McKellar grew up in Paisley
where his father owned a grocery shop. As a child he was enraptured
by the ‘great' singers: “I thought Peter Dawson, the Australian
baritone, was wonderful," McKellar commented. "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
he was enthralled by the Italian tenor Gigli.
it was here, while working for a Science degree for a career
in Scottish Forestry, that he joined the student choir and
showed for the first time his special talent for singing and
studying with William Swainson. Later, a Caird Scholarship
(1949) would take him to the Royal College of Music in London
four years, but his aim in the early years lay in a life outdoors
in the Highlands
After graduation he joined the Scottish Forestry Commission
and took part in a research and survey programme of the woodlands
of the British
it was then he picked up a love of Scottish folklore. He 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 world-renowned collector of songs at the beginning of the
Kenneth McKellar first sang in public at age 16 at an Army
Cadet concert and did some broadcasts from Aberdeen
1947. His talent came to wider public notice later that year
through a broadcast with the BBC in Glasgow, performing the
ballad opera ‘The Gentle Shepherd', by the 18 th century Scottish
poet Allan Rarnsay; music arranged by Cedric Thorpe Davie,
Professor of Music at St Andrew's University.
1952 he made a private recording for his parents (apparently
because his tonsils were being removed and he wanted his voice
recorded in case anything went awry). The engineer was so
impressed that he sent a copy to “Parlophone”. A studios test
‘0 Mistress Mine' (Quilter's arrangement) plus a couple of
Scots songs resulted in the marketing of 8 x 10” shellac sides:
Fond Kiss' / ‘My Ain Hoose' [F3429]
Lass o' Ballochmyle' / ‘The Rowan Tree' [F3433]
Auld Hoose' / ‘The Border Ballad' [F3441]
Rigs' / ‘The Mist-covered Mountains of Home' [F3487].
attended the Royal College of Music where he won the Henry
Leslie singing prize. Among his contemporaries were Joan Sutherland
and the future founder of Scottish Opera Alexander Gibson.
From there, he moved to the Carl Rosa Opera Company. He joined
the chorus but was given an opportunity to sing the opening
aria from ‘Barber of Seville'. Impressed they offered him
a principal tenor's contract. He toured with the company for
two seasons (1953-4) but didn't really like the environment
following year he left opera for good and signed with “Decca”
(“London Records” in US) with which he remained for over 25
years making 30+ albums. He also raised his profile around
the world, beginning a series of North American tours (1959),
appearing in concerts in Germany
and touring South
next year he made the first of fifteen tours of Australia
with a company that included the internationally famous Scottish
accordionist Jimmy Shand. TV companies in Scotland
keen to promote him and he remained a dominant artist on the
small screen for many years.
1966, McKellar represented Britain
the Eurovision Song Contest, singing ‘A man without love'.
Other projects included well received appearances on the operatic
stage, including notable appearances with English Opera at
Aldeburgh and at the Champs Elysees Theatre in Paris, playing
McHeath to Janet Baker's Polly and Heather Harper's Lucy in
The Beggar's Opera; also annual summer seasons in resorts
all over the UK; outside of music, trusteeships with various
education, health and arts organisations.
a long recording contract with the Scottish company “Lismor”
(including some videos), McKellar retired from singing at
the age of 70. He still works behind the scenes for a Scottish
the start of his recording career, one would not find a more
beautiful tone combined with an already mature approach to
style and words. As an example hear ‘O Rowan Tree' from the
“Parlophone” sessions (NB: 1-2 of the other songs show ‘shyness'
on top notes). The “Beltona” records (probably recorded in
1954) demonstrate more confidence. From mid-1960s, the vibrato
widens under pressure (e.g. ‘Nessun dorma'), the voice becomes
harder and top notes more confident if occasionally ‘pushed'
(NOT a unique occurrence, with singers!). His soft singing
fortunately remains, demonstrated by recordings like ‘She
moves through the fair', ‘My lagan love' and ‘The Salley Gardens'
– incomparable performances. And the timbre is immediately
recognisable – no-one sounds remotely like him.
into opera are variable with the voice over-stretched sometimes,
e.g. ‘Serenade' (from Bizet's ‘Fair Maid of Perth'). Excursions
into Musicals (e.g. ‘Kismet' and ‘West Side Story') are more
successful and he is considerate in duet (often with the delightful
Pat Cahill). An album of arias by Handel has been well reviewed,
and its conductor Sir Adrian Boult labelled McKellar "the
best Handel singer of the Twentieth Century" – interesting,
if debatable. (Could this be a Decca-hype!)
