“I auditioned for The White Heather Club in the gents toilet at the BBC. Perhaps inappropriately I sang ‘The Muckin’ O’ Geordie’s Byre’!”
The White Heather Club
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!”
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 White Heather Club Andy wore a suit. The next time he hired a kilt. Soon he was having them specially made to order. This was a defining moment in Andy’s career – and in his life.
Blow Blow My Kilt Awa’
At this point it is interesting to ponder upon what would have been Andy’s career path had The White Heather Club not come along. Was he blessed by the kilt, or pigeonholed by it?
Would his career have continued in radio and TV as a comedian? Would he have branched out into television situation comedies, given his ability to roundly portray characters? Would he have had eventually been able to get a toe-hold into movies? As John Cairney pointed out more than once in his opinion, Andy was first and foremost an actor. Whatever “part” he was given he acted out consummately.
The then newly emerging role of television ‘game show host’ also comes to mind as well. Andy was young, energetic, had a natural rapport with the public – and he was “quick”. To be able to cope with the multiple assaults on the senses of a host of a live TV game show; he already had all the necessary qualities.
But now however the die was cast. Andy Stewart had started down the road as a “professional Scotsman”, his tartan-clad image became indelibly etched in the public’s imagination, and a life-long relationship with the kilt had begun.
Several Scottish entertainers (who will remain unnamed) finding fame around the same time as Andy postured that they were glad they had avoided, or had made a concerted effort to avoid, the kilt. These artists had no wish to embrace what they saw as a trap, holding back their progress in the world of show business. However, it can be argued that these same entertainers never achieved the same level of success that Andy Stewart did.
That’s The Reason Noo I Wear The Kilt
The White Heather Club 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.”
The White Heather Club
Presenting three vintage editions from:
10th October 1960,
31st May 1960,
2nd June 1959.
Happy We’ve Been All Together
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 adoptions into the family such as established star Kenneth McKellar or new discoveries like 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.
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.
The White Heather Club (1991 Reunion)
Join Andy Stewart, Jimmy Shand, Joe Gordon and many more familiar faces for a trip down memory lane. Here some of the original performers get together for a nostalgic reunion to look back on the glory days of this abiding piece of Scottish television history.
Joe Gordon enjoyed a career in show business that spanned half a century. Joe starred alongside Andy on the very first White Heather Club and was also present at his final performance at the Usher Hall in Edinburgh.
Joe put his first harmonica trio together while doing national service in the RAF, then joined the Black Diamonds skiffle group before going solo as a jazz singer and guitarist. BBC Scotland producer Iain MacFadyen encouraged Joe to form the Joe Gordon Folk Four in the 1950s and their upbeat approach gave a new lease of life to old Scots favourites such as The Bonnie Lass O’ Fyvie, and Ma Big Kilmarnock Bunnet leading to regular appearances in the Scottish Top 20 charts in the 1960s.
Sally Logan was an established stage singer before she and Joe married and teamed up as a duo in 1966. Together they went on to make more than 400 television appearances singing country flavoured songs as well as Scottish material. They performed in the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Germany, Italy, Turkey, Greece, Russia and across Scotland under the title An Evening with Joe Gordon and Sally Logan as well as an annual sell-out concert at Kilmarnock’s Palace Theatre.
“When Sally and I bought our country inn in Auchenblae, Andy came and did our Burn’s Supper for three years. He could have been anywhere else in the world! We never had to advertise after Andy’s first appearance… we had waiting lists three times the capacity of our room! Who could have foreseen that our Scott would play in Andy’s last season!”
Joe also had an alternative career as a Hypnotherapist having his own private practice in Ayrshire, he also recorded CDs to help with anxiety, weight loss and giving up smoking and he had a regular phone-in spot on West Sound Radio.
Joe never lost his interest in jazz – his last recordings were of ragtime banjo music – and he performed at the Edinburgh International Jazz Festival for 10 years.
Ring Out The Old, Ring In The New
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 20th of January 1967. Curiously his return coincided with the disappearance of the Scottish Variety Orchestra from the show, never to reappear again!
Even though Andy left the show in 1963, such was his impact that his 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.
“Right up to 1970, people would come up to me and say: “I watch you on The White Heather Club every week Andy.”
I didn’t have the heart to tell them they must be hallucinating.”
- Joe Gordon: “I think you can safely say, without Andy Stewart there wouldn’t have been a White Heather Club. Andy’s talent and his versatility and his monologues – and his sheer force of personality – kept the thing going.”
- Lea Ashton (Floor Manager): “He brought the show right up to star quality – we already had that – but he helped no end.”
- Isobel James (Solo Dancer): “He held the whole thing together. He was so talented, and a young boy. He had everything going for him.”
- Jimmy Shand: “He was lively; bright…”
- Ian Powrie: “Andy Stewart was The White Heather Club show.”
The 6.20 Two Step
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 show business”
The series had its beginnings as a fortnightly show, but quickly became a weekly production. The show was largely broadcast live which could lead to some moments that would test the nerves of BBC production staff, particularly on the occasions when broadcasting was done from Studio Three at Queen Margaret Drive.
Whilst the main venue of Springfield Road was a sizeable one, Studio Three was less so. There would be no room for the regular audience of 60 and solo dancers would replace the resident troupe. Adding to the pressure was that the live News In Scotland was broadcast from the same studio and immediately preceded The White Heather Club. Unknown to the viewers, whilst the important news of the day was being relayed to the Scottish nation, Jimmy Shand and his Band or the Joe Gordon Folk Four were huddling just a few feet out of range of the cameras! After newsreader Alastair MacIntyre had wished the viewers a good evening, only a matter of seconds was available for floor staff to physically move the news desk to the side of the studio whilst the boys in the band got ready to strike up.
Come In, Come In
The programme had always been produced as an “opt-in, opt-out” programme for BBC regions. In Scotland over one-third of the total population were regular viewers and aware of the popularity of the programme in Scotland and noting the growing popularity of its presenter on a wider stage, more regions began to show interest. The BBC realising that the show could be a cost-efficient way of filling half-an-hour of programming began networking The White Heather Club across the whole of Britain from 20th April 1961. At its peak the show would pull in 10 million viewers and make Andy Stewart a household name in the UK.
Many TV viewers (ofttimes the most credulous of people) believed that there was an actual, physical, White Heather Club and addressed letters requesting favourite songs or tunes to be performed simply to “The White Heather Club, Scotland” – in the same way as children post letters to “Santa Claus, The North Pole”. Equally in the same way, the postal service would correctly funnel them to an appropriate address, in this case the BBC offices in Glasgow. In May of 1960 Andy performed on the show a new song he had written: A Scottish Soldier. BBC Scotland was besieged with viewer letters asking for the song to be performed again the following week. This would lead to the big breakthrough for Andy and the subsequent overwhelming success of that one song was to transform him into an international star.