Hurrah! My tapes of Duncan have been digitised.

Stuart Robinson at the School of Scottish Studies has worked incredibly hard, baking tapes, finding the correct playing speeds and has digitised all the tapes not previously entered into the archives.  At last I can let out an inner breath that I have been holding for years: the tapes are safe.  I can let go of the secret fear that the tapes would be too old and unplayable. All the time, while writing and submitting the ACE bid and driving the tapes to Scotland, at the back of my mind a small voice was panicking – what will I do if it’s too late?!

Now I am full of relief and excitement.  My computer and phone are full of downloads of Duncan.  My ears and mind are full of Duncan’s voice.  It is the Duncan I knew – and yet at the same time, it isn’t. When I knew Duncan, I was in my teens and 20s while he was in his 60s and 70s.  Now I am in my 40s – and so is Duncan.  He is telling many of the stories for the first time… I am hearing stories I know inside out, but they are full of a raw freshness.

I’ve spent the last few days listening to Duncan describing leaving his parents for the first time to go travelling with his brother, Sandy.  He talks in astonishing detail, his memory clear and complete, walking each step again as he tells the journey.  He has kept me company while I do the household chores and walk the hills so that I haven’t seen the washing up, or the land beneath my feet, but instead travelled alongside him, sharing his wonder and excitement at being out in the world.

On Friday I told ‘Travelling Together’ at BLAST!  It is the story of my meeting Duncan as a teenager alongside his story of Jack and Beggar’s Island.  It was a special – and vulnerable – place to tell it, in my club, in my community, sharing who I am as a storyteller and where I come from.  For me, as I told it, there was a constant third strand weaving in and out, Duncan as a teenager, his words a counterpoint in my mind to the ones spoken out loud.  I told the story of my apprenticeship to Duncan and his own apprenticeship echoed in reply. As Jack leaves home and I board a train to Cupar to visit Duncan, I felt Duncan’s wonder at seeing a train for the first time and his determination to one day ride on one.  As I described Duncan taking me to Skye, stopping at friends and places he knew on the way, Duncan travelled with Sandy and his brother introduced him to the camping places and relatives he’d never met.  When old Duncan sang me a rude version of Loch Lomond, Sandy persuaded teenage Duncan that a field of turnips was a field of roosting ducks.

I am only just beginning the journey of listening to this trove of story and memory.  Already I am meeting a new side of Duncan – and rediscovering my Duncan, my own memories sparking and coming back to the surface. I really do have a time machine, the possibility to have answers to questions I wish I’d asked and a chance to meet the younger Duncan.

@artscouncilofengland, @ace_midlands, @ace_national, @artyaml, @sfs_uk @scotstoryfourm @EU_SSSA

#storytellingapprenticeship, #ScottishTravellerStories, #DuncanWilliamson #Passingontradition #TheScottishTravellingPeople #ScottishArchives #ReelStories

This autumn marks 30 years of the storytelling club, ‘Tales at the Edge’.

Until I was invited to the party on Tuesday, the significant date had completely passed me by.  I told my first story at the first meeting of the club and so this is also my 30th anniversary of telling stories!

‘Tales at the Edge’ was the first regular storyround of its type.  Obviously, people have always told stories, but it was the first in the modern model of a monthly, advertised, ‘come all ye and bring a shortish story to tell’ session.  To begin with, the rules were rather strict – no poetry, no readings, no songs or music!  But we needed those rules, we were trying to establish storytelling in its own right and without those rules it could have easily slipped into another folk club with an occasional sprinkling of stories.

The first club night at Wenlock Edge Inn was busy, packed full of well-wishers.  In those days, you needed to be 14 to be allowed into the bar, so I scraped in by a couple of months.  I was nervous.  I’d always loved traditional stories and authors like Alan Garner, C.S. Lewis and Susan Cooper.  I loved the idea of storytellers, but until I met Taffy Thomas at ‘All Folk Around the Wrekin’, I didn’t think there were any left.  Taffy introduced me to Mike Rust, the possibility of a storytelling club and a door opened.  That summer, I went to more folk festivals and spent an entire weekend at ‘Towersey Festival’, trailing round after Pat Ryan and Terry Mann, listening to every story they told. It was a story from Pat Ryan that I told that first night and Taffy Thomas came to kick off the club

Although the first night was busy, after that it was much quieter.  Particular on cold dark winter nights, it was sometimes just the core regulars – Mike Rust and Richard Walker (Mogsy), my long-suffering Dad and me.  I would bring one new story each month and listen to Mike and Richard trade seemingly endless stores of stories back and forth.  The word got out and storytellers travelled once a month to a pub in the middle of nowhere, often from an hour or two away – Worcestor Jerry, Wilson Boardman, Jim Hatfield, Tony Addison, Judith Barasel, Dennis Crowther, Terry Tandler….  Some of the best stories came from the Steve the landlord – there’s plenty of ghosts along Wenlock Edge and over winter nights and pints, he’d been told all of them at some point!

