At the beginning of 2015 I made, not quite a resolution, but a promise to myself that I would read 100 books this year and learn to fall in love with just the act of reading once again. Books of any genre create opportunities for journeys, be those journeys to other worlds, countries, perspectives, or simply through one’s own self. Books open conversations and, if readers are willing, can be great catalysts for change and renewal, reflection and growth on the wily path of life. And as reading is a journey made for sharing (and because I am not sure I will see this through if I am not afraid of public failure), I am going to share those books here, starting with the memoirs of a true traveller, Duncan Williamson, as recorded in The Horsieman.
Williamson recounts what life was like for a Scottish traveller, also known as the tinkers, growing up between 1928 and 1958 and largely travelling between Loch Fyne, Argyll, and Tayside, Scotland. His narrative is rich with long-forgotten songs and opens a window into a way of life that few today would be aware of as existing through and past the Second World War. While reading Williamson account of how he grew up and established his own family as a young man, I became very aware of how much the world has changed in fewer than 100 years. Williamson makes sure his reader understands just how much traveller lifestyle and culture depended on mobility, and for those who chose to use them, on horses. But instead of the romanticised partnership between lone ranging cowboy and trusty steed too common in to many narratives, what we get here instead is a deep understanding of the knowledge, skill, and business sense required to maintain a life on the road with a family in tow. Horses were swapped as frequently as news of kin and songs around a fire; good deals and bad were just a part of the traveller’s heritage, as was always striving to be on the better end of the next deal. It is an image that would be unheard of today, as is much of the traveller lifestyle – travelling to one place or another in search of the next job, deals and trades based solely on the honour of the man and the tradition at hand rather than on endless legalities and formalities. I wonder how well many of us would have fared in that time, if we had to stand on our honour, skill, and name, rather than what we try to make the rest of the world believe we are.
That is not to say that Williamson’s tale presents an idyll set in the past; for my entire life I have taken for granted a roof over my head in winter and a sense of stability that the passage of time could not take from me. The stability of traveller life was rooted in their traditions. Many of these were forced to change as the world did – including life based around horses, as Williamson’s narrative remains self-conscious of as it progresses. Through his memories, the joy, the freedom of such a life is found not in wild escapades, but through loving, detailed remembrance of that which should be mundane. In a time where more of us browse far more often than we take the time to read, Williamson makes it possibly for readers to become more acquainted with their own lives by helping them to slow down and reflect upon the minutia of his. He reacquaints us with what it means to have a storytelling tradition by closing each chapter with a song, and the awareness that by even reading, we become a part of the tradition that remembers these songs, these stories, and this way of life. I highly recommend picking this up; Duncan Williamson more than earned his designation as “Scotland’s greatest modern-day storyteller.” As for me, I will be continuing to read, and hoping to find a writer who tells true stories half as well as these.