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Donald Braid - Review of John D. Niles, Webspinner: Songs, Stories, and Reflections of Duncan Williamson, Scottish Traveller

Donald Braid - Review of John D. Niles, Webspinner: Songs, Stories, and Reflections of Duncan Williamson, Scottish Traveller

Black and white photo of a man on the beach

Webspinner is part ethnography, part homage, and part absolution. At its core are transcriptions from field recordings John Niles collected between 1984 and 1988. As such, the texts add to the wide range of published materials available on Duncan and other Travellers. The book opens with brief introductions to Duncan and the Travelling People of Scotland. These sections provide both a succinct overview and a useful annotated bibliography of published works, and help orient readers to Duncan and the Travellers within the broader landscape of academic interest, the folk revival, and Scottish history. Niles also includes commentaries keyed to the transcribed material that facilitate comprehension of the people, places, and traditions mentioned by Duncan.

Duncan Williamson (1928–2007) was an eloquent storyteller and singer due in large part to his genuine interest in listening to those he met, learning their songs and stories, and remembering them through performance. His interest extended well beyond Traveller circles, and he collected stories and songs from many settled folk throughout Scotland.

Niles’s transcriptions capture Duncan’s voice well and offer insights into the Travellers, Duncan’s worldview, and his talent as a storyteller and singer. Having said this, overly vague titles within the book tend to obscure more than guide readers through the collection. For example, one piece carries the title “Willie Williamson Makes a Big Mistake,” a title that provides no hint about the difficult lessons on Traveller beliefs related to relationships, mutual respect, and honor revealed in the story. Similarly, chapter titles such as “Making A Living” sweep together a mélange of excerpts, moving from a discussion of Traveller basketmaking to the story “The Elf and the Basketmaker” to Duncan’s memory about seeing an apparition as he journeyed home from work, and then to ballads he learned when working with Irish immigrants. While each of these segments is interesting on its own, the portrait they offer is disjointed, perhaps because Niles was limited by the content of available recordings.

In his concluding chapter, Niles identifies three “achievements” he believes the book has delivered. The first is “a mediated self portrait of a remarkable individual tradition bearer, someone whose intelligence and creativity was matched by his personal charisma” (254). As much as printed transcriptions can convey such a portrait, Webspinner achieves this outcome. The second achievement he identifies is providing an “entry point for understanding the traditional lifeways of the travelling people of Scotland.” He acknowledges that “the book is far from constituting an ethnography…its anecdotal contents…have a value to which statistics could never aspire” (255). Fair enough, although the line between what is intrinsically Traveller and non-Traveller is blurry—and Niles addresses this in part when he ponders whether Duncan’s identity is best described as A Traveller in Two Worlds—the title of David Campbell’s 2011 book on Duncan—or as a more cosmopolitan “sojourner in the world, the same large one that we all inhabit” (13).

The third achievement Niles identifies is presenting through the transcriptions a glimpse of Duncan’s worldview, “a worldview that transcends his individuality or that of any other single person” (255). He further notes “Williamson’s worldview stands out in sharp contrast…to that of most persons born into today’s technologically advanced, materially rich, but often morally rudderless societies” (255). Niles argues that an inclusive worldview is essential for the kind of cooperative societies needed for human survival. From my own work with Duncan and other Travellers, I would attribute the inclusiveness Niles celebrates in Duncan’s worldview to Duncan’s well-developed capacity for empathy and a genuine appreciation of fellow human beings. It is perhaps no surprise that a similar ethos informs the work of many ethnographers, folklorists, and ethnomusicologists.

In terms of his motivation for completing this book long after Duncan’s death, Niles acknowledges that the book is a tribute to his work and friendship with Duncan and was motivated by “the advancement of time and the corresponding encroachment of guilt. I became aware that I would not sleep well unless I did a better job of repaying Duncan Williamson for the hours he so generously spent with me in the 1980s” (253). While many ethnographers feel a similar desire to reciprocate the generosity of those we have come to know in our work, it is nonetheless ironic that the idea of repayment and guilt seem so antithetical to the generosity and free spirit inherent in Duncan’s worldview.


[Review length: 727 words • Review posted on January 20, 2024]