At that point, the only other storytelling club in England was ‘The Crick Crack Club’ – older than us, but more performance based.  Ben Haggarty came to visit us on a club swap and we went on a road trip – my first visit to London – to do some floor spots there.

It was an exciting time. Most people still didn’t really have any idea what storytelling was – ‘Do you mean you do that for children?’ ‘What, do you, like, read from books to each other?’.  However, it seemed there was a desperate need for it – storytelling was growing at a huge rate, with clubs springing up all over the country.

We went on more TATE road trips, supporting new clubs on their first nights as Taffy had supported us.  We were having so much fun, we even decided to run a whole weekend festival of storytelling and only two years later in 1991, the first ‘Festival at the Edge’ took place at Stokes Barn on Wenlock Edge.  That was also the year we started ‘The Biggest Liar in Shropshire Competition’ in aid of Comic Relief.  I was judged far too honest, but I did win ‘Young Storyteller of the Year’ at Sidmouth Folk Festival.  In all the years of the lying competition, I only won once…and that was the year of the snow.  Mike Rust cancelled the competition, but only Judge Michael Manders believed him.  Everyone else turned up and we held the competition without them!

We were very lucky in those early days to have the incredibly enthusiastic and supportive West Midlands Arts Literature Officer, David Hart.  David was delighted at the success of TATE, supported and advised us with FATE and then came up with the brilliant idea of a ‘West Midlands Arts Storytelling Apprenticeship’.  I don’t think it would ever have occurred to me without David’s scheme and winning the award was a tremendous opportunity and experience.

After my year long apprenticeship, I went to Leeds University – and managed to get permission to move into Halls a day early so that I could hop on a train to Hebden Bridge for their first storyclub.  It wasn’t too long before I started my own spoken word club at The Grove in Leeds.  By then, I was telling stories with Shonaleigh as ‘Chalk and Cheese’ and with Shonaleigh and Simon Heywood as ‘Moving Stories’.  The three of us regularly drove back to Shropshire for TATE in Simon’s battered white van, pulling in at the old A5 greasy spoon on the way home for midnight mugs of tea.

Throughout the past 30 years, ‘Tales at the Edge’ has been an anchor point in my life.  This blog is officially to chart the journey of my ACE bid to work with Duncan’s tapes, but it was through ‘Tales at the Edge’ and ‘Festival at the Edge’ that I first met Duncan and on my WMA Apprenticeship that I first went to stay with him.  There have been changes: moving venue from Wenlock Edge to the White Lion in Bridgnorth; changing the date from the second Monday of the month to the second Tuesday and founder Richard Walker as well as many of the early stalwarts are no longer with us.  But the heart of the club is the same.  It is a warm, welcoming space to all – beginners and professionals, storytellers and storylisteners and now even lets musicians and poets join in sometimes!   It has provided an introduction to storytelling, a practise ground and a listening space for many new and young storytellers – many of whom are now old hands!  Without Tales at the Edge, I have no idea what I would be doing now, but I doubt very much I would be a professional storyteller.

I am so grateful for the all the support and opportunities I was given as a young storyteller – through ‘Tales at the Edge’, ‘Young Storyteller of the Year’ and the ‘West Midland Arts Storytelling Apprenticeship’.  The storytelling landscape in Britain has changed drastically over the last 30 years. It is fantastic to see the huge growth in both storyrounds and performance clubs.  I am delighted to see that the ‘Young Storyteller of the Year’ is going to return at the ‘Get a Word in Edgeways Festival’ and the success of ‘The Young Storyteller of Wales’

The ‘Tales at the Edge’ 30th birthday party on Tuesday was a very fitting celebration.  A room full of friends gathered, club regulars of all ages.  Taffy and Chrissie Thomas returned so that he, Mike and I could all tell stories together 30 years on.  There were THREE birthday cakes – well, it is a storytelling club after all!  The youngest teller was Ceri, 11 years old, just beginning her storytelling adventure and benefitting from the same support, encouragement and listening to such a wide array of storytelling styles, as I did.  May the club continue and support her for the next 30 years – and watch this space, one amazing storyteller growing up here!


@artscouncilofengland, @ace_midlands, @ace_national, @artyaml, @sfs_uk @scotstoryfourm @EU_SSSA @storytelleramydouglas

#storytellingapprenticeship, #ScottishTravellerStories, #DuncanWilliamson #Passingontradition #TheScottishTravellingPeople #Talesattheedge #storytellingrevival #traditionalstorytelling


Whenever I visit Linda Williamson, it feels like coming home.  She was waiting for me in Edinburgh with roast chicken, conversation and company.  We talked of my children, her children and the man who brought us together, Duncan Williamson.

I was staying with Linda for the week so that we could take the tapes to The School of Scottish Studies, to sort out between us exactly what the tapes were and to begin the process of transferring them to a digital format.

