Trains, Trossachs, Choirs and the Council: Neilston Parish Church’s First Organist

I have contributed an article about the first organist of Neilston Parish Church, to the Glasgow Society of Organists for the September issue of The Glasgow Diapason: Newsletter. It doesn’t really relate to my own musicological research, apart from its connection with amateur music-making in the West of Scotland in the late Victorian and Edwardian eras, but I thought I’d share it here as well, since I had a lot of fun writing it!

Trains, Trossachs, Choirs and the Council

Dr Karen E McAulay, Neilston Parish Church

Moving from an Allen organ in a post-war church, to Neilston’s historical tracker action instrument, I’m enjoying the new playing experience, and change of scenery getting there.  My research interests in Scottish music history mean I’m also intrigued by the church’s long past.  Although not everyone is enthralled by local history, I love finding out what mattered to people in their everyday lives, and I wondered what I could find out about the very first organist. As you’ll see, someone – the organist himself? – kept the local press well-informed about his activities.

Neilston Parish Church Organ

Neilston got its Conacher organ in 1888, when the church decided their three-year old harmonium wasn’t sufficiently supportive of congregational singing.  Two ladies of the congregation made generous donations, the balance being found by the rest of the congregation. The organist, master grocer Hugh Gibson Millar (1859-1932), had inaugurated the harmonium, and now led a ‘select choir’ in a grand Friday inaugural musical entertainment, accompanied by Mr Fraser of Queen’s Park Church.  The new organ occasioned a new pulpit being built, the old one banished to the manse!  (The old manse has been demolished, and the pulpit disposed of before living memory.  Maybe when the bachelor incumbent was promoted heavenward, his successor didn’t want this extra furniture.)

Neilston village had not only a flourishing church choir, but also a Tonic Sol-Fa Society.  (Despite classically-trained musicians regarding the sol-fa system disparagingly, it was undeniably the means of many working and not-so-working class singers learning to perform music, at home or in a choir, from the late 19th century well into the 20th.)  Some people were in both, causing problems when the same day was double-booked for a concert in December 1888.  There was a flurry of angry “letters to the Editor” about this, with Neilston Parish Church Musical Association wading into the fray!

Millar was the son of a Kilmarnock shoemaker.  Marrying in Kilmarnock, he lived and worked as a grocer in Glasgow for a couple of years, but they moved to Gertrude Place in Barrhead sometime between 1881-1883.  By 1896, he had shops in Barrhead and Neilston, and the following year he was advertising for a boy to work in an ironmonger’s shop.

Ambitious and undoubtedly talented, he got a Mus. Bac. from the University of Trinity College, Toronto in 1896.  This external qualification (early distance learning?!) was discontinued in 1897, and the University merged with the University of Toronto not long after. By the 1920s, degrees like his were dismissed as bogus by many. Nonetheless, the press reported significant exam successes by his pupils. (Millar’s degree was reported by the press in connection with any musical activity, but not with his trade.)  The year he got his degree, one of his female pupils excelled in practical and ‘Musical Knowledge’ exams with Trinity College London, whilst in 1901 Robert Craig of Barrhead got top marks in Musical Knowledge, and was reported as studying organ, harmony, counterpoint and music history with Millar. 

The newspaper reported a Christmas service led by Millar and the choir in 1898, including what was performed.  The choral items later appear in the United Free Church of Scotland Anthem Book (1909), clearly popular choices.

  • Smith, R. A., How beautiful upon the mountains,
  • [Elvey or Hopkins] Arise, shine, for Thy light is come
  • Hatton, J. L., Let us now go even unto Bethlehem
  • Batiste, Édouard,  Angelic voices [organ]
  • Handel, G. F., March in Scipio [organ]

Choir outings were popular in the two decades before the Great War. (You have only to look at eBay listings for choir trip postcards!)  The Barrhead News reported an outstandingly successful choir outing by train to Callander and the Trossachs, led by Millar ­­and the Revd. Robert Barr in June 1899.  They had a great time, with unspecified high jinks in the railway tunnel between Queen Street and Cowlairs; a picnic by the banks of Loch Katrine, provided by the young ladies of the choir; and singing and violin playing on the way home, arriving back at 11pm.  An evening party on another occasion seems to have ended after midnight!  Being in a church choir plainly enhanced one’s social life.

Within a month, though, he was moving to play a Willis organ at Clark Memorial Church in Largs – reported as a step up, with a good organ and a better salary.  Indeed, his census return in 1901 finds him living in a fine terraced house with a sea view on Aubery Crescent, Largs with his wife and thirteen-year old Andrew.  Millar was described as an organist – not a grocer – and Andrew as an organist’s apprentice. Hugh and Sarah’s two older boys had clerking jobs, and were apparently staying with an ironmonger’s family back in Gertrude Place. The Millars seems to have had homes in both Largs and Barrhead from then on, as later confirmed by his death certificate. 

He was barely at Clark Memorial two years, when the Barrhead News announced in September 1902 that he had left, and was resuming music teaching in Barrhead.  His home, ‘Hughenden’ in Gertrude Place, by now had a Conacher organ of its own, available to pupils for practising; there’s no further mention of being a church organist. 

1903 saw him becoming local secretary for an examination board called the International Music College, a one-man concern run by a music-teaching organist in London.  Millar also made enquiries about the water supply for a water-powered chamber organ – another domestic instrument, or was he moving the Gertrude Place instrument? – in a house he proposed to build on Neilston Road.  Described again as a grocer, 1904 saw him standing for election as a councillor in Barrhead. The following year, Councillor Millar, Mus. Bac., FRSM, did have all his qualifications reported!  In time he became a bailie, and finally, Provost. 

Millar died in 1932, in Aubery Crescent, Largs, but his death certificate gave his usual residence as ‘Sandringham’, Paisley Road, Barrhead.  The Scotsman published his obituary:- ‘Hugh G. Millar carried on business in Barrhead, was a member of the Town Council for about 25 years, and served two terms in the civic chair. He also represented the burgh on Renfrewshire County Council for a long period. He had a residence in Largs for 30 years, and took a keen interest in local municipal affairs, being Chairman of the North Ward Ratepayers Committee.  The ex-Provost, who was 73 years of age, is survived by a widow and three sons.’

A man of many talents, he seems to have had a comfortable, varied and interesting life.  His shoemaker father would never have guessed that his tradesman son would end up probably the first Barrhead provost with a music degree, a diploma, two homes and his own chamber organ!