Duncan Williamson

Some memories of Duncan by Andrew Wright written November 2007

I would like to write about Duncan Williamson, about Duncan being a warm hearted man and about him being an extraordinary representative of the oral storytelling tradition.

I do not pretend to have been a close friend of Duncan’s but I would like to write about my times with him and the powerful effect that he made on me.

I cannot pretend to represent the vigour of Duncan’s speech in terms of the driving strength of his voice, nor can I fully represent his choice of words and phrases when they derived from broad Scots with its special words, idioms, syntax and grammar. Fortunately for me, and for many others, Duncan was willing to use a form of Scottish English which is readily understandable and by people all over the world.

In the early 1980s I began my work as a storyteller. In the early 1990s I began to hear about other storytellers and their work and then I read about a meeting of storytellers and a performance to be held in Edinburgh on October 23, 1990. I went to the performance and heard Duncan Williamson, Helen East, David Cameron and Grace Hallworth. I think Willie McPhee was also there. I was just a member of the audience.

At the end of the show, the audience were leaving and the story tellers were leaving too. I stood for a moment to watch them, rather taken aback that they were there amongst the audience. Duncan was walking past me. He stopped and held my arm just above the elbow and squeezed it warmly and said, ‘And what is your name?’ I told him. ‘Well, come along with us Andrew. We are going to have a ceilidh.’ And he addressed the others, ‘Andrew is coming with us.’ And I did.

It was my first ceilidh. It was in David Cameron’s flat just off Princes Street. Was it Frederick Street or Hanover Street? About twenty people sat in a circle on chairs or sofas or on the floor. Someone began to tell a story. Someone else sang. I loved the variety of contributions. I loved the ready expressions of delight and fun and surprise.

Then it began to dawn on me that it would be my turn to tell a story. Although I had been doing some storytelling I did not feel at the same level of experience as the tellers there but I began and did my best. Within a sentence or two of my beginning, Duncan said, ‘Andrew is a real story teller.’ It was one of the most moving moments in my life; one of the most valuable and supportive things ever said to me. And it was done so naturally and unassumingly.

When I had finished Duncan stood up and said, ‘Andrew I am going to sing a song for you.’ He crossed the circle and knelt down on one knee in front of me, put one hand on my knee and sang a long ballad about an old man who had visited their camp one cold night and they had given him tea before he left, continuing his journey. The next day the police came to the camp to ask them about the old man because he had been found dead in the forest nearby, frozen in the bitter cold night. (My transcription of Duncan’s song is below)

Oh, the night was dark

And the night was cold

And the rain was falling down

When an old beggar man lay down to die

Upon the cold, cold ground.

For he had noone to comfort him

Noone who would understand

For he was just a lonely,

A dying old beggar man.

And then he saw a beautiful light

A-coming down from the sky,

Such a beautiful light,

Such a wonderful light,

To the bush where he did lie.

Oh, who are you? the old beggar said,

And why do you trouble me,

For I am just a dying old beggar man

As you must surely see?

Oh, I have come, the stranger said

From my fathers home far away.

And this long, dark and cold winters night

I will keep you company.

But I am a beggar, the old man said,

Just a lonely, old beggar man

And why would you come to comfort me?

I do not understand.

In my fathers home, the stranger said,

In the place from where I come,

For the tramp and the beggar and the poor and the rich

There everyone is the same.

And I have come to comfort you

And with you I will stay.

This long, dark and cold winter’s night

I will keep you company.

But I am a beggar, the old man said,

Just a lonely old beggar man

And why do you come to comfort me

I do not understand?

Next morning that old tramp was found

In the bushes where he lay.

There was a happy smile upon his face,

For his soul had passed away.

For his soul had passed away.

‘I wrote that song about the old beggar man who died in the forest. An angel came and spent the night with him. It’s a heart rending story, isn’t it?

That’s a true story. I wrote the story about the old beggar man who died in the forest. Who died in the forest that night. But I said, he could not have died alone. I knew he could not have died alone. I said an angel spent the night with him. We all went to his funeral. I wrote the song soon after he was buried. It’s never been published. It’s only for friends.’

In August 1992 I went to Duncan and Linda’s house in Fife with my (now) wife Julia to stay for the weekend. Once more there was a ceilidh which was, once more, rich and varied and full of fun.

Duncan, together with Ben Haggerty came to Manchester to give a performance in Septemer 1992. I invited them both to stay in my house in Didsbury. Half an hour before Duncan was due to arrive there was a phone call from Linda, Duncan’s wife. She was very concerned because Duncan had left his inhaler behind and he had severe asthma. As Linda talked to me I was looking through my front room window and saw my neighbour going to his car. ‘Linda! I have just seen my neighbour. He’s a doctor. I will see if he can help.’

I ran outside with the phone so that Linda could hear me. I called over to Chris, my neighbour. He stopped and waited for me. I told him briefly what the problem was and then handed over the phone to him. Linda explained the problem directly. Chris gave the phone back to me, put one foot up on the wall between our two driveways, opened his black case on his raised thigh, took out his prescription book and wrote a prescription.

I cycled at top speed to the nearest shopping street, got the inhaler from the chemist, cycled back, just in time for Duncan to arrive.

‘Duncan! Lovely to see you. Linda just phoned to say that you forgot your inhaler. Here is another one.’ Duncan thanked me, put it in his pocket and we gave him a cup of tea.

I felt I must phone Linda to relieve her of her worries. I told her that Chris, my neighbour, was not only a GP but also the television doctor broadcasting to the nation every Thursday morning. And I told her that I had been able to give Duncan the inhaler when he arrived. I expected Linda to be amazed by the good fortune of happy coincidences; within twenty minutes of her phoning I had replaced Duncan’s inhaler. But Linda showed no surprise at all. I was a little disappointed. I felt so pleased with myself and so pleased with my neighbour’s readiness to help. I asked Linda if she wasn’t surprised that the inhaler was ready for Duncan and she responded, ‘No. It’s his Broonie. Duncan is the seventh son of a seventh son. He is very special in the traveller world and he has his own Broonie.’ I asked rather weakly, ‘What’s a Broonie?’ Linda said, ‘A Broonie is like a protective angel or spirit that looks after particular people. It lives for hundreds of years and particularly looks after seventh sons of seventh sons.’

