Saturday, April 19, 2014

Fire on the Hills & in the Heart: Furze & Travelers

#17 in the April 2014 A to Z Blog Challenge
T: Teine, Furze in the Scottish Gaelic alphabet

Duncan Williamson, Traveler
The Scottish Gaelic word for fire is teine, also the word for this shrub that clothes the hills with gold in early spring and for much of the year.

I plan to write more about it in another blog post, because this one is dedicated to that National Treasure of Scottish folklore and folktales, Duncan Williamson (1928-2007), one of the last of the Travelers, and a storyteller and singer I wish I had met before his death. 

Travelers in a Barrikit Tent,
 Canvas over Withy Frame
What is/was a Scottish Traveler? They were called the Ce├árdannan ("the Craftsmen"), or Luchd Siubhail (“people of travel”) for travelers in general. My grandmother spoke of them as “the Summer Walkers,” and Mother remarked once that that term was only used by Granny after, widowed and old, she lost her own home. My grandfather’s death in the late 1940s had left her destitute. The fairest thing to do with her, blind as she was, her seven children decided, was to divide up her time. For the rest of her life, almost twenty years, she would be moved every two months up and down the Atlantic seaboard among the homes of six of her children; the seventh, my next-to-the-youngest aunt Emma lived in California, deemed too far away and expensive for Granny to travel to, so Em’s contribution was to provide a few dollars for daily incidentals and perhaps a new winter coat. From having enough possessions  to run a rented farm, Gramma’s tangible belongings dwindled down to one suitcase, one train-case, that heavy coat, her purse, and her harp. 

For a woman who'd been proud of being respectable, I think this homelessness gave her a fellow feeling for the Travelers, a minority people who roamed the byways of Scotland and the Borders of England from the 1600s, when many of their forebears were turned off the land in the Highlands. Indigenous to Scotland, they aren't the same as the Romany or Gypsies. The Travelers' language, the Beaurla-regaird, or Cant, was in some ways a kind of secret code.  Some of the words date from the 13th Century; many have been adapted from Gaelic.
Gypsy Vardo
They traveled, not in Gypsy vardos (which actually didn’t really exist until the improvement of British roads in the 1830s), but often afoot, pushing/pulling /carrying their possessions in handcarts or in wagons and later, cars and trucks, sleeping in tents. Several wandering groups in Britain have been lumped together as “tinkers” or “tinks” in the public eye, although they had distinct differences. All of them have experienced varying amounts of discrimination and derision.


The Travelers made their living by farm labor, the men mending things like tinware (pots and pans, harness), the women hawking or peddling things they made (clothespins, paper flowers, woven baskets, etc.), horsetrading, and whatever odd jobs they could manage to get. Some of them were pearl-fishers, standing knee- or shoulder-deep in chill rivers searching for freshwater mussels in the hope of uncovering a grey, white, green, pink, or black pearl.  One of the earliest jobs Duncan Williamson had after leaving his large family as a teenager was building stone walls in fields. 

Travlers near Pitlochy
As Duncan described in one of his books, a family of Travelers would move on, riding if they were lucky or walking—and this included even small children, who might be carrying something as they walked if old enough. In late afternoon, they would find a place to put up their bowed barrikit half-tents; the women might go hawking to any nearby houses before fixing dinner, while the men did any work they could find to do, and the children did chores like finding fuel or water. The family would sit around the fire, telling and singing until bedtime.

Duncan’s parents were illiterate, but his father was determined his sixteen bairns wouldn’t be, so every autumn they’d settle on a bit of waste ground outside the village of Furnace in Argyle in order for the bairns to attend school for a few months. Duncan was often so hungry he’d skip class to catch and cook shellfish. He left home at 15 to go out on his own so there’d be more for the nine  younger children.

Traveler Piper
The Travelers were famed for their traditional storytelling and songs, teaching through them ways to deal with the world. As Duncan said, “My father's knowledge told us how to live in this world as natural human beings -- not to be greedy, not to be foolish, not to be daft or selfish -- by stories.” As Duncan Williamson’s family were all very poor, they not only relished hearing stories but relied on them for framing an understanding of the world. Duncan Williamson said that “by listening, by learning and listening to the old people, you had a better knowledge of the world you had to live in.” That's still true today, as any storyteller will tell you! 

Belle Stewart, Traveler Singer
As Duncan lived his life, marrying twice and having ten children of his own, he continued to collect and share songs and stories. In the late 1960s, he began to be known on the Scottish folksong scene, both as a teller and singer, and this led in turn to his books and appearances worldwide. Reluctantly, in his 60s, he came off the road to live in a house, saddened to know that the way of life he had known was ending—but was recognized, along with other Travelers such as Jeannie Robertson, and Belle Stewart and her family, renowned singers, as a cultural treasure to be respected and listened to. 

My family thought that Granny was the tail-end in our family of a bardic tradition from the Highlands and Islands, so I think she would’ve enjoyed talking with Duncan. I am thankful that she passed on so many tales and tunes to me, and grateful to him for doing that through the collections of his stories that I’ve been able to find.

“Stories are something you carry with you, something to last for your entire life to be passed on to your children, and their children for ever more. Telling a child a story implants a seed in their mind, and you know when you are gone from this world that that child is going to tell the tale you told them, and remember you.”
--Duncan Williamson

Duncan Williamson, passing along the tales


I hope that you have a fire in the heart to share your stories and songs!

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