New project, new blog, an introduction to my year digitising Duncan Williamson’s reel to reel tapes (includes the story of The Tramp and the Boots)

Hello and welcome to my blog!

This blog will be about my mentor, Duncan Williamson, my apprenticeship with him, the legacy of material he left me and what I’m going to do with it.

Duncan Williamson was a Scottish Traveller storyteller and ballad singer.  He had a huge wealth of stories, songs, jokes, riddles and sayings collected from his family and the Scottish Traveller culture, but also from all the settled people he met as he travelled around Scotland.

For more than twenty years I have had hours and hours of reel-to-reel recordings of Duncan Williamson sat in boxes waiting for me to sort them out.  For the first ten years, Duncan was still alive, so if I had any free time, I’d always rather go and see Duncan himself rather than sort out the tapes.  For the next five years, it was too hard to listen to them. Over the last five years, I have been trying to sort out ways to digitise and archive the material on the tapes.

Eventually, I started a crowdfunding campaign to raise the money to pay for them to digitised–thank you to everyone who contributed –you are all marvellous!

Now the marvellous Arts Council England have awarded me a grant to work with the material on the tapes –listening, cataloguing and working out the best ways to pass it on.

Over the course of the coming year, I will be bravely challenging myself in all sorts of technical ways!   Eek!  I will be launching myself into social media, so that I can tell everyone how it’s going with the digitisation and editing –and letting people know where I am, so that we can share different stories of and from Duncan.  I’m going to be learning how to podcast –I’m very excited about interviewing various eminent storytellers about their relationship with Duncan and how his stories and way of telling influenced their own work.  And, of course, I will be listening to digitised material from the tapes; editing and archiving it; beginning to tell material learned from the tapes and experimenting with different ways of passing it on.

So–how did I get into storytelling and meet Duncan in the first place?


I love stories.  I have always loved stories.  Growing up I read so many books with storytellers in them and wished that storytellers still existed.

I started going to folk festivals with my family and as ‘All folk around the Wrekin’, there it was, ‘Storytelling’, on the programme.  After an hour of stories with Taffy Thomas I timidly asked how he had become a storyteller.  He towered over me and said,

“Why?  Do you want to be a storyteller?”

Of course the answer was yes.

I was in the right place at the right time. Storytelling was just beginning to be more visible, more accessible.  Taffy introduced me to Mike Rust and Richard Walker who were just setting up the first modern storyround in Engand, Tales at the Edge on Wenlock Edge. I went to the first –and to all the ones afterwards.  We supported other clubs as they started up and after a couple of years set up Festival at the Edge, a weekend storytelling festival.

Duncan Williamson was booked for the festival. In the very small pond that is storytelling, Duncan was, and is, a legend.  A Scottish Traveller storyteller with a fund of thousands of stories and ballads, learned from his family and travels.

I was walking across the site when I saw a tendril of smoke curling up from the place the bonfire would be later…but it shouldn’t have been lit yet. I went to investigate and found an old, weather-beaten man, sitting at the edge of the lit fire, tweed jacket, corduroy trousers, elbows leaning on knees, smoking a cigarette and looking into the flames.

I pulled up a chair and sat down looking at the fire.  He looked over and offered me a cigarette.  For a few minutes we just sat, smoking, looking at the fire.  Then he turned to me and looked me up and down,

“Lassie, lassie, lassie, what did those boots ever do to you?”

It was the early 1990s, the age of big boots. I loved my boots and had painstakingly worn to just the right degree of scruffiness.

I shrugged in the time-honoured manner of teenagers. Duncan slowly shook his head from side to side and sighed.  He began to tell me a story.

There was an old tramp man who had a pair of boots worn even worse than yours.  They were held together with twine and willpower, the soles gaping open and every bit of dust and grit from the road was scooped inside until the old man’s feet were a bed of blisters.

It was a hot day, sweat was running down the old man’s face and his stomach and his feet were battling each other.  His feet were begging him to sit,rest and take the weight off his feet, but his stomach was driving him on –he’d had nothing to eat that day and his belly growling with hunger.

Beside the road the old man saw a mossy bank and his feet won.  He climbed up, stretched out on the cool soft mossy grass, his back to an oak tree and slept. But he had barely closed his eyes when he felt a sharp pain in his toe.  He leapt awake to see a tiny man, the height of his foot glowering at him.

‘Clear off!  Go on, move, you great lout!’

‘No!’ said the old man, ‘I’ve as much right to be here as anyone else.  It’s common land, my feet are sore, I’m going to rest here for a little while and then I’ll move on.  I’m sure a couple of hours aren’t going to make much difference to anyone but me’

‘A couple of hours!  Oh no you’re not, you’re going to move right now!  This is my mossy bank, I’ve been looking after it for the past ten years getting it ready for tonight and now when there are only a few hours left –you come and sprawl all over it!  Today is the King of the Fairies’ birthday and tonight is his party. Where your smelly behind has parked itself is where his royal throne will be, your legs all over the dancing place and I wasgoing to the put food where your stinking feet are.  So I need you to move right now!’

