Early Years and Education
MacGillivray sang with the Immaculata Boys’ Choir in Bridgeport, Nova Scotia, and before age 12 toured Cape Breton as a singer and guitarist with the variety show Joe Gaul’s Parade of Stars. He began to write songs in his teens and was a member of several Cape Breton folk groups. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree from St. Francis Xavier University in 1969.
MacGillivray was accompanist to John Allan Cameron (1969–72) and music director for his TV show. He was also accompanist to the Irish group Ryan’s Fancy (1973–79), serving as music director for its CBC TV series from St. John’s, Newfoundland (1974–77). After travelling widely in North America with the Irish duo Tommy Makem and Liam Clancy in 1979–80, MacGillivray turned from performing to songwriting and producing.
MacGillivray’s best-known composition, “Song for the Mira,” was included in a folio of the same name (New Dawn Enterprises 1979) with 12 other original songs. His other publications, published with his wife Beverly MacGillivray, include folios of traditional and contemporary material, such as: The Cape Breton Song Collection (Sea-Cape Music 1985) scored for piano by John C. O'Donnell; The Nova Scotia Song Collection (Sea-Cape Music 1989) also with score by O’Donnell; Songs From The Mira (Sea-Cape Music 2001) scored by John O’Donnell and Al Feeney; and two surveys of local instrumental and stepdancing traditions, The Cape Breton Fiddler (Sydney 1981, reissued 1997) and A Cape Breton Céilidh (Sydney 1988).
Other popular MacGillivray songs, which are largely Celtic in style and Maritime in flavour, include “Away from the Roll of the Sea,” which has been arranged by the composer for SATB choir (Thompson 1988), ‘Here’s To Song’, ‘Coal Town Road’, ‘Tie Me Down’, and ‘Kitty Bawn O’Brien’.
Hundreds of recordings have been made of MacGillivray titles; his staunchest interpreters include Cape Breton’s The Barra MacNeils, John Allan Cameron, and the Rise & Follies/Summertime Revue, as well as Eleanor McCain (Canada), Ryan's Fancy and Frank Patterson (Ireland), the Alexander Brothers (Scotland), Gordon Bok (USA), and Noel Harrison (UK). Additional Canadians who have recorded his work include Denny Doherty, Anne Murray, and John McDermott; his songs are also popular material for choirs, such as the Men of the Deeps, the Elektra Women's Choir, the Amadeus Children's Choir, and the Toronto Children's Chorus. His songs have been arranged by choral conductors Lydia Adams and Diane Loomer.
MacGillivray was the subject of an episode on the CBC television series Take 30. As a record producer, he has worked with Cape Breton fiddlers Buddy MacMaster and Winnie Chafe, the Men of the Deeps, and produced four albums for The Cottars, two of which won East Coast Music Awards. He is a member of SOCAN and the Order of Canada.
- Member, Order of Canada (2013)
- Honorary Doctor of Letters, D.Litt., University College of Cape Breton (now Cape Breton University) (1997)
- Diamonds in the Rough: 25 Years with the Men of the Deeps (Glace Bay, NS, 1991)
- The Men of the Deeps: The Continuing Saga (New Waterford, NS, 2000)