Musicians and Singers (1860- 1925)

Robert Wilson 1907 - 64

Robert Wilson was born in Cambuslang. His father, Alexander, was a tailor.   Wilson trained at first as a draughtsman, then, in his twenties, as a professional singer in Glasgow.  He initially performed for several seasons as part of the Rothesay Entertainers. At the same time, he sang at Clan concerts and Scottish Festivals.

In 1931, Wilson joined the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company, at first in the chorus, understudying and occasionally performing the roles of the Defendant in Trial by Jury and Ralph Rackstraw in H.M.S. Pinafore. In 1932, he began to play the Defendant on a regular basis, and soon was also playing the small roles of First Yeoman in The Yeomen of the Guard and Francesco in The Gondoliers, and still substituting occasionally as Ralph. At the same time, he was in demand as a recording artist for Parlophone.

In 1934, he was given the additional principal roles of Hilarion in Princess Ida and Nanki-Poo in The Mikado and moved up to Leonard Meryll in Yeomen, and Marco in The Gondoliers. In the 1935–36 season, he continued to play the Defendant and shared the roles of Ralph, Nanki Poo, Leonard and Frederic in The Pirates of Penzance. That season he also sometimes played the role of Colonel Fairfax in Yeomen and Marco in The Gondoliers. He participated in the company's North American tours in 1934 and 1936.

When Derek Oldham returned to the company in 1936, Wilson's roles were reduced to Defendant, Leonard and Francesco. He left the company in 1937, to pursue a long solo career in concerts, radio, variety and recording, becoming known especially for his performances of Scottish songs.

Wilson died in 1964, never having fully recovered from a car accident the previous year.

Links with Ayrshire

Wilson performed at Ayr Gaiety Theatre and other venues in the west of Scotland.  His variety programme was a feature of many theatres elsewhere in Scotland and the North of England.  Wilson was resident in Ayr at the time of his death.  He was a frequent performer on the BBC Scotland's White Heather Club.


Robert Wilson  Photograph from Record Sleeve: 'Robert Wilson - The Voice of Scotland Volume One', produced by ©Beltona Rrecords.    magnify

David Ward 1922 - 83

Born in Dumbarton, in 1922, David Ward was one of the most important Scottish singers of recent decades, with a notable international career, and a vital presence in the early years of Scottish Opera. He had an effortlessly powerful, but attractively soft-grained voice, able to convey strong emotion. Unusually tall, he was easily able to dominate the stage, and was an ideal exponent of the major Wagner and Verdi bass and bass-baritone repertoire.

Ward served in the Royal Navy during World War ll and then studied at the Royal College of Music with Clive Carey. Much later (c1962) he studied his major Wagner roles in Munich with Hans Hotter, who had been the dominant Wotan of his own generation. Ward joined the basses in the Sadler’s Wells Opera Chorus in 1952, quickly making an impression and being given his first solo role the following year – the Old Bard in The Immortal Hour (Boughton) and later, Count Walter in Verdi's Luisa Miller. He created the role of Captain Hardy in Lennox Berkeley’s Nelson (1954) and remained a principal with the company from 1953 to 1959.  Many years later, in 1972, he returned to revive one of his old roles, Bartók's Bluebeard, at the Coliseum.

Ward made his first appearance with Scottish Opera in 1964 as the Commendatore in Don Giovanni, returning the following season for Boris Godunov, and in 1966 and 1967 for Wotan in Die Walküre and Das Rheingold as the company assembled its first Ring Cycle. The Wanderer in Siegfried and a complete cycle followed in 1971. In 1973 he added King Mark in Tristan und Isolde and repeated Boris Godunov in 1974. His last new roles with the company were Banquo in Macbeth and Pogner in Die Meistersinger, both in 1976.

Ward died in 1983 at Dunedin, New Zealand.

Links with Ayrshire

There is no available evidence that Ward performed in Ayrshire but a significant part of his career was linked to Scottish Opera in Glasgow and Edinburgh.

[This text draws on a biography published at Opera and other sources in the public domain.]


