Tony Bonning: stories, music and journeys

I first encountered Tony Bonning early one Saturday morning, years back, at the Moniave Folk Festival. He had a children’s session coming up and meanwhile was in the middle of the village entertaining the slowly surfacing festival goers with his own lovely mixture of songs, wry remarks and curious diversions. Over the years he has been compere at open mics I’ve organised, a resounding success at my daughter’s fourth birthday party and an informed adviser to my University colleagues involved in teacher education. I think the last time I saw him face to face was at Loch Arthur, where he was enjoying a cup of tea after a foraging session in the nearby hedgerows. When the lockdowns came he fell off my radar, until summer 2022, when suddenly he was across the social media as he trekked with his horse Chief, from Scotland’s deep south west to the far north east. When he returned to an admiring reception in Kirkudbright, I simply had to invite him to take part in my series of interviews with inspiring people in Dumfries and Galloway. He’s packed a lot in here. I’m grateful to him for taking part and hope that you enjoy his story as much as I have, and will follow that story further, as it unfolds.

Q. ‘You’ve been knocking around what Iain Banks called ‘this daft wee planet’ for over 70 years now: can you give us a flavour of the things you’ve been doing?’

I’m from a farming family, so, as a child, I learned how to live on and off the countryside: walked hills, guddled streams, foraged, hunted and learned all the aspects of movement through this environment:  how to tell if a bog can be navigated, whether a stone will be slippery when wet, how to smell the weather, read the sky. How to handle, pain, thirst, hunger and tiredness. Above all, I developed bloody-minded endurance – a trait learned mainly from my mother.  

I started work as a telecommunications engineer, but I was never happy in that. Having a job is not having a life.

I was always writing as a child, kept a diary, wrote poetry, songs and stories – something encouraged by my English teacher, Miss Scott. Never thought of publication, just wrote for the love of it. When I became a father, nearly fifty years ago, I was more inclined to extemporise stories or borrow from folktales, as my mother and grandmother had done, than to read from a book, and this was integral to becoming an author and storyteller.

Eventually, I became a freelance journalist, more by accident than design, and that improved my writing speed and competence. From early on I had a great love of mythology, but it was not until I began to collect folklore and the accompanying tales that my life started to make sense and have a real purpose. I also dealt in books on folklore for many years with the express purpose of building a library on the subject – I have 2-3,000 volumes of folklore now. Over time I have published children’s books, travel books and folktales, worked for the BBC’s online service for children and established myself as a successful storyteller and musician 

Q. There’s a lot going on in that answer. Can we unpack it a bit? What was it that drew you to the world of folklore and how was it that folklore seemed to give a sense of purpose to your life?

I had copies of Tales by Hans Christian Anderson, Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies and Bullfinch’s Mythology which my mother, who was forever reciting poetry, read to me when I was four or five, and the stories chimed with my sense of reality. I had a lot of difficulties relating to other children, a profound stutter didn’t help, so I was very much a loner with a highly active imagination. I also had a difficult relationship with my parents and was forever running away from home into the hills. My particular haunt was called the Lady Glen. For me it was mythological and where I half-expected to see the fairy folk – it was that kind of place, and still is. Magical. When I went there, I could hear voices reciting poetry in my head. There I was Peter Pan (or perhaps a Lost Boy). Another place was Craig Finn, where I could see my world all stretched out below and also, away west to the mountains of Arran. That filled me with an indescribable sense of wonder and longing. But it was through these books, poetry and in particular Bullfinch’s Mythology that I became enraptured with Wonder Tales. My world was strangely beautiful, and  as Wordsworth said, “Child is father of the man.” The real reason I am a storyteller is because I want others, especially children, to experience that same sense of wonder and to find the strangely beautiful.

My Heart Leaps Up

My heart leaps up when I behold

A rainbow in the sky:

So was it when my life began;

So is it now I am a man;

So be it when I shall grow old,

Or let me die!

