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Scottish Traditional Tales
Scottish Traditional Tales

In most modern European cultures (the Gaels are an exception) the longer international types of wonder-tale, or fairy-tales as they are often called, are the aristocrats of traditional storytelling, as the older ballads are of singing. These stories share the atmosphere of mediaeval romance - timelessly vague, hot with such material properties as must be described supplied from the wardrobe of the later Middle Ages: somewhere between Avalon and Agincourt - without sharing its chivalrous values. The hero wins less by gallantry or purity than by cunning - he maneuvers the giantess into inspecting the pot of water which is to boil him and pushes her in - or through supernatural help acquired by some minimal art of kindness, or often by sheer lack. These are the fireside dreams of ordinary people, where cripples, simpletons, youngest sons and stepdaughters overcome foes and misfortunes to live rich and happy ever after: escapism, in fact, which despite Plato and all his pompous progeny of moralists does more than myth or parable to enrich the lives of most people. It must be stressed that storytelling was a common evening entertainment for the whole community, and only increasing competition from printed hooks gradually restricted the wonder-tales to country people, and eventually led to the idea in some places that they were only fit for children.

In Scotland the collection of international folktales has followed very different courses in Highlands and Lowlands. In Gaelic, traditional storytelling was still a flourishing part of everyday life at the turn of the century and even between the two World Wars in many places, and though unfortunately there was no attempt at systematic word-for-word recording at this stage on the scale on which it was undertaken in Ireland by the Irish Folklore Commission, many tales had been taken down in writing since 1859 by collectors employed by or inspired by I.E. Campbell of Islay. Campbell’s own collection, first published in 1860-64, was inspired by the Norwegian collections of Asbjornsen and Moe, and they in turn had been inspired by the Brothers Grimm, so that the collection of traditional tales in Gaelic followed a pattern relatively common throughout Europe. In Lowland Scotland, however, as in England. it seems to have been assumed that the time for collecting folktales was already past by the mid-nineteenth century.

As far as international wonder-tales are concerned, the words of the great American folklorist Stith Thompson (The folktale: 19) are probably meant to include Lowland Scotland: Folklorists have always remarked on the scarcity of the authentic folktale in England. Popular narrative has had a tendency to take the form of the ballad. But there are plenty of evidences, in literature and elsewhere, that some of our principal folktales have been current there in the past…". These include at one end of the scale the many wonder-tales collected recently in long-established English-speaking communities in North America; at the other end for Scotland stands the list of titles of well-known stories in a mid-sixteenth century pamphlet The Complaint of Scotland, which along with literary romances includes such tales as The Red Etin’ and ‘The Volf at the Varldis End’ (probably an error for "The Well at the Warldis End") which have since been collected from oral tradition.

There certainly has been a feeling in English and Scots ever since the days of Beowulf that the best way to tell a story was in verse. Most surviving Middle Scots literature is in verse, and much of it, from Barbour’s Bruce and the romance attributed to Thomas the Rhymer on, is narrative: this tradition led on to the ballads, which are still being handed down to the present day. But the matter of the ballads has more in common with local historical and supernatural legends than with international wonder-tale, though both may seem to inhabit the same world. Only a few of the international folktale types listed in the Aarne-Thompson catalogue (The Types of the folktale, hereafter AT) appear as ballads (for instance AT 922 as ‘King John and the Bishop", Child 45 [1:403-14], or AT 506 as ‘The Turkey Factor") and these are most likely the product of the seventeenth and eighteenth century. London broadside factories working on existing prose popular tales.