The performance given by Duncan and Ben was great but it was their time in our big kitchen which I will remember the best. We talked, and told stories, and sang and Duncan played the Jew’s Harp, ‘tromb’ in Gaelic, and his mouth organ, with such verve and strength.

I didn’t see Duncan again because I left Britain to live in Hungary and visits back to Britain became rare and short. It was massively my loss, not only to be out of touch with such a man, indeed such a spirit. It was my loss not to be in regular touch with all the storytelling movement in Britain which has clearly been so powerful and could have been such a rich potential for my own development. However, I value these short times with Duncan and he will live on with me.

In my text so far I have arranged my memories of my time with Duncan chronologically. I would now like to jot down particular incidents I remember, sometimes in narrative form at others in the words which I remember Duncan using.

Duncan told me quite a lot about his life as a traveller. I am sure other life companions of Duncan will be much, much richer informants than I can ever be but I would love to be able to jot down what he told me.

Duncan said that his traveller people had been in Scotland from very early times. He pointed out his fair hair and blue eyes. Perhaps the travellers are the descendents of Scandinavian seafarers? I think Duncan mentioned being descended from the Picts. Linda, Duncan’s wife, believes that the travelling people’s arrival in Britain dates to about 6000 BC and retained their travelling way of life even when later people came to Scotland and settled down as farmers and built towns.

He told me that his family travelled during the summer months working for particular farmers, gathering potatoes and so on and selling their tin wares and their baskets and besoms. In September (was it September or late August) the family had to go to their winter quarters beside Loch Fyne on the Duke of Argyll’s estate on the West Coast of Scotland. Duncan’s father was keen for his children to go to school. But, in any case, they had to return because the traveller children had, by law, to attend school and if they were not there they were open to direct and outrageous action by social workers who simply took traveller children away from their families and put them into orphanages. Furthermore, the traveller children had to wear shoes in the school or even this might be an excuse for the children to be ‘kidnapped’ from their families. Duncan gave me the impression that it didn’t matter if the shoes were much too big or even belonging to different pairs. They had to be shoes.

The Duke of Argyll was a friend of Duncan’s father and he gave Duncan’s father life time permission to build the tent, in an oak wood, by the Loch, every year. Whenever the Duke came he brought lollipops for the children and Duncan’s father cut the bunions on his feet. The family stayed there every winter for 37 years.

This friendship and support must have been very important for the family because the travelling people were met with a great variety of responses from the affectionate and respectful to the negatively prejudiced. The travelling people were particularly outraged that, having fought in both world wars for Britain they were then treated so badly by the government, many of their traditional camping sites being closed down. Duncan lost three uncles in the first world war. Duncan wrote a ballad in the 1960s about this which the BBC asked to broadcast. Duncan told me that BBC left out one verse because it was too political.

Duncan’s father built the winter tent every year in the same place. He cut boughs drove one end into the ground, bent it over and drove the other end into the ground. He made a tunnel of bent boughs in this way which he then covered with canvas. In the old days, it was seal skins. Duncan told me that it took his dad three weeks to build the tent.

The tent was built as large as necessary to house the size of the family. Duncan said he had fifteen brothers and sisters and there was his mom and dad and his auntie and sometimes other relations came and stayed for a while. The boys had one part of the tent, the girls another and the parents another. I think he said the ground in the tent was covered with heather and bracken and blankets. The fire was built right in the middle of the tent which was about 12 feet high at this point with a hole in the roof for the smoke to go out. The tent was about 14 feet wide and twenty people could gather around the fire.

Duncan was born in that tent on the shore of Loch Fyne on 11 April 1928.

There was no electricity in the tent but cans of oil were hung from the roof of the tent, each one with a string in it which was lit and gave a tiny light for them. In the evening the grown ups made pegs, baskets and besoms but there was nothing else to do but to tell stories. Duncan’s mother hawked the things they made in the local villages and farms.

Duncan’s father worked in a quarry in the winter for 40 pence a day breaking rocks with a 14 stone hammer.

‘Even though we were often hungry we never stole anything, only a few sticks. We collected wood along the shore and sold it in the village. Sometimes we got money if we helped them tidy up their coal delivery.

‘It was my father and my auntie who told the stories. My auntie always wore a long black dress fastened around the middle by a broad leather belt. Hanging from the belt was what she called her pocket. It was fastened with a single button. When we said, ‘Auntie will you tell us a story tonight?’ she said, ‘Let me see if there are any stories in my pocket and then she slowly undid the button and put her fingers in her pocket, felt around for a story and then told it to us.’

At another time Duncan told me that his grandparents also told many stories.

‘Every morning all the children had to get up early and go down to the loch side to find food for dinner time at school. In those days there was all the food you could want on the loch side. Years later I went down to the same places on the loch side with a television team and showed them that nearly all the food had gone. In those days there were limpets, cockles and oysters and crabs and even small fish and there was seaweed…there was plenty to eat. Then at dinner time when all the village children went home we hopped over the wall into the nearest field, lit a fire, huddled around it and ate our lunch, often in the rain and the snow.’

‘We were brought up to never take more food than we needed. When I fetched water in a pail back to the tent, if there was a ‘little boatman’ (water skater insect) on the surface, my father would belt me (was that the verb Duncan used?) and said, take the whole bucket of water back! Never take anything from nature that you don’t need. And it was a long way back to the stream, about a mile away.

It was the same with trout. I could tickle the trout.’ And Duncan demonstrated how he knelt down, leant over the bank, put his arm down into the water, tickled the trout under the belly, brought it to the surface and flicked it out onto the bank behind him. ‘Evan if I was really lucky I knew I must not take more than we needed.’ Some years later Duncan’s son told me that Duncan was the fastest trout tickler in Scotland.

This belief that nature should be respected places traveller civilisation in a different category to our contemporary society driven by exploitation and greed which we now know is ruining our planet.

I heard on a radio broadcast Duncan say that Christianity didn’t appeal to the traveller. It was more nature that appealed to travellers. They loved the sun and ‘were more sun worshippers than God worshippers’. They felt the sun gave so much. He certainly did say this in the radio programme. On the other hand, he told many a story which included God, he called them ‘holy stories’ and he had many stories about the devil. Linda said, that the travelling people regarded animals as deserving immense respect and even held the donkey as sacred because Christ had ridden on its back. Duncan said, in his book, Tell Me a Story for Christmas, that, ‘The travelling people loved and respected the Christ Child.’