However, my first port of call was The Scottish Storytelling Centre,  This is a marvellous building – right in the middle of Edinburgh on the Royal Mile, the first purpose built modern venue for live storytelling.  It has an exhibition/workshop space, gorgeous theatre, shop and café.  It is open all day, all week (except Sundays) and provides a physical heart for the storytelling scene in Scotland.  Donald Smith, the Director, was away and I’d meet him later in the week, but he connected me with Fiona MacDougall, who also works for the Centre.  I turned up expecting a half hour chat over a cuppa – a courtesy call to talk about my project; explain how I was digitising Duncan’s tapes and to talk about how and when a sharing performance at the Centre might work.  Three hours later we were still talking!

Fiona is relatively new to the Centre.  She moved from the School of Scottish Studies to the Scottish Storytelling Centre about three months ago, bringing with her a passionate love of Scottish Traveller culture and a vast knowledge of stories, songs, family connections and history. My notebook rapidly filled up with names, possible connections, similar projects, books, documentaries, websites and discussion groups to follow up.  Positivity, knowledge and enthusiasm radiated out from Fiona.  She was full of excitement on my behalf about my impending visit to the School of Scottish Studies, still missing her ex-colleagues and sure that I would have a great time the next day with Cathlin and Stuart, sorting out the tapes and exploring all the material available within the hallowed halls.

Linda and I set off the next day for the School of Scottish Studies, daring the Edinburgh traffic – and far worse – Edinburgh parking!

The School of Scottish Studies is on the Edinburgh University campus in the heart of Edinburgh. It is open to anyone and is a treasure trove of voices, memories, ballads and stories.  It is free to use and you can go in and listen to any of their recordings.  They have also been sharing more and more stories and ballads online on their site, which translates as ‘kist of riches’.  It is an amazing site and a fantastic resource, but only a fraction of the material held by the sound archive, so there’s plenty more to listen to if you go in person.

The School is a tall thin building, with steep staircases that go up and up.  We were on the third floor and after three journeys back and forward to the car, I began to appreciate where Cathlin’s lithe build came from!  When your main focus is listening to recordings and poring over cataloguing systems, building a large number of steep stairs into your day to day existence is probably a good idea!  (However, don’t let that put you off – the reading and listening room is on the ground floor!)

Cathlin had set out a huge empty table for us, ready to sort out the tapes.  Our first job was to put them in date order.  Thankfully Linda had labelled the tapes very clearly, but it still took a while!  Most tapes were labelled with the date, track A and track B and contents. Many of the tapes also had an SA number.  The SA number showed that the tape had come from the School of Scottish Studies Sound Archive, either as an original or a copy.  For example, SA1976_062 would translate as SA (Sound Archive), followed by the year, 1976, followed by the number of the tape – the 62ndtape accessioned that year.  Linda and Cathlin thought these were copies of originals held in the Sound Archive that Linda had used for her PhD and books.

Cathlin brought out the lists of tapes for Duncan’s entries, from the late 1960s to the 1990s.  There was no point in transferring tapes already digitised, but she needed to make sure all our tapes with SA numbers definitely were copies, not originals – and that the originals were in good condition.

At last the tapes were sorted into piles: dated copies; originals missing from the archives; dated originals not accessioned into the archives and a small pile of bizarre odds and ends including Linda’s piano recitals and my first radio documentary.

Having a much clearer idea the tapes’ contents and provenance, we discussed how they might be managed into the future. The usual parties in such an agreement are the School of Scottish Studies, who curate both the tapes and their contents; the contributor (the voice on the tape) and the fieldworker (who recorded the tapes).  In this case, there was also me – not involved in the original recording, but holding in trust six boxes full of a strange assortment of tapes.

My collection fell into two halves: original tapes not previously archived, copied or accessioned and copies of tapes previously accessioned to the School of Scottish Studies archives, mainly by Duncan and Linda, but some containing other voices or recorded by other fieldworkers.

We agreed I would have complete copies of original tapes I was entering into the Archives.  However, copies of copies of recordings in the archives were a bit more complicated!  Most tapes were recorded by Linda, but the collection also included recordings by other fieldworkers such as Barbara McDermitt and Alan Bruford. There were recordings of concerts, conversations and house parties with other storytellers and musicians.  I had permission from Linda to use her recordings of Duncan, but Cathlin would need to check permissions from all the other people involved.  In some cases, the School would hold the copyright.  If not, I would have to ask for permission.  The School maintains contact with contributors and field workers, but inevitably people move on or pass away and it can be difficult and time consuming to track down individuals or their next of kin.

It is now the policy of the School of Scottish Studies to ask everyone who puts recordings into the archive to sign over the copyright.  While initially, I had an instinctive wariness about this, as I faced the prospect of asking Cathlin to contact various copyright holders, I soon saw why it was necessary.  There are many tapes within the archive that I am sure contributors recorded to be shared, but the School are constrained by lack of copyright now very difficult to obtain. Giving the School copyright ensures ongoing access to the recordings so that they can be shared and celebrated for generations to come.

