Mystery woman

Shelagh McDonald was on her way to being a folk star in the Seventies when she disappeared. Charles Donovan investigates

Thursday 23 June 2005 00:00

On the cusp of fame and fortune in 1972, talented and critically acclaimed songwriter Shelagh McDonald disappeared. Now her music is back in print, but the royalties remain uncollected, and her whereabouts are a mystery.

A performer and composer with the poise of Joni Mitchell and the whimsy of Nick Drake. That was McDonald. But after unleashing two albums, she vanished. No one has seen her for 33 years. No death records exist to confirm the worst, yet her former collaborators are somehow certain she is alive.

McDonald came to London from Edinburgh in the 1960s and was feted by Melody Maker, NME and ZigZag. She was a composer with promise, a voice blending the melancholy of Sandy Denny and the birdsong of Joan Baez, and a beauty who didn't capitalise on her looks. Signed to Sandy Roberton's B&C Records, she didn't move many units with her first outing (1970's artlessly entitled Shelagh McDonald Album), but a second album was to prove a dramatic leap forward. However, within months of the release of Stargazer, a mini-masterpiece from 1971, she was nowhere to be found, and her phone had been disconnected.

There are rumours of a disastrous LSD experience, a move to North America, a career as a children's author, reinvention as a teller of folk stories in US, and the possibility of death. No theory has panned out, though none has been entirely disproved. Now her music is back in print, in the form of Let No Man Steal Your Thyme, a compilation comprising everything else she's known to have recorded. It's clocking up the kind of sales that McDonald never enjoyed when she was in the public eye.

Her friends and collaborators can shed little light on what happened to her. Keith Christmas, the singer/songwriter instrumental in landing Shelagh her record deal, recalls first seeing her at the Troubador. "She seemed so talented. The audience was in love with her - she had an elfin, raggedy-dress quality that downplayed her femininity and a strong Scottish reserve that made her mysterious."

Despite product in the stores, good reviews, and a "new Sandy Denny" sobriquet, McDonald was in trouble, as Keith Christmas witnessed: "She'd moved to a horrible block of flats in Islington just like the Gorbals, with about the same amount of soul."

McDonald is thought to have made only moderate use of narcotics, but moderation alone can spell disaster for some. "The last I heard, she'd had a bad trip, been taken to hospital and her parents had come to take her back," says Christmas. "She was a lovely person and deserved a lot more from some of her so-called advisers than she got. She was as a shy and gentle soul who somehow got lost in a nightmare."

Robert Kirby, arranger both to McDonald and to Nick Drake, remembers an upbeat woman. "She was jolly, very big smile, lots of conversation, great fun to be with." He doesn't think that her Islington flat brought about her downfall. "Yes, it was a tenement with grimy corridors, but when you're 22 that doesn't matter. I didn't really encounter her in depressed mode."

Kirby isn't certain that a bad acid trip is all McDonald was up against, and that an intense relationship with an unidentified man may have prompted her to flee. "It was not making her happy, that's my reading, and she was trying to get away from it."

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Sandy Roberton has no leads. "I know she left London and went back up to Scotland. I just hope she is happy." There is no documented evidence of McDonald's death, and an APB put out on her in America has yielded nothing. McDonald's admirers and colleagues, including Geoff, who runs a website about her music, don't want to force her out of hiding.They just want her to know that the music that spilt from her soul remains locked in their hearts.

There is a groundswell of goodwill awaiting Shelagh, should she reappear, and one last twist: her royalties remain uncollected. She may have no interest in the funds owed to her, but to reassure her fellow musicians and longstanding fans that she is alive and well would be a much appreciated gesture.

'Let No Man Steal Your Thyme' is out now on Castle/Sanctuary records. To find out more about Shelagh, visit

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