A Small Portrait of Absence




Shelagh McDonald: Let No Man Steal Your Time

The debut album by young Scottish singer songwriter Amy MacDonald is housed in a retro-style sleeve that suggests it has been scuffed and dented by years of careless sifting and neglect. She is garnering enthusiastic reviews, has the grit of the late Kirsty MacColl, and seems assured of long and major success. Thirty-eight years earlier, another young Scottish singer was generating respectful interest, long-haired and elfin, guitar picking, and also of the clan McDonald.

She made two beautiful folk albums that suggest and rival Sandy Denny, but in early Spring, 1972, she closed the door of her London flat, never to return. Her royalties accrued in an untouched account. She was Shelagh McDonald, and she became an enduring mystery.

If you find her records, even if they are scuffed and dented from years absent of consideration, they will cost you dearly. She has remained an enigma for almost forty years. No friends heard from her, and all attempts at tracing her whereabouts failed. She may have simply married and thus changed her last name, blissfully unaware that her youthful efforts were fueling her elusive status, but silence is a vacuum the curious fill with noisy thoughts and questions.

There were hints of a failed relationship, and suggestions of a bad acid trip. The rest is the kind of conjecture that results from the one-way street called the interest of others. Whatever transpired, Shelagh MacDonald was even more of an enigma than Nick Drake. At least he resided in the sleepy graveyard at Tanworth-in-Arden. She was lost, even beyond the immense search capabilities of the web. It seemed likely that she remained above ground, but that was what was so beguiling. Nobody knew, but many cared.

Reports of her origins were also blurred. Her father supposedly ran a small newspaper group in Scotland. It is known that she had headed south by 1968, since she appears on the album Dungeon Folk, a spin-off LP from the Radio One show Country Meets Folk, which was released via the BBC label in January 1969. She has two cuts on the record. In that year, after a brief sojourn in Bristol where she continued to perform, she formed a relationship with Keith Christmas. On his recommendation, a deal was struck with Sandy Robertson's September Productions, which had overseen the recording of Keith's debut album Stimulus.

Shelagh returned to London and spent the first half of 1970 recording her own debut record. The cast of musicians involved now reads like a veritable "Who's Who" of English folk and beyond. Members of Mighty Baby, plus Keith Tippett, Tristan Fry, Keith Christmas, and Andy Roberts. The record also featured string arrangements by Robert Kirby, who also undertook arrangements for Nick Drake.

In the liner notes for Let No Man Steal Your Thyme, he recalls:

"The thing I remember about Shelagh is how uncannily similar she was to Nick Drake -- tall, slim, very beautiful, alabaster skin accentuated by beautiful dark hair, but I believe she had the edge on Nick in the vocal department -- her voice was beautiful, magical, haunting -- the fact that she had served her apprenticeship through the clubs, etc., showed in her professionalism."

The album was released to favorable reviews in October 1970. Karl Dallas hailed her in Melody Maker as the logical successor to Sandy Denny. The disc contains material worthy of her present revered status, her majestic voice resting somewhere between Joni Mitchell and June Tabor.

Songs such as "Waiting for the Wind to Rise" hold an almost casual and effortless beauty, whilst "Ophelia's Song" out-haunts Drake in its lilting and beautifully Gothic menace. "Peacock Lady" presents a lament that pulls the heart in the direction of refined melancholy, but remains inherently uplifting.

The entire collection is a pleasure that increases from repeated listens, and is a remarkable balance of introspection and expression.

Between February and May 1971, Shelagh McDonald laid down the tracks that would become her recognized masterpiece, Stargazer. The same musicians were augmented by a strong Fairport Convention/Pentangle axis in Danny Thompson, Dave Mattacks, and Richard Thompson, with Robert Kirby adding more sumptuous settings for Shelagh's astonishingly beautiful voice.

Released in September 1971, it proved a creative, critical, but not commercial success, and was to become the parting glance of an artist whose silence imbued the folk scene with an alluring sense of mystery. Stargazer is a step forward, and a confident one. It is more assured and less fragile.

"Liz's Song" strikes a divinely effortless air - rarely has aplomb sounded so natural - whilst "Lonely King" preludes Talk Talk's smacked-out elegies by a decade and a half. By the time "Canadian Man" wears round, you know you are in the presence of understated greatness.

It has elements of Kate Bush at her most relaxed, and is a magnificently beautiful piece of song-craft. The ultimate reward and pleasure is preserved in the title track. Brooding, intense and glorious, this gem of neo-classical vocal arrangement by Richard Kirby is a swirling choral and chamber epic. It closes an album that deserved greater success than the quality and beauty remarked upon by the critics. And then the lady shut the door of her London flat behind her, and vanished.

Her reputation grew slowly, but where some are enhanced by obscurity, kookiness, and the passage of years, it is the majestic nature of McDonald's assured performances that kept her flame alight. She could and should have reaped a better harvest, but like flowers in some wonderfully abandoned garden, her blooms continue to force their way through the ever eager, annual crop of weeds. Old beauties, but beauties still, well worth the attentions of strangers.

Then, one November day in 2005, a fifty-seven year old woman walked into the offices of a Scottish newspaper, having read about herself, and announced that she was Shelagh McDonald. She told the journalist Grace Macaskill:

"In April 1972 I took a trip that turned my world upside down. I thought it would be out of my system within twelve hours, but three weeks later I was still hallucinating. It wasn't the colorful hallucination you normally get with LSD -- this was horrific. I was walking around the shops and looking at people who had no eyes or features. Their faces were just skin and bone...Suddenly I had to get out. My disappearance wasn't at all conscious. It was a coping mechanism - self preservation."

The experience also ruined her wonderful voice, or more likely her perception of it.

"I sounded like a cat being strangled. I was so sad. I suddenly found I had lost my place in the musical world I had loved. I had lost my talent."

She returned to Scotland to live with her parents, undertaking a series of mundane jobs. In the early '80s she met Gordon Farquhar, a bookseller, but her parents disapproved of the union. As the pair's travels, moving from house to house and dwelling in a tent in the Scottish Islands, took them to more and more remote places, that link too was broken. Her elderly parents both died, not knowing where their daughter had gone, McDonald only learning of their passing when she finally came forward.

As with many who disappear, staying away becomes the sole solution. That there was such interest in her music bemused her, but it appears to have provided a certain satisfaction, and she finally received her royalties. She was writing songs again, her shattered voice repaired with time. She seemed to be toying with the idea of a comeback of sorts. Friends from the London days were relieved to hear that she was alive. The newspaper reunited her with Keith Christmas by phone, and the beguiling mystery of almost four decades dissolved.

It should come as no surprise however, patterns repeating within patterns, and disappearance as a means of survival, that she hasn't been heard of since.