‘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).

Mind to mind, heart to heart

Over the past two decades there has been a significant growth of interest in the art and tradition of storytelling, with people in all sorts of different settings recognising its value as a tool for teaching and communication. A few years ago I wrote this piece for Adults Learning on the revival of the tradition of oral storytelling in Scotland and the development of a unique storytelling course by the Scottish Storytelling Centre and Newbattle Abbey College – it’s reproduced here for National Storytelling Week

‘Tradition is out of fashion,’ was how the great teller of Scottish traveller tales Duncan Williamson summed up the decline of oral storytelling in his country. Many nineteenth-century collectors of these stories regarded the tradition as already calcified, a relic of the past. But it has been kept alive in Scotland, by Williamson and other Scottish storytellers, and the late flowering of interest in the art form, here and elsewhere, is sometimes described as a ‘renaissance’. The Scottish Storytelling Forum has been at the forefront of this resurgence. Founded in 1992, it has grown from an original group of 17 professional storytellers to a network of more than 80.

The hub of its activity is the Scottish Storytelling Centre, opened in 2006, in Edinburgh. Under the directorship of Donald Smith, the centre has emerged as an important national and international resource for storytelling, offering workshops for all ages, and seeking to encourage and develop storytellers in every community. The forum’s membership has gradually expanded to include groups and individuals from all over the world, a trend reflected this summer with the inaugural meeting of the Federation for European Storytelling, attended by representatives from 25 countries. The upsurge in interest has been remarkable, and has attracted the attention of people working and volunteering in an array of different settings, people who recognise themselves as, to some degree, operating in the oral storytelling tradition.

Recognising a need, the Scottish Storytelling Centre began to work with nearby Newbattle Abbey College, a residential college with a strong liberal arts ethos, to develop the first-ever professional qualification in storytelling. Now in its second year, the course is helping learners who already see storytelling as a part of their work to ‘dig deeper’ to find their own voices and to develop their skills as storytellers. For Donald Smith, the course is a breakthrough for contemporary storytelling, demonstrating the difference it can make in various different contexts, and affirming the value of storytelling in developing confidence and creativity, and in bringing individuals closer together.

‘There is an old Scottish traveller proverb that a story should be told eye to eye, mind to mind and heart to heart,’ Smith says. ‘We’re talking here about live telling of stories, a direct sharing. There’s no script, even in your head. You might have the shape of the story in your head, but it’s always made anew in the telling. Everybody is imagining and reacting and experiencing together and the storyteller is a kind of enabler who is allowing everybody to share this story. You’re not a solo performer, it’s a group thing.’ Storytelling is a very old Scottish tradition, he says. In both Scots and Gaelic, and in both rural and urban working communities, it was, for centuries, ‘the backbone of the local culture’. More recently, though, live storytelling has played a more marginal part in cultural, community and family life. That has begun to change, Smith says. ‘Since the early 1980s there has been a renaissance of storytelling, as a community art and as a way of learning. I think people are concerned that older, human and humane values may be lost, local cultures, local languages. That is part of it. But that would be to depict it as almost reactionary. Alongside that is a passionate desire to shape that sense of common human values, progressive, positive values, that are global, that are for human beings everywhere.

‘ I suppose that storytelling, in its incredible ancientness in our culture and our way of thinking, comes to the fore if we’re struggling to know what it is we share. There’s been huge change, summarised by this word “globalisation”, but there’s also this huge struggle for a sense of universal human values, and that’s a positive struggle. If we don’t sort it out planet Earth will burn out quite soon, so there’s quite a need for all that. And yet you don’t do that by eradicating all the wonderful human differences. That’s not the kind of globalisation we want. We want to celebrate diversity. You’ve got natural ecology where you’re trying to sustain biological diversity and the inter-dynamic of life, and storytelling seems to me to be a kind of cultural ecology where you’re trying to do the same kinds of things but with human language and emotion. I don’t think that’s a casual analogy.’

