A “FIELD” recording doesn’t have to be in a field. Often it is in somebody’s home, and so it was with that wonderful traditional singer Duncan Williamson.

Duncan and his wife Linda were living in Fife along with a brood of children, all as spirited as one would expect. Duncan had had seven children by his first marriage, and he and Linda had two. Children dashed in and dashed out, were introduced and vanished. It was impossible to keep count and entertaining to observe the limits of Duncan’s authority, because not only was he an imposing figure of a man, he had a natural authority in his speaking and especially in his singing.

We hit it off. Duncan and Linda had suffered somewhat from the elitist attitudes of “the Auld Reekie folks”, as Linda put it. They were more at home with the down to earth. If you were a Traveller, you had to be. It included being ready for any kind of work from heavy digging to thinning neeps, horse trading to mending kettles, weaving willow baskets to selling pussy willow on the doorsteps – and, sadly, being ready to be exploited, cheated and abused and told, time after time to “Move On!”.

Linda Headlee was at the School of Scottish Studies, a student from the US researching traditional songs and ballads and her commitment was such that she ended up living in a bow tent with Duncan and marrying him, so she got to know what it was really like.

The house at Peat Inn in which they eventually settled was a ceilidh house. Always great craic, always hospitality. Carlsberg Specials and memorably delicious oxtail stew – Duncan’s own speciality.

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I loved stories. They loved stories. But Duncan sang stories – only they weren’t just stories, they were living realities. When he sang it never felt like a “performance”. Wherever he was, he was here, and whenever he was, he was now. He sang Sir Patrick Spens, explaining the whole context, himself in the midst of events, introducing it with “As the beer gets stronger, the song gets better.” When he’d sung it through he was far from done with it.

DW: Patrick had retired at that time you see. He was a great seaman and he retired and that’s when the King sent a message to him he was very upset about it.

But being a subject of the King, he loved his King very much, he would even go, he was going to commander that ship because he was the one that could take her. He knew what to do and it was amazing how he could sail to Norway in the wintertime and sail back to Norway an’ the worst storm of all was when he ran into the Firth of Forth…

JP: You got that from a Fife man?

DW: I got that from an old travelling man. He told it to me down in a camping site in Methil in 1952 when I was sitting round the campfire telling stories and singing songs.

He says: “Duncan did you ever hear the story about the King of Fife who wanted a wife from the King of Norway?” I mean ... he couldn’t even write but he’d learned the story and I said Sandy (it was old Sandy Reid was his name) where in the world did you hear such a wonderful story?

“Oh, he says his auntie was a wonderful folk singer, an old woman called Maggie MacCallum and she used to sing around the streets and he said “I heard my auntie sing it.”

And it’s strange how these stories … these songs come in contact with the travelling people ’cos some of them couldna read. They couldna write and didn’t learn anything on books. It was passed only down in tradition to him from their head and they heard a song and they loved it and they kept it alive.

“And I was searching for ballads at the time and that’s what makes ballads so most important.

If there was only one single version of a ballad around John, it wouldna be worth the singing. That’s what makes ballads so important and so lovable and that they have many different versions, tell many different stories.

JP: And they grow and change.

DW: Of course.

Sir Walter Scott took the original ballad that said. ‘It was mirk, mirk, dark and deep and there lay the lords and ladies and bales of silk at their feet’. I mean if you’re going to hire a ship to go to Norway to bring back a young woman from Norway, you’re no going to send lords and ladies along with bales of silk. They werena’ trading or nothin’… you see what I mean?

THAT’S immediacy for you.

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Duncan was incensed at the idea that an aristocratic mission would be sullied by mere trade. And remember, this is coming from a Traveller, not some member of a self-appointed elite.

Duncan also recorded my favourite version of the ballad of True Thomas, or Thomas the Rhymer, which deals with the other world. Thomas of Ercildoune was born in 1219 and was known as True Thomas as early as the 1300s, because of his powers of prophecy, including his prediction that Robert the Bruce would become King of Scots.

True Thomas had acquired the gift of foresight during a seven-year-long affair with the Queen of Elfin Land and there are those who maintain they are enjoying it still.

In Duncan’s version, the story has shifted from the Borders to Aberdeenshire but it belongs everywhere, taking us to a pre-Christian world with its values.

