2007 - 2022

Travelling Folk

Travelling Light – some thoughts about the Travelling People and their continuing difficulties by Timothy Neat, author of The Summer Walkers.

The Travelling People are in the News: in TV documentaries, in boxing rings, fight cages, in prisons, in continuing battles with Local Authorities – in trouble from Here to Eternity. Impoverished, poetic, heroic, dramatic, dismissed – the Traveller lifestyle remains a problem for all modern states. ‘Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold; / Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, / The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere / The ceremony of innocence is drowned…’ What is to be done?

In this age of fake news and solipsistic subjectivism, the tiny Traveller minority has become evermore marginalised by the corporate state. When, in the fifties, ‘Britain lost an empire but failed to find a role’, something very similar happened to the Travellers. And in modern Scotland, where everyone is described as an ‘immigrant’, a ten thousand year history doesn’t count for much. At a time when school children are told that each of them they can do anything – from becoming First Minister to winning Olympic Gold Medals, the Travellers see schooling as ever more pie in the sky! And it is not surprising that the Travellers (remnants of Scotland’s original pre-agricultural, hunter-gatherers) find our bureaucratic, computerised/internet society an alienating place. Knowing themselves at the back of every queue going, they struggle to maintain the values that sustained them for thousands of years – and fall further behind.

In our super-heated society (as rudderless as it is well-meaning!) their lot is now worse than that of the latest refugees escaping from the civil war William Hague/Michael Farron nurtured in Syria! In the great Western Democracies we hear it’s America First, Europe First, Britain First, Scotland First, Women First, Mother’s First! The thirst for self first-ness is overwhelming! Suffer the Little Children! The values that led Solomon to judge as he did are out of the window today.

Roch the wind in the clear day’s dawin
Blaws the cloods heelster-gowdie ow’r the bay,
But there’s mair nor a roch wind blawin
Through the great glen o’ the warld theday…

Those opening lines of Hamish Henderson’s song ‘The Freedom Come-All-Ye’, written in 1959, address continuing problems. He was a great friend of Scotland’s Travelling People and that song was partly inspired by his understanding of Traveller life (of human life). It is because of my friendship with Hamish that I was asked to write this piece and I am pleased to do so because the Traveller problem throws light on many of the great issues of our time – race, migration, nationalism, internationalism, Brexit, war.

It was as a schoolboy on a family camping holiday in Corpach, in 1957, that I first encountered the Travellers. In Glen Nevis, suddenly, there in a glade amongst birch trees, was a Tinker Camp. Three bow-tents, women cross-legged before smoking fires, children, dogs; a piper leaning against a great boulder: there was millennial mankind, incarnate, there was Scotland across time and space. It was a meeting cemented my understanding of what past, present and future are. And as I write, the words of Hugh MacDiarmid, writing about Edinburgh, come up before me:

… I see the dark face of an early mother of men
By a primitive campfire of history.
Her appearance is rendered all the more remarkable
Because of the peculiar performance of the smoke…
Lo! A poor negress teaches this rich university city
Something more important than all it knows,
More valuable than all it has…
…the mighty impetus of creative force.

‘What care we though we be so sma’, the tent shall stand when the palace shall fa”. This old Gypsy saying affirms something permanent about the old nomadic life. Like the spring, like the wind, the Travellers come and go and they carry a strange sense that all the land is no one’s and yet, since time immemorial, their’s by habit and repute. For many years, however, the law has made it clear that that understanding is an illusion. And laws are things winna ding! Of course all citizens stand equal before the law but democratic realities ensure that the marginalised remain out in the cold. Local councillors who would never use the word ‘tinker’, will regularly sign orders that block-off campsites and clear Travellers from roadsides they have used for generations.

Politically correct verbage is given the status of legal holy-writ, life-changing realities see whole families hounded as foxes once were. Yes, Travellers are accused of leaving a great deal of rubbish, and they do. Like badgers. It is a serious issue that needs address but, as a Tony Blair speech-writer might have said: ‘we need to be tough on garbage and the causes of garbage’!

Traveller rubbish is a consequence of their situation and an accusation against it. Think of other social groups famous for the rubbish they accumulate and leave – Native Americans, Desert Australians, Arctic Inuit, Hebridean Crofters. All are groups marginalised, dispossessed, or once slaughtered by more organised in-comers. Like rustbelt Trump and Brexit voters they assert – you’ve made our lives a misery, we’ll see that you share something of it! Yes, alcohol, drugs, theft and despair are facts of life in too many Traveller communities; yet, singers, musicians, storytelling still flourish, Tyson and Hugh Furies emerge. Traditional occupations like berry-picking, tattie-howking, tin-smithing, horse-dealing, pearl-fishing are now in the past; yet, new jobs are found, new deals done.

