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Significant Scots
Hugh Stevenson Roberton

The Two Great Scots

Father and Son both named - Hugh Stevenson Roberton

Sir Hugh Stevenson Roberton
Conductor of The Glasgow Orpheus Choir (1906-1951)

Hugh Stevenson Roberton was born at 10.40 a.m. on the 23rd of February, 1874 in 2 Hallcroft Place, Tradeston, Glasgow, to James Roberton (Funeral Undertaker and Carriage Hirer) and Mary Sim, who had married in Glasgow on the 22nd June, 1860. By 1891, aged 17 years, and living with his parents and siblings at 60 Abbotsford Place in the civil parish of Govan, Glasgow, he was serving as an assistant in the family undertaking and carriage hiring business.

On his marriage to Joan MacGillivray, daughter of Police Constable, Malcolm MacGillivray and Isabella McBean, on the 4th of June, 1895 within 16 Cumberland Street, Gorbals, Glasgow, Hugh had become manager of the family enterprise. They had a number of children before 1907, during which year, not only did Hugh’s wife Joan die of pneumonia on the 25th of March, aged 34 years, but also did his mother, Mary Sim of influenza on the 2nd of April, aged 77 years. Hugh’s father James, suffering from bronchitis, had predeceased both Mary and Joan on the 20th May, 1905, aged 85 years.

However, the plight of the motherless family was eased when Hugh re-married on the 25th of November, 1909 in 271 Eglinton Street, Gorbals, Glasgow. His new wife was his then housekeeper at 952 Pollokshaws Road, a qualified nurse, Ellen Jane Birkmyre, daughter of Hugh’s assistant undertaker, and former fisherman of Tongland Village, Kirkcudbright, John Birkmyre, and Margaret McGill. Ellen Jane had been born in Tongland on the 23rd of November, 1881.

Hugh and Ellen (later to be listed in official documents as ’Helen’) had at least one child, and he was born and named Kenneth Bantock Roberton in 1913. To those who have some knowledge of famous musicians, this naming was clearly a tribute to Hugh’s friend, fellow choir adjudicator and famous composer, Sir Granville Bantock (1868-1946), whose father had been the eminent physician Sir George Granville Bantock, M.D., F.R.C.S.Ed., born 1837 in Golspie, Sutherland, died 1913!

This musical context conveniently suggests at this point in a brief biography of Hugh Stevenson Roberton that the reader should be moved away from genealogy and business to other matters – namely - the Glasgow Orpheus Choir, its development, recognition and eventual world-wide acclaim.

The book that supplies such information and entertainment is ‘ORPHEUS with his lute – A Glasgow Orpheus Choir Anthology’ …. Selected and Edited by Hugh S. Roberton and Kenneth Roberton, 1963, Pergamon Press Ltd. and J, Curwen and Sons, Ltd. Although this book is still under copyright, it is here assumed, for the purposes of non-profit-making historical research, that the normal academic allowance for short quotations is permitted.

In 1962, Kenneth Bantock Roberton writes …

‘Under its own name, the Glasgow Orpheus Choir held the stage from 1906 to 1951. However, it had five years of pre-Orpheus existence under the conductorship of Hugh S. Roberton, as the Toynbee Musical Association. …… The Glasgow Orpheus Choir was a product of an era, of a place, and of a man. The era was the first half of the twentieth century, a restless period of questioning and revaluation in many fields; the place Glasgow, where Highland and Lowland Scot mingled with lrish Celt to form a tightly-enclosed, self-assertive community, laughter-loving but serious at heart, idealistic and highly articulate; the man Hugh S. Roberton, born in the city in 1874, the choir’s founder and conductor, pioneer of a new choralism and life-long exponent of the New Jerusalem. A different alchemy might have produced a choir of equivalent achievement and fame, but not one with the distinctive character which gave the Orpheus so wide a following and made it, as well as a musical phenomenon, the people’s choir and choristers’ choir par excellence.’

From what I, the writer here, listened to as a boy – the Orpheus Choir on the wireless, or in the concert hall – what I heard my elders, lay people and other choristers, say of Sir Hugh and his Choir – what I read about him and the choir in the newspapers – and what I learned later from the aforementioned book …. I feel able to write the following tribute ….

‘Sir Hugh Stevenson Roberton was a great and personable Glaswegian. He was strong-willed, self-reliant, mostly self-educated, poised, warm of heart, amiable, and sociable. He hated pretentiousness, social, artistic, or academic; he was out-spoken and uncompromising in active support of what he held to be true. Above all he had inimitable musical talent.

He was an all-rounder – in music - he was a sensitive teacher, an insightful composer, a fair critic; - with the written word - he was an entertaining poet, playwright, and essayist ; - with the spoken word - he was a fine lecturer and public speaker; - in his life-style - he was a willing guide, deep thinker, and ever a promoter of young folks’ worthwhile dreams of high achievement; - to the world audience – he was ‘Roberton of the Orpheus’.

