Highlands & Islands

Lost songs of St Kilda brought back to life

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Media captionHow composer Sir James MacMillan used Trevor Morrison's composition as inspiration

Lost songs from the evacuated Hebridean archipelago of St Kilda have been discovered and brought to life on a new album featuring renowned composers including Sir James MacMillan.

It all began when Trevor Morrison sat down at the piano in Edinburgh's Silverlea Care Home 10 years ago and began to play.

The magic did not go unnoticed.

The tunes were simple, naive even, but memorable and with an extraordinary emotional depth.

As a 10-year-old child on the west coast island of Bute during World War Two, Trevor had been taught piano by a former resident of St Kilda.

His teacher had left the remote archipelago in the outer Hebrides when they were evacuated in 1930.

Somehow, a lifetime later and in failing health, Trevor managed to remember the tunes his teacher had shown him.

Stuart McKenzie, who had been volunteering in the care home, offered to record them.

"He played the most astonishing tunes. They were so different. Complicated, but simple," Mr McKenzie says.

"I went home, got my computer, downloaded a bit of software and went along to a local electrical store and paid £3 for a microphone we could put down the back of the piano for him. And away he went."

'Haunting' tunes

Trevor died in 2012, but the recordings eventually got passed on to Decca Records, which also saw the magic and commissioned a number of top composers to develop the tunes along with the Scottish Festival Orchestra.

The end result is a whole album entitled The Lost Songs of St Kilda, featuring some of Trevor Morrison's solo recordings in their pure form, others mixed in with orchestral arrangements and some completely new pieces inspired by the music.

Composer Sir James MacMillan is one of the contributors.

At his home overlooking the Firth of Clyde, James MacMillan can just about see the island of Bute where as a boy Trevor Morrison learned the songs.

"There's something very haunting about it," he says.

Image caption Sir James MacMillan is one of the composers who created a piece for the album

"What I decided to do was take Trevor Morrison's recording and play it alongside a sort of wrap-around effect from the string orchestra - making almost a kind of canon out of it."

Also recruited to create a piece was award-winning film composer Craig Armstrong.

He decided to use Trevor Morrison's recording as a basis for inspiring a new composition heavily influenced by Hebridean psalm singing.

Armstrong says: "In a lot of classical music people can tend to think that something that is very complicated is good and something that is very simple is not so interesting, but of course that's not really the case because these pieces I found quite deep and very emotional."

Image caption Trevor Morrison in 1995

Mr McKenzie says the 10-year journey from making a recording for an old man in a care home, to seeing the album come to fruition has been an amazing process.

He says: "It's a wonderful thing to be able to do and it certainly took a lot of pressure off Trevor trying to remember them. At the end of it he said he was so glad to have got them down so he could start thinking about other things."

The last permanent residents of St Kilda left the archipelago in 1930, but it remains an icon of a long-lost way of life and the islands have just celebrated their 30th anniversary of being a World Heritage Site.

Now - thanks to a care home volunteer armed with a computer and a £3 microphone, plus the remarkable memory of Trevor Morrison - there's one more link back to that long lost way of life.

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