Stanley Robertson: Storyteller and folk singer who chronicled Scots Traveller history
Wednesday 25 November 2009
Stanley Robertson knew a thing or two about triumphing over adversity and still more about open-handedness. He was one of Scotland's priceless storytellers and singers. He told stories from the common treasury, nudging tales from the past into the present with contemporary touches that never compromised the integrity of the narrative. He sang, and what he sang, because every song has its time and purpose, were the auld traditional ballads through to local doggerel verse, the stuff once viewed as being as throwaway as chip paper. He was also a wonderful historian of Scots Traveller and Aberdonian working-class history – not in a hugely scholastic way, more by way of finding academe in memories of working-class life, human interest in the everyday. He told life histories in books such as his two volumes of Fish-hooses: Tales from an Aberdeen Filleter, illustrated by Eric Ritchie.
Giving a synopsis of his life in Reek Roon a Camp Fire – a Collection of Ancient Tales published in May, he wrote, "I worked for 47 years as a filleter in the fish trade because I had no academic qualifications whatsoever and the fish trade was the only thing available. It was a useless, thankless trade and the only respite I had was knowing that Christ's chief apostles were fish workers. Yet at the age of 29, I was discovered as a ballad singer and I was booked at festivals all over America. At 35 I was discovered as a storyteller by Barbara McDermitt from the School of Scottish Studies and I was booked for many story festivals in Europe, Britain, America and Canada. At 55 I wrote my first book, Exodus to Alford, followed by six others and dozens of anthologies and poems. I have won BBC prizes and written some religious scripts for their children's programmes. I have also written a couple of big plays which have been performed on the stage."
He dedicated Reek Roon to, among others, Sam Lee, one of the most promising folk singers to emerge from the London scene this decade. It was a marvellous fillip and recognition of another generation carrying the torch of tradition. The main body of the book is written mainly in Scots with a glossary identifying sprinklings of Doric, Gaelic, Romany and Traveller cant. Interestingly, like Roma or Romany, some cant expressions – deek for "look", for example – have the ring of corrupted Punjabi or Hindi.
Robertson was a member of Scotland's intermarried Traveller community. Just as there are worlds of difference between gypsy and Gypsy, the initial capital is important. It differentiates a people from a trade. Whether they were itinerant, settled or went "summer walking" before returning to winter quarters, down the street they were always the Travellers. "The Travelling people have always been despised by outsiders," he wrote, "who mistrusted them because of their private way of living and strange languages." Thus while Travellers were a people distinct from Gypsies, for centuries they were persecuted, vilified and ostracised in Scotland by royal decree. Keeping themselves to themselves, the Travellers created a hothouse of oral culture, one that prized song, story, lore and language.
William Stanley Robertson was born the 12th of 13 children to William Robertson and Elizabeth McDonald in 1940. When helping with the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry for his aunt, the ballad singer Jeannie Robertson, he must have smiled when writing that his kin had "a very interesting family history". By "interesting" read "ferociously complex" because Travellers use multiple names and bynames to convey lineage and affiliation, or to trick and obfuscate. He was proud that the Millennium Community Project placed a commemorative plaque on Jeannie Robertson's home at 90 Hilton Street, Aberdeen.
He served seven years in the Territorial Army where, like many of his kinsfolk, his father included, he played the pipes. In 1975, Jeannie Robertson entrusted him with something highly personal – the pipes that had belonged to her first child, James (1928-1936). In a letter to me, he wrote, "Her son Jimsy... was indeed a wonderful piper himself. A month before Jeannie died she gave me wee Jimsy's pipes with a promise that I would never sell them. This promise I have kept."
Stanley Robertson, like his daughters Gabrielle and Nicole, ranks as a major champion of Traveller culture, staring down the prejudice that only started to change in the late 1950s.
Robertson may be heard on a number of recordings. Peter Cooke's recording of the story "The Angel of Death" appears on Greentrax's Scottish Traditional Tales (2000) while Rum Scum Scoosh! (2006) focuses on song and story captured when Robertson was a Keyworker from 2002 to 2005 at Aberdeen University's Elphinstone Institute for the Oral and Cultural Traditions of Scottish Travellers project.
William Stanley Robertson: storyteller, singer, piper, writer and historian: born Aberdeen 8 June 1940; married Johnann (four sons, two daughters); died Aberdeen 2 August 2009.
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