The Scottish tenor, Kenneth McKellar, was born at Paisley, where his father owned a grocery shop. Although there were no musicians in the family, Kenneth's father and uncles sang in the High Kirk and his parents would often listen to opera on the gramophone. The boy grew up listening to the voices of singers such as Peter Dawson, Paul Robeson and Richard Tauber and recalled being taken to a concert at St Andrew's Hall in Glasgow to hear the great Italian tenor Beniamino Gigli. Kenneth was soon entertaining family friends by impersonating his favourite singers. But his greatest pleasure in his early years was exploring the Scottish Highlands. The depletion of Scotland's forest reserves during the World War II left him with a burning desire to help restore them, and after leaving the John Neilson school, Paisley, he took a Science degree from Aberdeen University and joined the Scottish Forestry Commission. Over the next two years he took part in a research and survey programme on the woodlands of the British Isles, travelling by horseback up and down the Scottish countryside.
At university, Kenneth McKellar had joined the student choir. The university's director of music was so impressed that he gave him lessons, and McKellar went on to sing solo roles with the university choir in, among other works, Mozart's Requiem, J.S. Bach's B Minor Mass (BWV 232) and The Messiah. He first came to public notice in 1947 through a broadcast with the BBC in Glasgow when he sang the main tenor role in the ballad opera The Gentle Shepherd, by the early 18th-century Scottish poet Allan Ramsay, with music arranged by Cedric Thorpe Davie.
After a couple of years with the Forestry Commission, Kenneth McKellar decided to devote himself to music. He gained a top scholarship to the Royal College of Music (RCM) in London, where he won the Henry Leslie singing prize. Among his contemporaries were Joan Sutherland and the future founder of Scottish Opera, Alex Gibson. His recording career began while he was still at the RCM. It happened that he needed to have his tonsils out, and a friend suggested, jokingly, that in case the surgeon's scalpel slipped, he should cut a recording for posterity. He went along to HMV and sang Roger Quilter's O Mistress Mine and a few Scottish ballads. HMV sent the recording to Parlophone, which immediately gave him a recording contract. He recorded eight sides of songs and ballads on 78 rpm’s.
After graduating from the RCM, Kenneth McKellar joined the Carl Rosa Opera Company. He expected to be assigned to the chorus but, during his audition, was asked to sing the opening aria from The Barber of Seville. He was immediately offered a principal tenor's contract at £15 a week and was so pleased that he got married and bought a car. He toured with the company for two seasons but did not like the life of an opera singer, and in 1954 left them to pursue a career singing traditional Scottish songs and other works. When Alex Gibson asked him to join his new Scottish Opera he refused, although in 1965 he was persuaded by Benjamin Britten to sing the part of McHeath in a production of The Beggar's Opera with the English Opera group at the Aldeburgh Festival and in Paris.
Kenneth McKellar's interest in the Scottish folk tradition had been stimulated during his time with the Forestry Commission by his friendship with an elderly landlady with whom he had lodged at 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.'" He began to attend Gaelic classes at night and learned the songs of the Hebrides.
During the 1950’s Kenneth McKellar became well-known in Scotland through radio, singing Scottish songs, light opera and popular songs on his own series, A Song For Everyone, for the BBC. At the same time, he began trying his hand as a songwriter and was responsible for such ballads as The Tartan, which has been covered by some 40 artists; The Royal Mile, which was heard by more than four million people during the televised opening of the 1986 Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh; and for comedy items such as The Midges ("With teeth like piranhas, they drive you bananas... "). In 1964, he toured New Zealand. On many occasions in the 1960’s and 1970’s he appeared on the BBC Television Hogmanay celebration programme, alongside Jimmy Shand and Andy Stewart.
In 1966 Kenneth McKellar was chosen to represent Britain in the Eurovision Song Contest, singing A Man Without Love. It was not a happy experience. Despite widespread predictions that he would win, he was placed ninth, a result he attributed to the fact that the Scandinavian nations had "made a mockery of the whole contest" by voting for each other.
In 1954 Kenneth McKellar signed with the Decca record company. The majority of his recordings were done for this label. Over a period of 25 years he recorded some 45 LP’s, ranging from oratorio to Burns songs, achieving massive sales all over the world. His albums of the songs of Robert Burns are considered by musicologists to be definitive interpretations. He also recorded several classical works, including George Frideric Handel's Messiah alongside Joan Sutherland in a performance conducted by Sir Adrian Boult. This recording became one of Decca's best-sellers, and his Decca 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."
Kenneth McKellar became familiar to English television viewers courtesy of the BBC and The White Heather Club, a hugely popular Scottish country dance and music show which ran from 1958 to 1968 and, at its peak, drew an audience of 10 million. The White Heather Club (described unkindly by Tom Nairn as "a huge self-contained universe of Kitsch") featured stars such as Andy Stewart, swathed in lace and tartan, singing Donald Where's Your Troosers? and McKellar with poignant renderings of Song of the Clyde, Bonnie lass o' Ballochmyle and other stirring numbers.
McKellar produced a book, The Romantic Scotland of Kenneth McKellar, and in the late 1960’s contributed scripts to Monty Python. He retired from performing in 1997.
Kenneth McKellar held trusteeships in various education, health and arts organisations helping to promote Scottish talent and was honorary president and life member of most of the principal Burns societies around the world. But his Scottish nationalism was always outward-looking, and he was opposed to the creation of a Scottish parliament. "In musical terms," he said, "I have represented Scotland throughout the world for some 50 years and feel I have an obligation towards her welfare."
Kenneth McKellar's Swiss-born wife, Hedy, whom he married in 1953, died in 1990. McKellar died of pancreatic cancer, at the age of 82, at his daughter's home near Lake Tahoe in the USA, on 9 April 2010. He is survived by a son and a daughter.
That McKellar never became a big name on the operatic or concert circuit was principally because he lacked the ambition. For most of his life he was content singing and broadcasting in his native Scotland, where he was best known for his renditions of popular and traditional Scottish songs. However, he was and among the most popular of Scotland's singers, recording both classical and popular music.