A few international tales in Scots were collected in the early nineteenth century as a by product of the interest in ballads fired by Sir Walter Scott. Scott’s protégé Robert Chambers included some as ‘Fireside Nursery Stories’ in his Popular Rhymes of Scotland, some of the best as remembered by the ballad collector Charles Kirkpatrick Sharpe from his Berwickshire-born nurse, all with the dialect in which they were told reconstructed if not faithfully recorded. Peter Buchan, the Peterhead ballad collector and printer, also trade a collection of Ancient Scottish Tales which remained unprinted until 1908: though these were nearly all wonder-tales, the texts are unfortunately mere summaries couched in stilted English which makes unattractive reading. Other tales are to he found retold in the works of Scott himself and James Hogg, in Wilson’s monumental collection of Tales of the Borders, in periodicals such as The Galllovidian in the MS collections of Thomas Wilkie (another Border disciple of Scott) and in local histories and guidebooks, but these are nearly all legends rather than wonder-tales. A useful collection of tales presented in dialect from this period is Hannah Aitken’s recent A Forgotten Heritage. But there was no systematic collection like Campbell’s in the Lowlands, and apart from the Rev. Walter Gregor in the North-East and satire collectors in the Northern Isles whom we will mention shortly, nobody followed up the earlier work in the second half of the century. For over a hundred years it would be almost true to say that story telling in Scots was missing, presumed dead.

The presumption, fortunately, was premature. Some of the shorter international tales were widespread but generally ignored. Take the story listed in the Aarne-Thompson index as AT 1562A, 'The Barn is Burning'. The master has taught the servant to give peculiar names to everything. When the cat sets the barn afire the servant used those extraordinary names and is so delayed that the fire is out of control. The final tongue twister where the servant used the names was recorded just as a rhyme by Chambers; Walter Gregor has the story as a whole, and until recently these were the only Scots versions known. In Tocher 1:82-83 we printed a MS version, 'Strunty Pokes', taken down fifty years before as heard in Fife fifty years before that. Then in May 1976 an Ayrshire version was sent in by a correspondent to the Scots Magazine. and within weeks readers had contributed versions from industrial Stirlingshire and Lanarkshire and one said to be a Scottish tale from Canada, all heard, if not passed on, in the past fifty years.

It may be no surprise to find short tales like this still alive in Scotland: throughout most of the English-speaking world jokes and comic anecdotes, local legends (often passed on partly through print, partly through word of mouth) and tales of personal encounters with the super-natural are still circulating. But longer tales can still be found among groups where formal storytelling survived as an entertainment recently, and still survives in places: the Gaels especially, but also other peripheral communities such as the half-Norsemen of Orkney and Shetland, and those foreigners in their own country, the tinkers. (Now that tin smithing as a trade has vanished, it is better to describe them as travellers, a term which they prefer, since it avoids the derogatory implication of 'tinks'; hut they have long been proud of the difference between ordinary country people on the road begging or looking for work and the established tinker tribes, though these were probably made up of many different elements - Gypsies, outlaws and broken men, homeless Outcasts from the Clearances and the Forty-Five, and perhaps a basis of the itinerant craftsmen of ancient Gaelic society.)

All travellers (in the wider sense) tend to be storytellers: commercial travellers and door-to-door salesmen are still significant retailers as well as subjects of jokes, and in the days before popular newspapers, radio and television, any-one on the road was inevitably a bringer of news, gossip, and by a slight extension, of fictional stories too. They themselves were the media and the providers of entertainment. Sometimes their occupation was conducive to storytelling: the tailors who used to travel round country districts making up clothes from home-spun cloth in their customers own houses could sit on the table telling stories as they snipped and sewed, and they certainly played an important part in handing down Gaelic folktales. The making and mending of tin cans was a noisier occupation, but travellers collecting rags, hawking china, clothes-pegs, besoms or wicker baskets, or doing casual farm work in the potato or berry fields, might well he asked into farm kitchens for an evening of gossip and story-telling such as Gregor described. Within traveller families the principal storyteller might be the grandfather, left in charge of the children while their mothers were out hawking: but mothers too would tell stories to their children in bed, or - a rare situation in the country now, but an everyday one in some parts of the world and common to castle and cottage in the Middle Ages - while they had their heads deloused. Children told stories to one another, and especially when two or three families camped together the stories and songs round the camp fire might go far into a summer night. In fact three of the six travellers on this recording are men, and three women: five of them have also recorded ballads, and all three of the women can be heard on the Muckle Songs album - storytelling and singing go hand in hand among travellers.

