Fifty years, the name Columban Singers has been synonymous with Choral music in Kilsyth and throughout West Central Scotland and far beyond, but when and where lie the origins of the Choir?
Kilsyth, like so many other small towns in the Central Lowlands of Scotland, was at one time heavily dependent upon the coal industry with very little alternative occupations available which did not incur travelling to the larger towns and cities to the East and West.
As was common in the first half of the 20th century, there was very little in the way of entertainment available other than the local cinema or a night at the dancing. This encouraged people to make their own enjoyment and one of the methods used was to form an alliance, in many cases associated with some religious group, where they could meet and find ways to help themselves and others too in a convivial environment.
During the bleak winter months of 1949, a group of these men, drawn from a wide range of employment and all of whom were members of a local church organisation called The Knights of St Columba in Kilsyth, decided to follow the lead of hundreds of other working men and form a Choir. Within the ranks of the members was local school teacher Pat Docherty who agreed to act as Conductor and he swiftly organised the men into the four sections of a Male Voice Choir and the first rehearsal took place on 5th February 1950.
The initial practices were less than satisfactory due to the inability of the Conductor to attend regularly because of failing health. Eventually, Mr Docherty intimated it would be better if another Conductor could take over the guidance of the choristers and, by the greatest stroke of good luck, the man of the hour was to hand.
As fate would have it, one of the Founder Members of the Columban Singers was James Turley who, in addition to his very busy full time occupation, was also a musician of no mean repute in his spare time.
James willingly accepted the onerous task of literally teaching music to the choir members as well as moulding their voices - in the standard four part harmony of Male Voice Choirs into some astounding renditions of some of the classic arrangements of choral work.
The initial choral arrangements tackled included: The Border Ballad, The Battle Hymn of the Republic, Oft in the Stilly Night, The Long Day Closes, Comrades in Arms, The Farmers Boy, Stars of the Summer Night and The Lincolnshire Poacher. All good rousing Male Voice arrangements which were enjoyed both by the members and audiences too.
Entry to numerous Festivals of Music was embarked upon under the guidance of Mr Turley and not a little success was achieved in these competitions. One of the highlights of the many Festivals was the participation in the Glasgow Music Festival of 1962 when the Choir emerged victorious with 173 points from a possible 200. What made this victory all the more praiseworthy was that the opposition included none other than the renowned City of Glasgow Police Choir. To edge out this marvellous Choir was indeed an achievement.
In early 1970, more than 20 years after taking the helm, ill-health prompted Mr Turley to reluctantly tender his resignation as Conductor and, although he agreed a short time later to return in the much less onerous position of sub Conductor, sadly he was unable to fulfil this wish.
The need for a musically talented replacement saw the Committee reach a unanimous decision to ask Mr James Robertson to come to the rescue and fortunately he responded positively to the request. An experienced musician and arranger, Mr Robertson had arranged some numbers previously for the Choir. He also led a close harmony group called The Four Sharps which performed on stage and radio on a regular basis at that time.
The new era which dawned in 1970 with Mr Robertson taking over as Conductor heralded a departure from the previous concentration on traditional choral numbers to songs in a much lighter vein more suited to the new direction the Choir moved in. Included was the lovely Autumn Leaves, Born Free, I Cant stop Loving You and many, many more, all of them arranged personally by Mr Robertson.
In season 1971/72, the Choir was most fortunate to obtain the services of a talented young lady called Mrs Margaret Waddell to act as accompanist and her expert playing was, and still is, an integral part of the sound of the Columban Singers.
A memorable occasion for the members was being part of the 1000 voice choir at Bellahouston Park in Glasgow during the visit of the Pope to Scotland in 1982.The choir thought this a great privilage as the membership has men from all religious denominations in the area.
James Robertson died very suddenly and unexpectedly in February 1999 having served as Conductor of the Choir for 30 years. His passing posed another dilemma in that a new Conductor had to be found to ensure the continuance of the Choir.
As the season had almost ended, it was decided that sub Conductor Harry Dempsey be asked to stand in whilst efforts were made to acquire a suitable replacement for Mr Robertson.
During the close season, information was received of someone who might meet the needs of the Choir and a meeting was arranged with Mr James G McColl. An agreement was reached that Mr McColl would work with the Choir for a short period to enable him to assess the potential of the Choir and also to allow the members to ascertain if he would meet with their expectations.
Mr McColls musical experience began when he was a young schoolboy in his native city of Glasgow and blossomed when and he was fortunate enough to join the Army as a young bands-man.
Making good use of the expert quality tuition, ample resources and guidance available in the forces, allied to some long evenings of swatting and not a few hours practice, he swiftly gained the promotion he deserved. Following tours of duty in far off exotic places where he conducted Choirs, Bands and Orchestras, he eventually returned to command the musicians of The Life Guards who were stationed in Windsor and has had the privilege of conducting the Band when providing entertainment for Her Majesty. He acted as Musical Director for the prestigious Edinburgh Military Tattoo for three years.
Eventually, having risen to the rank of Major, he left HM Forces and returned to Civvy Street where he swiftly found a position suitable to one with his knowledge and experience, providing expert tuition to school children.
Happily, the result of the deliberations of Mr McColl and the Choir members as to the suitability of him for us and us for him proved to be satisfactory and in October 1999, he agreed to become the Conductor of the Columban Singers. Traditional choral music is again gradually being introduced to the repertoire and this, with the evergreen arrangements of James Robertson still available, provides a much wider spectrum. The members looked forward eagerly to participation in the Glasgow Festival of Music in March 2001, marking a return to this type of competition for the first time in almost 30 years.and have since competed for the next two years and this year in March.20004