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*The White Heather Club

Image of theatre poster

White Heather Group theatre poster
from the Edinburgh Empire 1960

The White Heather Club and Andy Stewart are, to many, inseparable. However the term 'White Heather', being a name synonymous with Scottish music, originated with Scottish tenor, "the voice of Scotland", Robert Wilson. He and his touring White Heather Group gave concerts in Scotland and overseas - playing to large audiences of expatriate Scots in the USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand in the 1950s and early 60s.

In 1957 BBC Scotland producer Iain MacFadyen, who had taken over the production of Andy's radio show 17 Sauchie Street, returned from the BBC's "Television" course in London (a course many radio producers took, allowing them to branch out into TV production) and produced his first television programme; the 1957 into '58 Hogmanay show. The following year Iain had the idea of developing the format into a new show, filming it in Glasgow and calling it The White Heather Club. This programme would be part of an initiative to make new programmes to fill an airtime slot where previously the BBC had closed down (6PM - 7PM).

The format Iain devised would be a half-hour televised céilidh, presented by Robert Wilson and featuring a resident troupe of Scottish Country Dancers and the best accordion bands of the day. It would be broadcast from studios in Springfield Road in Glasgow (formerly the Black Cat cinema) or alternatively Studio Three at Broadcasting House, Queen Margaret Drive. Andy Stewart had never even been thought of for a place in this show, as he was still known as an impressionist act. However, MacFadyen was having problems finding someone who could sing "Bothy Ballads", and happened to mention this to Andy one day...

"I auditioned in the Gents toilets at the BBC (you always sing well in a toilet, don't you?)... Now I know there are all these apocryphal stories like when you go for a part in a Western they say can you ride a horse and whether you've never seen a horse in your life - you say YES! But I in actual fact, with a great deal of voracity, said: Well I can sing some Bothy Ballads. He said: Sing one for me now!

Perhaps unsuitable for a Gents toilet, I sang a song called 'The Muckin' O' Geordie's Byre'... And my goodness me! There were people in cubicles who forgot what they went in for..."

So Andy was signed up to guest on the very first show scheduled for broadcast on the 7th May 1958, but as it happened Andy would actually present the first televised show too, although he was never meant to do so. Andy appeared with Robert Wilson on the first ever recording of The White Heather Club and performed two songs including 'The Muckin' O' Geordie's Byre':

"When I auditioned for the first 'White Heather Club' I did so as a singer of bothy songs and got the job on the strength of singing 'The Muckin' O' Geordie's Byre'.

When I'd sung it Robert Wilson, the host of the show said to me "Well Andy! I didn't think I'd ever hear 'The Muckin' O' Geordie's Byre' sung on TV" - "Why Not?" I replied "you publish it!"


A rare clip from the first recorded
White Heather Club which was never broadcast due to technical faults

However after the recording was completed, technicians realised that the show had been recorded on faulty film stock and was not of broadcast quality. By the time this was discovered Robert Wilson was appearing in Dublin and was unavailable for a re-shoot. Under pressure with only a few days until the broadcast date, BBC Scotland telephoned Andy who was now living in Edinburgh and asked if he would come back to Glasgow to re-record the show with him acting as host. He agreed and wrote his own script, sang some songs and presented the opening programme which was recorded live on Thursday May 2nd for transmission Tuesday the 7th. Pleased with the result the BBC promised Andy that if ever Robert Wilson gave up the job as host, the position was his. Duly, the next year, Wilson did leave and Andy took over - making the show his own - and hosting from 1959 until 1963.

For the first show Andy wore trousers. The next time he hired a kilt. Soon he was having them specially made to order. Andy Stewart's tartan-clad image became indelibly etched in the public's imagination and a life-long relationship with the kilt had begun.

The show was based on traditional Scottish songs - with the lowland tradition of Bothy Ballads in particular:

"They were ballads of the 19th and 18th centuries - and Burns. We became aware that we had an enormous heritage of traditional Scottish songs that people had never put on in theatres commercially before and The White Heather Club used these songs as the backbone of its material. We didn't sing any Harry Lauder songs for example. We broke away from all that and put onstage what had been regarded as totally non-commercial. The lyric gems of Scotland became our bible more or less."

