CHAPTER 4: Dulcimers in the British Isles since 1800 > Dulcimers in Scotland

William McNally, 1870-1954

The material on this page was not part of the original thesis of 1976, but came to light in 2001

by Dominic McNally (II), grandson of William (I), son of William (II).

Click on the photos for a closer view

William's parents were show people working in a circus. They travelled throughout Ireland, Scotland and England, where he was born in Stafford in 1870.

We don't know anything about him until he was about ten years of age, other than that he was taught to play the dulcimer by his mother. We now take up his story at this age.

His parents were heavy drinkers as most of the show people were. They had travelled to Oban on the west coast of Scotland. This was a fishing village with a natural deep harbour and is surrounded by hills. It attracted many wealthy people of the time. The family generally set up their show every summer on the outskirts of the town. It was at the end of one season that they decided to pack up and move south to Glasgow, about 100 miles away. Unaware that William was still in the town playing to tourists, his parents were well on their way before he was missed, and he was left stranded. He was unable to read or write at this time. This part of Scotland is very mountainous with narrow roads. It would have been too much of a risk for them to turn back with the winter closing in. In those days, kids were often left to fend for themselves, and that is exactly what he had to do.

During the winter months, the harbour master allowed him to sleep in a store room under the harbour pier, and the following spring his parents returned and they were reunited. They worked there for the summer and then returned to Glasgow, where they decided to settle down.

As a young man, he played in various theatres around Scotland. It wasn't long before he was being recognised as a gifted musician. He returned frequently to Oban playing for wealthy guests in the big hotels. Around this time, his career really took off, and invitations to play at private parties and social events became more lucrative than the theatres. He also felt that his musical talent was more appreciated by playing classical pieces which he enjoyed himself. The Lord Provost of Glasgow said of him..."You are, I would say, the complete master of that instrument."

There were three highlights in his career - being invited to play on Sir Thomas Lipton's yacht during the race from England to America for the America's Cup, playing for the Prince and Princess of Wales, who were later to become King and Queen, when they were on their state visit to Glasgow, and last, but not least, being introduced to Sir Edward Elgar, the renowned conductor and composer. To be recognized by a man who wrote such wonderful music was his most treasured memory.

He continued to play for many years travelling around both in Britain and Europe, but always found time to return to Oban, where his heart was. In his later years, most of his shows were for charity and he donated a large amount of money to help build a chapel in the town.

William McNally was very gentle-natured man with a nice sense of humour, he loved children. He was also a very devout Catholic, and most of his sons were altar boys.

A publicity leaflet features private and press opinions of William's playing, advertising that he

"Played by Special Command before Their Majesties the King and Queen.....William McNally, the Paderewski of the Dulcimer".

One newspaper article called MAESTRO McNALLY says

"Sometimes when the Maestro appeared at Saturday afternoon concerts in the St. Andrew's or City Hall, he took his seven-year-old son, Dominic, along to play with him. With their dulcimers side by side, McNally pere et fils would tinkle out any kind of music the audience fancied".

close-ups from the studio photo above

the instrument

tuning key


"to my son Dominic"


William's wife, Catherine Murray McNally - her way of life was very much one of opening small shops and then selling them. She was way ahead of her time. Women weren't in business in those days. She did those things not so much to make money as to keep herself busy, because our grandfather traveled all over playing his dulcimer and would be gone for long periods of time. At one point, she ran a boarding house in the center of Glasgow. This was largely for theatrical people who, no doubt, were recommended by my grandfather. Some of these people who stayed at her boarding house were quite famous in their day - Stan Laurel, Jack Buchanan (who danced with Fred Astaire in one of his films), and Victor McLaghlan, the film star of the 30s and 40s. There was a violinist called Eduardo Sobrauna. He composed a piece entitled Estralita and apparently taught it to my dad, Dominic (I). I'm sure there must have been many more, but I don't know the names.

Of perhaps 13 children, only six lived to adulthood. I think William was disappointed that his sons didn't inherit his real talent, although they all did play the dulcimer, with Dominic (I) being the best player amongst them ...

Dominic McNally (II)

Thanks to Catherine McNally Dali for communicating this account!

There is more about William on the McNally family web-site; the next pages are about Dominic (I).