of Irish ballads (as we now are!), the first name
likely to appear is John McCormack for his style and commitment
whatever condition his voice may be in. Whilst McKellar doesn't
quite have McCormack's skill of ‘speaking the song' – very
few artists do (perhaps Sydney MacEwan, Salli Terri, Peter
Dawson, Joan Morris, Brendan O'Dowda and others) – he conveys
word and phrase elegantly, and any insertion of the Irish
‘brogue' is not overdone (e.g. ‘Trotting to the Fair'). A
Scottish ‘accent' is evident, although in non-English languages
not to the degree of McCormack's innate accent.
for singing means he never bores even in the pseudo-Scottish
songs that audiences and recording companies insist on him
performing (and about which many ‘purists' frown), usually
in arrangements – sometimes over-elaborate – by Robert Sharples.
Kenneth McKellar justifies a place in the annals with a commitment
to Song plus a true tenor timbre with the typical British
blending of chest and head voice as high notes are reached.
It is sad to think of a record collection that includes nothing
from his prolific output.
D'Arcy, a well-known collector in California , writes: “ I
sometimes feel sorry for McKellar because he was in a no-man's
land. Most of the classical world ignored him because
he chose not to pursue a career in opera or classical lieder,
and the folkies thought him too high-fallutin' for their tastes.
But at his best, McKellar was every bit the equal of McCormack
in the folk song genre. I give a special place of honour to
The Songs of the Hebrides which is a Desert Island (or maybe
a craggy, rainy, cold, windswept island!) Disc for certain. MacEwan
did admirable service to several of the Hebrides songs (even
singing some of them in Gaelic) but he didn't have the beauty
of voice or range that McKellar had.
one other than MacEwan has come close to Ken with those beautiful
compositions, which are equal in quality to the best German
or Italian lieder."
with acknowledgement to Rob
Adams & Kevin D'Arcy
and kept for several months after release)
1 The Rowan tree (Lady Carolina Nairne; tune unknown) [1952
2 Down by the Salley
Gardens (Trad.; arr. Britten) 
3 Love in her eyes sits playing; from ‘Acis & Galatea' (Gay;
dorma' can be heard on Francois Nouvion's “Historic Tenors”
saw him many times, and their record of him singing ‘Danny
boy' was a primary influence on my own interest and modest
vocation in singing. I find it very moving…
been sent [03/05] a vinyl record (an 7” EP, on “Beltona”
(no. SEP32)) containing 4 Scottish songs. I already have
a 10” vinyl (no. ABL501 issued 1955) of 8 songs only 1 of
which is on the aforementioned EP – therefore it is evident
that “Beltona” marketed a total of 11 tracks. The tracks
from the 10” vinyl were later reissued, mixed with other
“Decca” tracks, on 12” LPs. Also, 7” singles of some were
originally a Scottish company, affiliated with “Decca” in
1937 and due to financial problems was bought totally in
1941; then as a label disappeared c.1982. [See also: http://www.mustrad.org.uk/articles/beltona.htm]
for “Parlophone” were by Philip Green's Orchestra. This
group was extremely popular post-war as backing for Scottish
and Irish artists. Green moved on to composing, including
[05/05] restored all the “Parlophone” shellacs plus the
11 “Beltona” recs, and transcribed them to CD-R.
(N.B.. McKellar leaves out verse
rowan tree, o rowan tree,
t houl't aye be dear tae
thou art wi' mony tie
o ' hame and infancy.
Thy leaves were aye the first
thy flow'rs the simmer's
t here was na sic a bonnie
in all the country side.
O rowan tree.
How fair wert thou in simmer
w i' all thy clusters white.
How rich and gay thy autumn
w i' berries red and bright.
On thy fair stem were mony
which now nae mair I see,
b ut there engraven on my
forgot they ne'er can be.
O rowan tree.
We sat aneath thy spreading
the bairnies round thee ran.
They pu'ed thy bonnie berries
a nd necklaces they strang.
My mither oh I see her still,
she smiled our sports tae
w i' little Jeannie on her
and Jamie at her knee.
O rowan tree.
And there arose my father's
i n holy evening's calm.
H ow sweet was then my mither's
in the martyr's psalm.
Noo a' are gan! We meet nae
a neath the rowan tree,
but hallowed thoughts around
o ' hame and infancy.
O rowan tree.
by Lady Carolina Nairne [See: http://www.musicanet.org/robokopp/bio/nairnela.html