Sir Harry Lauder was the most popular Scottish entertainer of all time, specializing in skits and songs in Scottish dialect. Clad in knit kilts and equipped with a knotty cane, Lauder merrily performed with whimsical glee the classic Scottish songs he'd devised, some of which now are as ingrained in Scotland's cultural fabric as though they were centuries-old folk songs: "She Is Ma Daisy," "I Love a Lassie," "Roamin' in the Gloamin'," and "A Wee Deoch an' Doris" being among the best known.
Harry Lauder was one of the first international superstars in entertainment, and was the highest-paid entertainer in the glory days of the English music hall. But his origins could not have been humbler; born Henry MacLennan Lauder at Number 4 Bridge Street in Portobello, Lauder's father died when he was 13 and he went to work in a flax mill to help his family make ends meet. At age 15 Lauder graduated to coal mining, which paid better. In the mines Lauder made a regular nuisance of himself, singing songs and telling jokes much to the amusement of his fellow miners and to the annoyance of his bosses. Lauder's penchant for on-the-job buffoonery began to pay off when he undertook, and won, a number of local talent shows in the region. By the time he was 25, Lauder was able to leave the mines for a career in show business. With his London debut at Gatti's Music Hall on March 19, 1900, Lauder was an immediate smash success. He performed before King Edward VII in 1908, and would tour the world repeatedly — Lauder appeared in the United States no less than 25 times between 1909 and 1932, well before air travel between continents was practical for touring artists.
Lauder was one of the first popular entertainers with a legitimate stage background to recognize the publicity value of mass media. While many of his compatriots shunned the infant medium of recording due to its low fidelity and miniscule financial reward, Harry Lauder made an enormous number of recordings beginning in February 1902 and lasting until 1935. Lauder appeared on cylinders made by Pathé and Edison and on disc for the companies G&T, Zonophone, and HMV in the United Kingdom and Victor in the United States. So popular were Lauder's records that, more than 50 years after his death, purple-labeled Victors of his selections such as "Breakfast in Bed on Sunday Morn" and "When I Was Twenty-One" are still a common sight in American resale shops. Lauder also appeared in a series of 13 primitive talking pictures produced by William Selig and utilizing a system invented by Isidor Kitsee of Pennsylvania. The program opened at the Palace Theater in New York on May 1914. Though Kitsee's sound system laid an egg, Variety critic Sime Silverman wrote, "For those who like Lauder and for those who haven't seen him, the Lauder Talker is a big act for vaudeville, and it gives the house the privilege of billing the Lauder name."
When England got involved in the First World War, so did Harry Lauder; his one and only son was Captain John Lauder, killed in action on December 28, 1916. Before his son's death, Lauder had worked tirelessly to interest young Scotsmen in conscripting to the war effort, and indirectly helped build the regiment that German soldiers would later respectfully refer to as the "ladies from hell." After his son's death, Lauder went into the field himself, taking a small piano attached to a military vehicle directly onto the front lines and performing for the troops. Lauder did this at his own expense, and most of his fellow entertainers thought he'd taken leave of his senses. But in doing so, Lauder set a precedent that has been followed from that time since, ultimately paving the way for the USO shows and other types of special entertainment programs provided for service personnel. For his achievements in this regard, Lauder was knighted by King George V in 1919.
From that time, "Sir" Harry Lauder picked up where he left off, but by the end of the 1920s Lauder showed signs of slowing down. His wife, Annie Lauder (for whom many of his songs had been written), died in 1927, just short of the ceremony in which Lauder was awarded the Medal of Freedom by the City of Edinburgh. That year Lauder also made his debut as an actor in feature films, beginning with a Paramount-British production of John Buchan's novel Huntingtower. Like the Selig-Kitsee films, most of Lauder's British films of 1927-1936 are no longer extant, but at least one title among six short musical films made for Gainsborough Pictures in the early '30s remains to preserve the visual aspect of Lauder's routine. Lauder also turns up rather frequently in newsreels from before the First World War up through and beyond the Second World War. Although retired and mostly out of the entertainment business by 1930, Lauder, in his seventies, began to barnstorm once again on the battlefields of World War II.
In 1999 the trade publication Variety named Harry Lauder as one of the 100 top stars of the 20th century. As the 20th century moves into the 21st, Lauder's fame in America has dimmed outside of the community of vintage record collectors, who continue to covet such less-common Lauder records as "Killiecrankie" and "Stop Your Tickling Jock!" But in Scotland, Sir Harry Lauder remains a national icon, a "Scotsman's Scot," equal in merit to such historical figures as William Wallace, Sir Walter Scott, and actor Sean Connery.