowlands of Scotland … with characteristic designs … engraved by the late David Allan. Edinburgh : A. Foulis, 1798-1799.

ix) Campbell, Alexander, A Journey from Edinburgh through parts of North Britain. London: printed by A. Strahan for T. N. Longman & O Rees, and Vernor and Hood, 1802, 2 vols. Campbell informed his readers that he to visit the spots that he had chosen to describe and sketch, and furthermore, he had had “frequent occasion to visit the extensive range through which the traveller is herein directed”, over a period of twenty years.

x) ‘A Slight Sketch of a journey’, fol. 9v.

xi) Ibid, fol. 11r.

xii) Ibid, fol. 40v.

xiii) Ibid, fol. 18v.


One Reply to “Revisiting the Achievements of Song-Collector Alexander Campbell by Karen McAulay(i)”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *