Person Mary Isdale MacNab 242

1889 – 1966
Vancouver, Canada
Areas of activity
  • Deviser of dances
  • Publisher of dance descriptions

See also Scottish Dances collected by Mary Isdal MacNab (RSCDS publication) and its precursors, MacNab Dances Vol 1 and MacNab Dances Vol 2.

RSCDS London Branch operates The Mary Isdale MacNab Collection, which includes scans of many of the dances associated with Mrs MacNab as originally published, as well as videos.


As reported in issue 2305 Mary Isdale MacNab is the correct spelling of her name. However some RSCDS publications and therefore the original SCDDB entry had her middle name as "Isdal".

General Notes

In the interest of correctness we should like to point out that while the database may give the impression that Mrs MacNab was a “deviser” of dances, the extent to which she was personally involved in the creation of much of the material associated with her is difficult to pin down with any certainty. Without doubt the main publications of “MacNab dances” put out by the RSCDS (see above) list her as a “collector”, but the actual provenance of the dances in question is impossible to ascertain, and sometimes the claimed origin of a dance does seem quite far-fetched. The fact that most of these dances are obviously quite unlike the rest of the traditional SCD repertoire also raises legitimate questions as to their actual origins.

Based on this and in the absence of hard evidence to the contrary, it is not entirely unreasonable to conjecture that Mary Isdale MacNab did make at least some of the dances up herself, or changed them considerably prior to publication. Certainly “arranging” collected dances to conform to one's perception of an idealised “correct” version, sometimes modifying them extensively in the process, was something that in MacNab's time was not generally frowned upon. The Society used to do it, too. On the other hand, inventing entirely new dances from whole cloth (especially very unusual rococo ones) was much less accepted. Hence in some circumstances it might make a certain amount of sense to endow a newly devised dance with a fanciful yet impossible-to-verify back story, in order to give it more street credibility.

As an extreme POV, to some the “MacNab dances” effectively represent the Poems of Ossian of the SCD world.

Collecting vs. Devising

For technical reasons, the database does not support a “dance collector” category, and most of the “MacNab dances” are credited to that prolific deviser of dances, “Unknown”, simply because that information is not available to us. As a result of this, most of the dances associated with Mrs MacNab aren't listed on the “Dances” tab of her detail page, but must be accessed through the RSCDS publications linked above, the entries on the “Publications” tab (including the “Dance(s) collected by Mary Isdale MacNab” pseudo-publication), and/or the RSCDS London Branch resource mentioned above.

“Missing MacNabberies”

On the London Branch site there is also a list of more than 50 dance titles purportedly mentioned in correspondence by Mary Isdale MacNab but about which no details or descriptions are known. If more information about any of these dances turns up we'd be happy to add them to the database.


The following brief biography was provided by Stephen Webb.

Mary Isdale (for this was her maiden name) was born in 1889 in Govan, SW Glasgow and was taught highland dancing as a child by E E Henderson. She and her family emigrated to Vancouver, Canada in 1907. In 1920 she married Allan MacNab from Lochgoilhead, their son is called Gordon. Mrs MacNab started teaching highland dancing from 1910, not confining herself to teaching the standard répertoire for highland dancing competitions she also collected, and eventually taught other less common dances.

Her collecting started, when she was encouraged by some elderly highland ladies in Vancouver to learn some of the dances they knew as children. She found that other people were also willing to teach dances to her, and her mother encouraged her to write down what she learned. Most of her collecting was done up to the mid 1940s. She collected step-dances, sword-dances, quadrilles, figure dances both country and highland resulting in a large collection. Because her collecting simply involved writing down descriptions in note form told to her or from seeing dances danced it was not unusual for Mrs MacNab to have to reconstruct the dances as she believed, using her dance expertise, that would have been, often working on a dance with her dancing class to see it all fitted. In recording the dance description Mrs MacNab would also note down from whom the dance was collected and any associated story attached to it thus, bringing the dance to life and often establishing a provenance.

Mrs MacNab was an extraordinarily unique teacher and dance collector without whose dedication many old and very interesting dances would have been lost. Macdonald of Sleat, McKenzie of Seaforth, Hebridean Weaving Lilt, inter alia come to mind. Mrs MacNab gained her RSCDS Teaching Certificate when she first visited St Andrew’s Summer School to teach in 1948 the first of her nine sets of dances. Her forte though, was making dance programmes for festivals and gatherings when she would create a historical and balanced dancing spectacle. One such concert for which she was famous in Vancouver was the annual ‘Gathering of the Clans’. A particular favourite devised dance included was the spectacular, The Brooch of Lorne. Once in 1964 even taking a team to perform at the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo. Mary Isdale MacNab died in November 1966; the Scottish dancing world losing one of its greatest advocates, exponents and ambassadors.

The above synopsis is an abbreviated outline of Mrs MacNab’s dancing life, the reader is invited to see the full version in The Thistle No 33. Also, an excellent article on Mrs MacNab by Rosemary Coupe and Mary Murray can be found in RSCDS Bulletin Issue 82, November 2004. Another article is in issue 295 of The Reel.

A summary of the dances collected and/or arranged and/or choreographed by Mary Isdale MacNab is given on the London Branch website.

Dance(s) Collected by Mary Isdale MacNab Dance(s) Collected by Mary Isdale MacNab Mary Isdale MacNab 0