Kenneth McKellar was born and brought up in Paisley where his father owned a grocery shop. Although there were no musicians at home, the McKellar family nevertheless loved music and often listened to opera on the gramophone. “There wasn’t much Scottish music at home,” he recalls. It simply wasn’t being recorded. My father was very keen on Gilbert and Sullivan, Caruso and Gigli and I lapped all that up. ”
As a child of three or four he sat for hours absorbed in the power of the great singers like Peter Dawson, Paul Robeson, Norman Allin and Richard Tauber. I thought Peter Dawson, the Australian baritone, was wonderful,” he said. “He had the kind of voice that could be identified within the first four bars.”
He recalls his parents taking him to a concert in St.Andrew’s Hall in Glasgow where he was enthralled by the Italian tenor, Beniamino Gigli. “I still have not heard better more beautiful singing from anyone,” he said. Kenneth attended Aberdeen University and it was here, while he was studying for a Science degree which was meant to lead on to a career in Scottish Forestry, that he joined the student choir and showed for the first time that he had a special talent for singing. “The Director of Music told me I should think seriously about singing,” he said. “So he gave me lessons. We did Mozart’s Requiem; the B Minor Mass; Messiah, of course; The Creation; the St Matthew Passion; and he coached me for a Caird Scholarship which I won.” Later, the Caird Scholarship would take him to the Royal College of Music in London for four years.
But his great joy in those early years lay in a life outdoors in the forests and rushing rivers of the Highlands. During the war years, much of Scotland’s forest reserves had been depleted to the point of exhaustion and he was keen to help restore them. After graduation he joined the Scottish Forestry Commission and took part in a research and survey programme of the woodlands of the British Isles. “I travelled on horseback up and down all over the country,” he said, “Aberfoyle, Dundee, Deeside and Birkhall, from Forfar over to Skipness, drawing up plans for regeneration with Sitka Spruce, Larch, Scots Pines. We put in hundreds of thousands of trees. Over the years I’ve seen those trees grow to maturity; I’ve seen them felled and another crop grown and harvested as well. In Carradale I used to lodge with a wonderful old maid, Miss Tina Patterson at Portree. She had the most marvellous store of folk tales and a great grasp of Scottish history. It was all so real, so vivid to her that sometimes it seemed as if she actually had been there. ‘Aah,’ she’d say wistfully, William. Wallace! I was awful vexed to hear what they did to him in London.’ That’s where I picked up my love of Scottish folk lore. I attended Gaelic classes at night and learned the songs of the Hebrides, from Mrs Carson who ran the Campbeltown Gaelic Choir. She had studied with Marjory Kennedy Fraser, the concert singer who had been an enthusiastic advocate of Gaelic culture and a great collector of songs at the beginning of the century. There are people who say Marjory debased the Gaelic oral tradition by writing those Hebridean songs down. But I say thank God she did. It’s largely thanks to her that we have those songs today.”
Singing Career Takes Off
Kenneth McKellar’s great talent as a singer first came to public notice in 1947 through a broadcast with the BBC in Glasgow. “It was the ballad opera The Gentle Shepherd, by the early 18th century Scottish poet Allan Rarnsay,” he recalls. “The music for it was arranged by Cedric Thorpe Davie, who was Professor of Music at St.Andrew’s University. I sang the main tenor part in that. It was very beautiful. That was my introduction to broadcasting.”
In the early 1950s he found himself recording for the Parlophone label by, at first, pure accident. “At College I was about to have my tonsils out and a friend of mine said in case the surgeon’s scapel slips I ought to cut a recording, so I went along to HMV in London and-did just that. It had on it a song by Roger Quilter, 0 Mistress Mine, and a couple of Scots songs. The engineer sent it to Parlophone. It was a surprise to me that he had. Parlophone asked me to come up and talk about making a record for them. On the strength of that they thought I should be working commercially for them. That’s been the story of my life, really. A random progression in which one thing leads to another”
As soon as he graduated from the Royal College of Music, Kenneth joined the Carl Rosa Opera Company. He started out in the chorus but “by pure chance” was given an opportunity to sing the opening aria from The Barber of Seville. “They seemed impressed,’ he says, “because they offered me a principal tenor’s contract”.
He toured with the company for two seasons but didn’t really like the environment of opera. “It was like living in a goldfish bowl” he says, “and I thought: ‘I don’t need this. All I want to do is sing’ Alec (the late Sir Alexander) Gibson, wanted me to join the Scottish Opera. ‘No,’ I said, ‘I’ve had enough’.” However, in 1965, Benjamin Britten did persuade him to join the English Opera Group at the Aldeburgh Festival and at the Champs Elysee Theatre in Paris in the part of McHeath in “The Beggar’s Opera”.
Recording and Performing
A year after he left opera for good he signed with the Decca Record Company where he remained for over 25 years during which time he recorded some 35 or more LPs which have sold many millions of copies throughout the world. His Songs of Robert Burns album is regarded in Scotland as the definitive Burns collection. His recordings in Paisley Abbey, Sacred Songs and Hosana are among the best-loved ever to come out of Scotland. Thanks to the wonders of digital recording some of Kenneth McKellar’s most memorable songs have now been re-released by Decca.
All text taken from www.rampantscotland.com