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Scottish Traditional Tales
The Angel of Death


Track 1 (CD2) THE ANGEL OF DEATH Stanley Robertson, Aberdeen

Stanley Robertson, piper, ballad-singer and storyteller, was born in Aberdeen in 1940. His father, William Robertson, was a corporal in the Gordon Highlanders. When he was a child his mother's father, Joseph Edward McDonald, stayed in the same house, and Stanley learned many stories from him. In spite of his name, Joseph was really an Englishman; he always claimed that his real name was Brookes, although he went under his mother's name of McDonald. Stanley relates that "though he could not read or write, he was highly intelligent, and people came from near and far to hear his words of wisdom. He had a great knowledge of stories and ballads as well as of history... He was a storyteller extraordinaire." As a boy Joseph had run away from home and joined a circus as a horse-boy, and Stanley believes he learned many traditional tales through his association with circus folk, gypsies and other travellers.

Stanley himself is a man of exceptional sensibility and intelligence. Owing to the prejudice against travelling people he has never been able to obtain a job commensurate with his abilities; after various jobs in the fish trade he became a 'smoker and filleter', and this is still his regular occupation. For seven years he served in the Territorial Army as a piper. Since the folk revival got under way he has really come into his own as a performer and lecturer; he has lectured on the oral tradition at Idaho State University and many other schools and colleges, and in August 1978 he was Scotland's representative at the Commonwealth Carnival in Edmonton, Canada, taking part in an international three-day conference with various 'Ministers of Culture'.

"The Angel of Death" is one of the stories he heard told by his grandfather Joseph. "He used to change the tale each time he told it, but the original tale was still intact." The motif of death collecting his victims in some sort of conveyance bobs up in many areas of the world as folklore and as art literature. An Egyptian novelist informed me in 1942 that this theme is known in ancient Arabic folklore. The best known example of its use in literature is in R. L. Stevenson's Will o' the Mill -

"'You are a strange physician,' said Will looking steadfastly upon his guest.

'I am a natural law,' he replied, 'and people call me Death.'

'Why did you not tell me so at first? ' cried Will. 'I have been waiting for you these many years. Give me your hand, and welcome.'

'Lean upon my arm,' said the stranger, 'for already your strength abates. Lean on me heavily as you need; for though I am old, I am very strong. It is but three steps to my carriage, and there all your trouble ends. Why, Will,' he added, 'I have been yearning for you as if you were my own son; and of all the men that ever I came for in my long days, I have come for you most gladly. I am caustic, and sometimes offend people at first sight; but I am a good friend at heart to such as you.'

'Since Marjory was taken,' returned Will, 'I declare before God you were the only friend I had to look for.'

So the pair went arm-in-arm across the courtyard. One of the servants awoke about this time, and heard the noise of horses pawing before he went to sleep again; all down the valley that night there was a rushing as of a smooth and steady wind descending towards the plain; and when the world rose next morning, sure enough, Will o' the Mill had gone at last upon his travels." -HH

Stanley Robertson has probably more experience than anyone else on this recording of telling stories to a public audience outside the family circle, and the reaction of the listeners obviously stimulates him to make his performance still more dramatic, which generally suits the eerie tales which he prefers. We have chosen a chamber performance with an audience of one in this case, however, because the details seem if anything more imaginatively described than in any céilidh or folk club telling we have recorded. -AJB

THIS STORY STARTS AFF awaa back over a hundred years ago. Up at Ballater there wis a faimly o traivlers livin, an their name wis MacDonald. The man wis cried Big Davie MacDonald, an he's wife wis cried Maggie. An Davie wis a fine big strappin man, an he wis a perfect tinsmith, he wis able tae work wi silver, wi gold; he could work wi knifes, he wis able tae use aa the kind o tricks o he's trade. He's wife, noo, her job wis jist bein a good hoosewife, to look efter the caravan an see that he's meals an things wis properly in order. They were wealthy traivler folk; they had a lovely caravan, their caravan was beautifully painted up in green and gold. Inside he'd aa kind o bonnie ornaments, gold an silvers, pewter, brass an copper, an folk used tae come fae far an near - the ither traivler folk came from far an near to admire this beautiful caravan. And they caa'd it the Evenin Star, because it used tae shine at nicht under the moon light, wi aa the gold an silver.