The Child is father of the Man;

And I could wish my days to be

Bound each to each by natural piety.

William Wordsworth, 1807

Q. So tell me how you actually became a story teller, who influenced you and where and how you have practiced that special art?

It really was the stutter that created an urge to be a public speaker. As a boy I read books from the library on the subject; however, reading a book and doing it in public were two quite different things. This is where singing came in useful. I was a good singer and had no problem doing it in public, and that became the road into speaking between the songs, so the confidence was being established. That my mother and paternal Irish grandmother were great storytellers was undoubtedly influential.

The next step was my interest in myth, legend and folklore and an urge to collect the lore, including folktales. When I became a father nearly fifty years ago, I preferred to tell the stories rather than read them. Night after night I would hone the skills with my eldest. I was also part of a theatre group which helped with stage presence, diction, and the art of tension and release. I also had an urge to create events that were a mix of drama, music and storytelling and I organised such events during the eighties and early nineties.

There was never the thought of earning a living as a storyteller until I was asked by the Scottish Book Trust to tour schools with my children’s books. This was in the early nineties. I was also running a weekly music group for pre-school children where I would work round a theme. While on the SBT tour I drew on everything I was doing or had learned from working with small children. It seems I did a good job, for a week later I was phoned by the Bea Ferguson, the Children’s Librarian at Edinburgh Libraries Service, who had heard of that tour. I did some work for her, and she told all the other children’s librarians in Scotland. Within a couple of years, I was doing 300 shows (two a day) each year. That level of work tends to hone things to brilliance. If it did so for me, you will need to ask my audiences 

Q. You are a prolific writer, how many books have you published and in what styles and genres?

I write every day even if it is just a haiku. That’s important. Ted Hughes said something regarding writer’s block along the lines of “The only way to write is to write.” It is hard to maintain but if you really can’t get anything down that’s worth a nickel, then read. I tend to read poetry when I want to write prose and prose (usually factual stuff) when I write poetry. I’ve produced work for 25 volumes. A couple or three were self-published as giveaways to teachers for use in schools. They supported the work I did on creative writing and storytelling. I’ve sold in the region of a million copies in total over thirty years. A single million-selling volume would have been quite handy for the pension. The problem has been that storytelling took over because I had a family to raise, and cash-flow was vital. I guess I would have had a lot more published had I just stuck with it; but I would not trade the joy I have seen on the faces of literally thousands of children over the years, for great wealth. I feel that live storytelling and music have been the greater contributions to our culture, and on that you cannot put a price.

I have written for children’s picture books, biographies of Burns and Shakespeare for children, a couple of coffee table books, with photographer Allan Wright, on Galloway and Arran, folktales (which I am concentrating on now, to preserve these amazing stories). I have also written the equivalent of online books for the BBC’s online service. There are also a few volumes of poetry – I founded, along with John Hudson, the national poetry magazine, Markings, which ran for many years. I have collected and written up hundreds of Kelpie/Each Usage (Water Horse) tales over 20 or more years, and after I finish the book on my recent 600 mile trek through Scotland with my horse Chief (we both walked), I will be collating them for a couple of books. The bottom drawer is also full to overflowing, so I will be retiring into a box.

Q. Music, as you’ve said here,  is also an important part of your life, what kind of music do you like to make and what music do you listen to? Were you ever in the ‘music business’?

As a child I was surrounded by classical music, mainly opera, which dad loved, and the 1950s crooners that mum, who was always singing, loved. They have always been with me. As a young child I loved Lonnie Donegan (everyone did), but never took to Cliff Richard or Elvis – my preferences were song-based, not the personality. That was until I heard and saw Gene Vincent all dressed in leather. Mum nearly had a meltdown and that was it. My hero.

