Her name was Shelagh McDonald
Shelagh McDonald (pronounced as She-la) is an unknown name in America, but in the UK during the 1970s, Shelagh was a rising star. At the time, British folk revival was at its peak doting a Tolkienesque medieval culture and made its stamp with mandolin toking and the whistling recorder (remember those?).
Shelagh was the next big thing and even signed a record deal at the age of nineteen. Coming from Glasgow, she was at a musical golden age and traveled to London in the hopes of fulfilling her dream of being a musician. Her head held high, she was beginning what she thought would be a glamorous life as a famed artist.
She thought she was a bad singer
“I never thought myself a particularly good singer,” Shelagh said in a recent interview with BBC, her hair silver peppered with grey and her lips tempted with a smile. Though Shelagh had an angelic voice, sultry and slow, she never thought she had an appealing voice. “The whole concept of trying to sing properly and really listening to what you’re really doing with your voice,” is how she would describe her time as a musician between 1970-1971.
To Shelagh it was both a job and a passion, something she did in order to consider herself a “real” musician. She finishes with: “When you’re a folk singer, you don’t tell yourself ‘I should focus on my singing,’ the whole point is that it’s natural.”
Her second album was a big success
Shelagh was poised for greatness. Her first album was released and, though it wasn’t a huge commercial success, she was slowly making a name for herself. By the time her second album, “Stargazer” was released in 1972, she was picking up a noticeable fan base. However, Shelagh will never know how much her voice would influence the music world because it all ended over a single weekend.
Many have heard the phrase “it all changed overnight.” In Shelagh’s case, the aftermath of her weekend stretched for weeks. Shelagh knew about the power of psychedelics, but she never knew she would react so badly to them. Her whole music career shattered.
Her career was over after one weekend
In her BBC interview, Shelagh admits to having previously experimented with mind-altering substances, and admits this particular trip wasn’t her first. She thought acid was an alternative way to open her creative mind and let inspiration come to her, especially after reading the written works of Timothy Leary. “I was convinced that if I tried various substances, that I’d be a genius.”
And she believed it. When under the influence of acid, she convinced herself that the music she was making was the stuff of legend. But of course, once she came down, she realized how awful the material was and concluded that they weren’t really helping her tap into the inner creativity she had hoped they would.
Her story begins at the end
Even so, she didn’t quit trying. She took some “hallucinatory substances” at a party and anticipated a mind-opening experience and that it would allow her to channel newfound creativity. Instead, her body began to react violently, and she found herself wandering the streets of London, completely out of her mind.
Next thing she knew, Shelagh McDonald’s heart raced. She doesn’t even remember leaving the party. She wandered aimlessly through the streets of London and had no idea where she was or had any perception of time. Paranoia and fear sunk its claws into her and refused to let go. Illusions and hallucinations lurked behind every corner.
It ruined her career
Every shadow was reaching and grabbing at her until she no longer knew what was real or a figment of her imagination. No matter where she went, she felt lost, afraid, and surrounded by a mist of what she would later admit to was a bad trip. What was supposed to be a good time and a “mental vacation” away from sobriety turns into something much darker.
Her sense of time and reality were distorted. She wandered aimlessly. The next thing Shelagh remembers is getting on a plane, but she didn’t know where she was going. Once the plane landed, she realized she had gone home to Glasgow where two familiar faces greeted her: Her parents.
On a plane to nowhere
She saw music and heard color — she could feel her brain pulse with creativity and terror. She heard her own voice rise and disappear in a void. Shelagh had no recollection of calling her parents or how she got on a plane to Scotland. She vaguely remembers seeing the stern looks on her parent’s faces.
The next thing she knew, she was in her old bedroom trying to shake off what would be a long-term trip that would last for over a week. When she finally came to, her head cleared. The trip was over, and she realized that everything she had worked for was ruined.
Her parents were conservative
Somewhat lucid, she remembers the look on their faces: stern and sullen. They were were what every kid dreads their parents to be — disappointed. “They never approved of me being a singer,” she stated in The Guardian. Her parents believed in Christian Science, meaning they believed that the words of God could literally heal all ailments, both physical and mental.
So, when they brought their daughter home, they didn’t call a doctor, give her medication, or send her to rehab. Instead, they prayed and hoped their faith would heal their daughter. “They didn’t send me to a psychiatrist or put me on medication…I would have been on medication to this day…”
She was out of it for three weeks
After nearly three weeks of a bad trip, Shelagh began to regain a sense of normalcy and thought of going back into music — but tragedy struck. Shelagh’s voice was completely ruined. Instead of the sweet and sultry sound of a folk singer, she sounded like a symphony of frogs was hiding in her throat.
Her voice croaked and scratched; her vocal cords strained to make a soft effortless sound but failed. It was during this time that she gave up on music. However, she failed to mention that to her employers. Because of miscommunication, the record company believed she was still missing. Whoops!
“It was like dying and being reborn”
To Shelagh, her music career was over. She knew it was over. Her voice was ruined, and she no longer saw herself performing and obtaining fame. She began an ordinary life, but it wasn’t stable. “It was like dying and being reborn and starting from the very scratch again,” she said. She worked odd jobs, sometimes working in shops or offices, but couldn’t hold anything down over time.
Just when she thought her luck was down, she fell in love with Gordon. She instantly knew when she saw him behind a bookstore counter that the two were meant to be. The two became a couple despite her parent’s disapproval.
Gordon spent four years in the Antarctic
Knowing that her family disapproved of their relationship, Shelagh and her beau decided to move in together, but it wasn’t easy. As the 80s rolled in, the economy in the UK wasn’t as booming, and it was hard to hold down a job — especially for Gordon whose expertise laid with academia. He studied in Antarctica for four years as a scientist and lived on the ice for eight months.
Regardless of his impressive resume, employers weren’t impressed by his accomplishments in the Antarctic. The couple found themselves struggling and were often moving from place to place, couch-surfing. After some time, the couple decided they had to do something drastic to change their situatio.
She took to the woods of Scotland
A friendly reminder that in a world without cell phones and social media, there was no way any of Shelagh’s friends or fans could know where she had been all this time. To them, she was still missing. So when Shelagh and her significant other decide to live in the woods, they went completely off the grid.
Imagine living a nomadic life where everything you ever owned was transported from place to place, clearing to clearing, at the complete mercy of nature? Hiking and camping are great and all, but to do it indefinitely? It’s unfathomable. Without any further contact, the world believed Shelagh vanished or worse…died.
“It’d be better if we lived in a tent”
What led Shelagh to the forests of Scotland? She blames bad luck with landlords. In her interview with BBC, she stated that as a tenant, she and Gordon were relatively clean and quiet people, but her landlords were always lousy. So when Gordon playfully said “It be better if we lived in a tent,” Shelagh replied: “Why not?”
They packed up what they needed and ventured away from the city into the wilderness. At first, the couple didn’t see themselves living in the hands of mother nature for the long haul. They only initially planned to camp it out through the end of that summer. But things didn’t quite go as planned.
Music helped through tough times
Instead of staying in the woods until the end of summer, Gordon and Shelagh became nomads for six years and ended up backpacking Scotland. Of course, they tried looking for any available job opportunities, but nothing stuck. In the end, they ended up surviving solely on what the government could provide.
They were on survival mode through and through, but not all of it was terrible. She would use music to soothe them when the going got tough. Squirrels would eat from their hands and they truly understood the beauty of their world. When in complete solitude, they became self-aware. They understood their true selves without the influences of the city or people. They were being their most uninhibited selves.
“I missed my old life”
Though Shelagh and her significant other found solace in the embrace of nature, something was missing. Shelagh missed her family and friends. “I missed my old life, but it seemed forever out of reach. My relationship with my family had always been difficult and I taught myself not to dwell on our separation.”
With the pain of yearning to be around familiar faces, their environment continued to remind them of their predicament. Winter was especially unforgiving for Shelagh and Gordon. “Winters could be particularly punishing. Some days it got so cold, I genuinely thought we were going to die.” Thankfully, their troubles would soon be over.
A ghost of her past paid her a visit
After six years living in tents in the backyards of Scotland, Shelagh and Gordon’s life changed for the better. To live away from civilization was the same as walking in the footsteps of fear and inevitably death. “Total freedom is terror,” Shelagh says. Dying in the wilderness became very much a reality until Gordon and Shelagh read a newspaper one fateful morning.
After seemingly vanishing for over thirty years, Shelagh came face to face with a picture of her 20-year-old self in the morning paper. Shelagh says: “Then, one day, as I was making lunch over the camping stove. Gordon said ‘there’s an interesting story in the paper here; you should read it.’ What I saw stunned me – a photo of myself in my 20s, back when I was a folk singer.”
Her parents died
To Shelagh, it was like reading her own obituary. In the article, it listed her as missing, mysteriously vanishing overnight. It didn’t make sense to Shelagh, considering she was standing before Gordon and obviously alive and well, and definitely not missing. She was never aware that anybody was looking for her, but the paper said otherwise.
It was in that same paper that Shelagh learned about something heart-wrenching: the death of her parents. Though there had always been a strain between her and her family, she was devastated nonetheless. She figured that somewhere in her big adventure, she would conclude that they would have eventually passed on, but not in the morning paper.
She discovered the internet
It was then, standing before her cooking stove, that Shelagh decided it was time to stop running and to come back to the world. She needed to make it clear that she was not missing. Though she was barely surviving on whatever the government could give, she was very much alive.
Shelagh and Gordon packed their bags and entered the nearest city to further investigate her “disappearance.” She first went to the public library where she encountered the internet for the first time. She was completely shocked in her discovery. There was a vast pool of information about her and queries made — not just in the papers, but from strangers.
There were theories about her disappearance
Shelagh was breathless at her discovery. To her, it was like asking “Where’s Waldo?” and every person connected via wifi was scouring the earth for her. “What astonished me, when I visited a library and was introduced to the internet, was the intrigue I’d left behind, even among people I’d never met.”
People were still listening to her music, even though she only released two albums over 30 years ago. As Shelagh continued to read, she saw theories of where she could be now. Some suggested she was a children’s book author using a pen name, others believed she became a religious recluse. Of course, they were all wrong.
Gordon fell ill
Shelagh began to reach out to friends and family after discovering what many had written about her in newspapers and in forums. She looked to her partner Gordon and decided it was time to come back to the city and settle — not because Shelagh wanted to exist once again in the public eye, but because Gordon’s life was at risk.
He had fallen ill, and after living six years of living outdoors exposed to the elements, his body was buckling. Shelagh and Gordon decided to move into a flat in 2008 with whatever they had. Once they settled in a place with four walls and plumbing, it wasn’t what they expected.
She was a child of the earth
After living in the wilderness of Scotland for so long, Shelagh and her partner grew accustomed to life outdoors. They weren’t used to heat, flushing toilets, nor the sounds of the city. It made them feel claustrophobic. If that wasn’t interesting enough, Shelagh reported smelling the chemicals that surrounded them in their apartment including the paint, floor cleaners, the and car exhaust.
The smell was the only downside living in a city. It was a different experience compared to the brisk, clean aroma provided by the outdoors. Despite its downfalls, Shelagh was able to move passed that after her first hot bath. She was in heaven. Civilization wasn’t so bad after all. But her job was far from over.
Friends welcomed her home
It’s a funny thing, having furniture after sitting or squatting over cold earth. To be able to sit on a chair, to eat on a table, to preserve groceries in a refrigerator — it all opened the couple’s eyes to what they felt like what they were missing out on. Once they celebrated in moving back to civilization, it was time to reconnect with the past.
Shelagh reached out to old friends. She expected anger and judgment but was instead greeted by joy, understanding, and love. It was as if she never left, and it was a tremendous comfort when she needed it most, as Gordon’s health continued to decline.
Gordon encouraged her to play music
It wasn’t long after that Gordon passed away. The two had a long journey together, protecting each other, and finding love in the wilderness. Shelagh was obviously heartbroken, but not for long. Before Gordon died in 2012, he encouraged Shelagh to return to her music. He encouraged her to return to the very thing that once made her happy and creative.
It was the one thing that truly made her feel alive. Shelagh had reservations about the idea of returning to the stage. For one, her voice was still ruined after that bad trip over 30 years prior and second, because she had completely forgotten how to play music.
She forgot to play the guitar
Shelagh listened to her partner’s final wish and decided to return to the music world, despite the fact that she was rusty. She felt like a 25 year old all over again, elated but frightened. She admits in her BBC interview that it had been so long since she had played any kind of music that she had forgotten to play the guitar.
With a little help from friends and encouragement from her fans, she decided to teach herself how to play again. She even hired a vocal instructor to help revive her voice. And after a long road, a year later, Shelagh returned to the music industry. She never knew how much she was missed.
She wouldn’t change a thing
By no means was it easy for Shelagh to completely jump back into the music scene. Though she had repaired her voice and wanted to make music again, she still had hoops to jump through. Luckily, the success of her second album and the popularity of her first helped her re-enter the music industry.
The next thing she knew, she was singing folk music and serenading her fans once more. However, that isn’t to say Shelagh didn’t feel somewhat cheated by her experience as an artist over the past three decades. She can’t help but feel resentful for all the years she lost.
She felt cheated
To be clear, Shelagh was asked whether or not she regrets living the life she lived before re-entering her world of music. She was asked in her BBC interview whether she would do it all over again and her answer was surprising. She said she wouldn’t change a thing about her life,
“I wouldn’t regard it as lost time, I regard it as everything working out for me and I wouldn’t change a thing…If I had stayed in the business all that time I would have been jaded, knackered, and I wouldn’t have been happy. I would have messed up, someway, somehow.” Shelagh saw her life as meaningful and educational. However, when the question was rephrased, she had a completely different answer.
“I couldn’t listen to music”
Though Shelagh has no regrets on how her life turned out, she was asked if in some way she ever felt cheated in terms of her musical career. Compared to Elton John who started roughly the same time and has 40+ albums released (whereas Shelagh had only two and going on three), did she feel like something was taken from her when she failed to continue musically?
Her answer was affirmative. “Yes, when it all went wrong I was devastated and it was like grief, it was almost like grief and I couldn’t listen to music. I felt totally cheated and everything was taken away from me and I had to start again…yes, there was that feeling of being cheated.”
Fame wasn’t worth its value
Shelagh is not a bitter individual. In fact, her previous statement was said matter-of-factly and was reflective. When returning to the music world, she sincerely believed she lost time musically, but the idea of “what if” and “what could have been” were erased the day her partner died.
Death had given her a new perspective on music, and ultimately fame. “Fame has become so valued and I was still at that stage where I really valued that. What changed was the death of my partner and that puts everything into perspective. Fame had no importance what so ever and it’s not worth chasing after.”
She can revive an artist
Shelagh continued to learn new lessons even after returning into the music world. Just because someone has grown older, does not mean they don’t have any lessons to learn. Since her return to the music world, she has released two albums, “Let No Man Steal Your Thyme” in 2005, and “Parnassus Revisited” in 2013.
She still continues to make music and she continues to tell stories through her music, whether it’s about life or love. “You’re alive, you’re learning, and life’s fascinating, even if its lousy…you’re grateful for the little things.” Shelagh makes her audience feel that life gives purpose to anyone, not just those destined for stardom. She makes those around her believe in something greater than themselves.
Life always gives back
From wandering the streets of London out of her mind to meeting the love of her life, to living in a tent and coming back into the music world, Shelagh’s story is one that teaches about strength, perseverance, and patience. Folk music continues to play its part in her life.
Though it’s not as commercially popular as rock, country, hip-hop or pop, her voice definitely makes folk music present in today’s world. Its rural roots give representation to tales passed down from one generation to another and her story will continue as long as there is an audience to listen.