His stories are often deeply moral without being sermons.

‘One warm afternoon, in early summer, while we were still at the site by the loch, one of my sisters and me came back to the tent and we saw Auntie lying on a blanket, in the sunshine, fast asleep. She had undone her leather belt and it lay on the blanket. My sister and I saw the pocket lying on the blanket. We looked at each other and at the pocket and then we began to creep over the blanket, so slowly, watching her breathing, watching her eyelids in case she woke up. I don’t know how long it took us to get across the blanket but we got there and then slowly opened the button on the pocket and looked inside but there were no stories inside! There was a coin, a ring a needle and cotton (I am not so confident about the contents) but no stories. We fastened the button again, lay the pocket down and then crept slowly backwards, watching auntie’s breathing lest she wake up. That evening, when we were all in the tent, I asked her if she was going to tell us a story and she said, Let me see if I have a story in my pocket. She undid the button, put her fingers in the pocket and then said, That’s strange but there aren’t any stories in my pocket tonight. Then I knew that she was telling me that it was time for me to leave home. I was fifteen. I left home and I got some work with a stone mason building dykes. I wanted a story so I asked him for one but he wouldn’t tell me a story unless I gave him one. I told him a story and he told me one and then we told each other many stories. And that is what I have been doing every since.’

Duncan told me, ‘I never change a story I have been told. I tell it just as I have heard it. For me it is the only right way of doing it. It belongs to the teller and the teller’s teller and I don’t have a right to change it.’

I felt this was perhaps a bit of an extreme claim and I was delighted, when I got home to Manchester after visiting him in Scotland, to find two texts given to me by Linda which were transcriptions of Duncan’s tellings of the same story. And I grinned to myself when I saw that the texts were not identical! I decided to phone Duncan! ‘Duncan, I have two stories which are the same but the words are not the same. But you told me that you always tell the stories in exactly the same way.’

‘Tell me what the story is called.’

I told him.

‘Read the first words of one of them.’

I read the first words of one of them.

‘Ah! That was from Uncle Willie. He told me that early one August morning in 1938 when I was a boy. Now read the first words of the other one. I did so. ‘That was from John Stewart, we called him the snowdrop on account that he had a crick in his neck. He told me that story after the war. I think it was in 1947. (I am sorry but I don’t remember the precise names Duncan told me in this incident so I have used the names of two of the people who most certainly did tell him stories. And I have invented the dates as well.)

‘You tell a story and you leave with three! I had to remember them all. I could never have written them down…hundreds and thousands of them. You learned from stories. If you had a problem you asked what would Jack have done? Stories told you not to be greedy or selfish or foolish.’

Linda told me that Duncan probably knew over two thousand stories; she might well say it was even more than that. I could believe any number. The well seemed bottomless.

‘One Christmas morning I remember my father saying, This is Christmas morning. I have nothing to give you but a story. Toys come and go but stories live forever. My father was hungry and had no baccy for his pipe but he had a story for us.’

‘The travelling people didn’t leave a gravestone behind only stories. You can never die if you tell a story.

When I began storytelling and read about the old storytellers I regretted so much that I would never have the privilege of meeting any of them. What good fortune I had to meet Duncan and to be able to spend, at least, a little time with him. He told me that he could listen to a twenty verse ballad twice and be able to sing it complete and without a mistake. Duncan had access to a wonderful part of our intelligence which so many of us bookish people have lost touch with. Duncan was one of the last people in our times from the oral tradition and from the hunter gatherer people (this was a term he used about himself when talking to me).

And he was a warm hearted and generous man.

Many, many people and not least, Duncan’s wife Linda, have far more to tell us about Duncan. But, at least, my encounters with him show how, although no longer with us in body, he will be, in spirit, with all those people who have ever met him, for as long as they live. And they in turn, affected by him, will pass on a feeling of Duncan to all the people that they meet…and so on. And that is exactly what happens with stories…they live by being told and by enriching each one of us before being passed on to enrich others.

‘You never die if you tell a story’.

Duncan Williamson

Some memories of Duncan by Andrew Wright written November 2007

I would like to write about Duncan Williamson, about Duncan being a warm hearted man and about him being an extraordinary representative of the oral storytelling tradition.

I do not pretend to have been a close friend of Duncan’s but I would like to write about my times with him and the powerful effect that he made on me.

I cannot pretend to represent the vigour of Duncan’s speech in terms of the driving strength of his voice, nor can I fully represent his choice of words and phrases when they derived from broad Scots with its special words, idioms, syntax and grammar. Fortunately for me, and for many others, Duncan was willing to use a form of Scottish English which is readily understandable and by people all over the world.

In the early 1980s I began my work as a storyteller. In the early 1990s I began to hear about other storytellers and their work and then I read about a meeting of storytellers and a performance to be held in Edinburgh on October 23, 1990. I went to the performance and heard Duncan Williamson, Helen East, David Cameron and Grace Hallworth. I think Willie McPhee was also there. I was just a member of the audience.

At the end of the show, the audience were leaving and the story tellers were leaving too. I stood for a moment to watch them, rather taken aback that they were there amongst the audience. Duncan was walking past me. He stopped and held my arm just above the elbow and squeezed it warmly and said, ‘And what is your name?’ I told him. ‘Well, come along with us Andrew. We are going to have a ceilidh.’ And he addressed the others, ‘Andrew is coming with us.’ And I did.

It was my first ceilidh. It was in David Cameron’s flat just off Princes Street. Was it Frederick Street or Hanover Street? About twenty people sat in a circle on chairs or sofas or on the floor. Someone began to tell a story. Someone else sang. I loved the variety of contributions. I loved the ready expressions of delight and fun and surprise.

Then it began to dawn on me that it would be my turn to tell a story. Although I had been doing some storytelling I did not feel at the same level of experience as the tellers there but I began and did my best. Within a sentence or two of my beginning, Duncan said, ‘Andrew is a real story teller.’ It was one of the most moving moments in my life; one of the most valuable and supportive things ever said to me. And it was done so naturally and unassumingly.

When I had finished Duncan stood up and said, ‘Andrew I am going to sing a song for you.’ He crossed the circle and knelt down on one knee in front of me, put one hand on my knee and sang a long ballad about an old man who had visited their camp one cold night and they had given him tea before he left, continuing his journey. The next day the police came to the camp to ask them about the old man because he had been found dead in the forest nearby, frozen in the bitter cold night. (My transcription of Duncan’s song is below)

Oh, the night was dark

And the night was cold

And the rain was falling down

When an old beggar man lay down to die

Upon the cold, cold ground.

For he had noone to comfort him

Noone who would understand

For he was just a lonely,

A dying old beggar man.

And then he saw a beautiful light

A-coming down from the sky,

Such a beautiful light,

Such a wonderful light,

To the bush where he did lie.

Oh, who are you? the old beggar said,

And why do you trouble me,

For I am just a dying old beggar man

As you must surely see?

Oh, I have come, the stranger said

From my fathers home far away.

And this long, dark and cold winters night

I will keep you company.

But I am a beggar, the old man said,

Just a lonely, old beggar man

And why would you come to comfort me?

I do not understand.

In my fathers home, the stranger said,

In the place from where I come,

For the tramp and the beggar and the poor and the rich

There everyone is the same.

And I have come to comfort you

And with you I will stay.

This long, dark and cold winter’s night

I will keep you company.

But I am a beggar, the old man said,

Just a lonely old beggar man

And why do you come to comfort me

I do not understand?

Next morning that old tramp was found

In the bushes where he lay.

There was a happy smile upon his face,

For his soul had passed away.

For his soul had passed away.

‘I wrote that song about the old beggar man who died in the forest. An angel came and spent the night with him. It’s a heart rending story, isn’t it?

That’s a true story. I wrote the story about the old beggar man who died in the forest. Who died in the forest that night. But I said, he could not have died alone. I knew he could not have died alone. I said an angel spent the night with him. We all went to his funeral. I wrote the song soon after he was buried. It’s never been published. It’s only for friends.’

In August 1992 I went to Duncan and Linda’s house in Fife with my (now) wife Julia to stay for the weekend. Once more there was a ceilidh which was, once more, rich and varied and full of fun.

Duncan, together with Ben Haggerty came to Manchester to give a performance in Septemer 1992. I invited them both to stay in my house in Didsbury. Half an hour before Duncan was due to arrive there was a phone call from Linda, Duncan’s wife. She was very concerned because Duncan had left his inhaler behind and he had severe asthma. As Linda talked to me I was looking through my front room window and saw my neighbour going to his car. ‘Linda! I have just seen my neighbour. He’s a doctor. I will see if he can help.’

I ran outside with the phone so that Linda could hear me. I called over to Chris, my neighbour. He stopped and waited for me. I told him briefly what the problem was and then handed over the phone to him. Linda explained the problem directly. Chris gave the phone back to me, put one foot up on the wall between our two driveways, opened his black case on his raised thigh, took out his prescription book and wrote a prescription.

I cycled at top speed to the nearest shopping street, got the inhaler from the chemist, cycled back, just in time for Duncan to arrive.

‘Duncan! Lovely to see you. Linda just phoned to say that you forgot your inhaler. Here is another one.’ Duncan thanked me, put it in his pocket and we gave him a cup of tea.

I felt I must phone Linda to relieve her of her worries. I told her that Chris, my neighbour, was not only a GP but also the television doctor broadcasting to the nation every Thursday morning. And I told her that I had been able to give Duncan the inhaler when he arrived. I expected Linda to be amazed by the good fortune of happy coincidences; within twenty minutes of her phoning I had replaced Duncan’s inhaler. But Linda showed no surprise at all. I was a little disappointed. I felt so pleased with myself and so pleased with my neighbour’s readiness to help. I asked Linda if she wasn’t surprised that the inhaler was ready for Duncan and she responded, ‘No. It’s his Broonie. Duncan is the seventh son of a seventh son. He is very special in the traveller world and he has his own Broonie.’ I asked rather weakly, ‘What’s a Broonie?’ Linda said, ‘A Broonie is like a protective angel or spirit that looks after particular people. It lives for hundreds of years and particularly looks after seventh sons of seventh sons.’

The performance given by Duncan and Ben was great but it was their time in our big kitchen which I will remember the best. We talked, and told stories, and sang and Duncan played the Jew’s Harp, ‘tromb’ in Gaelic, and his mouth organ, with such verve and strength.

I didn’t see Duncan again because I left Britain to live in Hungary and visits back to Britain became rare and short. It was massively my loss, not only to be out of touch with such a man, indeed such a spirit. It was my loss not to be in regular touch with all the storytelling movement in Britain which has clearly been so powerful and could have been such a rich potential for my own development. However, I value these short times with Duncan and he will live on with me.

In my text so far I have arranged my memories of my time with Duncan chronologically. I would now like to jot down particular incidents I remember, sometimes in narrative form at others in the words which I remember Duncan using.

Duncan told me quite a lot about his life as a traveller. I am sure other life companions of Duncan will be much, much richer informants than I can ever be but I would love to be able to jot down what he told me.

Duncan said that his traveller people had been in Scotland from very early times. He pointed out his fair hair and blue eyes. Perhaps the travellers are the descendents of Scandinavian seafarers? I think Duncan mentioned being descended from the Picts. Linda, Duncan’s wife, believes that the travelling people’s arrival in Britain dates to about 6000 BC and retained their travelling way of life even when later people came to Scotland and settled down as farmers and built towns.

He told me that his family travelled during the summer months working for particular farmers, gathering potatoes and so on and selling their tin wares and their baskets and besoms. In September (was it September or late August) the family had to go to their winter quarters beside Loch Fyne on the Duke of Argyll’s estate on the West Coast of Scotland. Duncan’s father was keen for his children to go to school. But, in any case, they had to return because the traveller children had, by law, to attend school and if they were not there they were open to direct and outrageous action by social workers who simply took traveller children away from their families and put them into orphanages. Furthermore, the traveller children had to wear shoes in the school or even this might be an excuse for the children to be ‘kidnapped’ from their families. Duncan gave me the impression that it didn’t matter if the shoes were much too big or even belonging to different pairs. They had to be shoes.