‘No.’ said the tramp man and he folded his arms.

‘The little man took another breath to carry on his tirade.  His face went red.  Then he let the breath out again.

‘If I gave you a new pair of boots –then would you move?’

‘Move? I’d dance the bloomin’ fandango if you give me new boots!’

The little man vanished, to reappear a moment later holding up a tiny pair of buttercup yellow boots.

‘The King’s got a new pair for his birthday –these are his old ones’

‘Erm… they’re beautiful –but they might be a bit small???’

‘Just try them’ said the little man firmly.

The tramp doubtfully peeled off his old boots and to his surprise the first yellow boot slipped over his big toe, over all his toes, his whole foot, expanding to the perfect size.  He seized the second boot and pulled that on too.He stood up, rocking back and forth to get the feel of them –a beaming smile spreading over his face.

‘Thank you’ he said, tipped his cap and began to walk away.

‘One more thing’ said the little man, ‘don’t tell anyone where the boots came from –if you do, they’ll be gone, the last thing I need is a whole line of tramp men queuing up to get new boots!’

The tramp walked on, walking from place to place, job to job.  His blisters melted away and the boots made him feel he could walk for ever.  They never lost their shine orcolour and the soles didn’t wear.

Towards the end of the summer,he was walking a road with a little stream running along beside it.  The tramp realised that he hadn’t taken the boots off since the first time he’d put them on….and they hadn’t been very clean then.

‘That is no way to respect a pair of boots like these’ he said to himself.  He sat down by the side of the stream and gently eased the boots off.  They instant shrank back to their original size.

He sank his feet into the cool water and enjoyed the sun on his back.  In the field opposite he could see a figure walking towards him.

‘Oi! You! What are you doing?!’

‘I’m just washing my feet and then I’ll be on my way’

‘You better be, we don’t want your sort hanging about round here.  What’s that you’ve got there?’

‘That’s just my boots, I’ll be taking those with me too’

‘Your boots? Pull the other one.  They’d never fit you.  And far too good for you.  You’ve stolen those, taken them from some girl’s doll to sell on down the road. Come one, hand them over, I’ll take them to the police station and you can take yourself far off down the road.

‘I’m not a thief! Those are my boots!  The King of the Fairies himself gave them to me!  The moment the words were out his mouth, the boots vanished. The farmer’s mouth opened wide in amazement. The tramp’s chin started wobbling.

‘I’m sorry’ said the farmer, ‘I saw those boots vanish with my own eyes, they must have been magic and you must have been telling the truth.  I shouldn’t have accused you.  I haven’t got any buttercup yellow boots, but your feet look about the same as mine. Come back to the farm, come for dinner and a good night’s rest and in the morning we’ll find you a decent pair of boots to take you back to the road.

So that’s what happened.  But from that point on, the tramp’s tongue was unlocked.  Now he could tell the story to anyone he wanted –and he did.  That story bought him plenty of meals –and a few pairs of boots besides.  The people who heard that story passed it on -and so it travelled from mouth to ear, mouth to ear, until Duncan heard it and told it to me.  And not just me, because by the time the story was finished, there was a circle of people around the fire.  Duncan threw me a grin and told another story.  Then he drew a story out of someone else, a song here, a poem there and so it went on until his wife came down the slope looking for him and escorted him away to the marquee where he was supposedto be telling stories.

Six months later I was on the train.  I had worked, written applications and become West Midland Arts first ‘Storytelling Apprentice’ so that now I was spending a year staying with storytellers, shadowing and studying with them.  Top of my wishlist was Duncan.  I rang him up

‘Er hello, Duncan, I don’t know if you remember me, but I was wondering if I could come and stay and shadow you for a while’

‘Och honey, come any time, any time, just take the train to Edinburgh, give me a call and then I’ll come and get you from Cupar’

‘Ok, I was thinking in a couple of weeks?’

Duncan had already hung up.  I took a leap of faith and caught the train to Edinburgh. I made my way to the bank of red telephone boxes and rang the number…to my relief, it eventually clicked and there was Duncan’s gruff voice.

Having worried all the way to Edinburgh whether Duncan was in, I spent the journey to Cupar worrying what it would be like when I got there, staying with this famous storyteller I barely knew. I got off the train and there he was wrapping me in a rib-cracking bearhug of tweed and cigarette smoke and I knew it was going to be fine.

That was the first time I stayed with Duncan, the first of many.  My apprenticeship with Duncan lasted until he died –and is still going on –I’m still learning from what he taught me.  I learned many things from Duncan –so many ballads and stories -and the skills to sing and tell them. I learned about Scotland, his life and the daily life of the time of the stories

Now I have the chance to listen to the tapes of his recordings and revisit my apprenticeship from an older (and hopefully) wiser perspective and see what I learn from them now…

@artscouncilofengland, @ace_midlands, @ace_national, @artyaml, @sfs_uk

#storytellingapprenticeship, #ScottishTravellerStories, #StoriesAboutBoots, #DuncanWilliamson #Passingonatradition