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.

@artscouncilofengland, @ace_midlands, @ace_national, @artyaml, @sfs_uk @scotstoryfourm @EU_SSSA @Stories4Society @BTBStorytelling @GEECStweets

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

Like many others around the world I have been soul searching lately.  I am a person of white privilege.  I think of myself as an idealist.  I want to live in a world of equality and compassion.  However, I am realising more and more, how naïve and sheltered I have been.  I live, and was brought up in, rural Shropshire.  It is not ethnically diverse.  I don’t think I’m racist, but I have been passive.  I need to actively engage.  I am re-evaluating what part I play in maintaining the balance of power – what I can and should do to support change.

As a storyteller, my life is all about language.  I think about words and the layers of meaning they encapsulate.  Over the past weeks, I have been re-evaluating the stories I tell; what stereotypes and prejudices I am passing on without realising. Continue reading “The Legacy of Language”

When I talk to anyone about Duncan and ask what he was like, I hear all kinds of stories, but everyone always ends up talking about how generous he was.  Duncan was many things to many people, but all agree about his great heart and that he really did have a soul of generosity.

Ducan smiling 1

Duncan was the original Jack.  Jack, like Duncan, is many things – quick-thinking, self-reliant, adventurous – but at his core, he is generous.  So many stories start with Jack’s mother giving him the choice of ‘Take a whole bannock with my curse, or half a bannock with my blessing’.

Jack would never take the whole bannock – the curse or blessing is almost irrelevant – he would never take extra for himself, to leave his mother with less.  When Jack sits down to eat his half bannock and a stranger appears, he shares his meal without thought or hesitation.  It’s an accepted line in a story.  It rolls off the tongue and we accept it as part of the formula. I think it’s rare that the storyteller or listener ever stop to think about it very much, except that Jack has followed story protocol and will probably be rewarded for it later.  But when you do stop and think, it is an enormous act of generosity, done without regret or bitterness.  Jack shares his food with a smile.  They sit, eat, talk and share company together and when Jack walks on, he has nothing left in his pockets.  Whatever happens later in the story, this is the act of a hero.  He has no idea where or when he will next be able to find something to eat or drink.  He has faith in the world and his own abilities.  When tomorrow comes, when hunger comes, then he will deal with it. How many of us could do that?  Share our last meal and not begrudge the giving of it in some small part of ourselves? Continue reading “Generosity: A True Act of Heroism”

The World Storytelling Café asked me to record a 45 minute set of stories to put up on their site. I’m flattered and slightly hesitant. 45 minutes?  Recorded?  Can’t I do it live?  Although we have agreed I’ll do a live sharing session, with stories, songs and discussion as part of Duncan project, they wanted me to do a straight storytelling recorded set first.

Well, I have been doing more and more online – getting used to Zoom, seeing myself on screen – and my experience of telling live online has been much better than I thought it would be! I love that I really can still feel the audience there – feel the umbrella of shared space created in telling a story, jointly creating the story between storyteller and listener to make a shared world.  I didn’t think it would happen – but it does.

So, here is the next challenge – recording rather than live.  At first, I decided not to think too much about it, to just sit at the computer and get on with it.  I know the more I think about it, the more I’ll get in a tizzwazz.  It will turn into a big thing and I’ll make a pig’s ear of it.  Then almost instantly, serendipitously, into my inbox came an invitation from Beyond the Border to a free ‘how to record your story’ webinar.  I’m not one to look a gift horse in the mouth, so up I signed and put off recording my WSC set until after the webinar.

I’m not sure the webinar was a good or a bad thing for me. Continue reading “Live or Recorded – Does it matter?”

Wow – what a World Storytelling Day that was!

World Storytelling Day has been going in a truly International way since about 2004 and I have usually celebrated it by telling stories from around the world in a school.  This has been a great way to celebrate different countries, cultures and storytelling with young people and raise awareness of storytelling.  However, this year was entirely different!  All over the world people have cancelled gatherings and are maintaining social distancing. While that sounds like it should have been the end of this year’s World Storytelling Day, it led to the most vibrant celebration of our global storytelling community I’ve yet encountered! Continue reading “World Storytelling Day 2020”

I am sat on a rather beaten up train, each person sat near me staring into phones, tablets and laptops, plugged into the digital world.  I’m on my way home from a Digital Skills for Storytellers Sharing Day put on by Beyond the Border in Cardiff.  Digital skills and digital storytelling is a fiery topic in the storytelling world. Some storytellers dig their heels in and have as little to do with technology as possible, eschewing mobile phones and televisions; resisting the threat of any dilution of the intimate connection of live storytelling. Most have ventured as far as maintaining a website and FaceBook page.  Some intrepid few are launching themselves into the world of live streaming, Facebook events and Skype storytelling clubs.  Personally, I think it is almost impossible to put on any event without interacting online… and as I try to reduce the plastic in my life, replacing the process of laminating posters and driving to various remote notice boards with facebook events seems like the ethical way to go (even though I know there are moral issues with Facebook!).  But that barely brushes the edge of using digital tools.  The possibilities opened by technology are huge!  While I find the prospect daunting – the time eaten by technology and the array of constant new skills demanded, I’m determined that if I’m going to enter this brave new world, there’s no point unless I embrace it wholeheartedly, play with it and make use of the myriad opportunities rather than dabbling in the shallow (on every level) waters. Continue reading “Digitial Skills for Storytellers Sharing Day”