Scotland's Travelling communities - a right to roam

Written by Tom Freeman on 11 October 2018 in Inside Politics

Scotland’s Travelling communities face ingrained prejudice and a lack of opportunities


Davie Donaldson at primary school, where he was bullied, and historical Traveller site Aikey Brae, which is being reopened

“Fresh air and freedom, everyone should taste it.”

The line from The Yellow on the Broom, a play based on the coming-of-age autobiography by Scottish Traveller Betsy White, and which recently enjoyed a successful tour by Dundee Rep Theatre Company, sums up the core cultural value at the heart of Scotland’s nomadic people.

Indeed, the right to travel as part of a culture and tradition was recognised by MSPs in a parliamentary debate just before summer recess.

While the Nackin people, who first appear in official records in the twelfth century in Scotland, have adapted their lives to keep up with economic change over the centuries, this commitment to a life on the road has remained resolute.

“We’ve always lived on the margins of society. And we’ve always tended to do something to get by and survive,” 20-year-old Traveller advocate and activist Davie Donaldson tells Holyrood.

The commitment to stay mobile has meant the Nackin have valued self-employment, first as tin and silversmiths, making and repairing weapons for the clans, then in more recent years at seasonal agricultural work, he says. 

When farms grew, consolidated and turned to migrant labour, many travellers then picked up trades such as landscaping and roofing.

“There’s always that want to be self-employed, in control of yourself,” says Donaldson.

But while Traveller culture may be rich, often the people who live it are poor. For as planning laws, private property ownership and urbanisation have developed, driven by a competitive economic model, nomadic groups have been squeezed out, both physically, financially and as part of Scotland’s cultural diaspora.

At the same time, the travelling community tends to experience poorer health and education outcomes than almost any other minority group in Scotland. 

Put bluntly, travellers can expect shorter lives, with only four per cent of the community aged 70 or over, compared to 12 per cent of the population as a whole.

This inequality has persisted for many decades, yet relations between the Travelling community and the settled community do not appear to have improved. In fact, Travellers believe there is more intolerance now than ever. Reports of travellers in the media tend to portray them as either victims or vermin.

A year ago, Moray MP Douglas Ross, when asked what the one thing he would do if he was prime minister for the day, said: “Tougher enforcement against Gypsy Travellers.”

Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson defended the comment, saying he was being a good constituency MP by “reflecting some of the concerns of his local community”.

The specific problem Ross has with Scotland’s travelling communities, it emerged later, was that they enjoyed “preferential treatment” as a recognised minority, “whether it is with regard to planning decisions or just the way they take over a piece of land or lay-by and then often leave it in a significant mess which has to be cleaned up at a cost to the local taxpayer”.

While the lack of authorised sites has indeed been an issue for Travellers in that part of Scotland, perhaps if Ross had called for “tougher enforcement against” Muslims, Gaelic speakers or Catholics, Davidson may not have been so quick to defend the remark.

The difference highlights how much more accepted and normalised such generalisations about this group are. 

Travellers face “unacceptable levels of inequality, discrimination, harassment and abuse in every aspect of their lives,” according to young people’s rights charity Article 12 in Scotland.

Speaking after watching The Yellow on the Broom, one elderly resident of an Angus fishing town described an incident she had witnessed last year.

“A family of Travellers, who I recognised as travellers from the camp, moved into social housing nearby. The father was dying and they were finding it very, very difficult. They were going to boot sales and so on, to sell on eBay to try and survive,” she said. 

“Now, the fishing people in this town decided they didn’t want them there. It was a case of one group persecuting another. Their children, I’m afraid to say, absolutely persecuted this family. They hung nooses up outside their windows. They banged on the windows during the night. They shouted at them and frightened them, and all the while the father was dying. 

“This was just absolutely appalling. Rather than the community saying this was not on, the family had to be moved on yet again. I was so absolutely appalled and ashamed at what I call our community.”

Donaldson describes a “disconnect” between older generations who may have worked with Travellers in the fields at berry-picking season and younger generations who have probably never spoken to a Traveller in their life.

“The settled community would see our purpose as a migrant labour force, moving round the villages, but we don’t do that anymore. They’ve lost the memory, the younger generations, of our purpose of being there. We’re seen as a group that turns up for nothing then go away again. They’ve lost that sense of tradition.”