After much discussion with her family, Linda assigned her rights as both fieldworker and as the executor of Duncan’s estate for my tapes and the many other recordings she made, , giving the School full copyright.  With Linda’s blessing, there are now an extensive number of recordings of Duncan available to listen to at there will be more coming soon!

We agreed that my original recordings of Duncan should be digitised by Stuart Robinson, Audio-Visual Technician, at the School.  Stuart and Cathlin took one look at the tapes and instantly spotted lots of Ampex tapes – tapes known to be susceptible to ‘sticky shed syndrome’ and usually needing baking to preserve them.  Stuart was very relieved to hear that I had stopped trying to play them to prevent damage.

Transferring the tapes – baking them and playing them in real time – was going to be a time-consuming process.  In the meantime, Cathlin and Stuart began sorting out copies of the SA recordings of Duncan that the School had already digitised. Where the copy was a whole recording it was easy to make a digital copy.  Tape extracts copies of one or two individual items was going to take more time.

I was glad I’d allowed three days at the School.  Cathlin worked on creating a database for copying digitised tapes using the accession listings on the School’s database.  I created a database for all my recordings using information on the tape boxes. We worked for two days – and my phone is still full of photographs of the boxes to finish the database at home.

The time I spent at the School of Scottish Studies convinced me it is absolutely the right place for the tapes.  When I started this journey, as a traditional storyteller, I hadn’t considered copyright at all – and yet, of course, it is essential in the safeguarding of Duncan and Linda’s legacy.  Cathlin and I had long discussions about issues such as access and rights, custodianship and the role of the archives.  I think that between us we have arrived at an arrangement that gives the best future to the recordings and have begun a partnership that will continue long into the future.

I will have copies of all the tapes for my private use, except where there is a copyright issue.  I am able to use the recordings within my podcasts, blog, performances etc.  I will keep in touch with the School, letting them know what I’ve used and how so that they know what is in the public domain. We will work together to produce an album’s worth of material for the crowd-funders who helped make this whole journey possible.

I will work with the School to digitise the tapes that have not yet been transferred and they will:

-Make sure that Duncan’s material is future-proofed as storage formats continue to be updated

-Share some, if not all, of Duncan’s recordings on

-Look after Duncan’s tapes with respect and sensitivity, keeping in touch with Linda and her children about how the recordings are used, allowing use for reasonable requests.

-Provide a space where anyone can come into the building and listen to the recordings.

I think this partnership is the best path to ensure continued public access, protection and longevity to Duncan’s recordings.


@artscouncilofengland, @ace_midlands, @ace_national, @artyaml, @sfs_uk @scotstoryfourm @EU_SSSA

#storytellingapprenticeship, #ScottishTravellerStories, #DuncanWilliamson #Passingontradition #TheScottishTravellingPeople #RealTalesofReelTapes

At last!  My reel-to-reel recordings of Duncan are going to be digitised!

With all the boxes of tapes safely loaded in the boot and heading north to Scotland, I could feel echoes of that day, over 20 years ago that I’d first loaded those tapes into the car.  I’d taken Simon Heywood up to visit Duncan.  The day we were due to leave, Duncan had dragged out a load of boxes and bin liners from a cupboard.

‘Will ye tak these with ye, Amy?  They’re nae use to me.  Ye can tak them, or I’ll chuck ‘em in the skip, wi the rest o’them’

All the bin liners and saggy boxes were stuffed full of open reel tapes, years’ worth of recordings of Duncan’s stories, songs and thoughts.  We loaded then into the back of my car – and it probably did look like we were going to the skip, but we felt like we were in an Indiana Jones film, rescuing a lost treasure from oblivion.  Not that we’d had to face any great trials, traps or monsters – the worst we’d had to cope with was being woken up at 6 in the morning after a late night drinking session and smoking 5 times as many cigarettes as we normally would. And, of course, we’d left the real treasure, Duncan, behind, though he had promised to come and visit.

Duncan gave me the tapes in 1995 or 1996.  When he gave them to me, he gave them to one of very few twenty year olds in the country who actually knew how to use reel-to-reel tapes and had (limited) access to reel-to-reel players.

When I first began storytelling, it was at Tales at the Edge, a fabulous, friendly storyround, set up by two stalwart storytellers, Mike Rust and Richard Walker.  I would learn one new story each time and then listen to the other storytellers. In the early days, it was often down to Mike and Richard to carry the storytelling and they would swap stories back and forth.  Richard had many strings to his bow, what is now known as a ‘portfolio career’.  He worked freelance for BBC Radio Shropshire and presented ‘The Folk Programme’ every Thursday evening.  I did my work experience with him when I was 16 – it was so good, he couldn’t get rid of me and I helped out on The Folk Programme every Thursday from then on.  The BBC were still using reel-to-reel players and I learned to edit using razor blades and sticky tape.