As an choral interpreter he always had major challenges to face. Before he could offer the world a note of the music lying within his heart and soul, he had to nurture and understand his own talents. He had to find potential song-birds; he had to weed-out those unsuited to his purpose, and then, over lengthy periods of time, he had to continually mould and re-mould those remaining into the forms of musical expositors who would meet his choral ideals. Thus by fertilising the essence of his music with the subtleties of poetry, he caused choir singing as art to bud and flower as never before.

So, I gradually came to understand why in 1931, Hugh Stevenson Roberton had been named in the New Year’s Honours’ List of those whom the King had been delighted to knight. Typical of the man, Sir Hugh not only saw it as an honour to himself, but also to all those privileged to be, or to have been, members of the Orpheus Choir …. to Glasgow, and …. to Scotland.’

Compiled by John Henderson

When increasing ill-health forced Sir Hugh to retire from being conductor of the choir in 1951, its members unanimously decided to disband the Glasgow Orpheus Choir…. and most people understood why! The ‘Glasgow Orpheus Choir’ was ‘Sir Hugh Stevenson Roberton’ … no Sir Hugh … no Orpheus Choir!

Sir Hugh, aged 78 years, died at 3.25 p.m. on the 7th of October, 1952, in his home in Cathcart, Glasgow, and music lovers world-wide greatly mourned his passing.
Lady Helen (Birkmyre) Roberton died in Cathcart, Glasgow, in 1965 aged 83 years.


Hugh Stevenson Roberton Jnr.
(1900 - 1987)
Hugh Stevenson Roberton Jnr. was born at 6.30 a.m. on the 18th of December, 1900 in 271 Eglinton Street, Gorbals, Glasgow to Hugh Stevenson Roberton (Funeral Undertaker) and Joan MacGillivray, who had married on the 4th of June, 1895 within 16 Cumberland Street, Gorbals, Glasgow.

It is learned from the records of emigration by sea from British Ports that on the 25th of January, 1922, Hugh Stevenson Roberton (Student) left his home at 10 Camphill Drive, Queens Park, Glasgow, Scotland and boarded the 7928 ton P. & O. Branch Service Ship BALLARAT in London bound for Sydney Australia.

Abstracted from – ‘A History of Marrar and District, NSW, Australia,1979’
Researched and Compiled by Mr Alby Armstrong
Edited for accuracy by JH

“He came among us, the people of Marrar, N.S.W., Australia, a humble young man, and during a span of forty years with us he rose to great heights, and when he left us, he was still humble to his fellow men. His full name was Hugh Stevenson Roberton, but mention the name 'Scotty' and every man woman and child knew who was referred to.

He first saw the light of day in the Gorbals, Glasgow, Scotland on 18th December, 1900, the son of Sir Hugh S. Roberton and Miss Joan MacGillivray. Remember the catchy tune, 'I Know Where I'm Going, and I Know Who's Going With Me'. Also the film of the same name. The voices and music was by the Glasgow Orpheus Choir, conducted by Sir Hugh Roberton. Hugh Roberton Junior was educated at West of Scotland Agricultural College and Glasgow University.

The call of the land was always in his blood and the distant horizons of Australia continued to beckon him until the call was irresistible. He arrived in Australia in 1922 and sought work as a jackeroo on stations in the Riverina. From jackeroo he graduated to shearer and at one time shore on Buckarginga Station near Henty. After a solid grounding in Australian conditions he was able to put together a small farming plant and began share farming on Murrulebale Station. It was the custom then for a farmer to harvest his own wheat and then cart it to the nearest railhead. How well I remember the young Scot, his dirty face streaked with sweat stains as he trudged along beside his team and wagon load of wheat enroute to Marrar. The red and white skewbald horse with saddle and bridle attached, tied to the rear of the wagon completed the team. He was a successful farmer and his hard work was rewarded with prosperity.

In 1924 he married Marjorie Wyllie a Sydney girl, whose father was Commodore of the Huddart Parker Shipping Line. From this time on, the Robertons worked as a team and much of his success came from the loyal support given to him by Marjorie Roberton over a period of more than forty years.

He was elected to Coolarnon Shire Council in 1932 and remained a Councillor till just before his enlistment in the A.I.F. in 1942. During the war he served in the Middle East with the 2/3 Anti Tank Regiment, 9th Australian Division.

In 1945, following his discharge from the Army, he was nominated for the position of President of the Farmers and Settlers Association of N.S.W. and became the first and only man ever to be elected President from the floor of the Annual Conference. When he took up his new position as leader of this strong and powerful farmers association, there were those who said he would wreck it in two years. When he retired four years later the F.S.A. was in a stronger position than it had ever been in its whole history.

