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Scottish Traditional Tales
Storytelling among the Travellers


He’s hey the road ho the road doon the road; the tods in tae their holes and the wee birdies flee awa tae their nests, but there’s nae rest for poor Jack.

The first folktales recorded by the School of Scottish Studies were told by the renowned bothy ballad singer Jimmy MacBeath, sometimes referred to as the last King of the Cornkisters. Although Jimmy was not himself an ‘ethnic’ tinker-gypsy, he had learned many of his most popular items from travellers, and it was Geordie Stewart of Huntly. a wealthy and influential magnate among the fraternity, who literally set him on the road to fame - or, in more prosaic terms, suggested to him that he might well be able to earn his living as a street-singer.

It was fitting enough, therefore, that the earliest indication we had of what was in store for later fieldworkers came from a tradition-bearer who was, in a manner of speaking, a traveller by adoption.

The stories Jimmy told were not, however, the international wonder-tales, told in Scots, which so amazed the late Calum Maclean when he first heard recordings of them; they were somewhat grotesque tuppence-coloured anecdote-sketches about an assortment of historical characters like Macbeth, Mary Queen of Seats and John Knox, and literary luminaries such as Burns, Tobert Tannahill and Tom Moore. We were later to hear some of these home-grown Schwiinke (jests, humorous anecdotes) on the lips of real travellers: for example, Jeannie Robertson had a story about ‘Lady Matilda’ which was clearly a close relative of an anecdote of Jimmy’s about Lady Nairne.

It was the breakthrough into the world of the travelling people in 1952 and 1953 which provided incontrovertible evidence that LalIon Märchen (magic/wonder tales) were as thick on the ground on the East Coast littoral as in many parts of the Highlands, and that a few virtuoso storytellers existed who were comparable, for repertoire and narrative style, with some of the best Gaelic champions in this thinning field. When one remembers the paucity of Lowland Sects folktale records from earlier periods - and compares, for example, the voluminous corpus of balladry published by Peter Buchan with the handful of wooden anglicized story recensions which he preserved under the title Ancient Scottish Tales - the part the travelling folk have played in sustaining this vital part of our folk-cultural heritage stands out in bold relief.

Jeannie Robertson, the great ballad-singer, was the first of these modern traveller storytellers to be recorded. In the early 1950s her hospitable little house (21 Causewayend, Aberdeen) served as a veritable céilidh house for the neighbours - some still semi-nomadic - in the Gallowgate district of the city, and it soon became clear that storytelling was still a favourite entertainment among these gifted uninhibited music-loving travelling folk. The earliest recordings of now famous versions of Child ballads took place in a cheery atmosphere of visit and counter-visit, of conversation and still more conversation, in which the necessary pursuit of the ‘lowy’ (money) never seemed to take precedence over the paramount claims of leisure. Indeed, the arts of song and story, in which the Aberdeen tinkers took what seemed an insatiable delight, were rooted in an exuberant colourful O’Casey-like folk-speech, long tracks of which can still be heard rimbombing in the recordings of the early fifties. Here is Jeannie herself inveighing against a character which was obviously a sort of local King of the Liars; after working herself up into a kind of mock rage - each denunciation accompanied by vehement gesticulations - she calms down: the storm abates almost as soon as it is raised, and she is soon paying tribute to the same feckless loon as a singer.

‘And that’s whit he was aye daein’ . . . sittin’ tellin’ people a lot o’ lees! But ye had to show your manners: ye had to bear this lees; ay, ye had tae listen tae them. I jist gaes aboot the hoose - I jist looks at him like that - I says, God bless us Johnnie - God forgive ye ... and still I kent that he was a guid laddie tae - and he’s always made welcome in the house when he comes in here. But we ken he’s a liar! We ken Johnnie cannae open his mooth withoot tellin’ one!’

Here one of the company made the point that ‘Ye can aye get a good laugh at a good lee’. Jeannie continued: ‘But still - wanst upon a time - I dinna ken whit like he is noo, but I still think he could sing. Because he used to come tae oor hoose doon there [in the Gallowgate] and he sung hloody good at that time.’

Another voice put in: ‘Oh, he’s a lovely singer’

Jeannie: Doon there he sung tae hiz often. Many’s and many’s the night he sung tae hiz doon there. Because at nights, Hamish, maybe a fiddle played the pipes played - Johnnie stung - I sung - maybe some o’ the rest o’ them sang. and the nicht passed by.’