Only within the past few years, since these recordings were first planned, has renewed collection, notably the sustained fieldwork of a researcher permanently living under canvas as a traveller, begun to show just what a wealth of both international folktales and legends very different from those of the settled landward folk is still remembered among travellers. Admittedly some of these may derive ultimately from printed sources such as Grimm or Anderson: travellers before recent generations may have been illiterate as a rule, but they would also have had the ability to remember something from a single hearing which goes along with illiteracy, and a hunger for new stories wherever they came from. But if they are Grimm tales they have been very thoroughly naturalised by adding new imaginative touches (see ‘The Three Feathers’) or by details from similar Scots tales: thus Betsy Whyte tells ‘Cinderella’ as she heard it from her mother (and as other travellers know it) complete with fairy godmother, glass slipper, pumpkin coach and all the well-known details which go back eventually to Perrault’s French publication of 1697: but at the end an ugly sister cuts off her heel and toe to fit on the slipper, and the prince is on the way to the church with her when a little bird warns him that:

Pared heels an clippit toes in the carriage rides,
Bonnie fit an braa fit ahint the kettle hides

- and he goes back for Cinderella. This is the end of old Scots versions of the story (or rather of the parallel type without the ugly sisters, ‘Cap o’ Rushes’, AT 510B) as Chambers and Gregor print it.

Chapbooks.such as ‘Jack the Giant-Killer’ have also played their part - the giant may ‘smell the blood of an Englishman rather than an earthly man’ as in Peter Buchan’s ‘Red Etin’, or Tom Tulloch’s ‘Boy and the Brüni’ in Shetland. But basically the travellers’ tales are part of the Lowland Scots heritage. They are not in most cases something peculiar to the travellers themselves, like Gypsy folktales: a few cant words may be used, and some storytellers like David Stewart may show signs of the indifference to logical coherence in the plot which is typical of Gypsy (and Slavonic) storytellers, but this need indicate no more than a failure of memory. Nor are the tales generally Gaelic ones which have come into Scots, though some traveller families have been bilingual in Gaelic and Scots (not to mention the private cant vocabularies attached to each) and have probably been the means through which a few tales have passed in either direction. Betsy Whyte, for instance, tells a version of the native Gaelic hero-tale of the ‘Finding of Bran’ (see Tocher 3:258-61), in Scots as she heard it from her mother, who was of an Argyll family; on the other side, the stories which present James Vl’s tutor George Buchanan as a crafty fool, spread originally by chapbooks in English, are as popular with Gaelic travellers as with their Scots counterparts. But probably more typical than either is ‘The King and the Miller’, the version of AT 922 told by Andrew Stewart and his father John (see Toucher 3:169-71) which differs in substance as well as title both from the English ballad of ‘King John and the Bishop’ which we have already noticed and from the many Gaelic versions which are usually about a king and a priest (cf. Tocher 1: 152-9 and Scottish Studies 17:147-54). The tales which the non-Gaelic-speaking travellers have kept alive represent a part of Scots tradition which has almost vanished among the settled population for lack of occasions for, or interest in, its performance.

In this album nearly half the tales, including most of the longer ones, are from travellers: all of them have international parallels. Four were recorded in the 1950s by Hamish Henderson, at a time when (as he describes below) the first recordings of Scots-speaking travellers made by Hamish with some help from Maurice Fleming of Blairgowrie and others, were successful in turning up a wealth of tales as well as songs. The other two tales, first recorded from a younger generation of travellers in the 1970s and specially re-recorded for this album, show how far their repertoire is from being exhausted yet.

All the remaining stories come from Shetland and Orkney, not because it would have been impossible to find examples of similar legends and anecdotes among the settled population of the mainland, but because in Shetland especially they are not only still relatively easy to find, but are told with such enthusiasm and artistry that the islands inevitably attract the fieldworker. The late Calum Maclean, first Research Fellow in folktales in the School of Scottish Studies, found Shetland the most rewarding and enjoyable part of Scotland outside the Gaelic-speaking area in which to collect tales. His favourite storyteller, the late Brucie Henderson of South Yell, is not represented here (for reasons of comprehensibility and quality of recording), but Brucie was only the best known of many fine storytellers at the present day. Over the past hundred years a good many Shetland tales have been published in dialect or summary versions by Jessie M.E. Saxhy. George Stewart, John Nicolson, Andrew Cluness and others, and some substantial MS collections of tales and other lore exist, notably those of Laurence Williamson and E.S. Reid Tait (both incidentally of Fetlar descent). Since 1945 the Shetland Folk Society and the magazine The New Shetlander have encouraged the collection and publication of further traditional material. Nevertheless there are still tales going around as part of a living tradition, or at least not very deeply buried in the memories of the older generation, which are well worth recording.

