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Duncan Williamson

Teller of Scots travellers' tales

Duncan James Williamson, storyteller, singer and writer: born Furnace, Argyllshire 11 April 1928; married first Jeanie Townsley (died 1971; three sons, four daughters), second 1976 Linda Headlee (one son, one daughter), (one daughter by Martha Stewart); died Kirkcaldy, Fife 8 November 2007.

The story-teller and singer Duncan Williamson was one of the greatest voices of Scots traveller culture, a name to speak in the same breath as the highest of the high, such as Lizzie Higgins, Jeannie Robertson, Stanley Robertson, Belle Stewart and Sheila Stewart. In his radio history of storytelling, Something Understood: a chain of voices, broadcast on Radio 4 in 2005, Hugh Lupton recalled of Williamson:

It was Duncan who told me that when you tell a story, or sing a song, the person you heard it from is standing behind you. When that person spoke, he, in turn, had a teller behind him, and so on, back and back and back. I love this idea, the story has to speak to its own time, but the teller has also to be true to the chain of voices that inform him or her.

Williamson kept a covenant with those chains of voices – known and unknown – that had spoken down the generations. Still, he was born into a culture that values traditional knowledge and skills. Wonder stories, trickster tales, nonsense doggerel, riddles and ballads about bloodletting, dark deeds and revenge, held his people in campfire thrall. The supernatural figured prominently. Without spoiling the ending, Williamson's "Tailor and the Skeleton" concerns stitching together a body. Maybe, generations back, this unhallowed tale of a modern Prometheus flickered through Mary Shelley's mind in the 1800s.

"Tam Lin" – a real hand-me-down, whether through Robert Burns's The Scots Musical Museum or Francis J. Child's The English and Scottish Popular Ballads or recordings by Fairport Convention or Anne Briggs – reveals the world of faery beyond the firelight. Williamson recorded his version of "Tam Lin" for Put Another Log on the Fire: songs and tunes from a Scots traveller (1994). He took what had been handed to him and turned it into his own. As storytellers should, he took it to new places.

Duncan Williamson was a Scots traveller – travellers are a historically nomadic people separate to gypsy or Romany people, though they too know about prejudice and vilification. The seventh of 16 children, he was widely reported to have born in a bow tent by Loch Fyne in Argyll, though this may well be a romantic construct.

In his preface to Williamson's A Thorn in the King's Foot: folktales of the Scottish travelling people (1987), the Scots folklorist Hamish Henderson records that Duncan's mother was Betsy Townsley and that his "travelling basketmaker and tinsmith" father was Jock Williamson. Both were unlettered, but steeped in the oral transmission of traveller lore in all its variety. Piping, singing and storytelling was in Duncan's genes. Like many traveller families, they were Roman Catholics.

After leaving school at 14, Duncan Williamson became apprentice to a stonemason and drystone dyker, Neil MacCallum, in Auchindrain in Argyll. MacCallum told stories in English with Scots Gaelic punctuations. Williamson's stories would cover similar linguistic terrain, but with traveller "cover-tongue", or cant, interspersed for good measure.

Inevitably, he took to the road, obtaining agricultural work here, learning horse-dealing there, picking up songs and stories as he went, overlaying the versions he knew with new ones to make them wholly his own. Travellers were known as the "Summer Walkers" in many parts and earned money from seasonal work like freshwater pearl-fishing or berry-picking. Williamson's autobiography, The Horsieman: memories of a traveller, 1928-1958 (1994), tells tales of horse-whispering from another age.

In the mid-1950s, collectors from the School of Scottish Studies hit the mother-lode when in 1955 Henderson "discovered" the singer Jeannie Robertson – hailed as the greatest traditional Scots ballad singer of her day – and in the same year Maurice Fleming discovered the Stewarts of Blair. Within a 12-month the School was discovering so many folktales that the School's Calum MacLean argued prioritising their resources from ballad- and song-collecting to story-collecting. Yet, as Henderson wrote, the man

who was in many ways to turn out possibly the most extraordinary tradition-bearer of the whole traveller tribe had not at that time emerged above the horizon [namely] Duncan Williamson, who in 1956 was only 28 and therefore a youngster compared to many of the informants.

Helen Fullerton, an activist for traveller rights, was the first collector to tape Duncan Williamson, having got to his mother and several of his siblings in 1958. She finally met him in 1967 on one of his visits to his mother. She taped original poetry, songs and ballads. Afterwards, she tipped off the collector Geordie MacIntyre, which led to further recordings that year. The following year, Williamson appeared at the Blairgowrie Folk Festival, organised by the Traditional Music and Song Association of Scotland. The TMSA's founder Pete Shepheard would release Williamson's audio-tape Mary and the Seal and Other Folktales on his Springthyme label in 1986.

Williamson went on to international recognition, especially as a storyteller, appearing on literary and folk-music billings. His books documenting traveller life and lore included The Broonie, Silkies and Fairies: travellers' tales (1985), The Genie and the Fisherman, and Other Tales from the Travelling People (1991) and his highly recommended Horsieman. He recorded extensively, appearing most recently on Travellers Tales, Volumes 1 and 2, recorded by Mike Yates and released on his Kyloe label in 2002.

Academic archives holding Williamson's work include the School of Scottish Studies at Edinburgh University, the Center for Appalachian Studies and Services at East Tennessee State University, and the Scottish Storytelling Centre in Edinburgh.

Ken Hunt