Image of theatre poster

White Heather Group theatre poster
from the Glasgow Empire 1960

Regular performers on the show included the best in Scottish entertainment at the time such as: Joe Gordon, Jimmy Shand, Bobby MacLeod, Ian Powrie, Alistair McHarg, James Urquhart, Anne & Laura Brand and resident dancers Dixie Ingram and Isobel James. So popular was the show, that many stage versions were performed over the years with regular members Robert Wilson, Andy Stewart and Joe Gordon, interchanging as headline acts along with new additions adopted into the family such as Kenneth McKellar and Moira Anderson. Surprisingly the rigorous demands of weekly shows and stage performances did not seem to cause friction backstage as one may have imagined, rather the opposite was true and a family atmosphere was fostered.

Image of Dixie Ingram

Principal dancer Dixie Ingram

Dixie Ingram, principal male dancer on the show, became a "weel-kent" face in his own right through his lively, high-spirited dancing. The "family" element was again enhanced when Dixie married Dorothy Newbigging (Andy's wife's sister) in 1964. Dorothy had been one of Dixie's first ever partners at country dancing. Twice winner of the Scottish Highland Dancing Championship, Dixie would turn professional in 1962 and accompany Andy on many tours all around the world in the coming years.

At a 1991 reunion televised by the BBC (that Andy unfortunately was unable to attend due to ill-health) the camaraderie was still apparent and happy memories were quite obviously shared by all concerned. Andy too, had fond memories of fellow performers who became lifelong friends and of the fun they had backstage and whilst on tour.

Andy was replaced as host of The White Heather Club in 1963, and the programme was revamped as Robin Hall and Jimmy MacGregor took over as hosts of the new show which carried on until 1968. Lea Ashton, the show's Floor Manager for seven years re-called his thoughts on the show and its subsequent redesign: "In the beginning it was a great thing. As the years rolled on there was a tendency to keep it going because from the South of the border they kept on saying (when re-commissioning programmes): and of course we'll just have The White Heather Club... So that after six years or something I think we could have happily let it go."

As hard as it was to leave the show, Andy would have found it practically impossible to have continued as regular host with world-tours on the horizon, but he too, had some bitter-sweet memories regarding the changes to the programme he loved dearly and had made his own:

"It was never really the same. They did away with the Scottish Country Dance Bands and brought in the BBC orchestra.

I think that we could have continued. I have been involved in television shows whose formula, quite honestly, was based on The White Heather Club"

Andy was referring to the BBC Scottish Variety Orchestra who became a regular participant in the new shows following his departure, certainly one participant he never really approved of. Andy did in fact make some return appearances to The White Heather Club; one as presenter of the 13th July 1964 edition, broadcast as the official opening of the new BBC Studio A in Glasgow; and another as guest on the 200th edition on the 4th of August 1965. In late 1966 Andy returned to the show yet again as host for 14 weeks from the 21st of October 1966 to the 13th of January 1967. Curiously his return coincided with the disappearance of the Scottish Variety Orchestra from the show, never to reappear again!

Image of a reel of film

Of 285 editions of the programme
only six remain in the archives

Andy's association with The White Heather Club continued in the public psyche. His tour programmes continued to reference the show and in 1967 EMI released an LP record Andy Stewart & his friends of The White Heather Club. Without a doubt The White Heather Club was - and still is - considered Andy Stewart's show:

Scorned by many today as fabricated, sanitised tartan kitsch, it could be argued that it was already kitsch even then - but of course, those were less enlightened times. It is important to acknowledge then, just how popular the show was in its heyday. In the programme's early days the Broadcasting Council for Scotland voiced their concerns that the show was scheduled too early (6:20PM) to maximise its potential audience, however the show turned out to be a runaway success. In the 1950s television was still relatively new in Scotland and a weekly show as such: produced in Scotland, for Scottish audiences, quickly became a TV ritual.

"Immediately I was noticed, because television was very new to Scotland and everybody was glued to their telly set. As my agent said to me: It made you as well known as cornflakes. (I don't know why he had to put the corn into it?!)

I would say The White Heather Club and the stage presentation of the same thing was the most enjoyable period of my life in showbusiness."

The series had it's beginnings as a fortnightly show, but quickly became a weekly production. The programme had always been produced as an “opt-in, opt-out” programme for the wider BBC network, but from late 1961 due to the popularity of both the programme in Scotland and the growing popularity of its presenter on a wider stage, other regions began to "opt-in". The BBC found the show a cost-efficient way of filling half-an-hour of programming and began networking The White Heather Club across the whole of Britain. At its peak the show would pull in 10 million viewers and make Andy Stewart a household name in the UK.

In May of 1960 Andy performed on the show a new song he had written: A Scottish Soldier. BBC Scotland was besieged with letters from viewers asking for the song to be performed again the following week. This was the big breakthrough for Andy and the subsequent overwhelming success of that one song was to transform him into an international star.