Internationally-renowned composer Sir James MacMillan put on an extraordinary piano performance, playing the ‘Lost Songs of St Kilda’ in front of a handful of people who endured an eight-hour boat trip from Skye to be there. It is the first time music has been heard on St Kilda since its evacuation in 1930 and the first time a piano has ever been taken there – transported flatpacked in a storm-force vessel across the Atlantic Ocean.
‘The Lost Songs of St. Kilda’ have been brought back to life on a new album thanks to a 73-year-old retired teacher called Trevor Morrison, who lived in an Edinburgh care home and enchanted fellow residents with his strangely haunting music, played on a rickety piano. Trevor was taught these tunes as a small boy by an itinerant piano teacher from St Kilda, who sat him at the piano and placed his fingers on the keys to help him remember the melodies.
A volunteer at the care home, enthralled by their beauty, persuaded Trevor to let him record the songs. Stuart Mackenzie recalls: “I bought a £3 microphone and recorded Trevor playing that knackered care home piano.” That is exactly what you hear on ‘The Lost Songs Of St Kilda’ – eight simple melodies, exactly as Trevor remembered them from those childhood lessons on Bute.
The songs made their way to Decca Records after Classical A&R Executive Fiona Pope, a cellist from Glasgow, heard about the existence of the recordings and was asked to transcribe the melodies. She later took them to Scotland’s foremost contemporary composers to reimagine, reinterpret and remix their favourite tunes. Each song is named after part of St Kilda and evokes the wild beauty of the landscape.
Leading Scottish composer Sir James MacMillan wrote a string arrangement of the track Hirta and conducts the Scottish Festival Orchestra on the album. He remembers his excitement at hearing the story of Trevor and his musical memories of St Kilda: “Forgotten songs, melodies that had disappeared from popular remembrance, and he’s kept them alive playing them on the piano. Very beautiful, simple accompaniments.”
Other composers who’ve transformed the original songs include Craig Armstrong, Mercury Prize nominee Christopher Duncan, Rebecca Dale and Francis Macdonald (also drummer of Teenage Fanclub) whose orchestration of the track Dùn includes a poem, ‘To Finlay MacDonald from St Kilda’, written by the late Norman Campbell – read and sung in English and Scots Gaelic by North Uist singer Julie Fowlis (who performed on the soundtrack to 2012 film Brave).
Before Trevor Morrison died in 2012, he wrote a letter thanking those who helped him record the songs which he said had haunted him all his life, conveying his wish “that these few tunes from the long-forgotten isles can be preserved and given a future.” With the ‘The Lost Songs of St Kilda’ his wish is finally fulfilled.