TEE-HEE, heedrum-hodrum. Whoa! Not so fast. There’s more to Kenneth McKellar than meets the ear. He wasn’t all Brigadoon. Far from it. He even wrote a sketch for Monty Python and took Britain to a new low in the Eurovision Song Contest. Wow.

But this lyric tenor could also handle Handel and was a pal of George Martin, legendary producer of yon Beatles. Perchance you associate him with Hogmanay and kitsch tartanry, and you’re correct to do so. But Kenneth had more tassels to his sporran.

Born in Paisley on June 23, 1927, the son of a grocer, he loved music from an early age, with Gilbert and Sullivan, Peter Dawson, Paul Robeson and Richard Tauber oozing from the family’s old wind-up gramophone.

His first real concert experience came at St Andrew’s Hall, Glasgow, where his father took him to hear Italian tenor Beniamino Gigli. Later, Kenneth recalled: “I still have not heard better or more beautiful singing from anyone.”

After leaving the John Neilson Institution – not a borstal, a school – he developed his love of music by studying forestry at Aberdeen Yoonie. There, he joined the choir, whose director of music was so impressed he gave him individual coaching.

Kenneth sang solos in Mozart’s Requiem and Bach’s B Minor Mass. On the social side, he met Sheena, George Martin’s first wife, and they all became pals. Later, Martin worked with him at Parlophone.

After graduating, McKellar joined the Scottish Forestry Commission, having – it says here – developed a burning desire to restore the country’s woodlands after their depletion during the Second World War.

Accordingly, over the next two years, he took part in a survey programme, travelling hundreds of miles on horseback to reach otherwise inaccessible areas. Later, he loved seeing forests that had been regenerated on his watch.

On one trip, McKellar’s interest in Scottish folk was stimulated by an elderly landlady with whom he lodged in Portree. 

“She had the most marvellous store of folk tales and a great grasp of Scottish history,” he recalled.

“Aah, she’d say wistfully, William Wallace! I was awful vexed to hear what they did to him in London.” Kenneth began attending Gaelic classes and learning Hebridean songs.

The Herald:

Student of note 
After two years in the woods, he branched out and attended the Royal College of Music in London on a Caird scholarship. In 1947, while still a student, he came to public attention after singing lead tenor in a BBC broadcast from Glasgow of the ballad opera The Gentle Shepherd.

When his tonsils took a turn for the worse, a friend suggested jokily that, lest the surgeon’s scalpel slip, Kenneth should cut a recording for posterity, which he did in a booth at an HMV record shop.

His singing of Scottish ballads and Roger Quilter’s O Mistress Mine so impressed the recording engineer that he sent the results to Parlophone, who immediately offered him a contract and issued several recordings.

These came to the attention of the London-based Carl Rosa Opera Company where, expecting to be assigned to the chorus, he was asked to audition the opening aria from Rossini’s Hair Stylist Of Seville, which he did so well he was offered a principal tenor’s contract at £15 a week.

While this wouldn’t buy you a packet of crisps nowadays, it allowed Kenneth to get married and buy a car. However, after two years of singing all foreign stuff in daft costumes, our hero gave up his opera career, carping that it was “like living in a goldfish bowl”.

He left to pursue a career singing traditional Scottish songs and similar mince and, soon, was signing a new recording contract with Decca, for whom he made nearly 40 LPs between the mid-1950s and early 1980s, covering ballads, arias, hymns, folk songs, Burns and Broadway hits.

The Herald:

Stage a triumph
From 1957, he appeared annually in pantomimes at Glasgow’s Alhambra Theatre and, for a decade from 1960, starred in A Wish For Jamie, followed by A Love For Jamie, which ran at the Alhambra before moving to Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Newcastle. He considered these years the most satisfying of his stage career.

From 1959 onwards, he frequently toured the US and Canada. He did New Zealand in 1964. Then came 1966, remembered in England for the World Cup and in Scotland for making the UK a laughing stock at Eurovision.

Appearing on the Luxembourg stage in his kilt, to reported gasps of astonishment, Kenneth proceeded to ululate an uninspiring ballad called A Man Without Love, leading to the UK’s worst marks, a record held until 1978.

Only two countries awarded points, one being Ireland, whose panel did so amid laughter.

Taking defeat well, Kenneth dubbed the competition “a publicity junket”, corrupted by Scandinavian collusion. Just as well he had a sense of humour – and he was famed for dry wit – which also stood him well for his many appearances on television’s White Heather Club, watched by many Scots through their fingers and culminating annually in the debauched disgrace of the Hogmanay Show.

Despite all that malarkey, McKeller was a fine interpreter of Burns, and honorary president of many Burns societies including Moscow’s.

His Handel’s Messiah with Joan Sutherland became one of Decca’s bestsellers, and his recording of Handel Songs and Arias prompted Sir Adrian Boult, who had conducted the sessions, to describe McKellar as “the best Handel singer of the 20th century”.

The Monty Python sketch mentioned earlier, and performed at The Secret Policeman’s Ball, involved a blindfolded man trying to identify the celebrity beating him up. Obviously.

No fly by night
MCKELLAR occasionally wrote songs too, including comic piece The Midges. Ahem: “The midges, the midges, I’m no gonnae kid ye’s/The midges is really the limit/Wi teeth like pirhanas, they drive ye bananas/If ye let them get under yer simmit!”

The singer of Scotland The Brave earned a slating in The Herald’s letters pages for his opposition to a Scottish parliament, with one contributor opining: “Like many others in the ‘professional Scots’ trade, Mr McKellar’s hypocrisy is breathtaking.” A minority voice praised him for being “patriotic but not parochial”.

In 1992, McKellar was offered an OBE but declined it. No reason was ever given.

Kenneth McKellar died of pancreatic cancer, aged 82, at his daughter’s home near Lake Tahoe in the United States, on April 9, 2010. His funeral was held in Paisley.