15.30: David Campbell and Linda Williamson
It is always dangerous for a chairperson to announce to a paying audience: ‘I’m not quite sure what’s going to happen’. But this is what Edinburgh’s Makar, Ron Butlin, did by way of outlining the agenda. The gamble paid off.
David Campbell wore a bright yellow shirt, a kilt and had his white hair tied back in a ponytail. He read from A Traveller in Two Worlds, his two-part biography of his friend Duncan Williamson. A traveller and tinker and renowned for being one of the ‘finest storytellers in the English-speaking world’, Williamson was born in 1928 in a tent on the shores of Loch Fyne.
Campbell’s reading was interspersed with songs from Linda Williamson: ‘Me and My Horse’ and the traditional ballad ‘Thomas the Rhymer’. Her tremulous harmonies were a wonderful counterpoint to Campbell’s gravelly voice. To write Duncan Williamson’s life into history Campbell used Linda’s first-hand accounts and his own interviews with Williamson recorded over a ten-year period. That Williamson’s ‘greatest story was his own’ was given an elegiac bent when Campbell told of how Williamson mourned the loss of his own way of life. The raggle-taggle gypsy world of the travelling people was already dying out well before Williamson’s own death in 2007.
Linda Williamson, a ‘penniless millionaire’, wore a burgundy shirt and tartan waistcoat. Her eyes shone like wet stones. She moved from America to Edinburgh in the 1970s to study under Hamish Henderson at the School of Scottish Studies. Her fieldwork involved taking to the road with notebooks and sound equipment and recording the tales and myths that were part of the travelling community’s culture. On one of these expeditions she met her future husband, Duncan Williamson, and it was Linda who documented and helped publish Duncan’s tales.
She has released a new collection of his stories for children called Flight of the Golden Bird. In keeping with the travellers’ oral tradition, she recounted the title-story from memory. This was given an extra touch of authenticity when Linda explained the problem with transferring her husband’s yarns to the page. The publisher wanted to homogenise the verb tense. Duncan, however, lived ‘between past and present’ and that is the way he told his stories. He would ‘flicker’ between these two states of mind.
Signing copies of their publications in the bookshop, Linda Williamson and David Campbell both drank from large tumblers of whisky. A fine way to finish a story.