‘Stories was wir education’

As this week is National Storytelling Week I thought I’d reproduce this short piece I wrote about Duncan Williamson, the Scottish traveller and storyteller whom Hamish Henderson described as embodying the Scottish storytelling tradition

‘I was reared, born and bred on stories. That’s all I had in my life,’ said Duncan Williamson, the Scottish traveller often acclaimed as the greatest of his country’s modern storytellers. The seventh of 16 children, Williamson was born in 1928, in Aryll. His family lived in a large tent in the woods of Furnace owned by the Duke of Argyll. He learned most of his stories from his parents and from his grandmother, Bella McDonald, and began telling stories when he was still a child. He was seven when he told his first one:

My first story ever was the fox and the crow up the tree wi a bit o cheese. And the children was so quiet listenin tae me telling that story that tyhe teaher slipped in tae see why they was so quiet. I says, I’m telling a story, I says, they’re enjoyin’ it. And I tolt them another story – the stories my faither and mother and my granny tolt me. So I took an interest in stories ever after that.

For traveller children, storytelling was a way of discovering their own culture and history and for learning lessons that, later, would help them survive. 

As a mature storyteller, with a repertoire of more than 700 tales, Williamson said that when he told a story the person who told him the story was stood behind him, and when she spoke, she in turn had a teller behind her, and so on and so on. He understood that the tradition he helped keep alive, in stories, songs and poems, until his death, aged 79, in 2007, preserved not only the traditions of the Scottish travelling peoples but Scotland’s own ancient culture, passed on for centuries in oral stories and legends.

In the great storytelling tradition, Williamson took what had been given him and made it into something that was distinctly his own. The nomadic culture into which he was born valued songs and stories above more formal education and the skills of reading and writing. Barbara McDermitt, in her introduction to Williamson’s The King and the Lamp: Scottish Traveller Tales, records him explaining:

We used tae work with my faither on the farms and I learned my education there. And when I left home I got wee jobs with the farmers and slept in the barns. Or the hay shed. Or the aul bothy. It wis the auld farmer’s wife and the farmers gave me my education. All the teachers at school taught me was my ABCs and tae write. But as far as my education it was my family, the stories, the songs, and the music and the ballads that came from my people from my granny and grandfaither, and the stories I learned from the local people.

The Scottish poet and folklorist Hamish Henderson recalled that Williamson’s parents were both ‘unlettered’ but ‘steeped in the oral transmission of traveller lore in all its variety’. His father, a basket-maker and tinsmith, was determined that his children should get a basic education, and Williamson attended school until he was 14 when he was apprenticed to stonemason and ‘drystone dyker’, Neil MacCallum. MacCallum was also a storyteller who passed on all of his Gaelic stories to Williamson – the start of his serious collecting.

After a year, he left home with an older brother, travelling all over Argyll and Perth, working as a farm labourer and horse dealer. On the road, he began to pick up new stories and songs, and to relate them in his own way. He married Jeannie Townsley, a distant cousin, in 1949, and began a family, taking to the road with wagon and tent and taking work where he could find it. Wherever he went, he said, he ‘told one story and left with two’.

In the early 1960s, Williamson’s life changed. He was ‘discovered’ by the School of Scottish Studies, which, since the 1950s, had been collecting the traditional songs and stories of performers such as Jeannie Robertson, Flora MacNeil and Blind Ali Dall. Williamson began to perform alongside other folk artists in Glasgow. After his wife died in 1971, Willliamson met Linda Hedley, an American student, who began recording his songs and stories. She later became his wife, living with him and their two children in a traveller’s tent for four years before they moved to a cottage in Fife. She convinced him that his stories should be published and Canongate produced the first of 14 books of Williamson’s stories, based on Linda’s painstaking transcriptions. The publications brought Williamson international recognition, with appreciative audiences in America as well as in England and Scotland. Linda’s recordings were lodged at the School of Scottish Studies, in Edinburgh University.

In his introduction to Williamson’s A Thorn in the King’s Foot: Folk Tales of the Scottish Travelling People, Hamish Henderson described Williamson as ‘possibly the most extraordinary tradition-bearer of the whole traveller tribe’. Williamson, he said, represented ‘the Scottish folk traditions in one man’. People came from all over the world to hear him talk and sing. It was in the face-to-face telling of stories that Williamson’s gift came to life. He was as happy performing for one or two visitors as he was for a larger audience, and was conscious of his obligation as an inheritor of an ancient tradition to share with others. Much of his life was committed to passing on the stories and songs he collected and interpreted. ‘Stories was wir education’, he said, and he made sure that education was not lost. 

Published collections of Williamson’s stories include Fireside Tales of the Traveller Children (1983), A Thorn in the King’s Foot: Folk Tales of the Scottish Travelling People (1987), Tales of the Seal People: Scottish Folk Tales (1997) and The King and the Lamp: Scottish Traveller Tales (2000). Williamson also published an autobiography, The Horsieman: Memoirs of a Traveller 1928-58 (1994).