Archie Kenneth is perhaps best known among piobaireachd enthusiasts as a member of the Music Committee of the Piobaireachd Society who almost single-handedly compiled the Society’s Books 11, 12, 13 and 14. In his day he was a foremost expert in canntaireachd notation, and at his death he had just completed preparations for the Society’s Book 15.
It is not so well known that he was a prolific composer of both light music and piobaireachd, and that he published collections of each. His reel “Back of the Moon” is a competition classic and typical of his eccentric originality. Two of his piobaireachds are included in the Piobaireachd Society’s 20th Century Collection of Ceol Mor, and have been set for the senior competitions at Oban and Inverness.
He was born in Shirvan, Argyll, on June 6, 1915. His mother was a Graham-Campbell. His uncle, John Graham-Campbell of Shirvan, was a founding member of the Piobaireachd Society and gave him his first instruction. He was later taught by Willie Ross.
His father was killed in Gallipoli just before he was born. While he spent much time with his grandparents, he was given his parents’ home – called Stronachullin – while still fairly young, and he lived there his whole life. He married Janet MacMillian and they had a son and a daughter.
He attended private school at Harrow in England, where he came to form a life-long friendship with James Campbell (1916-2003), son of Archibald Campbell of Kilberry. He spent the early part of the Second World War with the 8th Argylls in France, where he was an officer and platoon leader before being invalided out for poor health.
As a man of independent means, he was able to spend the rest of his life devoted to his two great loves: piping and botany. His contributions to both disciplines were substantial, and his talent in botany was such that his Glasgow obituary notice referred to him as “The Glasgow Naturalist.”. His specialty was flora in the Knapdale and Kintyre areas of Argyll, where he described several new species.
He was well known at the Argyllshire Gathering in Oban as a judge and steward, and he frequently contributed to the Piping Times on the issue of music editing. Though he was elected to the Music Committee of the Piobaireachd Society in 1947, his direct involvement in editing the Piobaireachd Society Collection came when an aging Archibald Campbell invited him to help with his work on Book 10, published in 1961. He would continue this involvement for 25 more years, translating a number of tunes directly from the Campbell Canntaireachd. While he consulted with Capt John MacLellan and particularly with his friend James Campbell as Books 10-14 came to fruition, most of the work was his own. The Music Committee as a whole was rarely involved in editing the volumes – an ironic turn given that he was known to criticize his predecessor’s similar approach.
Archie Kenneth’s interests in music ranged widely, and he explored traditional music, and folk rock in later life. He developed a particular interest in the relationship between Gaelic song and piobaireachd. He also played accordion from his youth.
He died lung of cancer in July 27, 1989, and at his funeral in Lochgilphead on July 31, Arthur Gillies played “The Sound of the Waves Against the Castle of Duntroon.”
JM, January 2008,
-with notes from ‘The Proceedings of the Piobaireachd Society Conference, April 1990’, and the ‘Piping Times’, October 1989, and the ‘Oxford Dictionary of National Biography’ entry by Dr. William Donaldson.