William Donaldson

-Doctor- (1944 - )

William DonaldsonWilliam Donaldson was born in Ellon in the north east of Scotland in 1944. He was raised in Fraserburgh. His father’s family came from the Angus and Deeside glens and the Mearns. But it was among his mother’s folk from the fishing villages of Inverallochy and Pennan that from infancy he was immersed in traditional music.

He began learning the pipes at the age of 12 when “Mr Drummond”, an ex City of Dundee Police Piper came to the area. On moving to Aberdeen University he joined their Officer Training Corps pipe band, becoming pipe sergeant and then Pipe Major. His first composition to have a public airing was the retreat air “Union Glen”on the 1960’s BBC radio programme Chanter. The band gave a focus for experiment in the light music repertoire, which one band member who went on to great fame in the piping world summed up nearly thirty years later as having “broadened my musical horizons and had a great effect on my musical attitudes”.  From 1969 to 1977 he studied piobaireachd with Robert Bell Nicol, who agreed to teach him tunes outside the competition repertoire. A stay in Glasgow in 1974 also enabled him to study with Donald MacPherson.

Dr. William Donaldson, 2008.
Dr. William Donaldson, 2008.

Willie Donaldson’s Ph.D. on Jacobite song pioneered a new area of scholarship, a study of the nature of transmission in the traditional performing arts beginning with the broadside songslips from the 17th and 18th centuries. This approach was developed further in various published studies of the song, instrumental music and language of the Scottish people. Donaldson’s knowledge of the historic repertoire is reflected in some of the little known older tunes and settings included in his light music collection, published by Ceol Sean at www.ceolsean.net, the first new collection of bagpipe music committed exclusively to the medium of CD-ROM, with the title From Broadside to Broadband.

Dr. Donaldson's first book is a comprehensive and brilliantly researched look at the history of pipe music, composers and compilers.
Dr. Donaldson’s first book is a comprehensive and brilliantly researched look at the history of pipe music, composers and compilers.

His two books The Highland Pipe and Scottish Society: 1750-1950 (2001) andPipers (2005) are masterly works of research and prose that have broadened the scope of piping literature immensely and occasioned no small amount of controversy.

Dr. Donaldson’s work has been recognised by a number of awards including an individual Leverhulme Research Fellowship, the Thomas Blackwell Memorial prize, a Scottish Arts Council prize and a Wingate Fellowship.  Willie Donaldson has been a librarian, an archivist and a teacher. He currently teaches in the English Department at M.I.T., in Cambridge Mass., where he spends most of his time with his wife, Dr. Ruth Perry.

November 2007.


  • I would like to contact Mr. Donaldson, or have this message relayed to him, if possible. I’ve been reviewing a cassette tape recording I made of Bob Nicol singing through several pibrochs for me when I visited his home in Ballater in August, 1975. During that session, a young man pupil of Bob’s showed up and played “Glengarry’s March”, which I taped. He identified himself on tape as William Donaldson (later emended jokingly to “Ian Duncan”). That name meant nothing to me at the time, or subsequently, until now, when I’ve put it together with the author of the historical notes on tunes that were published in Piper/Drummer (and perhaps elsewhere). Can you assist? I just want to confirm he’s the guy on the tape, and if so, to let him know I have this tape, and was the starry-eyed young Yank in Bob’s living room that day.

  • Miss Heather Petrie

    I’d like to ask if Dr. Donaldson was a teacher at Bankhead Academy in the late 1970’s? If so then I’d love to be able to say hello and a huge thank you to him .
    He was my favourite teacher and was always encouraging in my reading and supplied me with a box of books whilst I was in the care system .
    I wanted him to know that my love of reading continues to this day ,and that his kindness made a difference in my life…

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