David Ward 1922 - 83. Photograph ©  magnify   

Kenneth McKellar (1927 - 2010)

Although McKellar spent the majority of his career performing the popular and folk songs of his native Scotland on radio and television. his early work was on the operatic stage and as a broadcasting and recording artiste. 

McKellar was born in Paisley, the son of a grocer. His earliest musical experiences came from the family gramophone, but he was also taken to hear Beniamino Gigli sing at St Andrew's Halls, Glasgow. McKellar initially studied forestry at Aberdeen University. He also joined the university choir, where his vocal talent was apparent, and he received individual coaching from the university's director of music. While still a student, McKellar made his first broadcast, from the BBC studios in Glasgow.

McKellar died of pancreatic cancer at his daughter's home in the USA following a brief illness.
Links with Ayrshire

McKellar appeared at the Ayr Gaiety on a number of occasions.  These appearances were in programmes based in Scottish songs rather than classical repertoire.]

[This text draws on an obituary published in The Guardian, 12th April, 2010] 


Kenneth McKellarr represented the UK in the Eurovision Song Contest.  magnify   

Joan Cross (1900 - 1993)

Joan Cross was born in London in 1900. She attended St Paul’s School for Girls where she was taught music by Gustav Holst. She studied singing at Trinity College of Music, and in 1923 joined the chorus of the Vic-Wells opera company at the Old Vic. Here she came to the attention of Lilian Baylis who singled her out as a soloist.

From 1931 to 1946 Cross enjoyed a successful career as one of the leading sopranos of the Sadler’s Wells Theatre opera company. She sang many roles from a wide repertory including Mozart’s Pamina, Verdi’s Aida and Elisabeth in Tannhäuser as well as parts in the first British performances of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Snow Maiden and Tsar Saltan. Cross also sang Lady Macbeth in Lawrance Collingwood’s Macbeth which was premiered in 1934. She only made a handful of performances at the Royal Opera House, starting in 1931 with Mimi in La Bohème and including Desdemona to Lauritz Melchior’s Otello in 1934.

Cross took over the direction of Sadler’s Wells Opera Company during the Second World War and was largely responsible for keeping the company together when it was forced to go on tour because their theatre was taken over as a rest centre. At this time she engaged Peter Pears, marking the beginning of their long friendship.

Links with Ayrshire

There is no available evidence that Cross performed in Ayrshire.

[This text draws on a biography published by the Britten Pears Foundation and other sources in the public domain.]


Joan Cross (1900 - 93) in the title role of the opera
Gloriana.  This opera was first performed at Covent Garden, in 1953, with Cross in the title role. Photographer Unknown.  Published in Tempo magazine, New Series, No. 28 (Summer, 1953).  magnify   

Harold Blackburn (1925 - 1981)

Born in Hamilton, Harold Blackburn studied singing privately in Glasgow. In 1947 he joined the chorus at Carl Rosa, making his début as Ferrando in Il Trovatore. The following year he joined Sadler’s Wells, initially in the chorus, but being promoted to principal from 1952. He maintained a base with the Sadler’s Wells and English National Opera companies throughout his career.

His easily produced, powerful and black-toned bass voice gave him great versatility, and he was noted for wonderfully clear diction both in comic and serious roles.

He toured to Scotland almost annually with Sadler’s Wells. In the late 1950s these roles included the Sacristan (Tosca), Colline (La Bohème), Antonio and Bartolo (Marriage of Figaro), Dr Grenvil (La Traviata) and Sparafucile (Rigoletto). He made guest appearances with Welsh National Opera and the English Opera Group.

Blackburn was a regular colleague of Alexander Gibson in his Sadler’s Wells years in the 1950s and along with David Ward and William McAlpine gave support to the formation of Scottish Opera by returning to sing with the company in its early years. He appeared in 1964 as Leporello and Lodovico, and in 1968 as Swallow in the Edinburgh Festival Peter Grimes. He also appeared at the 1965 Festival, singing Budd in the English Opera Group’s production of Albert Herring. He was noted for his performances of Rossini, and his roles at Sadler’s Wells and the Coliseum included Don Basilio (Barber of Seville), Tutor (Count Ory), Mayor (Thieving Magpie) and Mustafà (Italian Girl in Algiers).

