Kenneth McKellar and the Traditional Songs of Scotland
A Popular Tenor and Entertainer
Kenneth McKellar was a much loved singer of traditional Scottish songs who died in 2010. He was trained as a classical tenor and started his musical career as an opera singer. He soon realized that opera was not his calling, however, and began to sing folk songs instead. For fifty years he entertained listeners in the United Kingdom and beyond. He built a reputation as a great interpreter of traditional Scottish vocal music and became very popular. He is missed by many people.
I grew up listening to Kenneth McKellar on records, the radio, and television. He had a winning personality and was an entertainer as well as a singer. My mother loved his voice and passed on her love to me. Luckily, McKellar's recorded works remain, enabling new generations to appreciate his voice and his contribution to music.
Early Life of Kenneth McKellar
Kenneth McKellar was born in the town of Paisley in Scotland on June 27th, 1927. His father was a grocer and amateur musician who sang in the church choir. At home the young McKellar often heard recordings of opera on the family's wind-up gramophone. He was very impressed by some of the singers that he heard.
McKellar loved exploring the Scottish Highlands and was upset by the loss of highland forests during the second world war. He obtained a science degree from the University of Aberdeen and joined the Forestry Commission, hoping to play a role in tree restoration. He belonged to the university choir and continued to sing once he finished his university studies.
While he worked for the forestry commission, McKellar lodged with a lady who was very knowledgeable about Scottish folklore. She passed on her enthusiasm to McKellar. He took Gaelic classes at night and learned songs from the Hebrides.
The Isle of Skye is part of the Inner Hebrides archipelago. The islands to the west of the isle form the Outer Hebrides. Kenneth McKellar learned some of the traditional songs from this area.
A Musical Career and Later Life
After two years surveying the highlands on horseback during his work for the Forestry Commission, McKellar decided to train for a musical career. He received a scholarship to attend the Royal College of Music. Once he had graduated from the college, he joined the Carl Rosa Opera Company. He stayed with the company for two seasons but didn't enjoy being an opera singer. When he left the opera company he signed a contract with Decca. McKellar stayed with the Decca record company for over twenty-five years.
In addition to singing for recordings, McKellar performed on TV, radio, and the stage. He also wrote ballads and comedic songs. His love of comedy was useful when he wrote a sketch for a special show produced by the Monty Python team.
McKellar married in 1953. He and his wife Hedy had a son and a daughter. Hedy died in 1990, leaving her husband bereft. McKellar retired from performing in 1997. He died from pancreatic cancer on April 9th, 2010, while at his daughter's home in California. He had been diagnosed with cancer only a week before his death.
The Skye Boat Song
Many Scottish folk songs are educational as well as being lovely pieces of music, since they describe Scotland and Scottish life. Some songs depict an important moment in the country's history, or perhaps in its legends. The Skye Boat Song is a good example. It describes the escape of Bonnie Prince Charlie to the Isle of Skye after the Battle of Culloden.
Prince Charles Edward Stuart, or Bonnie Prince Charlie, was the son of King James Vll of Scotland. He was the grandson of King James Vlll, who also ruled England and Ireland as King James ll until he was ousted from the English throne.
Prince Charles and his supporters fought to reinstate a Scottish king on the throne of England. In 1746 they were involved in a bloody battle with the English on Drummossie Moor (also known as Culloden Moor) and were quickly defeated. The prince escaped and spent the next few months trying to evade capture before he was able to travel to safety in France.
During his attempts to evade the English after the Battle of Culloden, Prince Charles disguised himself as a woman and travelled to the Isle of Skye. He was helped by Flora MacDonald and accompanied her as her maid. Flora's deceit was discovered and she was imprisoned in the Tower of London, although she was released the following year. Charles escaped to France.
Skye Boat Song by Kenneth McKellar
Although the Battle of Culloden is often depicted as a Scottish versus English conflict, researchers say that more Scots fought with the English Hanoverians than with the Scottish Jacobites. History is often not as simple as it seems. Nevertheless, the battle is an emotional topic for many Scottish people. It was the last effort by Bonnie Prince Charlie to unite Scotland and England under a Scottish king.
My Love is Like a Red, Red Rose by Robbie Burns
Works by Robert Burns
Kenneth McKellar is admired as a fine interpreter of Robert Burn's songs and was the honorary president of several Burns Societies around the world. Robbie or Rabbie Burns was a Scottish poet and lyricist who lived from 1759 to 1796. He was a prolific writer and is often referred to as the National Bard of Scotland. He didn't spend all of his time writing, however. Burns and his brother took care of the family farm after their father's death. Later Burns became an exciseman. He had multiple relationships with women but married a woman named Jean Amour.
Burns died at the early age of thirty-seven after an illness. There has been much speculation about the cause of his death. Modern researchers feel that the most likely cause was bacterial endocarditis. This condition involves inflammation of the inner lining of the heart. It may also involve inflammation of the heart valves.
Robert Burns didn't receive much education, but he was a serious thinker and often a careful craftsman when he created his poems. His poetry was loved by people in all social ranks. Burns wrote poems about love (a popular pursuit of his), friendship, work, and culture. Some of his poems were written in the Scottish dialect.
Many people are familiar with at least one item of Robbie Burn's work because he wrote the lyrics of Auld Lang Syne. This song is traditionally sung in many countries at midnight on New Year's Eve to say farewell to the old year. Burns wrote his song lyrics to accompany traditional Scottish airs. The music for Auld Lang Syne that is generally used today is not the music that Burns chose.
Where'er You Walk by Handel
Handel and Ballads
Although Kenneth McKellar specialized in Scottish music, he also sang songs written by composers from other countries. He was well respected for his interpretation of Handel's music. In fact, the conductor Sir Adrian Boult referred to McKellar as "the best Handel singer of the twentieth century". A recording of McKellar and John Sutherland in Handel's Messiah was one of the Decca record company's bestsellers of the day.
McKellar also sang ballads, such as "The Holy City ", which has a religious theme and is sometimes referred to as a hymn. The music of this popular Victorian song was composed around 1892 by Stephen Adams, whose real name was Michael Maybrick. The lyrics were written by Frederic (later Frederick) Weatherly, an English lawyer and lyricist.
The Holy City
The White Heather Club
In addition to making records, McKellar sang on stage and in radio and television shows. He was a regular singer on a popular TV show called the White Heather Club, although he was a late addition to the cast. The show had a Scottish theme and ran from 1958 to 1968. It included music, dance, and monologues by Andy Stewart, the show's host.
McKellar always wore a kilt and a sporran on the White Heather Club. A sporran is a pouch borne on a belt that serves the function of a pocket in trousers. (The kilt has no pockets.) The pouch is worn at the front of the body and is decorated in some way to complement the kilt.
Although the White Heather Club was very popular in its day, it has been criticized by some people for its inaccurate depiction of Scottish culture. McKellar's renditions of Scottish and other traditional songs seem to have been always appreciated, though.
Kenneth McKelllar has left us a lovely legacy of recorded music, some of which has been digitally remastered. I still enjoy listening to his voice. I hope his work is remembered and appreciated for a long time to come.
Questions & Answers
© 2014 Linda Crampton