The story of digitising and listening to Scottish Traveller Duncan Williamson’s archive tapes continues…
I am huddled under my blanket on the sofa. The fire is on, dog by my side, late night telly to keep me company. I am full of cold – aches, shivers, headache, sore throat, temperature. It is a good time to be weak, I have the privilege of hiding inside and recuperating, until I feel fit to stand up again. Storm Chiara whirled through last weekend and even before she’s finished wreaking her chaos, here is Storm Dennis, adding to the flooding and devastation.
I’ve been spending my time listening to Duncan’s tapes. I don’t know what I’m going to hear in advance… although I have photos of the tape boxes with notes from Linda, the digitised recordings have new identification numbers and I need to match them up with the notes from Linda. So, I never know quite what I’m going to hear. What I am listening to at the moment – and have been for some time – are not traditional stories, but Duncan talking about his own life. He has been describing growing up, his growing independence and leaving home to travel with his brother, Sandy.
The tapes are full of Duncan’s love for horses, his striving and journey towards owning his first horse. His memories are of longs days of summer. He doesn’t mention when it rains. He refers to winters – but usually only in small sentences, buried inside other reminiscences. He talks of who he overwintered with – whether back with his parents in Furness or with his brother, Sandy. Duncan talks of the difficulties of keeping a horse overwinter, with no grass and having to find hay or corn. He doesn’t talk of how difficult it is to keep humans alive in the times of darkness, snow and cold.
I have a fire, but that’s almost all I share with Duncan. In these dark days of winter, I have warning when the storms are coming. I can peg things down, take inside anything at risk. Duncan would have always made a tent watertight, safe and sturdy, but winter would have been dreadfully hard. It is all too easy to imagine the canvas billowing and snapping with the wind; having to get up and go out each hour through the night to check ropes, re-peg and maintain the tent. Going out time and again into the gale, getting drenched, never quite getting dry, sore-throated, aching all over, shivery and shakey. I have slept 16 hours of the last 24, but a Traveller cannot do that – when you most want to sleep is when you must be most watchful, always listening to the weather. And that is without Scottish snows!
Duncan does talk about becoming a light sleeper, of sleeping in his clothes, never knowing who or what might come calling in the night. He talks of waking in the middle of the night with a non-Traveller parking his car next to their tent; hearing his horse snorting, disturbed, and seeing the tell-tale glow of a man’s cigarette too close to Duncan’s tent. Duncan lies on top of the blankets, while his wife sleeps beneath, Duncan ready to jump up at a moment’s notice.
I travelled and camped out with Duncan. The last time we went in the summer time, hoping for evenings sat by the fire, cooking and spending nights swapping stories in the firelight, looking up at stars sprinkling clear skies. We were away for a week. In that week, the tents never got dry. Each evening, we would just about manage to cook something before the heavens opened and we took shelter in the tents – the disadvantage being that we had a couple of small modern tents rather than one big one to share. There were no evening stories and songs. There were mornings huddled in waterproofs, trying to keep the fire alight for tea and packing wet tents into the car. Our summer camping was not the idealised version I had hoped for. That was merely a damp week in August. Now, while I listen to the rain beating against the windows and the wind howling down the chimney, my mind always strays to the Travellers. When I asked Duncan about it, he would always staunchly say that a good tent is as watertight as a house, if it’s put up right. I don’t deny that, but I think of the Traveller women trying to keep clothes and bedding clean and dry and I am impressed time and time again by their strength.
As I lie weak as a kitten on the sofa, I think of those strong Traveller men and women – a tough people, strengthened by family, tradition, knowledge, song and story. I also think of the many others living in tents right now– refugees without the support of generations of knowledge, tradition and culture and how it must be even harder for them. Uprooted to a new way of life, finding strength within themselves to put on brave faces for their children and their reward often the same as many Travellers – to be looked down on, patronised and despised for their strength and fortitude. The people in brick houses smug in the belief the wolf will never blow our houses down and belittling those visited by the wolf instead of sharing our shelter. We live in challenging times and it seems that the worse things get, the more important stories are. Stories wake empathy. Empathy wakes compassion. Compassion wakes respect. Respect brings equality and a recognition of our shared humanity and responsibility – only then do we have a foundation to build on and move forward together.
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