He sang some Wagner, including Daland, Fasolt and Hunding. Other parts were Tiresias in Oedipus Rex, Sarastro, Kutuzov in War and Peace, the Grand Inquisitor in Don Carlos, Simone (Gianni Schicchi), Beneš (Dalibor), Crespel (Tales of Hoffmann) and Baron Ochs. With Sadlers Wells Opera/English National Opera he created the roles of Sherrin in The Mines of Sulphur (Bennett 1965), Humpage in A Penny for a Song (Bennett 1968), and Steffan in Lucky Peter’s Journey (Williamson 1969) and sang Father Barré in the British premiere of The Devils of Loudun (Penderecki).

During the Sadler Wells tours in the 1960's he acted as company manager in addition to covering some roles during the tours.  With the English Opera Group he toured to Canada, Japan and Australia, and in Johannesburg he appeared as Colline, Don Pasquale and Leporello.

Links with Ayrshire

There is no available evidence that Blackburn performed in Ayrshire but a significant part of his career was linked to the early years of Scottish Opera in Glasgow and Edinburgh.

[This text draws on a biography published at Opera, personal recollections and other sources in the public domain.]

Harold Blackburn, Scottish born bass-baritone, built his career arounf Sadlers Wells and English National Opera  magnify   


Kathleen Ferrier (1912 - 1953)

Kathleen Ferrier is regarded as one of the world’s great singers. Although she died more than fifty years ago, yet she is still remembered and her voice is still heard and loved by millions around the world.

Born in 1912, at Higher Walton, near Preston, she died in 1953, aged just 41 years. Ferrier’s father was the village schoolmaster at Higher Walton. He later became a headmaster in Blackburn and the family moved there when Kathleen was two years old.

Kathleen did not begin her career as a singer. Her mother, keen to encourage Kathleen’s musical interest, arranged piano lessons for her and, as a talented young pianist of only 14 she passed the final grade of the Associated Board of the Royal Academy of Music and the Royal College of Music.

Kathleen left school at 14 and went to work for the GPO in Blackburn, first in the telegrams department and then as a switchboard operator. In July 1930, at the age of 18, Kathleen took part in her first concert as a pianist, which was broadcast from Manchester. She regularly entered and won all the major music festivals, but had become interesting in singing and began taking some rudimentary lessons from the singers she accompanied.

Ferrier was 23 when she married Albert Wilson in 1935, , moving to Silloth, on the Cumbrian coast, where her husband was the manager of the District Bank in 1936. Here, she gave piano lessons to the local children and latterly had a small number of singing pupils.. When she entered the prestigious Carlisle Festival in 1937 as a pianist, her husband bet her a shilling that she dare not enter for the singing contest as well as the piano prize. Never one to refuse a dare Kathleen accepted the challenge, entered the contralto solo class and not only carried off both trophies, but won the first prize for the best singer at the Festival.  In 1939 she made her first radio broadcast as a singer.

In June 1941 she signed up with CEMA – the Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts, and the forerunner of the Arts Council of Great Britain. The CEMA tours were hard but invaluable and important training. Wartime travel was extremely difficult and the venues were geographically haphazard, the North one day, South next, North the day after, and so on. She sang in church halls, cinemas, schools and factories – in fact anywhere where an audience could be got together.

Links with Ayrshire

There is no available evidence that Ferrier performed in Ayrshire but is known that she performed in Cumbria and in Edinburgh.  Folliowimg the preniere of The Rape of Lucretia at Glyndebourne, it was perormed as part of a national tour' this was the sole operatic appearance by Ferrier north of the border.

[Text draws on information published by the Kathleen Ferrier Society, Opera Scotland, personal recollections and other sources in the public domain.]


Kathleen Ferrier (1912- 53)

Date 1949
Photographer: Unknown. (Publicity photograph for recording: Alto Rhapsody, Op. 53 by Johannes Brahms (text by Goethe) Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus, cond. Erik Tuxen Recorded October 14, 1949)    magnify   

Father and Daughter

Who could not marvel at the intrepid twelve year-old Marjory who sets off to play pianoforte accompaniment for her father, a celebrated Scots tenor called David Kennedy, on a prolonged concert tour that turns her adolescence into a blur?

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