7 September 2019
Tales from Firesides Generations Past
Review of Duncan Williamson's 'Fireside Tales of the Traveller Children'
'Fireside Tales of the Traveller Children' is a wonderful book.
This book’s author, Duncan Williamson, was the seventh of sixteen children born to traveller parents. The family travelled in the summer holidays but remained still in the winter months to ensure the children were schooled. Every winter they’d built a barrikit (a twelve-foot-high structure crafted from saplings bent and covered with canvas and grounded with rocks) in the oak wood of theDuke of Argyll’s estate. Many years later, Duncan and his second wife recorded and transcribed these stories from his childhood.
The pre-story parts of the book – the preface and introduction – tell of how children from the author’s generation lived. Each would have work to do from the age of five, perhaps thinning turnips or hawking (“if you didn’t hawk, you didn’t eat”) or even collecting dry grass for the tent floor. Boys would also be taught poaching, basket making and tin-smithing. But, even with all this work, there was still plenty of time left for storytelling. The stories in ‘Fireside Tales’ reflect the life Duncan’s family might have led till after the Second World War and the introduction of modern caravans.
Clearly in the traveller culture, storytelling has always been of great importance. It’s all about love, belonging and learning about the world. You’d learn about the glory of independence, you’d learn about how people ticked, and little ones would even be told animal stories to help them sleep. Hearing the storytelling of elders would increase respect and bonding and would set the children up for passing the stories on to their own children, extending the glorious oral tradition. In such a way, stories would last a lifetime. I found it particularly touching that Daddy would tell stories to each child at night, beginning with the youngest who would then be put to bed at the furthest end of the barrikit.
There’s weirdness as well as wonder – like when Hedgehurst peels off his skin to turn into a handsome young man - but it’s all good and adds to the pleasure of the stories. We see the good person beneath the rough exterior, and also gather hints of how the traveller is imprisoned in various ways (the latter is a regular theme embedded within many of these tales).
There are other pervasive themes too: the mingling of social groups, the making of deals, the helping of people, and respect for a tinker’s skills with tin and leather. Contrasts abound too: between the rich and the poor mainly; and there’s much mention of poverty, hunger and making use of things other people don’t want. Both young and old are painted in a positive light, as strong, independent, resourceful and respectful. Even Death is treated with respect. When he smells an old woodcutter’s soup, he asks: “Is there enough for two?” and is offered fresh soup with bread to accompany.
The book’s wonderfully poetic prose describes everyday life intricately and engagingly. Its complex and convoluted stories are conversation-rich, and the book even comes complete with a short glossary of “Traveller Cant and Scots Words” - many of the words reminded me of my Aberdonian mum, adding to the affection I feel for ‘Fireside Tales’.