Hamish MacCunn was born in Greenock on 22 March 1868, the second son of James MacCunn, a wealthy shipping merchant and shipbuilder. From an early age he showed musical promise and composed simple melodies at only five years old, and started work on an oratorio when only twelve years old.
Hamish was educated at Greenock Academy, the Kilblain Academy, and Graham’s Collegiate School. At fifteen years old, Hamish won a scholarship to the newly created Royal College of Music in London. He studied at the Royal College of Music in London, under Sir Hubert Parry
He held the scholarship for four years and while he was there was brought to the public eye by Sir August Manus producing his first overture ‘Cior Mhor’ at the Crystal Palace on 5 November 1887, conducted by August Manns and this was an immediate success. George Bernard Shaw called it “a charming Scotch overture that carries you over the hill and far away”. This was followed two years later by the overture ‘Land of the Mountain and the Flood’ which laid the solid foundation of his reputation, and is perhaps his best know work.
Hamish wrote a number of orchestral and choral works including Lord Ullin’s Daughter, Lay of the Last Minstrel, The Ship o’ the Fiend, the Bonny Kilmeny, and the Dowie Dens of Yarrow.
His sense of drama soon turned his attention to opera. Receiving a commission from the Carl Rosa Opera Company he completed “Jeanie Deans” in 1894, to a text based on Scott’s “Heart of Midlothian” –
O Caledonia! stern and wild,
Meet nurse for a poetic child!
Land of brown heath and shaggy wood,
Land of the mountain and the flood
His second opera “Diarmid” enjoyed a certain amount of success but both operas lacked the staying power essential for survival. The production of his operas established Hamish’s reputation as an able conductor, and he directed first or early performances of the early Wagner operas.
His conducting activities increased and he became an associate of Sir Thomas Beecham but his output as a composer decreased. He was eventually forced to retire due to ill health and died in London aged 48 on 2nd August 1916. Hamish had the reputation of a “national” composer and while his works are not so widely known these days, he is described as the most ‘Scottish’ of all Scottish composers”.
In 1968, to mark the centenary of his birth, the BBC gave special performances of his works including “Jeanie Deans”, and his best loved work “Land of the Mountain and the Flood” is a real tour-de-force which is still played today throughout the world, and later became better known as the theme tune of the television series “Sutherland’s Law”.