There was a man...., the story of Duncan Williamson

Scotland's greatest traditional storyteller's own tale is told in a new book by a great friend

• Duncan Williamson spellbinds Edinburgh primary pupils in 1988

AT Duncan Williamson's funeral at Strathmiglo in 2007, fellow storyteller Hugh Lupton gave a eulogy in which he suggested that, as well as the assembled mourners, filling the kirk were the many and motley characters who peopled Williamson's immense repertoire of travellers' folk tales – kings and tinkers, fairies and seal folk, and, of course, the ever-wandering Jack.

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Lupton reminded his listeners that Williamson, widely regarded as the prince of Scotland's tradition-bearing storytellers, used to say that when you told a story or sang a song, the person you learned it from was standing behind you, the previous teller behind him and so on. It was this extraordinary legacy of tales and balladry from time out of mind, combined with a charismatic ability to charm his listeners, which prompted the late Hamish Henderson to describe Williamson as "the Scottish folk tradition in one man".

Williamson was born in 1928 in a traveller's camp "under a tree", as he liked to put it, on the banks of Loch Fyne, one of 15 children, and in later life ended up beguiling audiences as far removed as Canada and Israel as well as becoming a fount of oral tradition for folklorists. Now the man who accompanied him on countless storytelling trips in Scotland and beyond, fellow storyteller and former BBC producer David Campbell, has written the first volume of a two-part account not only of Williamson's life, but of their unlikely but intense and sometimes fractious friendship.

Williamson was married twice, but in his introduction to Traveller in Two Worlds, Campbell also recalls a moment during Williamson's funeral, when a friend joked that "not everyone knew of Duncan's third marriage, to David Campbell". They were an odd couple, the tinker storyteller and the radio producer; and a tricky "marriage" it could be at times, as Campbell tells me. "Duncan was a storm force. We had a tremendously close relationship. He was very physically demonstrative, although if anything he was slightly homophobic, but he would hug you in this very strong fashion, and we had these playful flytings all the time."

On the other hand, as Campbell writes in the book, "his joys (were] transparent and fiery, his glooms dense and dampening as bleakest November… Equally, his anger could simmer and erupt like Hekla, into clouds that lingered long and darkly over months."

Once, during a falling out over payment for a storytelling session, Williamson walked out of Campbell's Edinburgh New Town flat in which he was a frequent guest. When Campbell followed him to Waverley station and remonstrated with him "he raised his fist and said f*** off, or I'll hit you".

But he never did hit Campbell, although he was a physically strong individual who by his own admission had been a scrapper in his youth, once serving 30 days in Perth Prison for breaking a man's jaw. At the same time, he maintained a day-to-day approach to life and a lack of regard for possessions which, says Campbell, "make him a parable for our acquisitive and greedy times".

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I had the pleasure of meeting Williamson myself once, a few years before his death, interviewing him at his cottage at Balmullo in Fife. I remember a wiry, forceful-looking man with a wicked twinkle in his eye. Horses and heather were once the lifeblood of Scotland, he told me, before delivering an impressive litany of the uses to which the purple stuff was once put – ropes, besoms, pot scrubbers, bedding, "even the Picts made their ale from heather".

Hi-tech tended not to get much of a look-in, while television, he reckoned, should carry a government health warning, although he knew all about tape recorders. Not only had his vast store of tales and ballads been extensively recorded, transcribed and published by his second wife, Linda, the American student folklorist who arrived at his camp to interview him and ended up marrying him; back in the Sixties, he told me, he bought an ancient reel-to-reel with which he used to record the old traveller pipers. "I'd play them the tape in reverse," he chuckled, recalling the consternation of the horrified musicians.

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Listening to him in full, captivating flight as a tale teller, or even reading one of the many books of his stories published by Linda, it was easy to imagine him padding the roads of Scotland with his entourage of – quite literally – fabulous and archetypal characters. He had been absorbing them, almost subconsciously, since a childhood spent in a bow tent, and after leaving his family at the age of 13, absorbing further lore as he worked variously as horseman, drystane dyker, farm worker and even a bizarre episode as a boxing instructor in a boys' club run by an unorthodox Aberdeen minister.

This first volume, told largely in Williamson's own words, extracted from some 30 hours of recordings Campbell made over a decade, tells the story of that early life and his first marriage, to Jeannie Townsley, with whom he "jumped the broomstick," eloping when she was just 16, and by whom he had seven children. It became an increasingly tense marriage as Townsley, who died of a heart attack in 1971, found it difficult to deal with the increasing demands for her husband's performance skills.

Of course, approaching someone like Williamson with anything resembling biographical intent can have its pitfalls, for as he himself put it, "Never let the truth stand in the way of a good story," and some of his claims, such as playing shinty for a team at Furnace during the Second World War and his extraordinary allegation that a grief-stricken woman tried to poison him with diphtheria-tainted apples, didn't always appear to hold water when Campbell followed them up. "But he was so persuasive," says Campbell. "And the thing about the nature of a story is that when you've told it sufficiently often, you come to believe it is true. But whether or not that was the case with Duncan, I don't know."

But if the title Traveller in Two Worlds sums up Williamson's double life as traveller and internationally acclaimed storyteller, it can apply equally to his chronicler's own career switch from media man to following in his old friend's footsteps as a traditional storyteller. Campbell was a still a producer for BBC radio when he first met Williamson in 1987, visiting him at his then home outside Auchtermuchty to discuss using one of his tales, Mary and the Seal, for a schools programme. It was going to require a cut, and Williamson didn't approve. The book takes up the encounter…

"He stood, John Wayne, at the back door scrutinising my approach with his vivid blue eyes, lacking only a holster and a six shooter…

" 'You want to broadcast my story Mary and the Seal on the radio?'


"'But you don't like it the way it is!'

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"'I love the story. I just don't think it will fit into my 20-minute radio programme, but I love it.'

Stepping forward, he seized me in one of the hugs I came to know so well.

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"'David Campbell, youse and me are going to be great friends. Come in.'"

Not only did they become great friends, but when Campbell left the BBC, originally intending to write, he became instead Williamson's apprentice, as it were, learning his craft as a storyteller and visiting schools and touring abroad with him.

It is, of course, far more than just Campbell who have fallen under the glamourie of this most ancient of arts. A widespread revival of interest in traditional storytelling is underway, with Scotland playing a salient part, thanks in no small way to the likes of Williamson and other storytellers, many of them also travellers such as Stanley Robertson, Jeannie Robertson and Betsy Whyte, folk from an often derided sector of society revealing themselves as bearers of a priceless heritage.

None of them could have imagined that the nation whose roads they travelled and whose lore they carried would start the 21st century with a purpose-built Scottish Storytelling Centre at the heart of Edinburgh, currently celebrating its fifth anniversary, and some 125 professional storytellers plying their craft in festivals, schools, health centres and even in corporate personnel development sessions.

Storytelling Centre founding director Donald Smith, who regarded Williamson as "head and shoulders above anyone else in his field", has described the art as "a core cultural activity, without which we cannot function". Campbell says he came increasingly to regard the academic knowledge, exposition and analysis in which he'd been schooled as "not proper knowledge. But when you tell a story about something, it's experiential; it's life replicating in the imagination, and its power is fantastic"

Williamson would probably have dismissed such theorising with one of his favourite ripostes to Campbell – "classical shit", and put it rather more succinctly: "Stories was wir education".

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• A Traveller in Two Worlds is published next week by Luath Press, 14.99. David Campbell talks about it at 6.15pm on Thursday at the Borders Book Festival in Melrose.