Noo this folk hed only but one laddie, an 'is laddie hed maybe been aboot twelve year aald, an he's name wis Johnnie. An although he wis only the one son, he hed tae ken how to look fir his livin. Noo, he could dee a wee bit o the work 'at he's faither did, but he wisnae quite bein trained fir that work; he wis bein trained tae be able to dry-hunt, to be able to hawk fir he's sel, because he meant, sometime he would be on he's own, an he wouldnae be able to . . . depend aye on he's folk. At twelve year aal at that time laddies were looked upon as young men, an they'd to be sort of independent an be able to look fir their ain livin. So Johnnie used to . . . ging wi maybe a basket o stockins, or he would maybe ging roon dry-huntin or get skins or things roon aboot the cottar-hooses up 'e Deeside, roon aboot the Ballater area far aboot they normally bade. (Though sometimes they would' movit, maistly they bade at Ballater.) Johnnie wis a happy, pleasant kind o a laddie, an he wis able to mak his livin, an his folk didnae worry aboot him fan he went awaa oot the road: he used to jist leave in 'e mornin an waak he's two or three miles, an he would dee the wark 'at he wis set oot tae dae.

But ae time at a late summer Johnnie wis aboot nine or ten mile awaa fae Ballater, away up the Deeside, an he wis gettin aafa tired 'at nicht; he hed waakit an aafae distance an he wis feelin very very wearied. An he says tae hissel, "Och, A think A'll gan awaa haem, an A could dee if a horse an cairt would come along, so I can get a lift doon 'is road." An he waaks wearily alang this road, an it wis beginnin tae get gloamin. An as he waaks along this road, he hears the sound o the horses comin along, he hears the hoofs o the horses comin an he can hear a carriage, an he kenn'd be the sound o it 'at this wis gaan tae be a bigger kind o carriage. He says, "Well, A'll try tae get on tae this coach, an A'll wave the rider doon an see if A'll get in."

An sure as Death, alang the road comes a grea' big carriage an six bonnie white horses. An he waves it doon, an sittin up at the drivin part there's a tall lean man. An he says, "Fit dae ye want, laddie?"

An he says, "Well, is there ony chance o me gettin a lift? A'm gaan tae Ballater." He says, "Well, I am gaan tae Ballater alang the road," he says, "but A'm nae jist gaan directly," he says. "A have one or two collections tae mak, but if ye want tae come up an sit beside me, you can sit here an keep me company, an 'at'll be fine company fir me alang the road" - an he wis an aafa pleasant, cheery man.

Sae up jumps Johnnie ontae the . . . the high coach, an in the back o . . . far he wis sittin there wis a windae, an he could look intae the windae, and he sees a young kin' o woman sittin in 'e coach. An he says, "Och well, this must be takin folk awa tae some kin' of a baal or something 'at's gaan tae be on." So aff the coach goes awaa wi the horses intae the night, an he turns aff intil a lonely road; stops at a hoose. An in jist aboot half a minute oot comes anither woman, a big stoot woman, an she's on a lang funny kin' o flowing, white kin' o goon, an a queer shapit kind o hat on her heid. An she comes oot the hoose, waaks tae the carriage, an very starey an glazy-eyed, comes inside.

An Johnnie says til her, "Good evenin, missiz!" - bein kind o polite an friendly. And she disnae speir a word til him: she gans in an she sits doon. An Johnnie looks at her through the wee gless windae at his back, an she disnae say "Good evenin" tae the ither woman 'at's sittin beside her. An Johnnie thinks til hissel, "'At's queer: 'at's usually fin ye meet somebody in a carriage, ye usually say 'Good evenin' tae them." But awaa the carriage goes again, the coach an horses off intae the night, an 'e driver starts newsin again tae Johnnie, an lauchin an tellin him mair jokes. And then he turns aff anither big lang road, away up by the wuids, an stops at anither hoose.

An oot there come an aald man, an he wis dressed in a queer kind o goon, an a lang kin' o sleeping cap, an he come on tae the carriage. An he disnae say nothing tae her, but he jist comes doon an sits aafa quietly. An 'en awaa the carriage goes again, tae they come til anither hoose, an oot comes a young woman, a very beautiful young woman with her long flowin auburn hair in the night. An her eyes were glazey, an she - a strange sort o aura went aa roon aboot her. An she comes intae the carriage, an sits doon. And still neen o this folk his speired a word tae een anither, an they hannae even bade een anither "Good evenin". Off the carriage goes eence again.

But by noo it wis gettin fairly late on at nicht, an it start to come doon drizzlin rain - nae heavy, but 'on thick kind o rain 'at jist seems tae sink fair in an freeze the marra o the bones, an Johnnie begin tae get aafa chilled and shivery, an he says, "A'm gettin a bittie seek sittin here in 'is cauld." So this man drives up anither road tae he comes til anither hoose, an he says tae Johnnie, "Noo, laddie, A'm five minutes airly at this hoose. Jist you wait here an A'll be back oot, an then A'm gaan tae Ballater."

