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?

Well…

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.

BLAST!

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, www.bishopscastletownhall.co.uk, 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.

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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: http://www.hpfantrips.com

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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.