Storyteller, singer, piper, author and playwright
Born: 8 June, 1940, in Aberdeen.
Died: 2 August, 2009, in Aberdeen, aged 69.
WILLIAM Stanley Robertson (he never used the William) was an unforgettable figure on the Scottish traditional culture scene, famed worldwide for his ballad singing and remarkable storytelling, which drew upon his Traveller culture and varied life. His rapport with audiences of all kinds and ages was unmatched, the neatly suited performer, always solemnly capped to cover his bald crown, gentle, kindly and dramatically enthralling, will remain in people's memories for many a day.
The 12th of 13 children, he left school at 14 for a variety of employments, mainly in the Aberdeen fish hooses, where he worked almost until the end of his life. Although his family were settled Travellers, they went "summer walking", and the songs and stories he gained then stayed with him all his life, to be celebrated vividly in the likes of his first publication, Exodus to Alford (1988).
A nephew of Jeannie Robertson, the great ballad singer, whose knowledge of ballads and lore he equalled, and a cousin of the equally talented Lizzie Higgins, he was also influenced by his story-telling maternal grandfather, Joseph Edward McDonald, who lived with the family when Stanley was young.
In addition, seven years with the Territorial 4th/7th Gordon Highlanders confirmed him as an able piper.
He had been recognised and recorded as a traditional ballad singer of considerable range and repertoire from the Revival onwards, becoming the subject of academic analysis, of which he remarked dryly: "They tell me what it is that I'm doing; it's very interesting," although he did delight in scholarly treatments of the great ballads he loved.
But it was not until his late forties that he began to find his niche as a vivid and witty writer and playwright.
Mingled with his cultural and employment background was his exploration of the boundaries of life and death, and of the Scottish fairy folk, an unpredictable, amoral people of whom he once commented wryly: "We ca' them the guid folk – for they can dee ye an awful lot of damage." He went on to publish Nyakim's Windows, Fish-Hooses 1 & 2, Land of No Death and Ghosties and Ghoulies, culminating in Reek Roon a Camp Fire (Birlinn, April 2009). He was also an honorary founder of the Scottish Storytelling Forum.
His plays such as Scruffie Uggie and The Burkers were largely written for schools, but Jack and the Land of Dreams ran for five weeks in the Edinburgh Theatre Workshop in 2001.
Ever determined to lift the curtain of prejudice against Travellers, especially among the young, he lost no opportunity to demonstrate their rich culture and traditional way of life, and was the key worker for the Heritage Lottery-funded Oral and Cultural Traditions of Scottish Travellers project from April 2002 until April 2005. This was based in Aberdeen University's Elphinstone Institute, which, during this period, also furthered his previous output of recordings, such as Kyloe's Traveller's Tales 1 & 2, with such as the double CD Rum Scum Scoosh: Songs of an Aberdeen Childhood (2006).
The demands for his performances in the UK, Europe and the US are almost too many to list. He made numerous television and radio appearances in the UK, the Netherlands and the US; in 1993 the BBC Radio 4 Kaleidoscope programme had him as special guest. As an internationally renowned Traveller story-teller, he taught in schools in Britain, Denmark and Paris, and was the guest artist at storytelling festivals from Tennessee to Devon. He lectured and taught in colleges and universities worldwide, as well as at Napier, Edinburgh and Aberdeen universities at home. This last honoured him with a Master of the University degree last November.
He was a gentle man, intelligent, perspicacious, open and highly sensitive, and as piper and folklorist Andy Hunter comments: "I feel the Mormon Church seemed to give Stanley the creative lift and confidence he needed for his work." And it sustained him in illness, for although he was unwell in his latter years, he displayed little evidence of his constant struggle with the complications of diabetes, a heart attack and kidney failure.
Working in the fish house almost to the end, he continued to meet his many engagements with cheerful courage. He asked to be returned close to lands of his summer days, in the cemetery of Lumphanan.
He leaves behind his wife, Johnann, his sons, Robert, Anthony, Clifford and Dale, and his daughters, Gabrielle and Nicole, who have inherited their father's stories and songs.