The Duke of Argyll was a friend of Duncan’s father and he gave Duncan’s father life time permission to build the tent, in an oak wood, by the Loch, every year. Whenever the Duke came he brought lollipops for the children and Duncan’s father cut the bunions on his feet. The family stayed there every winter for 37 years.

This friendship and support must have been very important for the family because the travelling people were met with a great variety of responses from the affectionate and respectful to the negatively prejudiced. The travelling people were particularly outraged that, having fought in both world wars for Britain they were then treated so badly by the government, many of their traditional camping sites being closed down. Duncan lost three uncles in the first world war. Duncan wrote a ballad in the 1960s about this which the BBC asked to broadcast. Duncan told me that BBC left out one verse because it was too political.

Duncan’s father built the winter tent every year in the same place. He cut boughs drove one end into the ground, bent it over and drove the other end into the ground. He made a tunnel of bent boughs in this way which he then covered with canvas. In the old days, it was seal skins. Duncan told me that it took his dad three weeks to build the tent.

The tent was built as large as necessary to house the size of the family. Duncan said he had fifteen brothers and sisters and there was his mom and dad and his auntie and sometimes other relations came and stayed for a while. The boys had one part of the tent, the girls another and the parents another. I think he said the ground in the tent was covered with heather and bracken and blankets. The fire was built right in the middle of the tent which was about 12 feet high at this point with a hole in the roof for the smoke to go out. The tent was about 14 feet wide and twenty people could gather around the fire.

Duncan was born in that tent on the shore of Loch Fyne on 11 April 1928.

There was no electricity in the tent but cans of oil were hung from the roof of the tent, each one with a string in it which was lit and gave a tiny light for them. In the evening the grown ups made pegs, baskets and besoms but there was nothing else to do but to tell stories. Duncan’s mother hawked the things they made in the local villages and farms.

Duncan’s father worked in a quarry in the winter for 40 pence a day breaking rocks with a 14 stone hammer.

‘Even though we were often hungry we never stole anything, only a few sticks. We collected wood along the shore and sold it in the village. Sometimes we got money if we helped them tidy up their coal delivery.

‘It was my father and my auntie who told the stories. My auntie always wore a long black dress fastened around the middle by a broad leather belt. Hanging from the belt was what she called her pocket. It was fastened with a single button. When we said, ‘Auntie will you tell us a story tonight?’ she said, ‘Let me see if there are any stories in my pocket and then she slowly undid the button and put her fingers in her pocket, felt around for a story and then told it to us.’

At another time Duncan told me that his grandparents also told many stories.

‘Every morning all the children had to get up early and go down to the loch side to find food for dinner time at school. In those days there was all the food you could want on the loch side. Years later I went down to the same places on the loch side with a television team and showed them that nearly all the food had gone. In those days there were limpets, cockles and oysters and crabs and even small fish and there was seaweed…there was plenty to eat. Then at dinner time when all the village children went home we hopped over the wall into the nearest field, lit a fire, huddled around it and ate our lunch, often in the rain and the snow.’

‘We were brought up to never take more food than we needed. When I fetched water in a pail back to the tent, if there was a ‘little boatman’ (water skater insect) on the surface, my father would belt me (was that the verb Duncan used?) and said, take the whole bucket of water back! Never take anything from nature that you don’t need. And it was a long way back to the stream, about a mile away.

It was the same with trout. I could tickle the trout.’ And Duncan demonstrated how he knelt down, leant over the bank, put his arm down into the water, tickled the trout under the belly, brought it to the surface and flicked it out onto the bank behind him. ‘Evan if I was really lucky I knew I must not take more than we needed.’ Some years later Duncan’s son told me that Duncan was the fastest trout tickler in Scotland.

This belief that nature should be respected places traveller civilisation in a different category to our contemporary society driven by exploitation and greed which we now know is ruining our planet.

I heard on a radio broadcast Duncan say that Christianity didn’t appeal to the traveller. It was more nature that appealed to travellers. They loved the sun and ‘were more sun worshippers than God worshippers’. They felt the sun gave so much. He certainly did say this in the radio programme. On the other hand, he told many a story which included God, he called them ‘holy stories’ and he had many stories about the devil. Linda said, that the travelling people regarded animals as deserving immense respect and even held the donkey as sacred because Christ had ridden on its back. Duncan said, in his book, Tell Me a Story for Christmas, that, ‘The travelling people loved and respected the Christ Child.’

His stories are often deeply moral without being sermons.

‘One warm afternoon, in early summer, while we were still at the site by the loch, one of my sisters and me came back to the tent and we saw Auntie lying on a blanket, in the sunshine, fast asleep. She had undone her leather belt and it lay on the blanket. My sister and I saw the pocket lying on the blanket. We looked at each other and at the pocket and then we began to creep over the blanket, so slowly, watching her breathing, watching her eyelids in case she woke up. I don’t know how long it took us to get across the blanket but we got there and then slowly opened the button on the pocket and looked inside but there were no stories inside! There was a coin, a ring a needle and cotton (I am not so confident about the contents) but no stories. We fastened the button again, lay the pocket down and then crept slowly backwards, watching auntie’s breathing lest she wake up. That evening, when we were all in the tent, I asked her if she was going to tell us a story and she said, Let me see if I have a story in my pocket. She undid the button, put her fingers in the pocket and then said, That’s strange but there aren’t any stories in my pocket tonight. Then I knew that she was telling me that it was time for me to leave home. I was fifteen. I left home and I got some work with a stone mason building dykes. I wanted a story so I asked him for one but he wouldn’t tell me a story unless I gave him one. I told him a story and he told me one and then we told each other many stories. And that is what I have been doing every since.’

Duncan told me, ‘I never change a story I have been told. I tell it just as I have heard it. For me it is the only right way of doing it. It belongs to the teller and the teller’s teller and I don’t have a right to change it.’

I felt this was perhaps a bit of an extreme claim and I was delighted, when I got home to Manchester after visiting him in Scotland, to find two texts given to me by Linda which were transcriptions of Duncan’s tellings of the same story. And I grinned to myself when I saw that the texts were not identical! I decided to phone Duncan! ‘Duncan, I have two stories which are the same but the words are not the same. But you told me that you always tell the stories in exactly the same way.’

‘Tell me what the story is called.’