Buddy Holly was interesting, but it was the harmonies of the Everly Brothers that blew me away. Like mum, I sang most of the time – no stutter then – and I used to learn the lead, then the harmony. I was given a guitar and the Bert Weedon Songbook when I was thirteen and painfully learned how to play it, if badly, to the point where I could accompany my singing. The Beatles came along and changed everything and, like everyone else, I was caught up in them; but it was the Rolling Stones that did it for me. Rebellion again. I was the first locally to get a Beatle haircut, but with my unruly curls it was never a success. The Rolling Stones changed that, and the hair got longer. I sang with a band for a bit, but was never comfortable working with others and eventually started singing solo including session work in the early seventies for record producer, Tony Rockcliffe. The folk scene was underway, and I participated. However, the thing that changed it all was The Byrds’, Mr Tambourine Man, released in April 1965. I remember exactly where I was when I first heard it.

So-called folk-rock grabbed me to the extent that I have been a faithful aficionado since that time. Although I have a 1963 Fender Telecaster, it is to amped up semi-acoustic guitars that I always turn. When I started working with children, I brought that sensibility to the music. I detest the patronising plinky-plonk that pervades records for Tiny Wees. The way I play means I can segue easily from a jangly Twinkle Twinkle Little Star into Mr Tambourine Man, or Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush into a heavy 12 Bar Blues, and often do. My performances always have one eye (ear) to the adults present.

In September 1967 I bought an Elektra Sampler LP with various artists including Judy Collins singing a song called Suzanne. The songwriter was someone called Leonard Cohen (I’d never heard of him). I enjoyed the wordplay of Bob Dylan, but here was pure poetry set to music. A real tour de force that had me play it over and over so I could sing and play it – it took intensive effort to work out the chords. In December ’67 I was Christmas shopping in McCormick’s music shop in Glasgow (“How much is the Rickenbacker?” “You can’t afford it.” “How do you know?” “You’re asking the price.” – an actual conversation, and he never told me.) I went into the record section and meticulously trawled through starting at ‘A’. In the ‘C’ section,  I pulled out a record with a headshot as the cover, “Oh my God, it’s my Dad.” Then I saw the name, The songs of Leonard Cohen. I swear I didn’t ask to play it, I just went up and paid for it. It was played daily for months. Even my mother and father grew to love it. On it is, for me, the greatest song ever produced, The Sisters of Mercy. The backing reminds me of a little German folk band that comes in, stage left, revolves around Cohen, then exits stage right. It is, in the purest sense of the word, exquisite.

As a vocalist I was obviously interested in songs I could sing well. Because my voice has a range from falsetto down to tenor and occasional baritone, I was heavily influenced by the ranges of Tim Buckley and Robin Williamson, both of whom were on that Elektra sampler. I was acquainted with the Incredible String Band, including their manager, Susi. The band, except for Mike Heron, visited our home for a party one time, which included a treasure hunt – they were highly competitive ‘hippies’, especially Malcolm le Maistre. As a result of this, my then wife Heather and I helped with merchandise on one of their tours. Quite a privilege, I thought.   

I guess my top three albums are: 1) The Notorious Byrd Brothers (The Byrds)  2) The Songs of Leonard Cohen and 3) After the Goldrush; Neil Young.

My favourite songs are: The Sisters of Mercy; by Leonard Cohen, Turn, Turn, Turn by The Byrds and Street Fighting Man by The Rolling Stones.

The first album I bought was Beethoven’s 6th Symphony; The Pastoral. Having said all that, Mahler still kills me. 

Q. Tell me about your 2022 trek with your horse Chief, how it came about, how it worked out and what it has meant to you?

The idea of trekking right through Scotland came in a chance meeting with Jane Dotchin 30 years ago. She was trekking on a horse from Perthshire to Northumberland. A friend, Ian Biggar had also done a motorbike trek across Canada, and my sister Christine and her husband Nicky hitchhiked from Scotland to Ceylon (Sri Lanka) in 1974. These were pretty hardcore and hard acts to follow, but I could never shake off the idea and so five years ago I began the process that led to the 2022 expedition.

