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 the forests in the area 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 Scottish Gaelic classes at night and learned songs from the Hebrides. "The Hebrides" is the name for an archipelago off the west coast of northern Scotland that consists of many islands. The islands located furthest away from the Scottish mainland are called the Outer Hebrides. The ones nearest to the mainland are known as the Inner Hebrides.
A Musical Career
After two years of 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. He stayed with the Decca record company for over twenty-five years.
In addition to singing for recordings, Kenneth 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.
The White Heather Club
McKellar 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. Kenneth McKellar's renditions of Scottish and other traditional songs seem to have always been appreciated, though. He was also a popular performer on the BBC's annual Hogmanay programs. Hogmanay is the Scottish New Year's Eve celebration.
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 was eighty-two years old. 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. The isle is part of the Inner Hebrides, as shown in the map above.
The tune of the song was collected by Anne Campbell Macleod (or Lady Wilson) in the 1870s but dates from an earlier time. Sir Harold Boulton wrote the lyrics that we generally sing today. Many other versions of the song have been created, including a highly modified one as the theme of the "Outlander" television show.
Historical Basis of the Song
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.
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.
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 of 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.
My Love is Like a Red, Red Rose and Afton Water
Two popular Robbie Burns songs that Kenneth McKellar sung were "My Love is Like a Red, Red Rose" and "Afton Water". In the first song, the singer describes his deep love for a special woman in his life. She is like a beautiful red rose that has just bloomed. The singer says that he will love her "till a' the seas gang dry."
The second song is also a love song. It refers to a woman named Mary who is sleeping on the banks of the River Afton. The singer describes the beauty of nature beside the river and asks the murmuring stream and the nearby birds to be quiet to avoid waking his loved one.
The Rowan Tree
"The Rowan Tree" was written by Lady Nairne, or Carolina Oliphant, who lived from 1766 to 1845. She was born in Perthshire in Scotland. Lady Nairne both collected traditional Scottish songs and wrote them.
Lady Nairne's bittersweet song describes how important a particular rowan tree was to the singer and his family in the past. The entire family would gather under the tree together and enjoy its features and their love for one another. Sadly, in the last verse we learn that though the tree survives, "now a' are gane" (now all are gone) and the family can no longer sit under the rowan tree together. The singer says that hallowed thoughts of home and childhood are entwined around the tree.
Where'er You Walk
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.
"Where'er You Walk" comes from a Handel opera called Semele, though Handel apparently called the piece a musical drama. The plot involves ancient gods and goddesses and a mortal woman named Semele. In the song, Jupiter promises Semele that she will love the garden of his palace. He tells her that wherever she walks in the garden, nature will serve her. "Trees where you sit will crowd into a shade" and "where'er you tread, the blushing flowers shall rise."
The Holy City
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 singer describes a dream about Jerusalem. In his dream, he hears some children singing as well as angels singing in Heaven in response. The scene then changes and he sees the Holy City. He says that the gates were wide open and that "all who would might enter and no one was denied."
A Beautiful Legacy
Kenneth McKellar has left us a lovely legacy of recorded music, some of which has been digitally remastered. I still enjoy listening to his voice. I'm glad that at least some of his performances have survived, though I wish more of them could be accessed by the general public. I hope his work is remembered and appreciated for a long time to come.
Questions & Answers
© 2014 Linda Crampton