Forestry’s loss was Scottish music’s gain when Kenneth McKellar joined the Aberdeen University chapel choir. McKellar had been singing since he was a young boy. At school in Paisley he sang and played violin in a group with some friends and he was always willing to entertain visitors to the family home with impersonations of singers including his favourite, Paul Robeson. Even when he began taking lessons from the Director of Music and was performing oratorios including the St Matthew Passion, the Messiah and Mozart’s Requiem with the university choir, singing was still a hobby, a break from the studies that would earn him a Bachelor of Science degree. While working in his first job after graduating, surveying woodlands for the Forestry Commission, however, he was given a Caird Scholarship to study singing at the Royal College of Music In London.
At the RCM he won the Henry Leslie singing prize and signed his first recording contract, with Parlophone, recording eight songs on 78 rpm discs. He then joined the Carl Rosa Opera Company as principal tenor and while still singing with the company, in 1954 he began a long and extremely successful relationship with Decca Records. His album Handel Songs and Arias, conducted by Sir Adrian Boult, was voted the best classical recording of 1960 by Musical America magazine and The Messiah, featuring McKellar with his RCM contemporary Joan Sutherland, remains one of Decca’s all time international best sellers.
McKellar’s talents were by no means restricted to classical music. His Songs of Robert Burns collection, released in 1959, is widely considered to be the definitive Burns recording. By this time, already familiar to radio listeners following his appearance featured in a production of The Gentle Shepherd with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, he was also a well-known face on television, singing Scottish songs, light opera and popular music on his own BBC series, A Song for Everyone. From 1959 onwards, he became known internationally through a series of North American tours, through concerts in Germany, France and South Africa and, in 1960, he set off on the first of fifteen tours of Australia and New Zealand with a company that included Jimmy Shand. He represented Britain in the Eurovision Song Contest, singing A Man Without Love, in 1966.
After appearing in panto at the Alhambra Theatre in Glasgow, he went on to star as Jamie in the long-running shows A Wish for Jamie and A Love for Jamie, in which he appeared alongside Rikki Fulton. It was during this time that his talents as a songwriter emerged. The Tartan, which has now been recorded by more than forty artistes, was heard by more than four million people during the televised opening of the 1986 Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh, and comedy items such as The Midges and The Pan Drap have passed into Scottish folklore.
McKellar’s writing extended to his successful book The Romantic Scotland of Kenneth McKellar, which ran into multiple editions, and having scripted his own radio and television series he submitted scripts to Monty Python’s Flying Circus, one of which appeared in the Secret Policeman’s Ball and earned McKellar an honourable mention in John Cleese’s autobiography.
Having added further operatic successes at Aldeburgh and the Champs Elysees Theatre in Paris, summer seasons at resorts across the UK and a series of Scottish themed albums, which he orchestrated, to his CV, McKellar retired at the age of seventy in 1997 to enjoy pursuits including roaming the European countryside on his BMW motorcycle. He died aged eighty-two in 2010.