He sees parallels with Islamophobia. “As a community, we’re not asking for anything different from what any other minority communities are asking for,” he says.

“I have a lot of Muslim friends and we talk about it. Media representation of Muslims is very similar to us, in that they are vilified for something that happens, all painted with the same brush when a terrorist incident happens, which is interesting. It is the exact same with us. We are vilified a lot of the time, we are all painted with the same brush when a mess gets left at a site, or something gets stolen.”

He adds: “If you look at Muslim communities in schools, there is much more of an acceptance of the fact there should be teaching about islamophobia, about how it’s wrong. The religion and culture is talked about. We’re not there yet with traveller culture.”

But in government attempts to tackle discrimination, even the term ‘Gypsy Traveller’ is misleading, because it fails to reflect the diversity within the different nomadic communities within Scotland.

Indeed, Scotland’s indigenous travelling community, who refer to themselves as the Nackin, often do not like the term ‘Gypsy’ because of its pejorative connotations. One told Holyrood she found it “downright offensive”.

The word ‘Gypsy’ comes from English medieval references to the Roma people, who scholars believed came from Egypt. In fact, DNA testing and linguistic studies show that the Roma originated in the Punjab, and many words in the Romanis language have their roots in Sanskrit.

The Scottish Nackin, meanwhile, speak Cant, which has Scots, Gaelic and Norse roots, with some Romani influences from when the Roma reached the British Isles.

One such word, ‘gadgie’, is a commonly used Scots slang word and is the Cant word for man. In Romani, the word ‘gaji’ is from the ancient Sanskrit word for civilian.

Most of the Roma in Scotland now are immigrants from Europe, alongside English Gypsies and Welsh Kali, both of whom have Romani roots.

Irish Travellers, usually called Pavees or Minkiers, also settle in Scotland and, like the Nackin, have their own history and language.

Finally, there are also professionally nomadic folk, like show people, with their own communities. 

But from policy documents to public outcries, the groups are lumped together as Gypsy/Travellers. 

The poor outcomes experienced by travellers are exacerbated by a mistrust of officialdom by the communities themselves. Donaldson says this comes from many decades of social policies and practices that misunderstood or actively tried to “erase the culture”. A huge distrust of social work, for example, stems from an era when Traveller children were frequently taken into care, he says.

Religious institutions forcibly took traveller children in the first half of the 20th century after an 1895 report had called for them to be saved from their “vagrant” parents. Other children were deported to be servants in Australia and Canada.

“What’s very important with these policies is although the settled community have mostly forgotten about them and it is history, for us it still very current,” says Donaldson.

“I don’t know a single Traveller family that hasn’t experienced one of their family getting taken and placed in an orphanage, whether parents or grandparents. We’re brought up with those stories.”

It is very difficult to register with a GP without an address, and there remains a cultural fear of them due to stories of ‘Burkers’ – body-snatching groups which travellers believe preyed on them up until the 1940s.  

Conversely, Donaldson tells Holyrood health services are “fascinated by the traveller community” because of their attitudes to social care.

“In comparison with the settled community, statistically, we look after our older folk a lot more. We see it as bad luck to put an older person into a home or something like that, because we see it as they looked after us when we weren’t able to look after ourselves, so why wouldn’t we do the same thing now?”

Family is more important than money when it comes to Traveller ambitions. Donaldson tells how children are given responsibilities over things like gathering the water at a young age and have to grow up fast. By 15 and 16 they are considered adults and marry young.

This has also impacted on attitudes to education, where meeting commitments to send their children to school the requisite number of days is sometimes seen as gift to the settled community rather than a chance for them to get on.

“There was this idea that education was a mechanism of the state to try and restrict nomadism,” says Donaldson. “There was this idea that education was trying to dilute the culture. Historically, and it could even be argued to this day, the curriculum is set in the settled community, there’s none of our knowledge there, none of how we see the world displayed in that curriculum.”

Donaldson himself is one of the few Travellers who has gone to university, but his journey there has been a difficult one.

His parents decided to come off the road and send their children to school in Edinburgh. 