So fin 'e man gings awaa tae 'is hoose, Johnnie wis sittin under 'is wee snoot o . . . a cap 'at wis ower his heid, and he wis gettin aafae aafae caul an chill. An he says, "Well, the carriage is a grea' big carriage an it's nae full yet," he says. "A'm gan tae sit in here fir a wee whilie." Sae doon he climbs, hings on tae the carriage, an sits doon in one o the empty spaces. An he says, "Good evenin, folks, its an aafa coorse kin' o nicht it's turnin." An there's nae a soond answer't. An he looks intae their eyes, an they're aa starin fae a glarey eye at een anither. An he feels a strangeness aboot this folk. An he says, "This is the queerest folk A've ever seen," he says. He says, "Maybe 'is is folk gan awaa tae some kin' of a madhoose," he says. "A'm gan tae sit doon aff here," he says, "A'll . . . close the door." An he rins, an he gings under the eaves o the hoose. An he stands, an he says, "A'll shelter here tae the driver comes oot."

An jist far he wis shelt'rin fae the rain, there wis a windae, and he looks intae the windae; an the Tilley lamp wis on, an he could see fine in the windae. An there wis an aal man lyin on a baed; there wis a meenister, an a stoot woman fa wis roarin an greetin; an as Johnnie comes nearer tae the windae, he hears the minister sayin tae the aul woman, "Well, the auld man has jist passed away." And Johnnie gets a richt fleg, an he thinks til he's sel, "What a time tae look in at a windae, jist when somebody has newly died!" An jist a few seconds efter 'at he notices the driver o the coach come intae the room: an wi a wave of he's hand tae the deid corpse, beckons it to rise. An up the auld man rises oot o he's death bed, an waaks oot the hoose. But as Johnnie sees 'is, he flees right back tae the carriage, climbs up on the driver's part o the coach, an sits under the snoot. He kens fa this is he's sittin wi. He says, "This is the Angel o Death's here!" An he says, "I mustnae let him ken that I ken fa he is." Then he comes back, pits the aal man intae the coach, an up he comes.

But 'is driver wis sic a pleasant man an sic a friendly man, Johnnie felt at ease wi him. An then the driver says, "Well, that's aa ma collections fae here, ma next collection's in Ballater." An off they gae intae the nicht, an away, fleein like the wind. Finever they see Ballater in sight, finever they were aboot half a mile fae Ballater, Johnnie says, "If ye jist stop here, driver, A'll get aff here, an - I jist bide aboot 'is part." 'Cause he wanted aff the coach noo as quick as he can; he disnae want tae bide in it. So fan he comes doon aff the coach, the driver looks doon intae him an says til him, "Weel, laddie, A'll see you again. It winnae be fir a lang time yet, but you an I will meet again, and you will get to come in this carriage. A'll gie you a hurl again in this carriage thon ither time."

An Johnnie says, "Well, A hope it's nae for an aafa lang time afore I get this hurl!" So jist as the coach is gaen awaa intae the night, Johnnie shouts oot, "Far aboot in Ballater are ye makkin yir collection?"

An jist as the carriage is gan away oot o sight, the man shouts back, "A'm gaan to the caravan site, an A'm gaan tae the Evenin Star!" An a paen fair shoots through Johnnie's haert. The Evenin Star wis his mither and father's caravan.

Sae he rins noo, an he rins aa the wey tae try an beat the coach in, to waarn his folk that the Angel o Death's comin, so he's rinnin aa the wey as fast as he can, but fin he gets tae this part o Ballater, the ither end o Ballater, far he wis bidin, here wis the beautiful Evenin Star in an inferno, jist burnin to the high heavens, an aa the folk roon aboot it in the night.

An Johnnie starts to roar an greet oot o him an scream blue murder: he thinks noo that he's folk's burnt, an that the Angel o Death has came fir them. But as he's greetin an screamin, he's mither comes til him, an he's mither says, "Fit's adae wi ye? Ye're in an aafa state!" An he sees he's father stan'in 'ere, an the man says, "Fit's adae wi ye, laddie?" An he cuddled an he kissed he's parents, he tells he's mither the strange, strange experience o the night that he'd gane through. An fin he'd finished he said til his mither, "Why wis it that the Angel o Death came tae this caravan, an yet he's left empty-handed?"

Then he's mither looked at him jist fir a minute, an she says, "Well, maybe he didnae ging awaa empty-handed."

An Johnnie says, "But . . . youse are here!

She says, "Aye, me an yir faither wis oot," she says, "but Princie, the dog, wis in the caravan fin the caravan caught fire, sae the Angel o Death didnae ging awaa empty-handed efter aa."


 

 


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