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The Lost Songs of St Kilda

Stuart McKenzie, former Moose volunteer, tells the story of how he came to meet Trevor Morrison in an Edinburgh care home and how The Lost Songs of St Kilda were found, recorded and eventually released as a best-selling album.

My involvement in the ‘Lost Songs’ began in 2005 when, after many years working in computers, I volunteered to help residents of old people’s homes in Edinburgh to use the Internet.

I met Trevor Morrison in Silverlea Care Home in Silverknowes as part of the ‘Moose in the Hoose’ project, which still runs today. John Sorley, my Moose partner, would visit the home every week.

Trevor was a real man of mystery, he had an enquiring mind so that every week we’d be asked to Google some obscure subject, often to do with religion, find an interesting article and print it out. Trevor would take it away and study it and the following week he would have another topic to investigate.

Trevor Morrison – at the Scottish Parliament

It was at one of those sessions in September 2006 Trevor asked ‘Can these things record music?’, ‘There are some melodies I’d like to get down’. Of course, but next week…

In those days it wasn’t so simple, but having downloaded some software and spent £3 on a microphone I turned up the following week with my laptop all ready.

Trevor spent the week secretly practising on the piano in the dining room at the home. The piano was quite old but had been recently retuned but unfortunately some of the notes still seemed to be not quite 100%.

He’d worked hard to remember the music. He recalled one night waking up in the small hours having remembered a few more notes. He searched around his room for a pen and paper, only found a pen and ended up writing the music score on his bedroom wall. There was a bit of finger wagging about it at the time but they forgave him.

We got organised, microphone down the back of the piano, Trevor all ready, I clicked record and off we went. Then I’d no idea what Trevor was playing, just that they were some of the most haunting melodies I’d ever heard.

Trevor explained how he’d been evacuated during the war from Glasgow to Kingarth in Bute. He attended the school there where his mother became the headmistress. His music teacher sat Trevor on his knee and placed hands on hands whilst he taught Trevor the music.

The Schoolhouse in Kingarth, now derelict

The music teacher, Trevor told me, was an evacuee from the islands of St Kilda. St Kilda is a small group of islands off the West coast of Scotland 40 miles to the west of the Outer Hebrides. They were inhabited for hundreds of years until 1930 when the islanders realised their numbers were dwindling and crops were failing. The final population of just 36 people requested to be evacuated back to mainland Scotland.

The music had apparently originated there and Trevor had remembered it for the past sixty years. Sadly, the music teacher’s name wasn’t on the list of St Kildan evacuees, but possibly he had passed on the music from someone that was.

Main Street on Hirta, St Kilda 2018

Are they authentic? I’ve no idea.  Since then musicologists specialising in Hebridean music have confirmed the music has the lilt and modes of Gaelic song. Fiona Mackenzie, an archivist on Canna, hears elements in the music that connects with other recorded fragments of St Kildan song gathered during the 20th century, some from St Kildans and also from people from the Outer Hebrides.

Apparently, they often imitated bird calls. Fiona also thinks that some of the repetitive parts, if speeded up could have been work songs. These were commonplace whilst waulking the tweed. As you may know, this is a traditional method of finishing woven wool on the Western Isles by thumping it to soften it. This after it’s been soaked in urine.

So, what of Trevor? He was reticent about his past but I have gleaned some nuggets of information.

He was born in Camlachie in Glasgow in 1939. He taught English at Gordonstoun public school back in the 1960s when Prince Charles was there. Sometime later he was teaching in Saudi, Iran, Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda. Trevor did mention to me his brushes with Idi Amin. Amin locked him up whilst he was a university lecturer in Kampala.

Looking through marriage records I found he was married in 1967 to Christine Macdonald who died in 2006 in Inverness aged 60. Trevor never mentioned her – or any other family.

He mentioned he’d lived in Glasgow in Barlanark and Easterhouse and also worked for the ‘Glasgow Citizen’ and the ‘East Kilbride News’ newspapers.

On with the story of the music. Having recorded the piano pieces, I made a few CDs so Trevor could hand them out to his pals. Trevor was pleased to finally have them recorded but I felt they should have a wider audience and asked Alan McCusker-Thompson, a good friend involved in the music industry, to help.

Alan brought an electronic keyboard into the home in 2008 so Trevor could make better recordings of his first four pieces and by then had remembered four more tunes to add to them. I produced CDs of the eight tunes so that Trevor could hand them out to his visitors.

Songs of St Kilda mark 1

I continued to visit Trevor in Silverlea Care Home and made more copies as he passed them around. Trevor was happy that the music had been recorded and, I don’t think, expected more.

Meanwhile Alan engaged a string quartet with the aim of rescoring the music hoping to get a commercial album together. They met Trevor in 2010 but didn’t get beyond the initial recording stage and any further development stopped.

Sadly, Trevor contracted pneumonia in 2012 and died on 12th December aged just 73. There were no known living relatives and so the home arranged Trevor’s funeral. I provided the humanist celebrant with as much as I knew about Trevor and the service was accompanied by Trevor’s recordings of the St Kildan tunes.

Later in 2014, I visited St Kilda on a National Trust for Scotland cruise. I took a few copies of the CD on board and Trevor’s music was played in the lounge of the ship as we approached the islands. It seemed a fitting tribute to take the music back and that is where I thought this story would end.

However, by a wonderful twist of fate, the cellist in the string quartet; Fiona Pope, landed a job with Decca records in their A and R department at the beginning of 2016. Not surprisingly they were captivated by the story and commissioned several established composers to re-orchestrate Trevor’s tunes.

From then, things moved very quickly. By May the album cover had been designed.

Lost Songs Album Cover

In August Decca started fixing up interviews ready for the album release on September 9th and I was thrust into the limelight on radio and TV. As you’d imagine it was quite surreal that the story had evolved from a £3 microphone recording to this.

Poignantly, it was exactly ten years to the day since that first recording I made in 2006 to the album release.

Decca did a fantastic job of presenting the eight original tunes involving Sir James Macmillan and the Scottish Festival Orchestra with orchestrations by Craig Armstrong, Christopher Duncan, Rebecca Dale and Francis MacDonald.

As you’d imagine, the album launch day on September 16th 2016 was quite an emotional time for me. Perhaps the highlight was hearing the music on Classic FM as I was driving in Edinburgh. John Suchet announced ‘Now I will play a piece of music that I guarantee you’ve never heard before’ and played one of Trevor’s remembered pieces that he’d learnt over 75 years before. I had to stop the car.

The album exceeded expectations, it went straight to the top of the classical album chart. It became the Classic FM album of the year and is now the fastest selling posthumous debut album EVER.

My favourite memento of the story is a screen grab I took from Amazon of the current best-selling album chart. The Lost Songs were second to Nick Cave, with the Beatles at number 4 and Led Zeppelin at 6.

Amazon Hit Parade

The reviews on Amazon still give it 4.5 stars out of 5, with 77% of people giving it 5 stars. It is such a shame that Trevor didn’t live long enough to enjoy the fame. I certainly miss him but he’s still capable of surprises.

In researching his life for Lost Songs talks I’m asked to do, I discovered he had lived in Camden where he was picked up ‘in a flashy limousine’ from his flat and driven to Clarence House to play for Her Majesty; The Queen Mother.

Rest in Peace Trevor.

Album available in record shops, Amazon and on YouTube.

The Lost Songs of St Kilda is copyright of Decca Records.

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