Ishabel T. MacDonald is a Gaelic tradition bearer who has served Gaelic culture as a singer, singing teacher, song collector, composer and writer. She was very much involved in the first-ever Fèis, held on Barra in 1981, from which the Fèisean movement developed and has contributed to the repertoires of emerging and established singers. Since 2012 she has taught Gaelic singing at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland.
Ishabel was born in Glasgow into a Gaelic-speaking family. Both her parents came from South Uist and Gaelic was Ishabel’s first language. Her father was part of a dynasty of pipers and was often sought out for tunes and advice. He and his brother John were double piping gold medallists and their cousin Archie MacDonald was also a piper and the father of renowned piper Rona Lightfoot. The well-known pipe tune Miss Ishabel T MacDonald was written in Ishabel’s honour by her uncle John.
Although Ishabel never learned to play the pipes, having been around pipe music so much at home she did learn to play many pipe tunes on the piano, which she took up at the age of four and studied through to teaching level. She also studied classical violin in secondary school.
On leaving school Ishabel trained to be a primary school teacher and took up her first post in Govan. Having spent her summer holidays in South Uist as a child, she returned to the island as a student every year and began collecting hundreds of songs from singers she visited locally and went on to capture on video. In 1971 she became the first winner of the Women’s Traditional Gold Medal at the Mod in Stirling. Rather than perform as a singer, however, she preferred to teach and share her repertoire of songs, some of which she can now be heard singing on Tobar an Dualchais, the online project that has preserved and digitized material gathered in Scottish Gaelic, Scots and English by the School of Scottish Studies, BBC Scotland and the Canna Collection of the National Trust for Scotland.
Initially Ishabel taught children whose parents brought them to her but she gradually took on older students and has enjoyed great success as a teacher of Mod gold medal winners. Her first successful protégé, Margaret Callan won the traditional gold medal in 1994 and she has since coached another six traditional and two An Comunn Gàidhealach Gold Medal winners including brother and sister Gillebride and Mary MacMillan.
As well as teaching singers, Ishabel has worked extensively in Gaelic broadcasting and publishing. She has presented a series of programmes on the histories of Gaelic songs for BBC Radio Scotland, collaborated on the script for the film Seachd and written and researched numerous educational programmes. She also composed the music for a radio series based on Gaelic folk tales, co-edited a Gaelic hymn book and has produced two children’s books, one of children’s songs she collected and another of her own stories.
For a number of years Ishabel also contributed reviews and features to The Scotsman newspaper’s Gaelic page, helping to spread the word about new and established talents in Gaelic music and reporting from events including Celtic Connections.
As the successor to Kenna Campbell as Gaelic singing tutor at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, Ishabel takes great pleasure in helping young singers to develop and choosing suitable songs for them to sing, a role she has also performed privately and informally.