The Story of Duncan Williamson and the Snail

Nicky, Duncan Williamson and the snail. Taken by Fleur Shorthouse Hemmngs

Strange things happen when storytellers gather together for any length of time. For one thing they can’t stop themselves from telling stories and as they do so strange and marvelous things begin to happen. For one of my first ever times at Bleddfa as a tutor I was privileged to spend time with the Scottish traveller Duncan Williamson, tradition bearer, inspiration to many contemporary storytellers and master of mischief.

He was asked to come and spend a couple of days with us and took up residence for the whole week. And what a week it was. Fleur Shorthouse Hemmings took the photograph below of fellow storyteller Nicky Rafferty recording Duncan. If you look closely you will see that a snail is also falling under Duncan’s spell. I’ll let Fleur tell you the story of what was actually happening under the photo…

We have heard that the troubadours were able to charm the birds from the trees but I doubt any of you have actually seen it done. In our scientific age, empirical evidence is everything so here is a story of true animal enchantment at Bleddfa practiced by honoured storyteller and tradition bearer, Duncan Williamson. It happened around the turn of the century and behind the barn on the steps leading to the orchard – where my tent was. Duncan was invited by Nicky Rafferty to sing The Whale Song which she wanted to record. We went to a quite place and there on the steps was a big slug. Duncan greeted it with warmth and friendship, ‘Hello little sluggie, how are you today?…’. Behind him I cringed as earlier I had been really rude to a slug that was outside my tent. (Btw I like to think they were one and the same slug). Duncan sang the song and brought tears to our eyes, as he did the slug extended its antenna rose right up on its back foot and swayed and danced. So here you have it a story and genuine photo evidence of Duncan Williamson charming a slug. I was there, I took the photo. Hopefully Nicky still has the recording.

Fleur Shorthouse Hemmings

When I told Nicky about the photograph she was touched enough to write the following…

I don’t have the recording but I still carry the song with me, it was 1997 and that little person that was inside me is now 21 and sings the song too.

I remember feeling held, almost unable to breathe, savouring the moment and full of gratitude. I remember Duncan’s stories and his practical advice on developing a repertoire and finding work. He was so generous with his time and energy and excited for us; thrilled by our interest. Duncan’s playfulness was liberating and Bleddfa was the perfect place to play and learn. We were so well cared for and I remember a feeling of space and time – to listen, think, talk, explore.

I went having no idea what to expect and left knowing I’d had what I needed.

Nicky Rafferty

Remember, we are very happy to hear about any of your Bleddfa memories and if you have any photographs you would like to share then I am sure that will help bring the memories flooding back for many former Bleddfa Storytelling participants. If you want to find out about courses click here.

If you are interested in the Scottish Travellers here is a blog post about Sheila Stewart you might enjoy. Just before you go, here’s the great man himself singing Bogie’s Bonnie Belle

One thought on “The Story of Duncan Williamson and the Snail

  1. I think I was there that year. I have a memory of a pregnant Nicky rubbing her belly and saying “be polite” as she told the story of a never-ending pregnancy.

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