A few international tale-types, including Cinderella (Essipattle an da Blue Yowe’) have survived in Shetland, and we include one (‘The Boy and the Brüni’); but the wealth of the tradition is certainly in the local tales, which range from the strangest adventures with fairies (in most of the islands called trows or trolls, but with the characteristics of Scottish Fairies) and witches, whose powers were still strongly believed in within living memory, through a rich vein of sailors’ tall tales, and often true if exaggerated legends of thieves and smugglers, escapes from the Press Gang and struggles with oppressive lairds, to relatively circumstantial accounts of courage in open boats struck by a sudden gale. The supernatural legends and comic tales which we give here need little local knowledge to follow, and the dialect should not he too hard to understand at least with the transcription.

In Orkney there was probably as rich a tradition a hundred years ago, and part of it, including several international folktale types, was recorded by Walter Traill Dennison and Duncan J. Robertson around the 1880s. Supernatural legends, let alone wonder-tales, are now a rarity in Orkney, though we include one exceptional example: pressgang tales, tall tales and ghost stories of the vaguer and more personal sort may still he heard, but though there seems to have been a stronger ballad-singing tradition there earlier in the twentieth century than in most parts of Shetland, there seems not to have been such a wealth of story-telling. Perhaps the busy farming life of mainland Orkney left no leisure for this lengthy entertainment: certainty they did not enjoy the opportunities of the Shetland haaf fishermen, along with whose discomforts time, as Andrew Cluness put it, ‘was (for story telling purposes) almost unlimited, for a fishing trip begun on Monday morning might last until Friday or Saturday. So haaf men’s tales, however slender the main theme, marched on leisurely like a saga or an epic poem...’ (Though we have no room here for the epic style of Shetland narration as exemplified by Brucie Henderson or Jamesie Laurenson of Fetlar, some samples may he found in Tocher 1:132, 246-57; 3:81-114). It may he significant that our exceptional Orkney supernatural legend belongs to South Ronaldsay, which an Orkney mainland farmer described to me succinctly as ‘a fishin place’, and indeed was handed down by a member of a family who had for many generations made their living by catching and curing cod, like the Shetland haaf men, on the small isle of Swona in the Pentland Firth.

Again it may he asked whether these can fairIy be called Scots tales, when both Shetlanders and Orcadians refer to Scotland as if it were a separate country: many remember the Scots lairds who usurped their fudal rights to their own land with a conspicuous lack of affection, and are sometimes given to recalling that the islands only passed into the possession of the Scottish Crown as a pledge which might possibly be redeemed. But though the dialect is richly peppered with words of Norse derivation, it is certainly a dialect of Scots - in some ways more archaic than most mainland dialects now - and unwary Shetlanders may try to puzzle visitors with ‘old Shetland words’ which anyone with a knowledge of Scots could understand. It is much the same with the tales: a few of them, and some of the ideas involved, such as the word trow for fairy, are Norse, but far the greater part have parallels in Scotland, or have developed in the islands themselves: a few, of course, have been brought from North America or elsewhere recently by sailors, whalers and fur trappers. Even the stories of the seal-people and their intermarriage with humans which are often thought typical of the Northern Isles have close parallels in Ireland, the Highlands and the Hebrides, but are almost unknown in Norway. However, our one story of a ‘sea man’ here has undoubted Norwegian parallels, though it comes in part from the most southerly corner of Orkney, a few miles from the Caithness coast! Even local legends’ may be internationally known: but as far as their language goes, these are Scots tales. - AJB



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