The Scottish Storytelling Forum brings together people who are enthusiastic about storytelling, not only professional storytellers but also teachers, librarians, carers, social workers, tour guides and others who see storytelling as central to their work. The Scottish Storytelling Centre offers regular workshops and programmes of training and development for aspiring and experienced storytellers alike. The ethos of the work was always group-based and informal, says Smith. ‘That’s how storytellers develop and emerge, from working with stories, and sharing with other people who are interested in stories.’ But it was also clear that people using storytelling in their workplaces were keen on the idea of a more formal course or qualification in storytelling. There can never be a qualification for being a storyteller, Smith says – ‘storytellers are made by life’ – but there can be a qualification that helps people develop as storytellers and learn more about storytelling.

That was where Newbattle came in. ‘Between Newbattle and ourselves, and the Scottish Qualification Authority framework, we’ve designed something that is unique, that reacts to the nature of the storytelling experience, while providing a structure and discipline so that people who want to relate that in a thought-through way to their own work can do so. It’s quite an interesting marriage of art and formal learning.’ The course, which is supported by the Scottish Funding Council, consists of two units, one on contemporary storytelling, the other on developing a project, and covers areas such as effective oral presentation, story sourcing and analysing the purposes of oral storytelling within different professional contexts. Students attend the college for two residential weekends, with self-directed study in between.

Rae McGhee, Heritage Development Officer at the college and one of the course’s initial in-take of students, was impressed by the range of backgrounds she discovered among the other students. ‘We had nurses, people who work in residential homes, people who work with children with additional needs, as well as librarians, teachers, lecturers and people working in tourism. Really, at the core of all these jobs is storytelling. Among storytellers there is a feeling that the tradition has been put to one side for many years and a lot of people now equate storytelling with opening a book and reading without examining what’s behind the words. But storytelling comes from within. You develop your own stories, you colour them, and you make them come to life.’

Newbattle Abbey College, with its liberal education ethos and its commitment to second-chance education, was, in many ways, the perfect partner in developing a course in the essentially democratic art of storytelling. ‘It brings a number of strands together that fit very nicely with the vision and mission of Newbattle,’ says college Principal Ann Southwood. ‘At Newbattle we promote ourselves as Scotland’s life-changing college. Our ethos is very much about liberal education. And the core part of our curriculum is focused on arts and humanities. We’re about transformative education and often we support our learners in transition. Many of our learners arrive from a very limited starting point. They’re looking for a second chance. And many of the students on our arts and humanities course will progress on to university and to further education.’ The core purpose of the college, says Smith, ‘really fits in with the whole storytelling tradition where everybody has an equal contribution and participation. It has the right kind of ethos and the right kind of values.’

Lea Taylor, a community learning worker who attended the course in its first year, was also a student at Newbattle in the 1980s, when she studied for the two-year liberal arts diploma in preparation for university. After taking a postgraduate degree she settled in the area and began working as a community learning worker. She uses storytelling in her work with both children and adults, is passionate about its value, and saw the course as an opportunity to promote storytelling in her workplace. ‘It gives the work a bit of credibility in the eyes of your employers,’ she says. ‘Initially, when I said I wanted to do some storytelling, eyes rolled upwards. My boss’s response was that it wasn’t educational. But his experience of storytelling was of bedside stories. He hadn’t seen it in context. In fact, it’s a fantastic medium – in all sorts of contexts – for community building, because it is a way of galvanising people. I work in schools. I use it with adults. I’ll be using it with young people who are at risk, working with very specific small groups of people who have been identified by the school and social work integration teams. I’ve also been approached to work with younger children who are having difficulties at school, in the transition from nursery to primary school. I don’t go in and say I’m going to do storytelling, in a really formal way. I do it in an informal way. Once one of the kids has got it then I can develop from there. So, yes, I’m going in with an agenda, but it’s a hidden agenda, and from that I can begin to build a sense of community by getting them to tell their own stories.’