I told him.

‘Read the first words of one of them.’

I read the first words of one of them.

‘Ah! That was from Uncle Willie. He told me that early one August morning in 1938 when I was a boy. Now read the first words of the other one. I did so. ‘That was from John Stewart, we called him the snowdrop on account that he had a crick in his neck. He told me that story after the war. I think it was in 1947. (I am sorry but I don’t remember the precise names Duncan told me in this incident so I have used the names of two of the people who most certainly did tell him stories. And I have invented the dates as well.)

‘You tell a story and you leave with three! I had to remember them all. I could never have written them down…hundreds and thousands of them. You learned from stories. If you had a problem you asked what would Jack have done? Stories told you not to be greedy or selfish or foolish.’

Linda told me that Duncan probably knew over two thousand stories; she might well say it was even more than that. I could believe any number. The well seemed bottomless.

‘One Christmas morning I remember my father saying, This is Christmas morning. I have nothing to give you but a story. Toys come and go but stories live forever. My father was hungry and had no baccy for his pipe but he had a story for us.’

‘The travelling people didn’t leave a gravestone behind only stories. You can never die if you tell a story.

When I began storytelling and read about the old storytellers I regretted so much that I would never have the privilege of meeting any of them. What good fortune I had to meet Duncan and to be able to spend, at least, a little time with him. He told me that he could listen to a twenty verse ballad twice and be able to sing it complete and without a mistake. Duncan had access to a wonderful part of our intelligence which so many of us bookish people have lost touch with. Duncan was one of the last people in our times from the oral tradition and from the hunter gatherer people (this was a term he used about himself when talking to me).

And he was a warm hearted and generous man.

Many, many people and not least, Duncan’s wife Linda, have far more to tell us about Duncan. But, at least, my encounters with him show how, although no longer with us in body, he will be, in spirit, with all those people who have ever met him, for as long as they live. And they in turn, affected by him, will pass on a feeling of Duncan to all the people that they meet…and so on. And that is exactly what happens with stories…they live by being told and by enriching each one of us before being passed on to enrich others.

‘You never die if you tell a story’.

Duncan Williamson

Some memories of Duncan by Andrew Wright written November 2007

I would like to write about Duncan Williamson, about Duncan being a warm hearted man and about him being an extraordinary representative of the oral storytelling tradition.

I do not pretend to have been a close friend of Duncan’s but I would like to write about my times with him and the powerful effect that he made on me.

I cannot pretend to represent the vigour of Duncan’s speech in terms of the driving strength of his voice, nor can I fully represent his choice of words and phrases when they derived from broad Scots with its special words, idioms, syntax and grammar. Fortunately for me, and for many others, Duncan was willing to use a form of Scottish English which is readily understandable and by people all over the world.

In the early 1980s I began my work as a storyteller. In the early 1990s I began to hear about other storytellers and their work and then I read about a meeting of storytellers and a performance to be held in Edinburgh on October 23, 1990. I went to the performance and heard Duncan Williamson, Helen East, David Cameron and Grace Hallworth. I think Willie McPhee was also there. I was just a member of the audience.

At the end of the show, the audience were leaving and the story tellers were leaving too. I stood for a moment to watch them, rather taken aback that they were there amongst the audience. Duncan was walking past me. He stopped and held my arm just above the elbow and squeezed it warmly and said, ‘And what is your name?’ I told him. ‘Well, come along with us Andrew. We are going to have a ceilidh.’ And he addressed the others, ‘Andrew is coming with us.’ And I did.

It was my first ceilidh. It was in David Cameron’s flat just off Princes Street. Was it Frederick Street or Hanover Street? About twenty people sat in a circle on chairs or sofas or on the floor. Someone began to tell a story. Someone else sang. I loved the variety of contributions. I loved the ready expressions of delight and fun and surprise.

Then it began to dawn on me that it would be my turn to tell a story. Although I had been doing some storytelling I did not feel at the same level of experience as the tellers there but I began and did my best. Within a sentence or two of my beginning, Duncan said, ‘Andrew is a real story teller.’ It was one of the most moving moments in my life; one of the most valuable and supportive things ever said to me. And it was done so naturally and unassumingly.

When I had finished Duncan stood up and said, ‘Andrew I am going to sing a song for you.’ He crossed the circle and knelt down on one knee in front of me, put one hand on my knee and sang a long ballad about an old man who had visited their camp one cold night and they had given him tea before he left, continuing his journey. The next day the police came to the camp to ask them about the old man because he had been found dead in the forest nearby, frozen in the bitter cold night. (My transcription of Duncan’s song is below)

Oh, the night was dark

And the night was cold

And the rain was falling down

When an old beggar man lay down to die

Upon the cold, cold ground.

For he had noone to comfort him

Noone who would understand

For he was just a lonely,

A dying old beggar man.

And then he saw a beautiful light

A-coming down from the sky,

Such a beautiful light,

Such a wonderful light,

To the bush where he did lie.

Oh, who are you? the old beggar said,

And why do you trouble me,

For I am just a dying old beggar man

As you must surely see?

Oh, I have come, the stranger said

From my fathers home far away.

And this long, dark and cold winters night

I will keep you company.

But I am a beggar, the old man said,

Just a lonely, old beggar man

And why would you come to comfort me?

I do not understand.

In my fathers home, the stranger said,

In the place from where I come,

For the tramp and the beggar and the poor and the rich

There everyone is the same.

And I have come to comfort you

And with you I will stay.

This long, dark and cold winter’s night

I will keep you company.

But I am a beggar, the old man said,

Just a lonely old beggar man

And why do you come to comfort me

I do not understand?

Next morning that old tramp was found

In the bushes where he lay.

There was a happy smile upon his face,

For his soul had passed away.

For his soul had passed away.

‘I wrote that song about the old beggar man who died in the forest. An angel came and spent the night with him. It’s a heart rending story, isn’t it?

That’s a true story. I wrote the story about the old beggar man who died in the forest. Who died in the forest that night. But I said, he could not have died alone. I knew he could not have died alone. I said an angel spent the night with him. We all went to his funeral. I wrote the song soon after he was buried. It’s never been published. It’s only for friends.’

