The Cradle of All New Jack Tales

This year, for me, has been all about Scottish Traveller, Duncan Williamson.  I’ve been working on a project, digitising and listening to his recordings of traditional stories and songs as well as reminiscences about his life. I’ve had time to think about what I learned during my storytelling apprenticeship with him, why stories are so important and consider how best to take the tradition on.

One of the many new connections and friendships I’ve made through the project is with Heather Yule. Heather is working with another great Scottish Traveller tradition bearer’s material, Stanley Robertson, in a similar way to my work with Duncan’s stories and songs.  Both Stanley and Duncan had a huge repertoire of Jack tales. Jack is a central figure in all Western folklore, but particularly to the Travellers.  He is fundamental to the values, ethics and soul of The Travelling People.  It happened one time that Heather was telling a Jack story at an event.  A woman came up to her afterwards to ask, “Why Jack?  Why is it always Jack?  Why can’t we have a female heroine?”

This made Heather – and me – think.  Neither of us had ever had a problem with Jack.  Jack is Jack.  But we both began to question our relationship with those stories.

On the face of it, while there are many strong heroines in Traveller culture, each with their own story, there isn’t a consistent strong female central character with a whole category of stories of her own on a par with Jack.  And then, I realised that, of course, there is.  It’s Jack’s mother.  It is very rare to have a Jack story that doesn’t start (and often end) with his mother.  The spotlight may not focus on her, but her guiding presence saturates the story. Jack is who he is because of her.

As I’ve been listening to Duncan, hearing again familiar Jack tales and encountering new ones, I’ve been meeting Jack’s mother again and again too and building up a rich patchwork image of her.

Jack is always brought up by his mother.  Occasionally, Jack’s father is mentioned, he died in the wars, or Jack’s mother kicked him out for being lazy or drunk.  Most of the time he is simply absent – the unspoken intimation, that Jack has been born out of wedlock.  Jack’s mother is strong, stubborn and single-minded.  She takes herself away from kith and kin, determined to keep her child.

Jack’s mother may stay at home while Jack goes off on his adventures, but it seems pretty likely she had adventures before Jack turned up on the scene.  Jack’s mother has no nearby relatives, her past is mysterious with a whiff of scandal.  There are a few stories where we meet her relatives – in the ones I can think of Jack is sent to his mother’s sister, who lives a ridiculously long way away and turns out to be a powerful witch, who talks about Jack’s mother’s own power. Jack’s mother often has elements of a henwife and in several stories, when Jack gets himself into trouble turns out to have an uncanny amount of knowledge – or perhaps more accurately an amount of uncanny knowledge.

Jacks mother

Artist Lynn Rust, c: July 2020

Of course, Jack’s mother has a range of aspects in the same way that Jack does.  Sometimes she has 3 sons.  She still brings them up on her own and Jack is always the youngest.  He is the one that has stayed with her in the house.  Jack may be seen as lazy, or odd, he may have spent all his life lying in the ashes by the fire.  But all that time in the ashes, he’s been keeping his mother company, listening to her songs and stories.

Jack’s mother never stands in the way of Jack leaving.  She gives him the choice of a full bannock and her curse or half a bannock with her blessing.  Or she nags him to get up and get a job.  Or announces, ‘Have you seen the quest the King’s advertising – you could do that!’. She is a strong woman and happy to speak up – while she might let Jack go with her blessing, she’s perfectly capable of making sure he’s topped up the woodpile first.

Jack’s mother and Jack are opposites in balance.  Between them, they incorporate male and female; youth and age; seen and unseen.  Jack’s mother is the voice of wisdom and experience, while Jack is young and naïve.  Jack has itchy feet and is off on adventures and quests, Jack’s mother wandering days are over.  She has claimed a patch of land, knows it well and is settled and happy in her place. She is the anchor for Jack.  She provides a place for adventurers to rest, where the kettle is always on.

Jack is the hero of the story because he has been brought up on stories.  Jack’s mother has given him a strong moral compass, a quick wit and permission to be his own man.  She inspires Jack’s wanderlust and thirst for adventure by filling his mind with stories of far-off places, pure-hearted heroes and quick thinkers.

For Travellers growing up in Duncan’s lifetime, there were two sets of moral codes to live by – one set down by the church and the law, where things were either good or bad, lawful or non-lawful, a code that felt very rigid.  The second was the moral code of stories.  Stories have very strict codes – and if you don’t obey them, you come to a sticky end!  But good and bad are more fluid… stories are subversive and powerful – story moral values do not always sit well within the laws of the land.  Jack does what is right in his heart.  He feeds people when they are hungry, gives clothing and money to those that need it.  He will take a salmon or a rabbit from a rich laird’s land when he is hungry and he will twist his way out of trouble, using words, tricks and riddles to help him. He doesn’t care what people think of him.  He is happy to be different and thought a fool.  He will watch others make mistakes and be called a coward for not leaping in – instead stopping to think of another way.

Duncan told me Jack tales were (and are) essential education for Travellers.  When Traveller children listened to Jack tales, each and every one of them was Jack as they listened – whether a boy or a girl and whatever they looked like.  Even though Jack nearly always begins life in a settled home, rather than a Travelling family, he is the hero of the Travellers.  He is held up as the example of how to live your life and what is important – quick wits, self-reliance, fairness, compassion and generosity.  He teaches them the value of daring to be different and walking outside of society; of how to bend the rules while staying true to your principles.

I have been Jack, stepping out into the world on my own on my personal quest.  I have travelled, made (many) mistakes, met wise helpers and been tempted off the path.  Now I am settled.  I’ve built a home that I come back to.  I’ve planted a small patch of land, had children and plan for the turning of the seasons in one place.

How I tell Jack tales is changing.  Jack’s mother seems to be putting in more and more of an appearance.  Her twinkling eyes are watching.  I see her (almost) endless patience with her child and kittens chasing round underfoot.  Her house smells of bannocks and is full of the sound of her humming and the hens clucking.  She is always busy – knitting, weaving, sewing, cooking, sweeping, digging – there is always work that needs doing.  Her hands tie her to the land, while her tongue takes Jack around the world.


Artist Phoebe Munson, c: July 2020

Postscript:  Having written this, I sent it to Heather, who first starting me musing – and here is her reply:  Hi! Me again…. I am just looking through my mum’s PhD and found a quote from Stanley that I thought you would like: “the mother figure is very important because she doesnae only represent the mother figure, she represents Mother Earth.  She’s everything; she’s the very essence of his being.  An without her Jack is lost”

I’ll be hosting a Jack Tales ceilidh on Zoom at 8pm Tuesday 21st July – which will be available afterwards on my YouTube channel, Taking The Tradition On

If you’re interested in reading more on Duncan and Jack, I’ve written a previous blog on Jack and generosity.

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