Sing in the City founder Kirsty recalls time her mum talked down a gunman at one of her gigs
"At the last pub gig my mum ever came to see, when I was 17, I was playing away in this rough Leith pub when I became aware my mum had stood up and was walking towards the bar. It caught my attention as my mum would never have gone to the bar, my dad would have gone, so I wondered where she was going.
"I realised she was approaching this man who was holding a gun. He had it pointed at another guy who had, apparently, been cheating with his wife. Now my mum is a quiet little woman but she walked over, put her hand on the gunman's hand and lowered it as she said, 'Now, you don't really want to do that. Do you?'
"And that was it, the man turned and left the pub. When we got home my mum said, 'Right Kirsty, I'm not coming to your gigs anymore."
Kirsty Baird, founder of Sing in the City, is recalling her early days as a teenager singing in the pubs of Leith. One in particular sticks in her memory, the once notorious 'Dirty Windaes' on Queen Charlotte Street – it's where her mum talked down the gunman.
The 53-year-old, who was awarded the British Empire Medal in the latest Queen’s Honours List in recognition of her community and charitable work, laughs as she reflects it took 30 years to get her mum back to one of her shows. “She watched my Aw Blacks Choir perform at the Festival Theatre in 2016,” she says.
Kirsty formed Sing In The City, 10 years ago. At the time she was tutoring Council night classes.
"I was one of the vocal coaches but the classes were so intermittent and the groups so small I thought I could pull them all together and do it weekly. My first choir started with a 31 people from that Singing For Fun class."
A decade on, Sing in The City boasts 18 choirs with 1,200 members across Edinburgh, Fife and the Lothians, and has raised more than £137,000 for various charities, still, finding herself on the Queen’s Honours List came as "a bit of a shock".
"It was a surprise," she admits, "I got an email at the end of November. The header was in capital letters which was quite odd and made me even more dubious about what was going to be in it. When I read it, I thought it was a wind up." She continues, "It really was quite humbling to know that people felt strongly enough to want to get this for me."
As her Sing in The City community choir phenomenon goes from strength to strength, Kirsty concedes that for many of her members, performing is not the reason they joined.
"When I first asked them why they joined, singing actually came fourth or fifth on the list. Many joined to relax from stressful jobs, or because of an illness or bereavement. They joined for friendship, the social aspect... the singing and performances, which are my life, are almost a bonus for many of them. It's a fact that the tea break is the most important part of my rehearsals."
Brought up in Leith until the age of four when the family moved south, Kirsty returned to the Capital aged 13, attending Liberton High, where one teacher changed her life.
"There was a Mr Adam, who actually sent me a private message on Facebook when I got the BEM and I was so touched to hear from him. He was the first person who ever tried to discipline me musically. At 13 all I wanted to do was go to the music room in my breaks and play with my band. He threatened to stop me using the music room if I didn't study. He wanted me to get my Higher but I didn't want to learn four part harmonies or listen to the classical music that they forced down your throat in those days. However, I did it and am now so glad he made me."
She continues, "Consequently, from the age of 17 I've worked as a gigging musician. I survived the roughest bars in Leith so nothing phases me now and I've gone from playing the roughest pubs to the Usher Hall. Don’t get me wrong, the Usher Hall is amazing, but if I hadn't learned my trade in those pubs, there's no way I could have dealt with any of the drama that happens when you are on stage."
Throughout the pandemic, Kirsty has continued to rehearse her choirs on Zoom, supported by musical director Annette Hanley. The pair, as Hanley and the Baird, also released a charity single, Follow the Rainbows, which charted at No 3 in the Scottish charts, raising £5,400 for the Scottish Association for Mental Health.
Which brings us to Kirsty's latest project and a new challenge - Chief Radio, which focuses on promoting Scottish music, and a petition to demand the reinstatement of the Scottish Singles Chart, axed in 2020.
"There's not a day goes by I don't ask myself, 'Why the hell did I start a radio station?'" she laughs, “but I did so because, although Follow The Rainbows charted at No 3 in the Scottish Singles Chart, there was no chance any of the commercial radio stations would give it airplay. They told me as much. It was as outrageous. So I started Chief Radio to champion unsigned and signed small Scottish acts."
The very acts, she insists, that relied on the Scottish Singles Chart for recognition.
"They did away with the chart really quietly, there was no announcement, it just disappeared one week due to 'new data limitations'. So we started a petition to get it reinstated, it makes no sense that Scotland still has an albums chart but no singles chart. You can find the petition at the change.org website or on the Chief Radio homepage."