When Jeannie recorded ‘The Kineva Hills’ (a tale of three brothers, their mother’s blessing and a magic sword. cf. AT 577) for the old box Ferrograph tape-recorder sitting like a monument on her kitchen table, an attentive member of the audience was her nephew, wee Isaac, then aged eight. After the story had been recorded, the little boy retold it for the mike, prompted occasionally by a smiling Jeannie. It seemed an uncommon privilege to record the actual act of transmission. In a recent article in Seer (No. 2. Dundee, Dec. 1978) Timothy Neat describes the general situation very well:

Traveller children grow up in an environment in which songs and stories are of great importance. Amongst a population of singers and storytellers it is not surprising that a few individuals gain special reputations, such individuals (often from certain families) then consciously begin to carry a tradition for which they feel responsible. Respect for the ‘pure’ transference of songs and stories does not inhibit the creative transformation of new experience into new and original works. As such modern ‘bards’ arise, they are given high status by the Travelling People - whom they entertain, and for whom they speak.’

The Aberdeenshire ‘travellers’ we recorded in the early 50’s were mostly semi nomadic; some knew the travelling life only as a kind of holiday caravan, or ‘summer walk’ - Nevertheless, although they lived in houses for most or all of the year, the tinkers of the Aberdeen Gallowgate almost all had first-hand experience of story telling around the camp fire. After recording a version of ‘SilIy Jack and the Factor’ in 1954, Jeannie went on to make a distinction between the short humorous stories like this particular Schwänk amid the long wonder-tales of supernatural adventure which the old folk could keep going for hours on end, and maybe (for the bairns’ benefit) resume at a subsequent sitting. ‘’Those that aren’t alive now could tell ye a lot o’ good stories ... They could tell stories, and maybe tell it to ye before ye went to bed at night, and then it was continued like a continued picture at the desperate bit, the bit ye were aye waitin’ to hear. So of course ye were aye anxious for the first ‘oor or twa after . . . and the story started again.’

In the summer of 1955, at camp fires in the berryfields of Blairgowrie, we saw children (and adults) sitting enthralled while accomplished storytellers like Andra (‘Hoochten’) Stewart and Bella Higgins rang the changes on international folktales with names like ‘The Silver Bridle’, ‘The Blue Belt’, Johnnie One-Tune’ and ‘The Speaking Bird o’ Paradise’. Jeannie travelled down to Blair herself, and she took part in what turned into a kind of impromptu Folk Festival - the open-air ancestor of the events later put on by the Traditional Music and Song Association of Scotland. What stood out a mile (even allowing for the added stimulus of the tape-recorder and the work of collection) was the creative joie de view of the Scots travellers: rare classic ballads were recorded cheek by jowl with songs in the folk idiom composed the same day, and stories I had heard in Aberdeen in one guise reappeared in Blair in braw new gear. The lively traveller storytelling style, the exact opposite of deadpan delivery, was there in strength, just as Jeannie had described it.’ He’d gae through a’ the acts, like. He would show to you what they were like, and if it was eerie or oniething like that, his voice soundit eerie - his voice would change as he was telling the story. If it was cumin’ to the right desperate bit, he wad get desperate too. And he’s a’ the bairns roon’ the camp fire jist a’ listenin’, and maybe feart.’

Jeannie’s own story-telling style exemplified the traditional artistry she inherited from her mother and her grandfather. Just as in ordinary conversation she ‘talked for victory’, so with the first words of a narrative she conveyed a sense of authority and (so to speak) of professionalism; the self-confidence and ease with which she launched into a tale both beguiled the listener and compelled his attention. Her physical presence was formidable; she used to turn her great black eyes on a member of the audience, and draw him willy-nilly into a sort of mute participation. In the comic tale, at which she excelled, she displayed strong natural robust humour; tales of enchantment, on the other hand, could elicit from her the same capacity for sustained incantatory - sometimes almost hypnotic - intensity which one sensed in her delivery of the great ballads - fur example, ‘The Twa Brothers’ and ‘Son David’. And when she told ‘true’ stories of ghosts and fairies, and of black-garbed lum-hatted Burkers (the bogeymen of tinker folklore) it was obvious that she belonged to a culture in which belief in the supernatural was still very much a fact of life, and for which the alien phantasmagoric world of scalpel-toting predators had a more than symbolic reality.

Jeannie’s 1954 recording of ‘Silly Jack and the Factor’ - by general consent, from an artistic point of view one of the finest storytelling performances in our archive - concludes the selection of items from travellers on this recording. The other stories told by travellers all in their various ways illustrate the points mentioned by Jeannie in her remarks quoted above: Davie Stewart’s deep emotional involvement in his story emerges clearly from the recording; a cunning manipulation of suspense is palpable in Staney Robertson’s ‘The Angel of Death’; Andrew Stewart and Betsy Whyte both display the resources of a robust and sensitive narrative at its most fluent and eloquent; and, last but not least, the sly pawky humour of Bella Higgins’ story of the Twa Humphries (AT 503) sets a localized version of an international tale-type fair and square among the green glens and fir-plantings of the upland Perthshire landscape. -HH


 

 


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