‘It’s all about interaction with people and trying to get them to tell their stories,’ says Rae McGhee. ‘In a care home, for example, many care workers are encouraged to set up reminiscence sessions with residents, and a reminiscence session is a great way of stimulating residents. Often, in a residential home there isn’t a lot to stimulate people and people love to talk about the past and storytelling is a great way of doing this. If you’re in a group situation, some of the people may be a wee bit shy, but to be able to hold one of these sessions you need to be able to tell your own stories and to encourage others to talk. We don’t read from a book. It’s about your own story.’ ‘It’s like starting to talk to a stranger,’ Lea Taylor says. ‘It’s as if you are trying to find similarities you can share and express, and things come up from there. That’s what storytelling does. And it’s a great medium for passing on traditions, passing on cultural and social mores. We all tell stories naturally, but it’s a matter of how you perceive storytelling. People think they don’t have the ability to tell stories but by the time they’ve finished telling you about it they’ve already told you a story. One of the subjects I studied at university was Scottish ethnology. I had a slight immersion in people like Stanley Robertson and Duncan Williamson. I found it interesting, but I didn’t see the connections until I became a family learning worker and saw storytelling at various workshops. I thought it was really exciting; I realised that this was what I wanted to do. Because I could see how it was connected with communities, with people, it was like an invisible arm that reaches out and grabs you by the jugular.’

Smith welcomes the recognition students at Newbattle get for their storytelling but, for him, what really matters is the use to which they put their skills, at home, where they work and where they volunteer. ‘The really fantastic thing was what people did when they went away from the college and worked out, to a large extent for themselves, how they were going to experiment with this in their own work. The results were fantastic. People did so many different things, working with every group, from youngsters with severe learning disabilities through to young adults in prison, to training play workers, which is one of the things Lea does. It was quite amazing to hear it all and to see that people absolutely had got the idea: here is something that is people-centred, that affirms people, that encourages and that motivates. That’s a common factor across all the projects, with adults, with children, with front-line workers, in a lot of different settings. And that, of course, shouldn’t come as a surprise because that is what the tradition is about. That’s what storytelling has always been about. Everyone has got a place in storytelling. You’re trying to recognise each person, each community, each tradition’s place and contribution.

‘ A good storyteller recognises their audience, connects with everybody in the audience, and brings them a sense of their part of this experience. You are always telling in order to invite the listener to become a teller. If I tell you a story that’s meaningful to me, whether it’s a myth or it’s personal to me, and I get you really involved in it, the implication is that I’d like to have a story back from you. Not everyone is going to be a teller, of course. Some people want to participate by listening, by socialising, but what you see is that more and more people contribute. You see people who maybe come for several months and then suddenly they decide to go for it and they’ve got a story.’

For Smith, storytelling has a close connection with adult education and real relevance to the work adult educators do today. He cites the work students did with people with ‘communication and learning challenges’ as an example of how, in storytelling, it isn’t just language that counts, but also ‘the sharing and the imagery’. Their success was echoed by other students’ work with adult learners with addiction and mental health issues. ‘People have this huge capacity to be interested in things, but it’s often muffled because so much of what goes on in society seems to be designed to disinterest people, to create systems that make life easier for managers and bureaucrats and have no real recognition of the character of people and the diversity of the ways people live. I’ve always found storytelling incredible because you see people’s eyes lighting up and you know that people have experienced those things, they have humour, they have interests, but half the time we seem to be intent on stifling those rather than allowing them expression and development. That’s why I think storytelling has a real connection with adult education that is about fulfilment of people’s potential and enriching society. Adult education has struggled, going back to Thatcher really. It’s been used for all sorts of instrumental purposes. But I think storytelling connects with the radical, humane routes of what adult education is about. I feel in my guts that storytelling is absolutely planted into that soil. And maybe the time is right, post-credit crunch, for adult education to rediscover its passion and its inspiration. Maybe it’s time to fight back.’

That connection has been rediscovered by many, at home and abroad. ‘The amazing thing is that this is happening everywhere in Europe,’ says Smith. ‘It’s all at a slightly different pace and everybody’s got a different angle, but there is something happening, storytelling festivals, centres opening, new interfaces with contemporary society, across every part of Europe.’ One thing the European federation and other international developments won’t do is impose a hierarchy or set of rules on storytellers, Smith adds. ‘There is a healthy anarchy to storytelling – nobody controls it. Everybody is going to find their own way. It’s very important that in storytelling people find their own voice. When you tell a story it’s not like an actor taking on a character. You are the storyteller throughout, even if you use dramatic techniques. You remain yourself. Confidence in your own character and forms of expression, telling the stories in your own way, is absolutely critical and that is what brings storytelling so close to the heart of adult education. It’s not passing on a set of techniques or skills that could help you earn a living better. It’s about growth and development and that is absolutely central to storytelling. That’s what it’s about. It is affirming people to really stretch their imaginations and their abilities.’