I went for several reasons: firstly, for the hell of it, also to raise money for charity, but mainly to draw attention to Scottish folklore and folktales – in particular those of the Water Kelpie or Water Horse. The idea was to collect Kelpie tales, if possible, and to tell and film the tales in their original settings – since about 1990 I had collected about 300  such stories, yet I found another eight on the trek.  It was the journey of a lifetime.

Your questions, understandably, have not elicited some of the major milestones in my life and perhaps they are for another time. However, I’ve tried more and more to live an heroic life. Not to be a hero, but to appease the gods for the gift of life. To be worthy of the honour of having lived. Which is why, this year, at the age of 73, I set out with Chief, to travel from the Mull of Galloway to Dunnet Head in Caithness: a journey that took nearly four months.

Walking with Chief sometimes took us over the most unforgiving and brutal landscapes. We encountered the gamut of emotions at a level of intensity that was life changing. We made many dozens of friends and were often fêted when passing through communities. In the beginning, he was my horse, in the end he was my friend and companion and I was as much his human. As for the original plan, I did storytelling about 40 times.

My journey with Chief was at times dangerous, life-threatening, brutal, exhausting but, above all, exhilarating. When things went beyond endurance, we endured; when we could not dig any deeper, we dug deeper and when we felt like giving up, we took another step. There were times when I didn’t know whether it was ego or eagerness that drove us into highly dangerous situations. It bothered me badly that it might be the former. Yet we climbed mountains, crossed through seemingly impassable mountain passes, waded hundreds of streams and rivers, ran across dozens of miles of bogs, clambered over ankle-breaking bouldered tracks, and walked 200 miles on one of Scotland’s most dangerous roads, the North Coast 500.

At times we had to turn back, but we were never defeated. We always learned, became better, tougher, and braver. We survived a hurricane that smashed the tent in a total blackout, painful rain and a lightning storm. We were burned by sun and were sometimes cold, wet, tired and hungry for days. After one brutal part of the journey where he fell on me – half a ton of horse crushing the wind out of you is an interesting experience – my ribs were bruised, my right arm battered black and blue, and the skin flayed off the left one. We both picked ourselves up and skidded down the rest of the mucky mountain along a precarious drop. There was a sign at the end of the track: Coffin Road. I love black humour and giggled for half a mile until I got first aid.

I wanted the journey to be inspirational, not for any reasons of ego, but to show that we are more capable than we know, and with courage we can excel. However, the greatest thing I discovered on the way was the amazing ‘kindness of strangers’. I was humbled by the love shown to us by folks we met along the way. Our nation is known for its hospitality, and we received it by the bucket-load.

Q So where to now Tony, on the next turning of the way?

The circumnavigation of Skye is already planned for next May with all the water kelpie lochs plotted out. Not as far or as long as this year, but every bit as challenging. I am writing a book on the 2022 experience, but I have fire in my belly and am more interested in what is ahead before I make the last big trek to eternity.

In the end the universe doesn’t give a damn, and your true worth will show in a hundred or a thousand years – a forgotten pile of dust. Ozymandias (Ramses II) by Percy Bysshe Shelley says it all

I met a traveller from an antique land,

Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone

Stand in the desert … Near them, on the sand,

Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,

And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,

Tell that its sculptor well those passions read

Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,

The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;

And on the pedestal, these words appear:

My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;

Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay

Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare

The lone and level sands stretch far away”.

In the meantime: as George Harrison said around 1985: “In the 1960s I thought love was the answer. I still do.” Perfection. Except perhaps as the Beatles had it in a farewell: “And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.”

If you wish to contact Tony, he can be reached at:

TonyBonnning@hotmail.com or https://en-gb.facebook.com/tony.bonning/

Published by David Graham Clark

I am a sociologist and writer. Pieces on this site include reflective writings, stories, and memoir on aspects of daily life, along with associated images and videos. In these various ways I try to illuminate what I call the quotidian world, particularly my own.

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