In August 1992 I went to Duncan and Linda’s house in Fife with my (now) wife Julia to stay for the weekend. Once more there was a ceilidh which was, once more, rich and varied and full of fun.

Duncan, together with Ben Haggerty came to Manchester to give a performance in Septemer 1992. I invited them both to stay in my house in Didsbury. Half an hour before Duncan was due to arrive there was a phone call from Linda, Duncan’s wife. She was very concerned because Duncan had left his inhaler behind and he had severe asthma. As Linda talked to me I was looking through my front room window and saw my neighbour going to his car. ‘Linda! I have just seen my neighbour. He’s a doctor. I will see if he can help.’

I ran outside with the phone so that Linda could hear me. I called over to Chris, my neighbour. He stopped and waited for me. I told him briefly what the problem was and then handed over the phone to him. Linda explained the problem directly. Chris gave the phone back to me, put one foot up on the wall between our two driveways, opened his black case on his raised thigh, took out his prescription book and wrote a prescription.

I cycled at top speed to the nearest shopping street, got the inhaler from the chemist, cycled back, just in time for Duncan to arrive.

‘Duncan! Lovely to see you. Linda just phoned to say that you forgot your inhaler. Here is another one.’ Duncan thanked me, put it in his pocket and we gave him a cup of tea.

I felt I must phone Linda to relieve her of her worries. I told her that Chris, my neighbour, was not only a GP but also the television doctor broadcasting to the nation every Thursday morning. And I told her that I had been able to give Duncan the inhaler when he arrived. I expected Linda to be amazed by the good fortune of happy coincidences; within twenty minutes of her phoning I had replaced Duncan’s inhaler. But Linda showed no surprise at all. I was a little disappointed. I felt so pleased with myself and so pleased with my neighbour’s readiness to help. I asked Linda if she wasn’t surprised that the inhaler was ready for Duncan and she responded, ‘No. It’s his Broonie. Duncan is the seventh son of a seventh son. He is very special in the traveller world and he has his own Broonie.’ I asked rather weakly, ‘What’s a Broonie?’ Linda said, ‘A Broonie is like a protective angel or spirit that looks after particular people. It lives for hundreds of years and particularly looks after seventh sons of seventh sons.’

The performance given by Duncan and Ben was great but it was their time in our big kitchen which I will remember the best. We talked, and told stories, and sang and Duncan played the Jew’s Harp, ‘tromb’ in Gaelic, and his mouth organ, with such verve and strength.

I didn’t see Duncan again because I left Britain to live in Hungary and visits back to Britain became rare and short. It was massively my loss, not only to be out of touch with such a man, indeed such a spirit. It was my loss not to be in regular touch with all the storytelling movement in Britain which has clearly been so powerful and could have been such a rich potential for my own development. However, I value these short times with Duncan and he will live on with me.

In my text so far I have arranged my memories of my time with Duncan chronologically. I would now like to jot down particular incidents I remember, sometimes in narrative form at others in the words which I remember Duncan using.

Duncan told me quite a lot about his life as a traveller. I am sure other life companions of Duncan will be much, much richer informants than I can ever be but I would love to be able to jot down what he told me.

Duncan said that his traveller people had been in Scotland from very early times. He pointed out his fair hair and blue eyes. Perhaps the travellers are the descendents of Scandinavian seafarers? I think Duncan mentioned being descended from the Picts. Linda, Duncan’s wife, believes that the travelling people’s arrival in Britain dates to about 6000 BC and retained their travelling way of life even when later people came to Scotland and settled down as farmers and built towns.

He told me that his family travelled during the summer months working for particular farmers, gathering potatoes and so on and selling their tin wares and their baskets and besoms. In September (was it September or late August) the family had to go to their winter quarters beside Loch Fyne on the Duke of Argyll’s estate on the West Coast of Scotland. Duncan’s father was keen for his children to go to school. But, in any case, they had to return because the traveller children had, by law, to attend school and if they were not there they were open to direct and outrageous action by social workers who simply took traveller children away from their families and put them into orphanages. Furthermore, the traveller children had to wear shoes in the school or even this might be an excuse for the children to be ‘kidnapped’ from their families. Duncan gave me the impression that it didn’t matter if the shoes were much too big or even belonging to different pairs. They had to be shoes.

The Duke of Argyll was a friend of Duncan’s father and he gave Duncan’s father life time permission to build the tent, in an oak wood, by the Loch, every year. Whenever the Duke came he brought lollipops for the children and Duncan’s father cut the bunions on his feet. The family stayed there every winter for 37 years.

This friendship and support must have been very important for the family because the travelling people were met with a great variety of responses from the affectionate and respectful to the negatively prejudiced. The travelling people were particularly outraged that, having fought in both world wars for Britain they were then treated so badly by the government, many of their traditional camping sites being closed down. Duncan lost three uncles in the first world war. Duncan wrote a ballad in the 1960s about this which the BBC asked to broadcast. Duncan told me that BBC left out one verse because it was too political.

Duncan’s father built the winter tent every year in the same place. He cut boughs drove one end into the ground, bent it over and drove the other end into the ground. He made a tunnel of bent boughs in this way which he then covered with canvas. In the old days, it was seal skins. Duncan told me that it took his dad three weeks to build the tent.

The tent was built as large as necessary to house the size of the family. Duncan said he had fifteen brothers and sisters and there was his mom and dad and his auntie and sometimes other relations came and stayed for a while. The boys had one part of the tent, the girls another and the parents another. I think he said the ground in the tent was covered with heather and bracken and blankets. The fire was built right in the middle of the tent which was about 12 feet high at this point with a hole in the roof for the smoke to go out. The tent was about 14 feet wide and twenty people could gather around the fire.

Duncan was born in that tent on the shore of Loch Fyne on 11 April 1928.

There was no electricity in the tent but cans of oil were hung from the roof of the tent, each one with a string in it which was lit and gave a tiny light for them. In the evening the grown ups made pegs, baskets and besoms but there was nothing else to do but to tell stories. Duncan’s mother hawked the things they made in the local villages and farms.

Duncan’s father worked in a quarry in the winter for 40 pence a day breaking rocks with a 14 stone hammer.

‘Even though we were often hungry we never stole anything, only a few sticks. We collected wood along the shore and sold it in the village. Sometimes we got money if we helped them tidy up their coal delivery.

