DCSIMG

Peter Ross: Kenneth McKellar remembered

His music was synonymous with Hogmanay so what better time to remember the legend that was Scottish tenor Kenneth McKellar

• Kenneth McKellar striking a pose in his traditional attire

IN the Taylor Jax hairdressing salon on Paisley's Causeyside Street they have never heard of Kenneth McKellar. "No," frowns the manicured blonde on reception. "But I'm not good with names." In Apollo Music, a nearby record shop, there is more demand for Barbra Streisand, Olly Murs and even Harry Lauder than for the Paisley "Buddy" who grew up to become, arguably, Scotland's greatest singing talent. And in the tattoo parlour not far from where McKellar, was born in 1927, they have never been asked to ink the tenor's handsome face on any biceps; the young pony-tailed man behind the counter explains why. "You've got to be a real legend for that. We've been asked for a couple of Elvises, and a William Wallace." He rolls his eyes. "Well, Mel Gibson."

But surely Kenneth McKellar is a legend? Or at least was. During the 60s and into the 70s he was one of the most famous people in the country, yet now he seems almost unknown even in his home town.

Especially among the young. The teenage girl in the I Love Cheryl Cole hoodie, waiting for the 64 bus to Ferguslie Park, stares blankly into her pizza box at the mention of his name. The polite goth kids shivering outside Paisley Abbey apologise for never having heard of him, and look astonished when I mention that in June of this year the ancient church behind them was packed with hundreds of people for his memorial service.

Finally, standing in the doorway of The Afton, a pub no doubt named after Afton Water, a Burns song which McKellar recorded, is someone who nods when I mention the singer. "Kenneth McKellar? Aye, that was a long time ago," says Jimmy Simpson, a stubbled old man in a checked bunnet, taking a draw on his roll-up.

"Do you like his music?" I ask.

Jimmy narrows his eyes and blows out smoke; considers. "No, not really, son. It's all right for New Year and that, no?"

Well, yes. McKellar became synonymous with Hogmanay, thanks to his appearances on The White Heather Club. It is through television appearances such as those that his popular image became fixed. He is known for a rather stiff appearance – kilt, sporran, velvet jacket, lace jabot at his throat. His was a formal, kitschy, pre-Braveheart Scottishness.

By the time he died in the United States earlier this year at the age of 82, McKellar had not performed in public for more than a decade, and his name had become synonymous with all things teuchtery and cringeworthy. However, a new documentary, Trusadh: Kenneth McKellar, offers a more rounded view of the man and his talent (BBC Alba, December 30, 9pm and an English language version on BBC1, January 3, 6.30pm). It points out, for example, that he was described by Sir Adrian Boult as the 20th century's greatest singer of Handel.

He is better known, however, for his performances of Scottish songs, everything from Ae Fond Kiss to The Song Of The Clyde. McKellar signed to Decca in 1954 and remained with the company for 20 years, releasing around 40 albums and selling millions internationally. A typical McKellar LP has a cover photograph of him, clad in either jabot or Doonicanish polo-neck, staring into the middle distance with a bonnie Scottish scene as a backdrop.

The huge range of material he recorded, coupled with his couthy image, has tended to obscure just how well he could sing. But we should take the time to do as the singer and folklorist Margaret Bennett urges in the documentary: "Open your mind and your ears, too. Listen, listen to Kenneth McKellar."

His voice is extraordinary. Clear, strong, rich, emotional, full of joy and pain. There's a strong sense that he understands what he is singing and feels it, too.

"It's sometimes said that, as a classically trained singer, his performances were too mannered. I don't accept that. Yes, his delivery could be dramatic, but not so stagey that it lacked empathy. I'm with Anne Lorne Gillies, who sometimes performed with McKellar and narrates the new documentary. "His heart," she says, "always felt every word he sang."