Duncan didn’t give me much clue as to what the tapes were, but as I poured over the boxes, it became obvious that they were tapes his wife Linda had recorded from the 1970s to 1990s. I had access to facilities at BBC Radio Shropshire when back home, but I was a student in Leeds, so I blagged some studio time in Leeds Poly music department.  It was slow going, transferring the material from reel-to-reel onto minidisc and cassette.  My first problem was that the tape kept running out in the middle of a story and I would be left hanging, desperately trying to find the end.  Linda seemed to have labelled the boxes quite thoroughly, but I couldn’t grasp her system.  Embarrassingly, it took me a whole day to realise both sides of the tape were recorded!  This was normal practise – most people recorded on both sides of a cassette, but I was used to editing everything I recorded – and if you’re going to take a blade to the tape then stick it back together in a different order, it doesn’t work if you record on both sides!

Life was busy – I was working on a full time science degree – and trying to keep up with storytelling too.  If I wanted to work on the tapes, I either had to go home and to Radio Shropshire in quiet evenings, or book studio time at Leeds Poly which I could only do out of term time.  If I had a chunk of time out of term time, then the decision was – should I work with the tapes?  Or go and see Duncan?  It wasn’t really much of a choice.  So, the majority of the tapes were left unplayed.

Time moves quickly.  When Duncan died, it was a comfort to have the store of tapes waiting for me, though it took a while to be able to listen to them.  I tried various set ups to connect my reel-to-reel player to the computer.  I copied several tapes, but then my reel-to-reel player stopped working…and there was a possibility it was because the tapes were dirty or leaving residue.  I realised I needed expert help.  I was worried that playing the tapes would worsen their condition.  They needed to be played once and recorded professionally to get the best sound quality possible.  It was going to take time and money – and I didn’t have much of either!

Fortunately, Bishops Castle is an amazing place with surprising resources.  We have Bishops Castle Heritage Resource Centre – a treasure house of museum pieces for the House on Crutches; first stop for advice on local history and – most importantly for me – a climate controlled, museum standard storage facility.  The tapes were stored within the archive while I applied for various bits of funding, until at last, someone suggested that they would like to help – and they were sure others would too.  Why didn’t I try crowdfunding?  It seemed like the ideal answer.

I set up a crowdfunding appeal.  It was a huge success and gave me the money I needed to digitise the tapes – thank you everyone!  It also gave me matched funding so that I could apply for Arts Council England funding, to have some time to actually listen to the tapes; think about different ways of passing on the stories and songs; have lots of conversations on and offline about Duncan, his work and why it’s important – and write this blog.  Second time around the funding bid was successful and I could at last get the tapes digitised!

It’s a funny thing.  You can push at something for years and years and it refuses to budge.  When the right time comes, things will start to move.  I’ve always kept in contact with Duncan’s family and now it was time to sort out the tapes, Linda asked for photographs of them, to work out exactly what the tapes were.

Linda came over from the States to study at The School of Scottish Studies.  It was as a postgraduate student that she made her way, walking and hitchhiking, carrying a large rucksack packed with boxes of 3.5 volt batteries, blank tapes, microphone and leads and a Uher open reel recorder over her shoulder, to the campsite where Duncan was staying and they first met.

Linda married Duncan and travelled with him, continuing to record his stories, songs and talk of Traveller life while working for her PhD on ‘Ballad singing among the Scottish Travelling People’, becoming certified ‘Rubicus Scoticus’ in 1985, then moving on to transcribing Duncan’s stories for the many books they published with Canongate, Harmony Books and Penguin.

My tapes came from her PhD work – both original recordings and copies of various tapes from the Sound Archive at The School of Scottish Studies.  As such, all the blank tape and tape recorders had been provided by The School of Scottish Studies.  Linda knew that the copyright of the tapes was divided into three, with The School, informant (Duncan) and fieldworker (Linda) all having an equal share.  This led to a dilemma…in my naivete, I hadn’t given a great deal of thought to copyright…they were recordings of Duncan and Duncan had given them to me.  Linda had recorded the tapes, but she was happy that I had them and trusted me to use them respectfully.  I had planned to digitise the tapes independently and look for a home for the physical tapes afterwards.  Having worked in harmony with The School of Scottish Studies for years, Duncan told me he disagreed with their policies and did not want the tapes going back to The School of Scottish Studies.  However, if they already owned some of the copyright that made everything tricky.  If the School held some of the copyright, then I would not be able to share the recordings publicly without consulting them. Duncan gave me the tapes to share his stories, not hide them away. If they had supplied the tape, they would be experts on how to look after that tape.  They also hold many other recordings of Duncan and it would make sense for them to be housed together.

