Scottish Gaelic Song Collectors Patrick and Joseph MacDonald by Ellen Beard

Ellen Beard is a former American lawyer who earned a PhD in Celtic from the University of Edinburgh in 2016, focusing on 18th-century Scottish Gaelic poetry and song. Her publications include 100 Songs of Rob Donn Mackay (Upper Breakish: Taigh na Teud, 2018), and ‘Gaelic Tune Sources in The Scots Musical Museum’, Burns Chronicle 130.1 (2021), pp. 71-95.


The brothers Patrick (1729-1824) and Joseph (1739-1763) MacDonald were sons of the manse in Durness, Sutherland, neighbours of Gaelic poet Rob Donn MacKay (1714-1778), and pioneering Gaelic song collectors who transcribed and published by far the most comprehensive eighteenth-century collection of Gaelic song melodies.

Self-portrait of Joseph MacDonald. Facsimile from Cannon (1994), p. 153. Original MS at University of Edinburgh, Special Collections, La. III, 804, 31r. Also with kind permission from The Piobaireachd Society.

Of the two, Joseph had the greater musical talent but a tragically shorter life, dying of a tropical fever in India soon after assuming a position there with the East India Company. Patrick, a minister in Argyll, lived to the astonishing age of 95 and eventually arranged to edit, supplement, and publish his brother’s surviving musical manuscripts. Published  in 1784, Highland Vocal Airs (HVA) contains 186 song airs without words arranged by region (North Highland, Perthshire, Western Isles, and Argyllshire), plus 32 reels and country dances and four bagpipe pieces. The 86 ‘North Highland’ melodies (less than half the total) were collected by Joseph in Sutherland and Ross before 1760; Patrick himself later collected 41 airs from Argyll and 28 from Perthshire, and relied on ‘respectable gentlemen and ladies, natives of the western isles’ for 31 tunes from the islands. Most have bilingual titles, although some are untitled, leaving a guessing game for later scholars.

When HVA was published in 1784, the only previous Gaelic music publication was Daniel Dow’s Collection of Ancient Scots Music (c. 1778), whose 43 tunes were largely instrumental rather than vocal. MacDonald’s collection then dominated the field for some thirty years, until joined in 1816 by rival volumes edited by Simon Fraser and Alexander Campbell (for the latter, see Macaulay (2020) [add link]). Like Dow and Fraser (but unlike Campbell), MacDonald did not include song texts with the music to which they were sung. Instead, from 1751 (the date of the first Gaelic poetry publication) until 1816, Gaelic poetry texts (mostly songs) and their melodies were typically published separately. Nevertheless, many poetry volumes included tune names; and music publications generally contained tune titles, so a knowledgeable Gaelic-speaking reader could put them together. HVA itself was often used for that purpose, being expressly cross-referenced in later Gaelic poetry collections such as Stewart (1804).

This bifurcated publication pattern may seem odd to a modern singer or the reader of a blog on ‘published song texts with music’ intended for ‘middle-class consumption’ between 1750 and 1850. But several explanations come to mind. The most obvious – the varying expertise and interests of editors – remains true today, but other factors are more specific to the period. First, eighteenth-century Gaelic culture was still largely oral and rural, and many Gaels (including highly accomplished poets and most singers) were not literate. Second, the century from 1750-1850 featured the collapse of clan society, the Clearances, emigration, and the potato famine – none conducive to the acquisition of musical instruments or songbooks for middle-class consumption. Third, although about a fifth of Scotland’s population still spoke Gaelic in 1800, the middle-class urban market remained largely anglophone (Withers and MacKinnon 1994: 109). While those factors limited sales (usually by subscription), they also split the market. That is, some literate Gaels might buy poetry but had no use for staff notation (either because they did not read music or because they already knew the tunes), while middle-class anglophone music lovers (often instrumentalists) would buy music books but had no use for Gaelic.

Portrait of  Rev. Patrick MacDonald in old age, from The Celtic Monthly, vol. 6, p. 135 (1898), available at

Other factors were specific to each editor. In Patrick’s case, the main problem was that most of Joseph’s papers were lost in India after his untimely death. As Patrick explains in his preface (MacDonald: 4), Joseph had collected bagpipe music, song melodies and ‘some of the best poems that were sung to them’ in the two years before his departure for India in 1760. Before leaving, ‘he wrote out a copy of a number of the vocal airs . . . and left it with a sister’ but took with him ‘[a]ll his other collections and papers relating to Highland music and poetry . . . with the view of publication’. As a result, when he published HVA in 1784, Patrick had access only to the ‘airs, which [Joseph] had left with his sister’, which he initially kept for family use and was eventually persuaded to publish (ibid.). Although Joseph’s bagpipe treatise was rediscovered in India in 1784 and eventually published, ‘[n]one of the other manuscripts compiled by Joseph are known to have survived’ (Cannon 1994: 2). This strongly implies that Joseph had intended to publish Gaelic song texts, but Patrick no longer had them. Moreover, since Patrick had moved to Argyll in 1757, and the most knowledgeable of Joseph’s likely informants, the poet Rob Donn Mackay, had died in 1778, Patrick was probably not in a position to redo Joseph’s fieldwork, so his own efforts to expand the geographical scope of the collection were exclusively musical.

Finally, while HVA was undoubtedly a labour of love inspired by a combination of  family loyalty and cultural preservation, it was also influenced by the contemporary market. HVA was engraved by Edinburgh music printer James Johnson, who also produced Dow’s collection and collaborated with Burns on the six-volume Scots Musical Museum (1787-1803). While Patrick was scrupulous in his own collecting methods, he did acknowledge a few editorial interventions, such as arranging Joseph’s transcriptions in equal bars and acquiescing (partially and reluctantly) to subscribers’ requests for bass lines suitable for the harpsichord or piano-forte, a model later followed in the SMM. This balancing act enabled HVA to accommodate both halves of the split market, producing a highly successful publication that ran to five editions. Today it remains an invaluable source for eighteenth-century Gaelic song melody, and still awaits a scholarly edition restoring the words to its songs.

Reference list

Cannon, Roderick D. (ed.). 1994. Joseph MacDonald’s Compleat Theory of the Scots Highland Bagpipe (c.1760) (Glasgow: The Piobaireachd Society)

Dow, Daniel. c. 1778. A Collection of Ancient Scots Music for the Violin, Harpsichord or German-Flute, Never before Printed, Consisting of Ports Salutations, Marches or Pibrachs (Edinburgh), available at

Fraser, Simon. 1816. The Airs and Melodies Peculiar to the Highlands of Scotland and the Isles. (Edinburgh)

Grimble, Ian. 1999. The World of Rob Donn (Edinburgh: Saltire Society)

Johnson, James. 1787-1803. The Scots Musical Museum, 6 vols (Edinburgh)

MacDonald, Patrick. 1784. A Collection of Highland Vocal Airs (Edinburgh). My references are to The Patrick MacDonald Collection (2000), ed. by Christine Martin (Upper Breakish: Taigh na Teud).

McAulay, Karen.  2020. ‘Revisiting the Achievements of Song-Collector Alexander Campbell’ available at

Stewart, Alexander and Donald Stewart. 1804. Cochruinneacha Taoghta de Shaothair nam Bard Gaëleach (Edinburgh), available at

Withers, C.W.J. and K.N. MacKinnon. 1994. ‘Gaelic speaking in Scotland, demographic history’, in The Companion to Gaelic Scotland (Glasgow: Gairm), ed. by Derick S. Thomson, pp. 109-114

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