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Monday 12 August 2013

Piper and Singer: Calum Johnston of Barra

On the 4th of December 1972, the eighty-two year Calum Johnston was waiting at the airport at Tràigh Mhòr in Barra in order to pipe the remains of Sir Compton Mackenzie to his last resting place. Even the driving cold rain and howling wind did not put him off as he played a lament as the coffin was carried from the plane. A large group of mourners wended their way to the cemetery at Eoligarry. After a brief funeral service, the piper began to swoon, and then he suddenly dropped dead on the wet turf.
Born in 1891, in Glen, near Castlebay, Barra, Calum Johnson, styled Calum Aonghais Chaluim, came of a family (Clann Aonghais Chaluim) of three brothers and five sisters, one of whom, Annie Johnston, was also a renowned tradition bearer.
Having left Barra at around the age of fourteen, Calum Johnston found himself in Manchester where he trained to become a draughtsman. Although he later became a secretary of the Manchester Pipers’ Association, the city was unable to offer a satisfactory outlet for his love of piping. Later, moving to Edinburgh, Johnston followed his career in engineering and held a position with Bruce Peebles Industries Ltd., and where he also had the opportunity to keep up his piping and became secretary and treasurer of the Highland Pipers’ Society. Johnston was ‘discovered’ as a singer by the folklorist Hamish Henderson who asked him to appear at the Workers’ Festival ceilidh in 1951 where he sang a song, Òran Eile don Phrionnsa (‘Another Song to the Prince’), composed by one of the predominant Jacobite bards Alasdair mac Mhaighstir Alasdair (‘Alexander MacDonald’). The next year he was again invited and where he performed songs and played the pipes.
Over the next couple of decades, Johnston would record many, many items that are now preserved in the School of Scottish Studies Archives at the University of Edinburgh and now available through Tobar an Dualchais / Kisto Riches website. Shortly after his death, a whole issue of Tocher was devoted to the memory of Calum and Annie Johnston and such was the wealth of material that only a representative sample could be given.
John Lorne Campbell clearly held Calum and Annie Johnston in great esteem when he wrote that:
They represented what today is a very rare type — the cultured and educated Gaelic-speaking Highlander who could move in any society, but who had never forgotten or despised the Gaelic oral tradition which had been the ambience of their childhood. From this point of view, Anna and Calum were a remarkable brother and sister pair.
Much of the material which Calum and Annie came by way of their MacNeil mother, styled Catrìona Aonghais ’ic Dhòmhnaill Mhòir (‘Catherine daughter of Angus son of Big Donald’), and two neighbouring MacKinnon sisters, Ealasaid and Peigi Eachainn ’Illeasbuig.
Although Calum Johnston excelled in piping, especially in ceòl mòr, the classical music of the Great Highland Bagpipe and also singing òrain mhòra, or the great songs, his repertoire was quite varied and he made many contributions to the three-volume Hebridean Folksongs, co-edited by John Lorne Campbell and Francis Collinson. Conversing with the Danish musicologist, Thorkild Knudsen in 1967, Johnston expresses his way of singing songs: 
I always try to place myself in the position of the person who composed the song and just try to express it as he felt it…I feel that the songs…the words of the songs are really the most important thing and the notes beautify them…
The Johnston went onto explain the manner in which he made the songs his own: 
What I would call putting a blas on it, putting a taste on it, you know, it was just like eating something that has no taste and then you put something on it to put a taste on it…The old fellows, well, some of them, you see, some of them had the art of putting a taste on a tune and others hadn’t…some would sing an air straight through…the bare notes as you might say and the others would put in little grace-notes and that would make all the difference…that gave a taste of that air instead of having it bare they clothed them in beautiful garments as you might say.
On his retirement around 1956, Calum Johnston and his wife, Peggy (also from Barra), returned to live in Eoligarry.
John Lorne Campbell paid a fitting tribute to Annie and Calum with these words:
Those who had the privilege of knowing Annie and Calum will treasure the recollection of highland hospitality, warmth of personality, generosity of spirit, and love for and knowledge of the oral Gaelic tradition, all at their very best and all expressed with completely natural spontaneity.
Over the years many collectors including Calum Maclean, Donald Archie MacDonald, Thorkild Knudsen, James Ross and John MacInnes came to visit Annie and Calum Johnston and they never left without recording some gems. Their generosity of spirit and their willingness to share in their love of Gaelic tradition is an inspiration and they undoubtedly left a rich legacy for future generations.
Scottish Tradition Series, vol. 13, Songs, Stories and Piping from Barra, Calum and Annie Johnston (Greentrax Recordings, CDTRAX9013, 2010)
Tocher, vol. 13 (1974) (a volume dedicated to Calum and Annie Johnston)
Calum Johnston with Tràigh Mhòr,  Eoligarry, in the background, photographed by Peter Cooke in 1972. Courtesy of the School of Scottish Studies Archives


  1. There's a short interview with Calum and a clip of him playing The Earl of Aontrims Lament starting at 20:33 in this podcast: