Donald MacGillavry, The Genius Hoax

It’s no secret that I love folk music. I listen to it, I play it, I try to sing it. And among my favorite in the folk genre is Donald MacGillavry, a Scottish Jacobite song meant to support either the Jacobite rising of 1715 or 1745.

Or is it?

That’s not to say, is it one of my favorites, because it most assuredly is, but rather is it a revolution-supporting Scottish Jacobite song? And the answer is absolutely not. It’s a hoax. But it’s a clever hoax, and one worth exploring.

So, before we dive into this, start by listening to the song. This is the Silly Wizard version, which is by far the most Scottish version I could find (also my favorite).

First, it’s important to understand the historical context in which the song was supposed to have been written. I suggest reading it all, but there will be a tl;dr at the bottom.

Really you could bring this all the way back to the Stuart kings, specifically starting with Charles I who is known for two things: trying to strengthen the monarchy at the expense of Parliament because he felt his position was divinely ordained, and being executed by an uprising in January 1649 which lead to an 11-ish year period in which England had no monarch and was under the control of Parliament and the military under the direction of Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell (or his son).

Cromwell served England as a member of the Rump Parliament and eventually the Barebones Parliament until they gave up this “Parliament” idea and just gave him dictatorial power. This period was known as the  Interregnum.

In 1660, Royalists returned a Stuart king to the throne, in this case Charles II. They also dug up a two-year-dead Cromwell, hung his corpse in chains, and beheaded it. Charles II pushed even more fervently for monarchal power, resisting calls for a consensual government, made even more potent because of Cromwell’s experiment with Commonwealth. Charles also re-established the Church of England and episcopal government in Scotland.

Eventually Charles dies and his brother James II ascends to the throne. There’s a lot of mucking about here with succession that isn’t important (and this preamble is long enough), suffice it to say James is not a popular king. He’s already part of a dynasty that is known for trying to take power from the people and place it in the crown, but he is also Catholic. This poses a big problem as he immediately started pushing for programs that would include Catholics, Protestant Dissenters, and even Quakers more fully in public life. Unsurprisingly, largely CoE England saw this as a direct attack on their faith (see? this is not a new argument), part of what eventually lead to Netherlander William of Orange (married to James’s daughter Mary, hence also the college name) taking the English throne in what is called the Glorious Revolution.

And all of that background leads us to the Jacobites, who were the supporters of the deposed King James and his children. They largely blew the deposed Stuarts up into mighty caricatures of themselves, almost mythical figures who represented everything they believed in (primarily the divine right of kings, that kings are answerable only to god, and that hereditary lines should always be respected). Of the political parties, they found their support with the Torys, who tend to be Royalists and were opposed by the Whigs, who felt that law should be based primarily on possession rather that “right.”

Tl;dr The Stuart kings tried to take power away from Parliament with often disastrous results. Eventually this lead to James II being kicked off the throne by his son-in-law, a Dutchman named William of Orange. The people who considered James the true king were called Jacobites.

However, none of this matters because this song was unknown to the Jacobites. In fact, it was first published in 1819 by a man named James Hogg.

Hogg was a Scottish poet and novelist, as well as an early parodist. He was very popular for his time, but among his most well known works was  Jacobite Reliquesa collection of Jacobite (and some Whig) songs. Donald MacGillavry was among the Jacobite ones and described by Hogg as, “…one of the best songs that ever was made…a capital old song, and very popular.” He goes on to explain an entirely fictitious history for the song, hearkening back to the 1715 and 1745 Jacobite risings in Scotland, talking about two obscure soldiers in those wars with the last name MacGillavry, expounding on how because they were a minor sub-clan and not associated with powerful warring factions, they were used as a symbol for a united Scotland, etc. Seriously, read it yourself.

The thing that made this a particularly effective hoax was that it is really a fantastic song. Hogg had an excellent grasp not only of the political and social realities of the previous few generations from him, he also had a grasp on the nature of Scottish nationalism and identity and their evolution to that point. In the words of William Donaldson in his book The Jacobite Song: Political Myth and National Identity:

Donald Macgillavry is one of the best things in the collection, set to a lilting 6/8 in a minor key ideally suited to the repetition and word-play packed into the stanzas, and issuing an exuberant summons to resentful Gaeldom to deliver the nation from the thraldom of Whiggery…Successive verses elaborate the pattern established in the first. The initial four lines enlarge upon the Highlandman’s fury, and then he is invoked in various forms, as a weaver, tailor, cobbler, and so on, and this takes up the rest of the octave…But these prosaic concepts are translated in four brilliantly alliterative lines into fresh and highly concrete terms…

Let’s put the lyrics down here, since we’re about to get into some analysis of what they are and what they mean. Also, for those having trouble with some of the words, this is a non-authoritative but useful semi-glossary.

Donald’s gane up the hill hard and hungry,
Donald comes down the hill wild and angry;
Donald will clear the gouk’s nest cleverly,
Here’s to the king and Donald Macgillavry.
Come like a weighbauk, Donald Macgillavry,
Come like a weighbauk, Donald Macgillavry,
Balance them fair, and balance them cleverly:
Off wi’the counterfeit, Donald Macgillavry.

Donald’s run o’er the hill but his tether, man,
As he were wud, or stang’d wi’ an ether, man;
When he comes back, there’s some will look merrily:
Here’s to King James and Dnnald Macgillavry.
Come like a weaver, Donald Macgillavry,
Come like a weaver, Dnnald Macgillavry,
Pack on your back, and elwand sae cleverly;
Gie them full measure, my Donald Macgillavry.

Donald has foughten wi’ rief and roguery;
Donald has dinner’d wi banes and beggary,
Better it were for Whigs and Whiggery
Meeting the devil than Donald Macgillavry.
Come like a tailor, Donald Macgillavry,
Come like a tailor, Donald Macgillavry,
Push about, in and out, thimble them cleverly,
Here’s to King James and Donald Macgillavry.

Donald’s the callan that brooks nae tangleness;
Whigging and prigging and a’newfangleness,
They maun be gane: he winna be baukit, man:
He maun hae justice, or faith he’ll tak it, man.
Come like a cobler, Donald Macgillavry,
Come like a cobler, Donald Macgillavry;
Beat them, and bore them, and lingel them cleverly,
Up wi’ King James and Donald Macgillavry.

Donald was mumpit wi mirds and mockery;
Donald was blinded wi’ blads o’ property;
Arles ran high, but makings were naething, man,

Lord, how Donald is flyting and fretting, man.
Come like the devil, Donald Macgillavry,
Come like the devil, Donald Macgillavry;
Skelp them and scaud them that proved sae unbritherly,
Up wi King James and Donald Macgillavry!

Of the eponymous main character, Donaldson says, “His Highlandman is not a clownish barbarian, but a formidable character with a decisive political role…” which is a vast departure from popular depictions of the wild Scotsman of the time. Donaldson also points out that it’s irony that Hogg uses mercantile imagery to sing the praises of MacGillavry since he’s placed in opposition to the Whigs, who were by and large Classical Liberals who, unlike modern liberals, are noted for their support of an unrestrained free market and the supremacy of possession and contract over granted rights (i.e. much closer to today’s libertarian). Essentially, Hogg used the symbols of commerce to describe a person battling against their unchecked freedom.

Moreover, part of what made this particular hoax so believable was that Hogg was careful to allude to pressing issues of the time in which it was supposed to be written. For example, the first occupation that MacGillavry has is that of “weighbauk.” British currency was in crisis at the end of the 17th and beginning of the 18th century, with the value of it going down due to clipping and counterfeiting. Part of the reason why Sir Isaac Newton was made Master of the Mint was that he was supposed to use his scientific and mathematical genius to try and deal with the fact that British money was becoming less and less reliable. So a weighbauk was a really important job: the person who made sure your money was worth something. It also allowed for the fantastic dig at William of Orange by stating “off with the counterfeit, Donald MacGillavry.” Obviously, “counterfeit” here is both fake money and the fake king.

A similar bit of word play is going on in the second stanza where we see a reference to an “elwand,” which is a measuring stick used to determine how much fabric to cut. However, we see Hogg using it here to also mean a bludgeon, and the pun in “give them full measure” painted a particularly gruesome picture if you really think about it. Similarly, I don’t see a whole lot of good in the next stanza when MacGillavry is encouraged to, like a cobbler,  “Beat them, and bore them, and lingel them cleverly.” As a cobbler, I’ve beaten and bored and lingeled, and none of those sound very healthy to non-shoes.

There’s a lot more to be said about the use of dialect, but I don’t feel really qualified to go into it. Suffice it to say, the brilliance of Hogg lies in his ability to create really vivid visual metaphors that were so much a part of the culture of almost 100 years before that he could have easily gotten away with claiming this was an authentic Jacobite song, rather than admitting it was a hoax. However, being a bit of a pain in the ass, Hogg admitted he made it up, delighting in making a book reviewer, Francis Jeffrey, look like a moron as a result. In the 1831 edition of his book “Songs,” Hogg wrote this about Donald (emphasis mine): 

…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’… After all, 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.

Now, I know a lot of my friends are fans of the Empty Hats version, which is significantly different.

Instead of being about a Highlander fighting Whigs, it’s about a wild musician coming into “civilized” town and, with his uncontrolled and passionate music, leading the people astray. He’s condemned by the church, but just before he’s burnt at the stake, the children of the town lie down on the unlit pyre and the people see their behavior as a message from god, so he’s set free.

Basically, they took that same “lilting 6/8” tune and re-wrote the lyrics. And I should say that I don’t think it’s a bad version, per se, but ultimately it’s not one I generally care to listen to, despite its anti-clerical underpinnings. What I like so much about the original is the layers and layers of meaning, history, and implication, as well as the whole “it was really a hoax” thing, that is simply missing from the Hats version. Similarly, the straightforward storytelling strips the song of its puns and metaphor, and perhaps the most interesting bit of Donald is Hogg’s wordplay.

So, not a bad version, but not my preferred one. I still suggest listening to it, and basically everything done by Empty Hats ever.

So there’s a bit about one song. And I’m well over 2000 words talking about it. But I think it’s fascinating how the simple act of songwriting can be so complexly woven together, and some of the songs that last do so because, whether we realize it or not, there are multitudes within a simple frame.


25 thoughts on “Donald MacGillavry, The Genius Hoax

  1. Thank you for writing this! I’d always kinda wondered about it – I heard it from Emerald Rose, and I always loved the song, despite not sympathizing with the Jacobites. (And yes, I know exactly how nerdy it is that I even have an opinion on a political situation that happened 300 years ago in another country. I blame Neal Stephenson.) It’s awesome to have more context, and to know that it’s actually a hoax!

    (Also it’s nice to know all the lyrics, although I oddly understand the song LESS now that I know exactly how many words I don’t actually know!)

    • I don’t think I’ve actually heard the Emerald Rose version. Going to have to look that one up.

      Also also blame Neal Stephenson for my having a specific political opinion about the Jacobites, but doing the research for this made that a bit more murky for me, at least in terms of support for William of Orange. James was unquestionably grabbing for more power, but the Protestant Defender myth that rose around William was pretty weak when James seemed to be looking for more inclusion for other religious groups in a time when religious exemption meant almost total societal exclusion. It reminds me too much of today’s “You’re not showing deference to my beliefs over all others, which means you’re oppressing me” attitude. I’m not sure the Jacobites as a group really got that message and the whole movement went far beyond James, though.

      I think one of the best things about this song though was that it was such a well-constructed hoax, such a perfectly assembled song for the time it was supposed to be from, that Hogg could have gotten away with it if he could have prevented himself from basically giggling in public. Then again, I’m not sure he wanted to get away with it.

      And yes, actually looking up the lyrics is confusing. The link I provided does help a lot, though, and I feel I have a more complete understanding of the song now that I puzzled over it for a while.

  2. Pingback: Another Song Post: Life on Mars? | Reasonable Conversation

  3. Pingback: Two Christmas Songs | Reasonable Conversation

  4. Interesting explanation. I know the song from the great Silly Wizard live version and basically had no clue about the lyrics. But, however rousing or lilting the tune, neither Silly Wizard’s nor Empty Hat’s version is in 6/8. In 6/8 each beat is divided into 3 parts (this is called compound meter). Jigs are in compound meter, for example. So is “Greensleeves,” to cite a song folkies will know. Both these versions are in simple meter (the beat divided into two parts, subdivided into four). It wouldn’t be impossible to set the text in compound meter, so there might be versions of it in 6/8, but that wouldn’t be the most natural way to do it. Being very nerdy here, I know, but I couldn’t let that slide.

  5. Like the above poster, I came to this song through Emerald Rose–it struck me I’d like to really look at the lyrics (and possibly learn to sing it) and thus happened across your fascinating post. Thanks for teaching me something new tonight and giving me more things to explore for the future!

  6. Love that Silly Wizard CD. And many thanks for explaining the lyrics. An ingeniously written song, tongue so firmly planted in cheek, that the truth is barely heard. Sense and perception remains elusive—Silly Wizards, indeed!

  7. Pingback: Humorous readings for social parties – Maistly Scotch 1882 | Esme's Cloud

  8. Hello there, not sure if you’re still around but I’ve linked this page and your blog to a post I’ve written about a Scottish Dialect book and I came across your marvellous words above regarding the Silly Wizard song and just had to send folks here as I love the song and am using it myself.

    – Esme waving upon the Cloud

    • I still check the blog for comments, even though I’ve moved on to talking about comics on YouTube. I read your piece and it was wonderful. What a magnificent book you found! And I loved following you in your exploration of it.

      • Well thank you very much!! That’s made my day Kaoru, it’s a cracker, I collect old books, often battered poor things, but the treasures within are what matters. I like old tatty things a bit more anyway – *laughs*. Thank you again for commenting.

        – Esme shaking her hand upon the Cloud

  9. I know this article was published 5 years ago but I’ve just came across it and it’s really interesting. I’ve been a fan of the Caledonia’s Hardy Sons album for several years now but only recently decided to explore Silly Wizard a bit further and came across this absolute gem of a song. I’m Scottish but some of the language was unrecognisable to me and a wee search on Google threw your article up. Thanks very much for your insight!

  10. This has always been one of favorite songs.I love Silly Wizard’s version the best and saw them sing it live at Wiggin’s Tavern in Northampton, MA. Thanks so much for the “story behind the song”.

  11. Poisoned Dwarf has a nice version of this tune on their “Six Shades of Green” disk played in a set with The Crested Hen, the Morning Dew and Toss the Feathers interspersed in the lyrics.
    You can give ’em a listen at:

  12. Thank you for this! I love the driven rhythm of Silly Wizard’s version; actually sat in the same room with Johnny Cunningham one day in Massachusetts…what a fiddler!
    It is a marvel of music, whatever its origin.

  13. A novel, “The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner”, is Hogg’s best known work. It remains in print and widely read in Scotland- a savage satire on the Calvinism of his time and place.

    Incidentally, the Scottish Borders where Hogg was born in 1770 was not very sympathetic to Jacobitism or “the Highland Host” of folk memory from earlier conflicts in the 17th century. By the year of his birth, the height of the Scottish Enlightenment, was a whole world-view away from Bonnie Prince Charlie (who would live until 1788).

    Even had we known nothing of the song’s provenance, the Lowland Scots of its composition, in praise of a Highland Jacobite, should raise immediate questions about its authenticity, The best Jacobite songs are, of course, in Gaelic but these, today, are a specialised taste -more’s the pity.

  14. “In 1860, Royalists returned a Stuart king to the throne, in this case Charles II” Typo. It was 1660. had to post correction before diving in to this incredible breakdown of Donald MacGillivry. Great rabblerousing number. Used to play this in a group, never heard a recordng, learned from the mandoln player. Thanks for directing me to the records. We played in taverns, and this one always morphed into a near-Tull experience , the “here’s to the king” break especially conducive to guitar abuse on the rhythm change-up….

    My maternal line goes back to MacGillivray… Dunmeglas!

    Ok, now I can read the essay. From quick scroll it looks brilliant.

      • Year and years of sporadic research. This particular blog post came about when I realized I know far too much about this song just from picking up little bits here and there. I then double checked it with some sources to make sure I was correct.

  15. I was always under the impression that this song was about a Jacobite soldier who was actually an assassin & all of the trades mentioned was some of the various disguises that he adopted in his role of furthering the Jacobite cause…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s