For me, Kenneth McKellar is the sound of visiting my grandparents' flat in Stirling during the 70s; specifically, of being in the kitchen, which is where the portable radio was kept. It was always Radio Scotland and it was always Kenneth McKellar. It seems, in memory, to have always been Scotch broth, too. Hearing his voice, for me, mixes up all of that – the smell of the soup, Roamin' In The Gloamin' distorted by static, the feeling of excitement at visiting people you love. I'd never mistake him for any other singer. He's elemental. I've never known a world that didn't have that voice in it. Wouldn't want to.

Kenneth McKellar was born in a tenement at 12 Mary Street, a quiet side road in Paisley; no plaque distinguishes the blonde sandstone building. His father owned a grocer's at 74 Causeyside Street, a site now occupied by that hairdressing salon where the receptionist didn't know who he was. I stand in the snow outside his childhood home and gaze up at the tenement, its roof shrouded in freezing fog, imagining McKellar's father winding up the gramophone and letting his son hear Enrico Caruso for the first time. I can almost hear Vesti La Giubba echoing down the close.

McKellar went to Aberdeen University to study forestry. Later, he won a scholarship to the Royal College of Music in London. In between, there were a couple of years when he worked for the Forestry Commission, helping to regenerate woodland depleted by the war. It was a job that took him all over mainland Scotland and to Skye, and this period in his life has a mythic quality – the young man going out into the wilderness and finding himself.

He travelled across rugged terrain on horseback (the horse was deaf, apparently, so if McKellar sang while he rode it did not get the benefit) and saw much of the Scottish landscape which so inspired his music and his patriotism. He also learned many folk tales and a great deal of Scottish history from his landlady in Portree, as well as the songs of the Hebrides which he would later record. McKellar may have been planting spruce, pine and larch, but I like to think that it was during this time that the seed was planted of the sort of singer he would become.

According to his daughter Jane, who is 46 and lives in Nevada, McKellar was intensely private. He tried to live as normal a life as possible in Lenzie, despite levels of fame that once led a female stalker to pitch a tent at the bottom of the garden, and another occasion that saw another obsessive female fan leave her house to him in her will.

McKellar had a close friendship with Frances and Peter Shand Kydd, and taught the young princes William and Harry ro recite the rhyme, "Runnin' aboot the hoose, tryin' to catch the moose". He would never have talked about this association while he was alive, though. Discretion and personal loyalty were important to him.

As was family. He had two children – Jane and an older boy, Kenneth. His wife Hedy was Swiss and spoke seven languages fluently. She would coach her husband in Italian, French and German for when he sang opera in those languages. When she died suddenly in December 1990 he was bereft.

"He had been absolutely convinced that he would go before my mother," says Jane McKellar, "and that she would have a merry widowhood. So when she died he was a lost soul. After that, he continued to perform more out of habit, as opposed to his heart being really in it. They were business partners and soulmates, and he never recovered really. Every year on her birthday and also on the anniversary of her death he would put a single red rose in a vase the window."

Robert Burns' My Love Is Like A Red, Red Rose was McKellar's signature song. Had it been important between him and his wife? "It was his song for her," says Jane McKellar, "and when my mother died he vowed never to sing it again."

My last port of call in Paisley is the Abbey, which has been the centre of the town's worship for more than 800 years. McKellar would have seen this building almost every day of his boyhood, and when he was dying he chose it as the venue for his memorial service. It was a place that meant a lot to him. He even recorded music here, including 1967's Sacred Songs.

George McPhee, who worked as musical director on that album, is 73 now and has been organist at the Abbey for 48 years. "It was magical," he says. "I remember we had to work from midnight onwards so the microphones wouldn't pick up traffic noise. On the first night we went on until half past four. It was almost a spiritual experience. I'm sure the record meant a lot to him."

McPhee leads me into the Abbey and shows me where the recording was made. Standing on the very spot where McKellar stood and sang, looking back across the pews and vaults to the huge arched window, is really quite moving. As the sun begins to set outside, darkening the stained glass depiction of the ascended Christ, I can't help but feel that Kenneth McKellar's reputation and most of all his music deserve a resurrection. Hogmanay would be a good time to start.

 
 
 

Back to the top of the page