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THE CAMERON STYLE
by Jay Close


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PART ONE, an Introduction:


The term “Cameron style” is a convenient label for an approach to ceol mor linked to the famous Cameron family of pipers. This linkage comes in several forms: by self identification; reputation; oral history; folklore; and a string of teacher-student relationships that date to the first half of the nineteenth century. Indeed, the Cameron family’s musical ascendancy lasted the better part of one hundred years.

This ascendency started with two brothers, Donald and Alexander Cameron. Donald was born in 1810 and his brother in 1824. Donald’s three piper sons, Colin, Alexander(the younger) and Keith, extended that influence through the last of the 19th century and into the 20th century. The family line of pipers ended in 1923 with the death of Alexander.

During their lives, the Cameron brothers of both generations were major prize winners and the younger three contributed to all of the significant post - Angus MacKay collections of piobaireachd: Ross, Thomason, Glen and, indirectly, to the Piobairechd Society collections. For that reason alone, the family’s legacy would be a worthy study.

The earliest recorded reference to the Cameron family having a distinct perspective comes from General Thomason’s book Ceol Mor (circa 1890). Recounting the pains he has taken to insure the authenticity of his settings, the General writes,

With a view to having the most authoritative revision possible, I have had tracings made of the whole of the first volume to send home to D. MacKay, in order that he may get them revised by the best authorities known to him, foremost among whom will certainly be Colin Cameron, late Piper to the Duke of Fife, so that the book will be fairly representative of the school of Donald Cameron, in which I was educated (my emphasis).

(Thomason 1975, page vii)

Using his piobaireachd shorthand, Thomason claimed a facility noting ceol mor directly from the playing of a piper (page iii), perhaps the way a stenographer takes dictation. Keith Cameron was the General’s primary ceol mor mentor while stationed in India and several tunes in his book are credited to Keith’s editorial efforts. So, in addition to Thomason’s manuscript work, his book may contain a least a few arrangements of tunes that accurately reflect Keith Cameron’s music as he truly played. Additionally, one of the Cameron brothers, Colin (the eldest), wrote a manuscript of music, but it is by no means clear whether this manuscript was a mere memory aid or a literal record of how he played.

The fact remains that we will never know how all the younger Cameron brothers played, much less how their father, Donald Cameron, or uncle Alexander played. There is evidence they differed amongst themselves (cf. Thomason pages vi-vii and Campbell 1985, page 20). Perhaps the most we can assume is a family resemblance among a related group of musicians, not a monolithic “house style”.

Into this family mix must be inserted John MacDougall Gillies, one of the most influential pipers of the latter 19th century and the the first quarter of the the 20th century. Oral history recounted by Archibald Campbell (1984, page 7, also Andrew MacNeill, personal correspondence) has Gillies first learning ceol mor from Keith Cameron and later from Keith’s older brother, Alexander. That Gillies deviated on occasion from Alexander’s style has been remarked on from many quarters (e.g. Campbell 1984, page 24), but he may have been simultaneously preserving the style of Keith, his first mentor in ceol mor.

Through Gillies, much, if not the vast majority of what is retained of Cameron playing has come to the 21st century. Gillies was a prolific and successful teacher. Robert Reid was his best known student, but others include William Gray, James Center, Iain MacPherson and a host of skilled amateurs and professionals. According to an account by Seumas MacNeill, in the four years prior to and the four years after World War One, Gillies students won half of the Gold Medals offered by the Highland Society of London (2008, pages 96-97).

This Gillies line of preservation through his students and his student’s students is what is left of a living piping tradition. It literally now amounts to a handful of active players. The following, in no particular order, are the ones with whom I am familiar:

James Barrie (student of his father, William who was in turn a Gillies and Robert Reid student)

Iain MacLeod of Jersey (student of his father and grandfather who was a Gillies student prior to 1908)

Matthew Turnbull (a student of William Connell for over 20 years, he has also worked with Iain MacLeod and James Barrie)

Greg Abbott (a student of William Connell for several years)

Brad Davidson (student of William Connell for several years)

Jacob Dicker (a William Connell student)

Robert Worrall could be added to this list. Many of his tunes he got from Connell but has subsequently “done his own thing”. I do not think he claims any Cameron partisanship.


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