“Swifter than mercury from high Olympus the strains of the pipes bore their message to John O’Groats and Maidenkirk ushering in a new medium of social life and expanding civilisation”.
On this day in 1923 the skirl of the bagpipes – playing the folk song Hey, Johnnie Cope, Are Ye Waking Yet? - heralded the opening of station 5SC, the BBC’s first Scottish radio station. John Reith announced that 5SC, the Glasgow station of the British Broadcasting Company, was calling before the usual introductory remarks and speeches of congratulations from the BBC chairman Lord Gainford, the Lord Provost of Glasgow, the Principal of Glasgow University and Sir William Noble interspersed with orchestral and vocal items. The report in the Glasgow Herald (above) was positively lyrical.
In fact 5SC wasn’t Scotland’s first licensed radio station. Just a few weeks before the BBC arrived on air the Daimler Motor Company, in a joint venture with Marconi, hosted a temporary low-power station, with the call-sign 2BP. Thus ran for just over a week at the end of January/beginning of February 1923. Opened to coincide with the Scottish Motor Show at Kelvin Hall, and broadcast from a makeshift studio built in Daimler’s Hughenden Road depot and showroom, it allowed them to demonstrate the new Marconi-installed in-car radio receivers. 2BP broadcast during the day with a programme of announcements, musical items and children’s stories. Such was its success – it could be heard in Edinburgh, Dunfermline and even up to Inverness – there were calls for it to continue until the BBC arrived on the scene but the licence was not extended. (1)
More significant was station 5MG which had been in operation from about October 1922 (the exact date remains uncertain). It was the brainwave of wireless equipment dealer Frank Milligan (owner of Milligan’s Wireless Shop in Renfrew Street) and his friend George Garscadden, a household appliance business owner based at Rex House, 202 Bath Street, Glasgow. They broadcast for a few hours a week over a transmitter designed by fellow enthusiast James Cameron. One of the voices heard on air was that of George’s daughter Kathleen, a pianist and singer at the local Park Parish Church. Occasionally they would also feature organist and choirmaster Herbert Carruthers (pictured at the microphone above), who also played at the same church. The Minister at that church was the Rev George Murray Reith, cousin of one John Reith, the then Managing Director of the BBC.
It is perhaps no coincidence that when the BBC came to set up 5SC they took both equipment and staff from 5MG. George Garscadden leased the top floor and attics at 202 Bath Street to the BBC to use as studio and office space. Cameron would become the station engineer, Kathleen would perform and in time would look after the women’s programmes and Children’s Corner (when she was known at first to her young audience as Auntie Cyclone until the BBC decided it might confuse listeners-in) and Carruthers would be the station director. The two station assistants, appointed a few weeks after the launch, were Mungo Dewar and Alex Swinton Paterson. Multi-tasking was the key to these early stations so they would either be announcing, news reading, performing or presenting – all took turns on Children’s Corner. (2)
The initial 5SC team would all go on to long careers with the BBC. Kathleen Garscadden (pictured above) continued to be involved with children’s programmes from Scotland - becoming the Children's Hour Organiser in 1940 - until her retirement in 1960. James Cameron would also help set up the other Scottish stations, move to London to head up the administration of the Engineering Division before returning north as Deputy Regional Director. Part-way through the war he was Area Director at Bangor. Mungo Dewar held several posts in Belfast, the Empire Service and a number of administration roles before becoming Head of Sound Broadcasting Administration in 1955 and retiring in 1963. Alex Swinton Paterson was the Edinburgh Representative and, for many years, the Aberdeen Representative until retiring in 1959. Herbert Carruthers, on the other hand, became the Musical Director when 5SC moved to larger premised at Blythswood Square in November 1924. Although his musical credentials were not in doubt his managerial qualities were and eventually he was dismissed in 1929.
The 5SC transmitting station was a little over a mile away at the Pinkston Power Station at Port Dundas, used to generate electricity for the city’s trams. The cage type aerial was slung between two tall chimneys above the glass roof of the power station. The BBC’s Director of Programmes, Arthur Burrows recalls visiting the site: “the final approach is by a spiral staircase of iron, and the hum of the transformers and the weird glow which is thrown over everything by the lemon-yellow lights from the valves, make a fitting climax to the little adventure which the visit to the station entails”.
That first night’s broadcast on Tuesday 6 March 1923 came from the small studio, about 30 feet square and draped with hessian, at the top of Rex House. According to Popular Wireless “speech and music alike were heard clearly and loudly throughout Glasgow and the neighbourhood. The results achieved show that the Glasgow station will give a satisfactory service over a very large area”
In Sir William Noble’s opening speech he alluded to an issue that would dog the BBC for many years, that of why the BBC’s headquarters would not be in the capital. (It has switched between the two cities over the intervening years). (3) The policy at the time was, according to Noble “to provide eight stations centrally situated so that they might to the greatest good to the greatest number at the smallest cost to the public”. Noble also reminded his audience the many leading the BBC were Scottish: “the head of the broadcasting department was a Scot from Glasgow, two of the six directors were Scots and the four other directors loved Scotch” (cue laughter).
