Stuart McKenzie was doing the Lord’s work—helping old people use computers. One day in late 2006, a care home resident named Trevor Morrision (who usually had Stuart print him articles from the internet) asked, “Can these things record music? There are some melodies I’d like to get down.”
Morrison sat down at a piano and played several pieces from memory. Ten years later, those recordings topped the Billboard classical charts.
After being evacuated from Glasgow during World War II, Morrison went to school on the small Hebridean island of Bute. His piano teacher, who taught him the tunes he’d later play into McKenzie’s cheap microphone, was from even further northwest: the tiny, remote archipelago of St. Kilda in the Outer Hebrides.
St. Kilda’s largest island, Hirta, has been home to humans for millennia. Between 1850 and 1927, however, the population dwindled from 112 to forty-three. In 1930, with another harsh winter approaching, the remaining islanders asked the government to relocate them. St. Kilda’s been uninhabited ever since, aside from one small military installation (because of course).
This story—long-lost folk songs from a tragically abandoned island serendipitously preserved by a volunteer’s good will and the muscle memory of an old man—captivated executives at Decca Records. In 2016, Decca released The Lost Songs of St. Kilda, which includes eight of Morrison’s tunes and six arrangements by contemporary Scottish composers. As audiences worldwide jumped to hear this “last remaining link” to St. Kilda’s legacy, it became the fastest-selling posthumous debut album in classical music history.
Here’s the problem. There’s no way to know if these songs are actually from St. Kilda. Morrison’s piano teacher has never been identified, and as Sarah R. MacKinnon and Michael Hannan point out, the tunes bear little resemblance to the jaunty, highly ornamented style of most Scottish folk music. Morrison’s teacher told him they were originally sung by islanders while hunting birds, but their meandering melodies and colorful chords sound like they were composed at a piano. And there had never been a piano on St. Kilda until Decca shipped one over to shoot a promotional video.
It’s not that hard to imagine: Morrison’s teacher noodles around at the piano, maybe or maybe not incorporating the sounds of his St. Kildan upbringing, and passes his improvisations off to Morrision as authentic—not to deceive him, but because it’s a darn good story. Or Morrision embellishes the story over the years, again not out of vanity but out of the unquenchable human desire to play in counterpoint with the past.
For MacKinnon and Hannan, that desire is the key to the album’s success. Audiences don’t want ethnomusicological accuracy, or there’d be a similar marketing frenzy around actual field recordings of St. Kildan songs. No, audiences want to experience the “mythscape” of St. Kilda—to feel transported not to St. Kilda’s actual past but to the mist-shrouded, timeless otherworld they imagine it to be. Morrison’s story, along with Decca’s marketing, satisfies that desire regardless of the music’s true origins.
In Francis Macdonald’s arrangement of the tune “Dùn,” Scottish singer Julie Fowlis recites a 1990 poem by Tormod Caimbeul, which is addressed to an evacuee from the islands:
Finlay MacDonald, before this summer night falls,
that place is to the west of us still; and still the
beautiful solan goose comes to Stac-a-Li and
Stac-an-Armin; and Boreray is craggy, dark
her shadows, rising high out of a threatening ocean.
And Levinish is there, as it has always been. The Dùn,
the bay, and the village that raised you.
A change has come on the streets you knew.
Despite the islanders’ departure, the islands of St. Kilda are still there, still beautiful, still alive. The poem doesn’t deny change or loss, but it does hold out hope that something—memory, maybe, or the habits of birds, or simply St. Kilda’s fixed place on the western edge of the world—can save St. Kilda from oblivion.
On the album, Decca named Morrison’s tunes after eight of St. Kilda’s islands, including all those named in Caimbeul’s poem. These pieces of music, like Boreray’s craggy shores, are supposed to be stable relics of St. Kilda’s past, assuring us that “that place is to the west of us still.”
But as much as we desperately want it to be, music is never a stable relic. The Lost Songs of St. Kilda, with its dubious authenticity and overzealous marketing, is an exceptionally clear illustration of this. But even the St. Kildan field recording I linked above is separated from its social context, filtered through a microphone, and obscured by its increasingly rare language. It can’t get us to the real St. Kilda either.
We look to music to transcend time, to turn it backward, to render it powerless against the things we dread to lose. But music, whose very being is time, is not so self-defeating.
Photo by Phil Thirkell (CC BY-SA 2.0).
Josh Parks graduated from Calvin in 2018 with a BA in English literature and violin performance, and he completed an MA program in medieval studies at Western Michigan University in 2020. He is currently a student at Princeton Theological Seminary, which means his plans to be in school forever are working out well. When not writing, he can be found playing violin, drinking coffee, making excruciating puns, and trying to learn Old French.
I really enjoyed reading this article.
It takes my mind to a far off place to dream and wish.
History is so fascinating for this reason. Does mere recording equal truth, in its entirety? More often it only captures a portion and we can’t really know. And it is in that knowing or lack of that longing is birthed. Music speaks well to that theme.
A well balanced piece, historical, musical, philosophical, societal, Josh.