‘It was my father and my auntie who told the stories. My auntie always wore a long black dress fastened around the middle by a broad leather belt. Hanging from the belt was what she called her pocket. It was fastened with a single button. When we said, ‘Auntie will you tell us a story tonight?’ she said, ‘Let me see if there are any stories in my pocket and then she slowly undid the button and put her fingers in her pocket, felt around for a story and then told it to us.’

At another time Duncan told me that his grandparents also told many stories.

‘Every morning all the children had to get up early and go down to the loch side to find food for dinner time at school. In those days there was all the food you could want on the loch side. Years later I went down to the same places on the loch side with a television team and showed them that nearly all the food had gone. In those days there were limpets, cockles and oysters and crabs and even small fish and there was seaweed…there was plenty to eat. Then at dinner time when all the village children went home we hopped over the wall into the nearest field, lit a fire, huddled around it and ate our lunch, often in the rain and the snow.’

‘We were brought up to never take more food than we needed. When I fetched water in a pail back to the tent, if there was a ‘little boatman’ (water skater insect) on the surface, my father would belt me (was that the verb Duncan used?) and said, take the whole bucket of water back! Never take anything from nature that you don’t need. And it was a long way back to the stream, about a mile away.

It was the same with trout. I could tickle the trout.’ And Duncan demonstrated how he knelt down, leant over the bank, put his arm down into the water, tickled the trout under the belly, brought it to the surface and flicked it out onto the bank behind him. ‘Evan if I was really lucky I knew I must not take more than we needed.’ Some years later Duncan’s son told me that Duncan was the fastest trout tickler in Scotland.

This belief that nature should be respected places traveller civilisation in a different category to our contemporary society driven by exploitation and greed which we now know is ruining our planet.

I heard on a radio broadcast Duncan say that Christianity didn’t appeal to the traveller. It was more nature that appealed to travellers. They loved the sun and ‘were more sun worshippers than God worshippers’. They felt the sun gave so much. He certainly did say this in the radio programme. On the other hand, he told many a story which included God, he called them ‘holy stories’ and he had many stories about the devil. Linda said, that the travelling people regarded animals as deserving immense respect and even held the donkey as sacred because Christ had ridden on its back. Duncan said, in his book, Tell Me a Story for Christmas, that, ‘The travelling people loved and respected the Christ Child.’

His stories are often deeply moral without being sermons.

‘One warm afternoon, in early summer, while we were still at the site by the loch, one of my sisters and me came back to the tent and we saw Auntie lying on a blanket, in the sunshine, fast asleep. She had undone her leather belt and it lay on the blanket. My sister and I saw the pocket lying on the blanket. We looked at each other and at the pocket and then we began to creep over the blanket, so slowly, watching her breathing, watching her eyelids in case she woke up. I don’t know how long it took us to get across the blanket but we got there and then slowly opened the button on the pocket and looked inside but there were no stories inside! There was a coin, a ring a needle and cotton (I am not so confident about the contents) but no stories. We fastened the button again, lay the pocket down and then crept slowly backwards, watching auntie’s breathing lest she wake up. That evening, when we were all in the tent, I asked her if she was going to tell us a story and she said, Let me see if I have a story in my pocket. She undid the button, put her fingers in the pocket and then said, That’s strange but there aren’t any stories in my pocket tonight. Then I knew that she was telling me that it was time for me to leave home. I was fifteen. I left home and I got some work with a stone mason building dykes. I wanted a story so I asked him for one but he wouldn’t tell me a story unless I gave him one. I told him a story and he told me one and then we told each other many stories. And that is what I have been doing every since.’

Duncan told me, ‘I never change a story I have been told. I tell it just as I have heard it. For me it is the only right way of doing it. It belongs to the teller and the teller’s teller and I don’t have a right to change it.’

I felt this was perhaps a bit of an extreme claim and I was delighted, when I got home to Manchester after visiting him in Scotland, to find two texts given to me by Linda which were transcriptions of Duncan’s tellings of the same story. And I grinned to myself when I saw that the texts were not identical! I decided to phone Duncan! ‘Duncan, I have two stories which are the same but the words are not the same. But you told me that you always tell the stories in exactly the same way.’

‘Tell me what the story is called.’

I told him.

‘Read the first words of one of them.’

I read the first words of one of them.

‘Ah! That was from Uncle Willie. He told me that early one August morning in 1938 when I was a boy. Now read the first words of the other one. I did so. ‘That was from John Stewart, we called him the snowdrop on account that he had a crick in his neck. He told me that story after the war. I think it was in 1947. (I am sorry but I don’t remember the precise names Duncan told me in this incident so I have used the names of two of the people who most certainly did tell him stories. And I have invented the dates as well.)

‘You tell a story and you leave with three! I had to remember them all. I could never have written them down…hundreds and thousands of them. You learned from stories. If you had a problem you asked what would Jack have done? Stories told you not to be greedy or selfish or foolish.’

Linda told me that Duncan probably knew over two thousand stories; she might well say it was even more than that. I could believe any number. The well seemed bottomless.

‘One Christmas morning I remember my father saying, This is Christmas morning. I have nothing to give you but a story. Toys come and go but stories live forever. My father was hungry and had no baccy for his pipe but he had a story for us.’

‘The travelling people didn’t leave a gravestone behind only stories. You can never die if you tell a story.

When I began storytelling and read about the old storytellers I regretted so much that I would never have the privilege of meeting any of them. What good fortune I had to meet Duncan and to be able to spend, at least, a little time with him. He told me that he could listen to a twenty verse ballad twice and be able to sing it complete and without a mistake. Duncan had access to a wonderful part of our intelligence which so many of us bookish people have lost touch with. Duncan was one of the last people in our times from the oral tradition and from the hunter gatherer people (this was a term he used about himself when talking to me).

And he was a warm hearted and generous man.

Many, many people and not least, Duncan’s wife Linda, have far more to tell us about Duncan. But, at least, my encounters with him show how, although no longer with us in body, he will be, in spirit, with all those people who have ever met him, for as long as they live. And they in turn, affected by him, will pass on a feeling of Duncan to all the people that they meet…and so on. And that is exactly what happens with stories…they live by being told and by enriching each one of us before being passed on to enrich others.

‘You never die if you tell a story’.

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