Track 1 (CD2) THE
ANGEL OF DEATH Stanley Robertson,
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
"'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
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
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
An Johnnie says, "But . . . youse
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."