Duncan was a big character, full of life and passionate about stories.  He had a huge heart – and if someone, or something dear to him was insulted, he would defend them tooth and claw.  Equally, he had a huge capacity for forgiveness – and listening to both sides of a story.  Duncan was known for his feuds, but also for his reconciliations.

Linda, Betsy and Tommy, Duncan’s wife and children discussed what to do and decided that while Duncan had had his ups and downs with The School of Scottish Studies, if he was here now, he would probably agree that we needed to work with The School of Scottish Studies.  The School would be the best place to get the tapes digitised, to care for the original tapes and unite them with the material already held.  I know that the most important thing to Duncan was that his family were happy and he would trust their judgement.

We agreed to contact The School of Scottish Studies, meet them and work out the best way to move forward with the tapes.

And so it was time to travel to Edinburgh, to reunite Linda with her tapes, meet Cathlin Macaulay at The School of Scottish Studies and begin the journey to unlock the treasures of the tapes.

@artscouncilofengland, @ace_midlands, @ace_national, @artyaml, @sfs_uk @scotstoryfourm @EU_SSSA

#storytellingapprenticeship, #ScottishTravellerStories, #DuncanWilliamson #Passingontradition #TheScottishTravellingPeople


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

As you can see, I am currently updating my website.

I am trying to make it more user-friendly – I’m going to have a day at DASH to see how accessible I can make it.

I’m also going to be launching myself into the social media whirlwind of instagram and twitter as well as facebook.

This is a big learning curve for me – bear with me!  Feel free to laugh and try not to get frustrated.  Obviously you can still contact me all the old-fashioned ways if you get fed up trying to find information while the site is under construction.


I have big news! Hurrah! Are you ready?
Here’s the fanfare….
I’ve been awarded an Arts Council England bid to work with the large number of reel-to-reel tapes that I inherited from Duncan Williamson. Thank you to everyone who was involved in my crowdfunding campaign which gave me the money to digitise the tapes and the match funding for my ACE bid.
Part of the bid is to upgrade my all my technical skills – I’ll be writing a blog throughout the programme and learning how to podcast – I have some great podcasts planned talking about Duncan and his influence with Helen East, Ben Haggarty and Linda Williamson – and this website will get the sprucing up it’s needed for a long time!
So watch the space and as I set up my blog and podcast platform, I will let you know!duncan black and white

shropshire folk tales for children book cover

This is a children’s book. But it is for real children. It is a book of buried treasure, people-eating giants, sleeping kings and a monster fish. There’s fire, wee, milk and missing body parts. It’s a book that’s got the bits adults don’t like left in. These are stories of Shropshire. They are old and wild, like the land itself. If you like giants having their heads lopped off, girls who won’t do what they’re told, knights fighting with lances, one-armed ghosts and grumpy witches, then this is the book for you.

Available direct from me if you see me, or click here


I’ve been asked by artist Anne Marie Lagram to respond to her exciting, thought-provoking new exhibition, developed working with the story of Mitchell’s Fold and the witch who is buried there.  It’s fantastic challenge to respond to the artwork through story, I’ve really been enjoying watching the pieces develop and questioning my own assumptions about the story.

Medgel poster

The dream team are getting back together!  I’m delighted I’m going to be working with fabulous storyteller Fiona Collins again.  We have been appointed to create a storytelling garden with Year 1 pupils at Bryn Collen School in Llangollen.

I am fascinated by early years literacy.  Writing is an extraordinarily complex skill.    I have been working more and more in this area, using play, physicality and outdoor spaces to isolate and hone different component skills and processes.  This project gives us the opportunity to implement much of what I have already learned, to learn far more and to have lots of days playing and creating with a group of creative, mischevious, fun children!

The Bishops Castle Storytelling Series, ‘Beautiful Lies and Startling Truths’, second season launches on 8th September with Robin Williamson!

All performances are at Bishops Castle Town Hall. Tickets £7.00, £20 for a group ticket of up to 4 people.  Bar available.  Doors open at 7.30pm for 8.00pm start.


Beautiful Lies and Startling Truths

Bishops Castle Storytelling Series

Fabulous storytelling performances through the dark winter months.

Magical, dreamlike, witty, sometimes disturbing stories for adults – and there is always cake and locally brewed beer!

Thursday 8th September 2016– The Craneskin Bag, Robin Williamson. *7.30pm start

Friday 14th October 2016 – The Falcon Bride, Katy Cawkwell

Friday 11th November 2016 – Travelling Together, Amy Douglas and Helen East

Friday 9th December 2016 – Grimms Sheesha, Peter Chand

Friday 13th January 2017 – How to Spin Enchantment, Tim Ralphs

Friday 10th February 2017– Kings and Promises, Debbie Guneratne,

Friday 10th March 2017 – The Opal Forest, Shonaleigh

Bishops Castle Town Hall,, Shropshire, SY9 5BG 01588 630023

Door open at 7.30 for 8.00pm start. Tickets £7.00. Tea, beer and homemade cake available.


