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Shelagh McDonald - Return Journey

Shelagh McDonald 2012
Photo: Ian Anderson
Shelagh McDonald 2012
She returned to her parents in Scotland, and was gone. “I didn’t contact anyone. I just disappeared. Because by the time I got home I was very ill. I was aware of lying in bed in my room and the telephone going, and it could well have been for me and my parents saying ‘She can’t come to the phone’. If they did, they didn’t tell me anything.”

It affected her voice. “I couldn’t have gone back to the music world even if had wanted to. And I couldn’t face it anyway, it just upset me too much. I kept listening to music, but everything except folk music because it just upset me too much.”

“I worked in a bookshop, department stores, all sorts of things. While I was doing these jobs, my brain function meant that when people were speaking – you know when you see things on TV from a satellite connection, there’s a time delay: it was a bit like that. I knew every word that people were saying but it was as if it were a foreign language. By the time I’d made sense of one sentence, they were on another one. By the end of a working day I was worn out trying to make sense of it.”

“I didn’t want to tell my parents as I thought it would worry them, so they said I should go back to college and do some A-levels, sit them again, upgrade some things. I’d get up at half five in the morning, do some study, then go to work, then after work go to the library until it closed. But that was what got my brain functioning again, it took about 18 months.”

She met Gordon Farquhar in 1981. “Gordon had this antiquarian academic bookshop in the centre of Glasgow, in the old tobacco market. My friends knew I liked secondhand bookshops so I walked into this one and there was Gordon: I thought ‘Where have you been? You should have showed up before now.’ Then there was the usual parental disapproval, and he was always a free spirit – I knew life wasn’t going to be nine-to-five with slippers under the table. So we were together for 31 years until he died this year.”

“He gave up the bookshop and we went over to stay on the Isle of Bute. Then we went over to Canada and it didn’t work out there so we came back and thought we’d try over on the East Coast. We ended up living in Wick in the north of Scotland for about five years. Then we were having all sorts of problems with landlords so one day we just got fed up with it and thought ‘Sod it, let’s go and live in tents.’”

“Originally it was only going to be for a few months but it ended up being for six years, though we’d get into a bed & breakfast for Christmas and New Year – the longest we did was 18 months and that was a bad winter. Just a two-man tent, carrying everything on our backs. We were both on benefits: we’d registered for work in the area and thought we’d start off in the tent and then get into a flat and get the jobs but nothing ever meshed together. I’d never been in a tent before in my life, I’d had a cushy middle-class lifestyle, but Gordon had wintered in the Antarctic, in tents for eight months. I got better at it…”

“I’d had to sell my beautiful Martin, but one day I bought a guitar in a Sue Ryder shop for 20 quid. I couldn’t even remember how to do ordinary tuning but it all came back quite quickly. I gave myself 15 days maximum: my voice is either going to come back or it ain’t. It loosened up after about ten days. I was in the middle of the forest walking up and down singing anything – Any Old Iron, Summertime, things from My Fair Lady, Mary Poppins, anything that popped into my head, enjoying myself. There was a field of cattle just up from us, and this is interesting – if you’re singing and playing guitar, try it out on cattle and if they like it they’ll all come up and listen to you like an audience. If they don’t like it, they’ll just keep on calmly chewing the cud until you come up with one that interests them.”

In 2005, Sanctuary/Castle re-issued both Shelagh’s albums plus all the available out-takes and the Dungeon Folk tracks on the double CD Let No Man Steal Your Thyme. They’ve subsequently gone under and even this re-issue is now hard to find, but it did catalyse a flurry of ‘Whatever happened to…?’ features in the press.

“The Scottish Daily Mail did an article about me in 2005. Gordon got it. It was a lovely sunny day, we were in the tent. He says ‘Oh this is interesting, this is about a folk singer, somebody’s beaten you to it.’ I’m saying ‘What are you talking about?’ ‘Here, read this.’ So I made lunch and forgot about it, and then ‘Oh, where’s that article?’ So I pick up this newspaper and there’s this big photograph of me and it was surreal – like looking at your own obituary.”

“It said my parents had died. It was something I had been preparing myself for, but it was still a shock. So to find out where my brother was and to say I liked the article, I went to the newspaper and they put me through from the desk: it was Grace Macaskill, lovely girl, good journalist. It was only then that I learned anything about the folk revival, I hadn’t a clue about anything.”

“So then we had another few years to do in the tents until 2008 we got a flat.”

Shelagh’s writing again, has got a guitar and a keyboard. So is this just for pleasure and as a hobby or does she want to do it seriously again? “No, this is unfinished business and it has to be done before I leave this mortal coil. It’s going slowly but it’s going very well. Some of my own stuff, some traditional songs. The main thing is to get the stuff finished – I’ve got folders this thick [holds hands about four inches apart] full of manuscript paper, full of workings out and crossovers and detours and I’ve thrown as much away again. I’m enjoying it even more.”

“I haven’t been out and done it in public yet because I’m a perfectionist. Having reached another level it’s demanding more of me as a performer and I haven’t done that for a long time. It’ll be ready when it’s ready. But I can take pressure – putting up a brand new tent on the side of a loch at Fort William, not a breath of wind on a beautiful day and then along comes a hurricane and blows it to the other side of the loch and you’re left standing there with nothing in the worst storm for a hundred years, swearing like a trooper…”

Keith Christmas, Shelagh McDonald, Ian Anderson 2012
Keith Christmas, Shelagh McDonald, Ian Anderson 2012

And how does she feel about her old body of work? “At first I couldn’t listen to it, but now I’m pleased, for the age I was. If I was writing it now, I would expect something different, but everything is of its time. I would like to make one other good album. If there were more in the pipeline, that’d be OK but I’d like to do that one, for a sense of completion. What you’re seeing here is only a quarter of me, three quarters of me is with Gordon. I’m enjoying that quarter to the full, and I feel there’s one thing left for me to do.”

Since the interview took place, Shelagh tells me she’s been slipping out and doing incognito spots at local open mics and folk clubs. She’s doing her first official low key gig in London in January 2013, there has been radio interest and suggestions of projects from admirers in the business.

Welcome back!

From fRoots 353/354, November/December 2012


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