And before anyone (Taxman or golfer) questions these ‘deals’, let me tell you about my old friend, the pearl-fisher, Eddie Davis. He died this year, aged 85. He spent forty years in the rivers of north Scotland. His wife is the Gaelic storyteller Essie Stewart (now famous on BBC Alba). Their four children all made successful careers (in France, in Central Scotland, in Ross-shire and Sutherland). Eddie’s life was always hard but got dramatically worse twenty five years when he lost his right to fish, when the government banned pearl-fishing in its endeavour to halt predation on the river mussels in which pearls are formed.

Since before Roman times Scots Travellers have worked as seasonal pearl-fishers and a sustaining balance existed between limited numbers of fishers and the reproductive cycle of the mussels: all this in a very harsh natural environment. In the 1960s, the motorcar, wetsuits (and newspaper reports of priceless pearls being found) brought a Pearl Rush to the Highlands. The subsequent exploitation lead to a complete government ban re all fishing, except that by university scientists. This meant that Eddie Davis (pictured), one of less than a dozen ‘professional’ fishers, was forced off the rivers. No compensation was paid, no salutation was given, no consultancies created, no new framework of life set in place. Social Security, beer, cigarettes, and family ruptures replaced an ancient, self-sufficient and heroic lifestyle. As Eddie’s life began to spiral downwards, a social worker was sent up to Ardgay (from Inverness), once a fortnight, to chat with the benighted pearl-fisher. This is what Eddie told me:

‘I can’t stand the man! For him its a day’s work, a day out with expenses! For me its an hour wasted, makes me angry! He talks about my drinking, for £15 an hour! His £15, my hour! You can’t argue with him. I prefer the Jehovah’s Witnesses! They come in pairs. They come once a week and we argue hammer and tongs. They invite me to tea at the temple. That’s more like it! Sometimes I go up to see Alec John Williamson, he’s married to my sister Mary. We talk about the old days. He’s a great Gaelic singer and storyteller! They ran away to Ireland to get married. Nature is a beautiful thing.’

Eddie’s mention of nature makes me think of something the writer John Berger said to me recently (he too died this year). Three of us were having a conversation about art and politics. Suddenly, John ejaculated, ”Tim! You’re so homocentric!’ The remark silenced me. Brought up in the country, milking cows by hand from the age of five and raising buzzards, squirrels and foxes as a primary schoolboy, I thought this is unfair! As someone who for twenty years has earned a poor living as a bee-keeper, wild mushroom hunter and Tay salmon netter, I thought, this is unfair! But then it dawned: Berger was right. He was speaking metaphorically, prophetically and reminding me that humankind is only one tiny aspect of life on this earth and almost totally inconsequential in an expanding timeless universe. Although I live close to nature, my interest in art (and in people) makes Berger’s charge spot-on, and his insight takes on flesh in the form of the Travelling People. They, for all their problems, still live close to the chaotic, natural order of things, and like MacDiarmid’s negress have something to teach us.

Hamish Henderson once told me about an old Traveller who, seeking to differentiate his family-centred lifestyle from the solitary egocentric life of a tramp, named Charlie Doyle, said this: ‘That kind o’ lad’s not one of us. Charlie Doyle just lives frae dae tae dae, but we (meaning the Travellers), we live entirely in the past.’ It is a statement of Shakespearean vitality. One thinks of MacBeth, of Lear, of Glouster on the blasted heath: ‘No further, sir; a man may rot even here’. ‘What. in ill thoughts again? Men must endure their going hence, even as their coming hither; ripeness is all. Come on.’, replies Edgar.

“The ripeness is all.’ Immediacy of response and a lack of forward planning has shaped Traveller life since Palaeolithic times. In modern societies immediacy of that kind is a liability. In historical terms, perhaps, like King Lear, the Travellers have now reached their dotage. Like Lear, in his extremis, the Travellers do stupid things. Like Lear they, also, display flashes of a nobility that moves us to the quick. And there is tragedy in their wreckage, as there is greatness in the songs (the Bronze Age Songs!) some amongst them continue to sing. Theirs, as Yeats wrote, is ‘the music of the beggar-man: Homer’s music.’ And what is greater than that?

All life is continuing conflict of one kind or another. The Israeli historian, Harari, suggests that tensions and irresolvable dilemmas are the very spice of culture; that all human beings hold contradictory beliefs and that cognitive dissonance is, certainly in the longer term, an asset. Thus, perhaps, we can address the Traveller problem (from all sides) as supplying us with the building blocks of a better future. But Harari also suggests that ‘unjust discrimination often gets worse with time… money comes to money, and poverty to poverty. Education comes to education and ignorance to ignorance. Those once victimised by history are likely to be victimised again.’ Something large needs to be done.