It all starts off with Thomas lying back musing on a grassy bank in Huntly, beneath “an elton tree”. “Elton” may mean “old” or be a version of “eldritch” meaning “unearthly”.

Either way, the Queen of Elfin Land arrives on horseback in a mantle of forest green. She is beautiful “and her tresses they were so fair, And from ev’ry tass of her horse’s mane hung twenty siller bells and mair”.

She invites Thomas to mount up: “So they rode and they rode and they merr’ly, merr’ly rode and merr’ly they rode away.” The repetition is itself repeated in each verse and gives us the sense of the long ride, for Elfin land “is very far away”. On the journey they come to a red river. “This is the River of Blood,” she said, “that is spilled on this earth in one day.” Next a crystal River of Tears “that is spilled on this earth in one day”.

So this is much more than an adventure – it is a journey to an understanding of the ways of humanity. The old religion of fairy was without moral judgment so the next road, the thorny road, which is to Hell, is left behind them.

Then Thomas is saved from eating an apple “made from the curses that fall on this earth in one day” and is given instead the apple of true prophecy. By this the fall of man is reversed.

The apple of Knowledge given at the hand of the Queen of Elfin Land does not have the curse of Eden upon it. Thomas is now ready to enter that land, for he is beyond evil and outside time.

To match this, the tune contains, within its own structure, a sense of the marvellous. It is largely confined to the interval of a minor third, but the middle section is sung up an octave, and the tessitura (or average pitch) is high, which gives an eerie effect so that the voice enters another world in each stanza.

DW: So after seven years he returned and became a great seer and he foretold many wonderful things; and people – he even told them how he went to Elfin Land – and people disbelieved him, to start with, but once he start foretelling these wonderful things and foretold all these things that were to happen in the future, then they knew that Thomas Rhymer had really been in Elfin Land.

It is said that, centuries later, the Reverend Robert Kirk also fell in love with and was abducted by the Queen of the Fairies and that his grave at Aberfoyle is empty, for he is with her still. It is a beautiful dream.

DUNCAN died in 2007 but he is remembered, indeed revered in the storytelling community at whose centre on Edinburgh’s High Street is the magnificent Duncan Williamson chair by Tim Stead, symbolising “the drama of his presence”. It does.

I got to deliver a presentation once, seated in that chair and never felt more comfortable, though a Carlsberg Special on the floor to my right would have done no harm.

Now, since in my head I am in the chair, here’s a true story about travelling folk which I have had to keep in memory as I didn’t have a tape recorder. I wish I’d told it to Duncan. It came from a retired surgeon in Kirkcudbrightshire. I can’t recall his name.

Many years before, he had been at the Epsom Derby when a man came running wildly towards the crowd calling for a doctor. Nobody responded so, though no general practitioner, he went with the man. What confronted him was dramatic. A member of a group of Travellers – Gypsies – was on his back but so arched was his body that only the back of his head and his heels were touching the ground. Classic strychnine poisoning. My friend was told he had been sick but he made him sick again with mustard and water and had him walked about and walked about until he recovered: which he did. Enquiries ensued.

“Has anyone got a grudge against this man?”

“No. No. Everyone likes him.”

“Has he been taking anything?”

By this time the man had recovered enough to speak for himself. No, he hadn’t been taking anything except some pills the chemist gave him for constipation. The chemist only wanted to give him one pill and make him come back for a further dose as needed but the man, being a Gypsy, was always on the move and persuaded the chemist to give him a month’s supply. Against his better judgment, the chemist obliged, adding the strictest injunction only to take one at a time.

Well, that’s not how the human mind always works and the Gypsy reasoned that if one was good, two were better and the whole lot in a oner would save him from constipation for the rest of his life. That’s what saved him. By taking them all he made himself sick before he had fully ingested them, for each pill contained a minute amount of strychnine.

The surgeon refused to accept any payment for saving the man’s life and left them only his name. I may have forgotten it but the travelling folk didn’t. The next Christmas day, the surgeon woke up and opened his Harley Street door and there on the doorstep was a brace of pheasant. The next Christmas it was wild hares. And so on.

Every Christmas for many years someone of that community brought fresh game in the dark of night into the heart of London in gratitude. When the surgeon finally left

Harley Street for the Borders, the Gypsies will have known. They have their own ways and their own knowledge and not all of it comes from this world.