Put another log on the fire
'Song and Tunes from a Scots Traveller'
Duncan Williamson’s parents were both travellers and he was born in the family tent on the shores of Loch Fyne, In 1928. the seventh of sixteen children.
He recalls, “My father was a wonderful story-teller. You can Imagine us on a cold winter’s evening living in a great big tent on the west coast, in the forest of the Duke of Argyll. We had no books, no toys and the only musical instrument was my father’s bagpipes. but there was always an evening for story-telling and he told us many wonderful stories’.
When Duncan set out travelling himself he took many of his father’s stories with him. “I ran away from home when I was thirteen years old and I travelled all over Scotland on my own, and in the early forties there was camping places everywhere, there was no restrictions. If I came to a camping site, I’d see a camp fire and I’d walk in and me being a young travelling person, they made me at home and gave me tea. Now if they had a ceilidh and the old people had a wee drink, everyone was asked to sing or tell a story. I remember this happened to me in Aberdeenshire and an old woman, she fed me well and she said, ‘Now laddie you’ve been sitting there and you haven’t sung or told a story.’ So I started to tell her a story that my daddy had told me, and in the middle of the story she said, ‘Stop that’s not a story at all, it’s a song, and it’s a long song’. That’s what they called a ballad.”
As he travelled throughout Scotland Duncan picked up local ballads and stories and started to write his own songs, building a vast repertoire. ‘My old horse and me’ is one of his best known songs which he wrote to celebrate his travelling days. and he also sang many of the older songs as a tribute to his family tradition. His father’s favourite song was ‘The Shepherd Lass’, while Duncan’s oldest sister Edith loved to hear him sing ‘The Factory Girl’. But the big ballads were Duncan’s forte and his ‘Lady Margaret’ is one of the most complete versions you are likely to come across. ‘Sir Patrick Spens’ came mostly from his mothers’ brother-in-law Sandy Reid. who travelled in Fife, while ‘Thomas the Rymer’ was sung by his Uncle Sandy Townsley, a cousin of Duncan’s mother, who travelled much of the time in Aberdeenshire.
Duncan would sing the title song ‘Put another log on the fire’ whenever there is a whiff of feminism in the air It is of course the type of Country and Western classic which became, in recent years, an essential feature of the traveller’s repertoire.
Finally his versatility was further exemplified by his mastery of two pocket instruments: he was not only a fine vamping mouthorgan player, but also played the jew’s harp superbly. He was a former champion at the Auchtermuhty Traditional Music Festival on the latter.
Duncan Williamson left the travelling life in 1980 when he settled in Fife, and through his many published works and his visits to festivals and schools he became well known as a storyteller These recordings hopefully completed the picture and show what a unique traditional performer he was.
Recordings: These are field recordings made mainly in August 1991 They were recorded on three evenings at Duncan’s house in Fife, and the odd crackle in the background is appropriately from the log fire.
1. A Pretty Fair Maid
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