The Duke of Edinburgh feels victimised. The Travellers feel victimised. Are victimised. The law is blind but prejudice exists; rational and irrational, conscious and unconscious. First example: I have an apiary of about a dozen bee hives three hundred yards from a Traveller camp. Twice in recent years the hives have been stoned and kicked-over by the aggressive acts of young Travellers. I let things lie. This is just part of life in modern Britain (other hives, in the woods, have been shot through by pheasant shooters!). I let things lie, not least because I know the police try to intimidate the Travellers on a routine basis and would jump at the chance of following up another complaint. Regularly, whilst working my bees, I hear passing police cars switch on their sirens whenever they pass the camp – just to let their quarry know they’re about…

Second example: some years ago, picking mushrooms near Loch Tay, I fell in with a farmer. He invited me home for a cup of tea. His name was Sid Wallace. When I told him I’d written a book on the Travelling People he told me how, one morning, in the fields, he came on two Travellers sleeping under a hedge. He went back to gather a friend, and two pitch-forks, and they woke the two the sleepers and drove them forth from the farm like chaff before wheat! Poor forked creatures! King Lear again comes to mind: ‘As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods / They kill us for their sport!’

I will end this little canter down memory lane with mention of Duncan Williamson, an Argyllshire Traveller (and man of genius) born in a tent on the shores of Loch Fyne. His mother was born in a cave at Muasdale, up behind the shop. One day, in his farm cottage in Fife, close to my honey store, he sang me a song that seems to encapsulate the story of the struggle of Europe’s aboriginal hunter-gatherers across thousands of years:

High in the hills above Loch Fyne

Where deer and wildfowl stop to dine

Where shepherds’ stop and draw the line,

There live the warrior Haggi.

In his castel sma’, a king is he,

His castel is just six foot three

Of solid mountain granite!

He raided far across the land,

Hunted and cursed by every hand.

The lairds all swore they’d give half their land

To the man who killed the Haggi…

And so it goes on for many verses and ends, ‘So, off across the mountain, Haggi ran / Shouting, There never was a horse or man / Could ever catch a Haggi!’ And with that, I wish them well. The Travelling people – may they prosper in their own terms – and have their place in Scotland theday.



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Comments (4)

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  1. Alastair McIntosh says:

    Once again, Timothy Neat brings his bardic redolence tenderly to the defence of the Travellers, an indigenous people who, because they spurned the original landed “sin of property”, are now pursued from niche to niche by those who profited from it, those who stirred up a lasting climate of prejudice against those whom they had wronged. .

    Reading this, I was reminded of a few lines from Sheila Stewart’s memoir, “Pilgrims of the Mist” (Birlinn 2008, p. 19).

    “I was tortured at the school till I was twelve…. Any travelers reading this will know what I went through at that time. I am now an old woman, yet that memory will be with me forever. But there’s another thing you should always remember: God’s no ‘sleepin.”

  2. Catriona Courtier says:

    I love the Summer Walkers. One of my favourite books. The tinkers were a part of life in the Highlands and my parents’ crofting families in Sutherland and on the Isle of Colonsay had their own stories to tell about them. I believe Essie Stuart sometimes still goes around with her tent and family members join her to ceilidh and play old tunes. I could tell some stories myself about Irish Travellers in West London. You were very forbearing about your bees. It is natural that there should be conflict between the travellers and the settled community. I suppose it is romantic and the people had hard lives but I feel a certain sadness at the disappearance of the tinkers’ tents along with the crofting communities through which they travelled during those long, light northern summer days.

  3. Wul says:

    One frosty, sunny, winter morning, in the single digits of early New Year, my wife & I came upon a Traveller’s pitch in a forest car park by Comrie in Perthshire; a wee touring caravan towed by an old diesel Transit van.

    The man of the family was trying, & failing, to start the van’s engine in the freezing shade of the trees. From the frost-clad caravan came the sounds of a baby’s mewling and children’s chatter.

    I offered the use of my car’s battery and my jump leads to help get the van going and the man accepted. Once his engine had fired up, I mentioned that I had a book which featured some Travellers; “The Horseman’s Word” by Timothy Neat. The man told me that his Grandfather was pictured on the cover of that very book (ploughing a field with two Clydesdale horses).

    Concerned for his young family ( & smugly pleased with myself for helping out), I sympathised that “it must be cold, living in a caravan at this time of year”.

    “Och, it’s rare & warm in there” he replied “and anyway, we’ve got a house, we just wanted to get out and about for a bit…”

    I’d gratefully dumped my young weans with their Gran, my wife and I fleeing post-Christmas cabin fever by booking a couple of nights away at a bunk house. He’d taken his weans with him.

    It’s stayed with me, that wee exchange.

  4. Brochan says:

    “solipsistic subjectivism” indeed.

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