At the end of his term as leader of the Farmers and Settlers Association he was elected to the Federal Parliament as Member for Riverina, defeating the Sitting A.L.P. Member J.I. 'Old Joe' Langtry a former Marrar identity. 'Old Joe' was the former Publican, Farmer, Footballer and Club President of the Football Club during the 1920's.

Following his election on December 10, 1949 he held the seat for the Country Party until 1965. On the 28th of February 1956, he was appointed to the Federal Cabinet, with the portfolio of Minister for Social Services, under Prime Minister Robert G. Menzies. His parliamentary career ended in 1965 when he accepted the position of Australian Ambassador to Ireland, a position he filled with distinction for a period of four years. These were the years when he received so much support from his wife Marjorie, to whom he was eternally grateful. Writing in the 'Riverina Advocate' of January 21,1965, Dorothy Farrell paid this tribute to Mrs. Roberton.

'She is a poised and gracious lady, yet a simple and loving person. These qualities will make her as great a help to our new Ambassador to Ireland as she has been to him over the many years he has been a struggling and later successful farmer, a soldier and Federal Minister. They are a good team, and will 'Do Australia Proud' in their new and important position. I hope they enjoy their term of duty in Ireland as much as we are glad to have them as Australia's Ambassadors.'

It was, however, as a local farmer that 'Scotty' Roberton will best be remembered to the people of Marrar and Winchendon Vale. If any of his neighbours had a problem, and during the great depression they had plenty, they immediately sought him out for advice. When wheat prices tumbled to around one shilling and sixpence a bushel, Bill Armstrong arrived one morning at his back door and suggested he go to Canberra to see if he could get a bit more for the farmers’ wheat. He had little hope but he cranked up the Model T. single seater Ford car and, at his own expense headed for Canberra. How he managed to secure an interview with Prime Minister Scullin no one will ever know, but he returned home with the information that the Federal Government would pay a bounty of four pence a bushel on all wheat delivered that season. This small bounty immediately became known as the 'Cocky's Dole'.

In the following year he put together the Roberton Wheat Stabilisation Scheme, which became the policy of the Farmers and Settlers Association. The scheme called for a payment of four shillings a bushel for the first 3000 bushels of wheat delivered on behalf of each individual grower. Any amount over 3000 bushels to be sold on the open market at world parity prices. The scheme was kicked around for a year or two, but was finally adopted by Federal Minister for Agriculture Scully and became, known as the Scully Wheat Plan. This was the beginning of the present day Wheat Stabilisation Act.

In 1930 he was engaged to write a weekly article for the Coolamon 'Review'. The Column was known as, 'A Farmers Point of View' by Peter Snodgrass and had as a preface, 'Look Then Into Thine Heart and Write', (Longfellow). It covered items of topical interest and with humour and pathos was a winner from the start. He wrote on one occasion, 'The Mayor of Winchendon Vale is in a dour mood these days because of the bra west wind whistling through the breaks in his breeks which the wee wifie ha not the wool to mend'. Transferring to 'The Land', he wrote a full page feature article each week entitled the 'Epistles of Peter Snodgrass'. With these articles he introduced a new format. Variety was now part of 'The Epistles' and ranged from ancient English to the modern World. Sometimes, in sorrow, he paid tribute to passing friends. When neighbouring farmer Bill Pattison died during a busy harvest his headline was, 'We Said Farewell In a Field of Wheat'. The Epistles were continued during war service and were often treated with great suspicion by Army Censors. Even during his term as Ambassador to Ireland they continued but now only on monthly occasions.

In 1970 his wife Marjorie, whom he always referred to as 'Calliope' in his writings passed away. With his sight failing, and alone in the world except for his daughter Janet, he married Miss Eileen MeLeod in 1972. At the time of writing, 1979, the Robertons are residents of Curtin, A.C.T.

Electric Scotland Note:  You can listen to an audio account of his life recorded by the Australian library in which it says...

Mr Roberton talks of his childhood in Scotland; the Australian Investment Company; shearing; freelancing as Peter Snodgrass; Farmers and Settlers Association; Riverina Movement; Charles Hardy; Nationalist Party; Progressive Party; Farm Debt Relief Act; wheat stabilisation scheme; arbitrary restriction of production; enlistment in the army; New England New State Movement; Nicholas Committee; Mr P. Wright; concessional selling of wheat; New Zealand Wheat Deal; Nelungaloo Ltd; nationalisation of banks; Australian Wheat board; Riverina electorate; Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area; Snowy Mountains Hydroelectric Authority; Social Services; Menzies; social service progress; pensions; child endowment; national insurance scheme; Aborigines and social services; diplomatic representation in Ireland; Irish question; Australian flag in Ireland; Abbey Lea; experiences in Ireland; Irish Radio Singers; de Valera; Clare; Kildare Street Club; Lord Eldon model; Colonel Butler; Banratty Castle; Dr Sensi; Monsignor Cassidy; memorial services for Harold Holt; education in Australia; rural subsidies; superphosphate bounty; Aboriginal land rights. 

This is available at

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