I’ve been working the English Folk Dance and Song Society as part of their project, The Full English. They have recently completely digitising their huge archive and now it is all online – an amazing resource! The Full English includes all sorts of projects in a wide variety of educational settings to celebrate the access and explore different ways of working with the material.
My project was a collaboration with Queensbridge School, musician John Kirkpatrick and mentee, Beth Gifford. All of Year 7 went off timetable for a week to create a performance based on a ballad printed in Birmingham. Six classes concentrated on different aspects of the performance to create an extravaganza including morris dancing, singing, music, storytelling and drama.

If you would like to read a write-up of the project, please click here. Photos coming soon.

Descriptions of the exercises and games used are here

I’m delighted to have been commissionsed to compile a book of Shropshire Folktales for the History Press.  I’ve just submitted the manuscript and looking forward to seeing what the proofs look like.  The book includes thirty of the region’s stories, some old favourites and plenty that are new material for me.  Lynn Rust has created some fabulous illustrations and Katherine Soutar of Dancing Cat Designs at Maws Craft Centre in Coalbrookdale is working on the front cover as I type!  The book is due for publication in July 2011.


Once again I teamed up with the marvellous Fiona Collins and Wrexham Country Parks. We played, jumped, ran, skipped and danced in six of the country parks with children from local schools, to create a book of new active stories for the parks.

During the spring term Fiona Collins and I mentored a group of year 9/10 students at Selly Park Technology College preparing them for their Bronze Arts Award.  Over a period of weeks the students explored a variety of storytelling techniques and organised a performance of stories and riddles within school.  The students all came to the Young Storyteller of the Year Competition on 13th March in Birmingham and either performed in the competition or assisted the judges and took part in the deliberation process.  The whole day was brilliant – an excellent opportunity to hear professional storytellers, perform stories in a professional theatres and meet other young people interested in storytelling.  All our students have now successfully acheived their Bronze Arts Award.

This project took place at the Bridge School with a core group of 14-18 year old students with moderate to severe learning difficulties.  The aim was to create and deliver a project to support students on a creative journey.  One week was used to introduce us as artists and our artforms, to introduce the idea of art as a way to explore and question as well as self-expression, to learn and experiment with a variety of artforms and skills, all through the key media of storytelling and visual art.  A second week focused on our students giving a storytelling performance developed during the first week to groups of primary school children (with a variety of special needs) and mentoring the primary school children on a one to one basis to pass on some of the visual art techniques learned.

This project was a wonderful success according to artists, staff and pupils.  As our key contact, Mandy James, Business and Enterprise Co-ordinator put it:

‘The journey our pupils went on through this project was fantastic.  They were provided with strategies to develop confidence, develop their communication skills and become teachers themselves. These young people will remember this project for a long time.’

For more details about this project please click here:


 Newport is a town layered with story and memory.  The canal remembers busier days crowded with boatmen, Chocolate Charlie bringing pocketfuls of sweets back from Cadburys for the local children and harsh winters of frozen barges. Three fish swim on gates, walls and flags, heading towards the King, leaving prosperity in their wake.  You may still catch a glipse in a window of Elizabeth Parker in her wedding dress, waiting all her life and beyond for her fiancee.  When night falls, Madam Pigott haunts the roads and lanes watchful of her chance to take revenge on any young men out alone.

Throughout September and October I worked with dancer Rose Gordon and choreographer Bettina Strickler on a fantastic ‘Find Your Talent’ and DanceXchange collaboration to celebrate the history, folklore and people of Newport. 

 We collaborated with several schools and community groups in Newport to gather, combine, retell and celebrate stories of Newport.  The project culminated in a fantastic Hallowe’en performances with two marvellous young storytelling tour guides leading audiences around the Madam Piggott exhibition and a school haunted by ghostly dancers.

This project was a collaboration between DanceXchange, Telford and Wrekin Libraries, and High Ercall and Crudgington Primary Schools.  I worked with dancers Emma Burns and Laura Dredger using Shropshire myths and legends to inspire dance with KS2 children. 

Working with dance was a new and inspiring process for me.  Our sessions were full of experimentation, using rhythms and patterns of words to evoke different atmospheres and tempos that were then interpreted through movement. 

The project culminated in a performance at Charlton Secondary School where students from both schools shared their work with each other and a very big and supportive audience!

In 2003 I was approached by American tour company, Beyond Boundaries, to be part of Harry Potter inspired trips.  I was already a fan of the series (then in its infancy) and was delighted to be part of the team and have continued to contribute to the trips ever since.

My role within the trips is to celebrate the wealth of British, Norse and Irish folklore and tradition that J. K, Rowling used as the bedrock of her series, rather than to retell any of her material.  It has been a delight to explore the themes touched upon in the Harry Potter books and my repsect and admiration for the author have continued to increase with each book and trip as I’ve  discovered how deeply researched and tied in even the most casual throwaway line can be!