The early days of 5SC’s output was confined to musical items from the orchestra and solo artists, news bulletins and Children’s Corner. There were occasional talks, the first from Rev John Smith, Moderator of the Church of Scotland on The Progress of Education. The first OB was on 19 March with a live relay from the Coliseum Theatre in Eglinton Street, Using just a single microphone excerpts of the opening night of Das Rheingold by British National Opera Company were broadcast. The orchestra that evening was conducted by Percy Pitt, who would shortly after join the BBC as Musical Director. The broadcast had a mixed response: “The singing was heard very clearly when the microphone in the footlights was approached but was less distinct up stage, while the orchestra, probably owing to the fact that they were playing behind the microphone, was usually heard as a flat sound” (Glasgow Herald). Glaswegians obviously loved their opera as 5SC was back for more live BNO productions that month with The Valkyrie, Madame Butterfly, The Marriage of Figaro, Il Travatore, Il Seraglio and Seigfried.
One person that gave 5SC its first national radio success was R.E. Jeffrey, an actor, theatrical producer, playwright and elocutionist. He made his first broadcast on 30 March billed as ‘elocutionist’ when it’s likely he’ll have read some poetry or prose. That spring he was appointed as the drama producer. He was keen to take radio drama beyond the staples of Shakespearean speeches and relays from local theatres and to create dramatic presentations designed for the microphone. His first major production was based on Scott’s Rob Roy - “the largest production that any station has yet attempted” - which Jeffrey adapted and directed as well as playing the title role, whilst his wife played Helen MacGregor. It also featured the Wireless Station Orchestra, the Pipers and the Military Band of the 1st Royal Scots Fusiliers and the Choir of the Lyric Club. Quite how this ensemble fitted into the studio space remains unclear. Its success led to a repeat on 6 October carried by other BBC’s stations as by now Simultaneous Broadcast circuits were in operation.
By the time of the repeat Jeffrey had already moved on to be station director as 2BD in Aberdeen where he continued his artistic ambitions even at such as small station. By the following June he’d moved down to London and was appointed as the new Dramatic Director. “In the interests of listeners who like plays and play-going, a special department for the investigation of microphone effects and the development of radio drama generally has been created.”
One area of broadcasting that 5SC led the way on was programmes for schools. By January 1924 the BBC had established an Educational Advisory Committee at which Reith himself travelled to Glasgow to address the inaugural meeting. With the support of Glasgow Corporation’s Director of Education the station set up an experimental closed circuit broadcast on 26 February with Alex Swinton Paterson presenting a programme for pupils of Garnetbank School. Regular schools broadcasts from 5SC followed from 9 May usually on the Wednesday and Friday afternoon of each week. (4)
5SC’s life was relatively short as the BBC moved to a regional operation from March 1930 and in June 1932, when the new transmitter at Westerglen came on stream, the Port Dundas site was de-commissioned.
BBC Radio Scotland will be marking the 100th anniversary during the day and there’s a special edition of Breaking the News on both the radio and television. BBC Scotland television celebrates with The Big Birthday Bash as 8pm.
(1) The 2BP call-sign had been allocated before for use by Marconi and Daimler at the Olympia Motor Show in November 1922, again to demonstrate the potential of car radios, though I’ve not yet found conclusive evidence that it broadcast. It was used again in August 1923 for a temporary licence by Marconi during the RDS (Royal Dublin Society) Horse Show in Ballsbridge, Dublin with the studio set up a little further down the coast at the Royal Marine Hotel in Dún Laoghaire.
(2) For the first three years or so 5SC used the title Children’s Corner rather than Children’s Hour, or indeed 5WA’s Hour of the Kiddiewinks.
(3) Edinburgh would get a relay station, 2EH, on 1 May 1924. Aberdeen station 2BD started on 10 October 1923 and Dundee’s relay station 2DE on 12 November 1924.
(4) 2LO London, 2ZY Manchester, 5NO Newcastle and 5WA Cardiff carried the programme. 5IT Birmingham carried a concert by the Band of the RAF.
(5) 2LO started experimental schools broadcasts over 6 weeks in April and May 1924 and the first BBC schools programme is often quoted as being by composer Sir Henry Walford Davies on 4 April 1924. Regular schools broadcasts from 2LO started on 6 October 1924 by which time 2ZY was also carrying them.
For further reading on the history of the BBC in Scotland see:
The Scotland On-Air Wiki site by Graham Stewart
The History Of BBC Broadcasting in Scotland 1923-1983 by W.H. McDowell (Edinburgh University Press, 1992)
The BBC in Scotland: The First Fifty Years by David Pat Walker (Luath Press, 2011)
Aberdeen Calling by Gordon Bathgate (Lulu, 2013)