A Celtic music detective story with a twist

I’ve listened to the music of ‘Silly Wizard‘ for many years with great enjoyment.  Prior to their disbanding in 1988, they were one of the most influential sources in the world of Celtic and Scottish music.

One of their enduring favorites was the song ‘Donald McGillavry’.  Here’s a live performance of the song, recorded on April 1st, 1988 in Atlanta, Georgia during the band’s final tour.  If you’d like to read the lyrics in order to understand them better, see its YouTube page and expand the description in the ‘About’ tab (below the video window) for a full listing (including useful translations of some of the Gaelic words used).

I’ve wondered for years who they were singing about.  I mean, there’s no famous ‘Donald McGillavry’ in Scottish history, so why write a song about him?  The other day, on a whim, I decided to find out.  After an Internet search, I came across this explanation.

In 1819, a victim of ‘Tartan Fever’, [James] Hogg published his collected ‘Jacobite Relics of Scotland‘ […]. The work was universally condemned by the Whig periodicals …

. . .

Donald Macgillavry was published in the first series of the ‘Relics’ with a highly appreciative note. ‘This’, proclaimed Hogg, ‘is one of the best songs that ever was made…a capital old song, and very popular’. He then proceeded upon an inquiry, as solemn as it was specious, into the historical background, unearthing several apparently genuine Macgillavrys – John M’Gillavry, executed at Preston in 1716, a Colonel M’Gillavry of the MacIntosh regiment in the ’45 – suggesting that ‘a bard connected with that associated clan may have written it’. But the note is designed to do more than put a gloss of authenticity upon the song. Its delightful wrong-headedness seems intended (as do various of the other notes in the ‘Relics’) as a skit on the unsmiling pedantry apt then as now to afflict popular-song studies. Its author was, after all, one of the most masterly parodists in the country.

There’s more at the link.  Another source states:

In the 1831 edition of his ‘Songs’, Hogg jubilantly recorded this famous victory. The piece had been “originally published in the Jacobite Relics, without any notice of its being an original composition; an ommission which entrapped the Edinburgh Review into a high but unintentional compliment to the author. After reviewing the Relics in a style of most determined animosity, and protesting over and over again that I was devoid of all taste and discrimination, the tirade concluded in these terms: ‘That we may not close this article without a specimen of the good songs which the book contains, we shall select the one which, for sly, characteristic Scotch humour, seems to us the best, though we doubt if any of our English readers will relish it’. The opportunity of retaliating upon the reviewer’s want of sagacity was too tempting to be lost; and the authorship of the song was immediately avowed in a letter to the Editor of Blackwood’s Magazine. ”After all’, said this avowal, ‘between ourselves, Donald M’Gillavry, which he has selected as the best specimen of the true old Jacobite song, and as remarkably above his fellows for ‘sly, characteristic Scotch humour’, is no other than a trifle of my own, which I put in to fill up a page’.”

Again, more at the link.

It’s nice to have the mystery cleared up at last – and I bet the kilted shade of James Hogg is still laughing about it!



  1. I had the pleasure of catching their farewell tour at Ireland's Four Provinces in D.C.
    That tour resulted in the LP "Live in America" (Green Linnet Records SIF 3036) and the CD "Live Wizardry" (GLCD 3036/37)

  2. You have very similar musical tastes to mine, I hope to meet you in person sometime. I'm also a Steeleye Span fan. I love Maddie Pryor's voice.

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