The trips have taken me all over England and Scotland to have a huge amount of fun: banqueting in Oxford colleges and Edinburgh Castle; pushing the sweet trolley on the steam train used in the films for the Hogwarts Express; visiting a hand of glory in Whitby Museum; playing land based quidditch at Alnwick Castle; visiting lakes in caves at Wookey Hole…the list goes on and on!

Their are a variety of trips available, visiting London, Oxford, Edinburgh and Glencoe.  There are also wizard school castle based holidays where you can experience student life living in a castle and attend a variety of magical lessons.

The HP fan trips have been an opportunity to introduce fans to the British ballad and storytelling tradition, telling the stories of Britain in the landscape where they are so deeply rooted. 

For more information visit:

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This project was designed to enhance a sense of community in Craven Arms and to encourage participants to share their ideas for the future of their area. 

I teamed up with Fiona Collins to work with KS2 children interviewing local elders about their memories, hopes and fears for the community with the aid of ‘fantastic faces’: faces made from vegetables with paper features on which were scribed local sights, sounds, smells, tastes and memories.  The sessions were non-threatening, empowering and filled with laughter.  Through preparatory sessions with both the schools and groups of elderly people we were able to match children with interviewees so that all had a positive experience.  Leaving the traditional clipboard of questions behind led to more active conversations, while using writing in an unusual and interesting context led to the children gaining new understanding and increased confidence in using the medium, as well as some wonderful cross-generational communication.

Project Leaders: Amy Douglas and Michelle O’Connor (visual artist and mosaicist)

Our project was to create a nine metre square wall mural with the The Bridge School at their old site to welcome them to their new school as part of the Hadley Learning Community.

We worked with14 – 17 year old students with a wide range of physical and educational special needs for a week. The theme chosen by the school was the story of the Wrekin Giant.  This story was told every morning with the aid of a specially made storysack, the students telling more and more of the story each time.  Each day focused on a different aspect of the story and included a large number of wide-ranging activities to keep attention, enthusiasm and to allow opportunity for all children to shine.

For example, one day focused on water.  I told a local flood story, and we re-created the flood using lengths of shimmering blue and green material. We then talked about different types of water – puddles, rain, streams, rivers, lakes.  With the students inside we threw buckets of water at the window so they could watch the shapes the water made.  We went outside and played with trays of water – sketching the shapes the water made when it had a stone dropped in.  We added oils to water and made reflective imprints by laying paper on the top. Using wire hoops we made large bubbles and drew the shapes of them.  We headed off on a walk to a local pool and looked at all the plants growing around the water and the wildlife in and around the pool. The sketches produced were taken the next day to Jackfield tile museum and used for ideas as our stundents painted tiles which were fired and used in the Welcome Wall. 

This was an exciting, successful project helped greatly by the enthusiasm of all the teachers and support staff at the Bridge.  The staff led by example, supported us in our ideas and extended the project by follow on work after we had gone.

This was a reminiscence residency lasting nine months, which celebrated the lives and memories of people living around the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct.  We included local primary schools at all stages of the process, using our work to inspire the children and empower them to influence the rest of the project.  Throughout the project we built up a memory box, which slowly filled with more and more objects, each associated with at least one story.  We used the following activities with the children, with great success:

Story detectives: children listened to stories from the memory box and played conversational games.  We introduced them to methods of interview technique.  Children interviewed each other and members of their families.  They brought stories back into class and added new objects to the memory box.

Storyseeds: children chose stories from a selection told from the memory box and we used these as seeds to create a ‘play in a day’: performances of storytelling, dance, drama and music for children, parents, governors and community members at the end of the day.

Storywalks: we took various community groups including the Country Park Junior Rangers Club on walks around the area, telling stories gathered from the community in sites associated with the stories.

‘Pontcysyllte Memories’: the project concluded in a book of reminiscences published by Tempus Publishing.   We held a grand book launch next to the aqueduct with the mayor of Wrexham presenting each contributor with a copy of the book.  The youngest contributor to the book was nine years old.  As part of the celebration, children told stories with the aid of the memory box to audiences including the mayor.

Pontcysyllte 1

On Thursday 6th November Fiona Collins and I gave a storytelling workshop to the Stafford and District Early Years Forum

This session was an exciting opportunity to play and have fun!  We have been experimenting with new ideas in the way we approach storytelling to under fives and our biggest discovery has been the use of fruit and vegetables.  With the state of the nation’s health and the English aversion to healthy eating constantly in the news we have been aiming to promote fruit and vegetables and how much fun they can be. 

We have been positively encouraging children to play with their food and using edible puppets as the focus for stories and now it was turn of the adults. 

23 early years practitioners fell upon a rather large fruit bowl and set to work to create an amazing display of characters including a pumpkin cat with pomegranate ears, Surfing Spud, Lucy Leek the scary fairy, a courgette crocodile and a very cool Caribbean coconut.