“At the first school I went to we ticked the box that we were gypsy travellers, and everyone knew. Travellers are taught to be proud. Very proud people – probably too proud, but you’re always taught to be proud of who you are. So at school, everyone knew I was traveller, I never tried to hide it. It didn’t go great, to be honest.”

After months of being bullied his parents noticed his homework wasn’t being marked, and approached the teacher about it. She told them she had forgotten, but later another parent told Donaldson’s mother she’d overheard the teacher saying: “I don’t know why Mrs Donaldson is making all the fuss, I know they’re Gypsies, he’s not going to do anything with his education anyway. Why should I waste resources?”

After a similar experience in Perthshire, Donaldson enrolled at a school in Aberdeenshire but this time the family didn’t tick the box. He hid his identity. He tells Holyrood it was “really tough”, and although he did well academically there was “fighting, getting in trouble, exclusions, all sorts of stuff”.

One incident made him realise he needed to continue in education so he could be an advocate for the community.

“We were getting taught about the Holocaust in history,” he remembers. “Now obviously Travellers, Roma and Gypsies died in the Holocaust. My own family died at Auschwitz. We were talking about it, and [the teacher] was talking about the Jewish tragedy and that’s fair enough. 

“I put up my hand and said, ‘Sir, there were other groups that were impacted as well, like the Roma, the Travellers.’ He kind of sniffled, and was like ‘we’re not going to mention them. I mean, no one really cares about them here, let’s be honest.’ There were a couple of giggles from the classroom and he just carried on.”

Donaldson spent so long hiding his identity he lost his accent, but he says he receives many other messages from young Travellers who are going through a similar experience.

One mother told Holyrood she had decided not to teach her children the Traveller traditions.

“Our families move forward and they’re not educating their children in the Traveller ways because they’re frightened that they will not be accepted in the community, and that’s what saddens me greatly,” she said.

Donaldson and others are working with the University of Aberdeen to develop ways to instil cultural confidence and resilience in the community by getting traveller ballads and folklore into the curriculum. 

Systems can help, too, with a simple understanding of the community’s lifestyle, he suggests, such as using digital learning and healthcare when it is time for families to move on.

There is a strength in “intergenerational teaching that doesn’t really exist in the settled community anymore” which could be given formal recognition by the school system in the same way foundation apprenticeships work, he suggests. 

But even those that do negotiate their way through an education system, the vast majority face difficulties finding work. 

Activist Roseanna McPhee says she was blacklisted as a Gaelic and English teacher after she raised the issue of Travellers’ human rights.

“When they didn’t realise I was a Gypsy Traveller, I was head of department within five years,” she said. “But when I moved back to my own area and challenged the fact we were living in degradable and intolerable conditions – and still paying council tax, by the way – I never worked again.”

Now, like many Travellers, McPhee says she has been turned away from a more traditional pursuit – fruit picking. Yet as has been widely reported, fruit has literally been rotting on the bushes in Perthshire, Angus and elsewhere, as the impact of Brexit leads to casual EU workers deserting the UK. 

“They would rather let the fruit rot on the bushes,” suggests McPhee.

Speaking in the post-show discussion at Dundee Rep, at which many travellers shared their experiences, Hilary Third of the Scottish Government’s Equality Unit said ministers have accepted that the community has been let down by Scotland’s leaders.

“In the years since the parliament was established we’ve had three inquiries, numerous recommendations, and they haven’t been taken forward. We haven’t had sufficient leadership and impetus behind these issues,” she said.  

A working group set up to look at all the previous recommendations again has four priorities: accommodation issues, access to education, tackling poverty and health.

In the debate on Travellers before the summer, MSPs passed a Green amendment calling for a recognition and mapping of historical ancestral stopping places and looking to reopen them, except in exceptional circumstances.

It is a significant change in tone, but will that filter down to the hate-ridden disputes over sites and settlements, or into the classrooms of Scotland’s schools? That can only start with a cultural understanding that happiness can mean a life on the road.

Third said: “The biggest challenge we face is attitudes, and that’s a hard nut to crack.”

Hear from Travellers at Holyrood’s Safe Homes for Scotland's Gypsy Traveller Communities event on 23 October. More details here



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