Kenneth McKellar

Paisley, June 23, 1927 - Lake Tahoe, California, April 9, 2010

Picture of Kenneth McKellar
Kenneth McKellar grew up in Paisley (in Scotland), 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 where he was enthralled by the Italian tenor Gigli.

McKellar attended Aberdeen University and 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, studying with William Swainson. Later, a Caird Scholarship (1949) would take him to the Royal College of Music in London for 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 Isles; 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 century. Kenneth McKellar first sang in public at age 16 at an Army Cadet concert and did some broadcasts from Aberdeen in 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 18thC Scottish poet Allan Rarnsay; music arranged by Cedric Thorpe Davie, Professor of Music at St Andrew's University.

In 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 studio test ‘0 Mistress Mine’ (Quilter’s arrangement) plus a couple of Scots songs resulted in the marketing of 8 x 10” shellac sides:

‘Ae Fond Kiss’ / ‘My Ain Hoose’ [F3429]
‘Bonnie Lass o’ Ballochmyle’ / ‘The Rowan Tree’ [F3433]
‘The Auld Hoose’ / ‘The Border Ballad’ [F3441]
‘Corn Rigs’ / ‘The Mist-covered Mountains of Home’ [F3487].

He 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 of opera. The 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 France, and touring South Africa. The next year he made the first of fifteen tours of Australia and New Zealand with a company that included the internationally famous Scottish accordionist Jimmy Shand. TV companies in Scotland were keen to promote him and he remained a dominant artist on the small screen for many years.

In 1966, McKellar represented Britain in the Eurovision Song Contest, singing ‘A man without love’. Other projects have included well received appearances on the operatic stage, including notable appearances with English Opera a t 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. After 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 media company.


At 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 a ‘shyness’ on top notes). The “Beltona” records (probably recorded 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. Excursions 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’, ‘ 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 it’s conductor Sir Adrian Boult labelled McKellar "the best Handel singer of the Twentieth Century" – interesting, if debatable. (Could this be Decca-hype!)

Thinking 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, … ?) – 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. Enthusiasm 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. Fundamentally, 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. Kevin 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. No 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."

Keith Shilcock (with acknowledgement to Rob Adams & Kevin D’Arcy), June 2005


‘The Rowan tree’ (Lady Carolina Nairne; tune unknown) [1952 from shellac]
‘Down by the Salley Gardens’ (Trad.; arr. Britten) [1959]
‘Love in her eyes sits playing’; from ‘Acis & Galatea’ (Gay; Handel) [1961]

Incidental Notes

1. His ‘Nessun dorma’ can be heard on Francois Nouvion’s “Historic Tenors” website.
2. My parents 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…
3. I have 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 issued.
4. “Beltona”, 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:]
5. The accompaniments 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 a Requiem.
6. I have [05/05] restored all the “Parlophone” shellacs plus the 11 “Beltona” recs, and transcribed them to CD-R.

Lyrics (nb. McKellar leaves out verse 2):

O rowan tree, o rowan tree,
thoul't aye be dear tae me;
entwined thou art wi' mony tie
o' hame and infancy.
Thy leaves were aye the first o’ spring,
thy flow’rs the simmer's pride;
there was na sic a bonnie tree
in all the country side.
O rowan tree.

How fair wert thou in simmer time
wi' all thy clusters white.
How rich and gay thy autumn dress
wi' berries red and bright.
On thy fair stem were mony names
which now nae mair I see,
but there engraven on my heart
forgot they ne'er can be.
O rowan tree.

We sat aneath thy spreading shade,
the bairnies round thee ran.
They pu’ed thy bonnie berries red
and necklaces they strang.
My mither oh I see her still,
she smiled our sports tae see,
wi' little Jeannie on her lap
and Jamie at her knee.
O rowan tree.

And there arose my father's prayer
in holy evening's calm.
How sweet was then my mither's voice
in the martyr's psalm.
Noo a' are gan! We meet nae mair
aneath the rowan tree,
but hallowed thoughts around thee turn
o' hame and infancy.
O rowan tree.

Words by Lady Carolina Nairne [See:]

Kenneth McKellar sings Turandot: Nessun dorma
In RA Format

Kenneth McKellar sings O Rowan tree
In RA Format

Kenneth McKellar sings Love in her eyes
In RA Format

Kenneth McKellar sings The Salley Gardens
In RA Format
I would like to thank Keith Shilcock for notes and recordings (The Salley Gardens, Love in her eyes, O Rowan tree).

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