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The Bigger Picture > Scotland

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The Gypsy and Traveller heritage of many people is often hidden or hushed up. But when finally revealed, the truth can have powerful consequences.

Eleanor Thom doesn’t describe herself as a Traveller and doesn’t want to speak on anyone else’s behalf, but her story and news of her story is travelling far and wide as her first novel, The Tin-Kin, receives rave reviews wherever it is read. Below, she explores how that family history led to her debut, The Tin-Kin:

Q. Did you have to strike any blows?
A. No.

Q. Did you have to draw any blood from him
A. No, hardly touched him.

What you’ve just read is an extract from the inquest into the death of my mother’s father, Duncan. He was arrested or ‘quadded’ about one hundred yards from his home, and police who gave evidence said his shoe had fallen off. His crime? Being too drunk to get it back onto his foot. A few hours later, Duncan died alone in a cell. He was thirty-five years old. The verdict was accidental death.

Quadded. That’s a Traveller Cant word. My mother’s family were Scottish Travellers, or ‘Tinkers’ as they were known then. They were nomadic, part of a huge extended family that lived in caves on the Morayshire coast or set up camp wherever they could find work. They were horse dealers, scrap metal workers and rag traders – the original recyclers.

Growing up, I found the family’s history confusing but enticing. I didn’t understand what a Traveller was, and when I looked at pictures of my great grandmother, with her long, grey hair and black apron, the only reference I had for such a woman was ‘witch’.

I’d wanted to write a novel for as long as I can remember, and our history, tangled with myth and childhood imaginings, seemed a perfect springboard for fiction. I wrote the first few chapters in early 2006, setting the action in the fifties, after the family had settled. The Tin-Kin quickly felt like the book I had to write, but at first I was frustrated. There were too many gaps. My mother remembered her father’s clothes and possessions being burned after he died, but not why this was done.

Other questions, about religion and what life had been like in the caves, she couldn’t answer. The family had come off the road before she was born, and after settling my grandfather’s generation had kept their culture to themselves. They needed to fit into life in the town and wished to protect their children from bullying. They were made to feel ashamed of their background, and till their last, they kept hush.

I might have given up were it not for the discovery of the inquest report, which was pushed to the back of a cupboard in my aunt’s house. In the envelope containing the report there was also my grandfather’s scarf that he wore the night he died. It was threadbare and fusty smelling and still stained with blood. We’d always been suspicious of what happened that night, and a verdict of accidental death did not put things to rest within the family. I know it sounds stupid, because you can never bring someone back, but I knew then that I had to finish what I’d started. I wanted The Tin-Kin to redress the balance somehow.

After that I did a lot of research. My cousin, Debbie, helped me do a family tree, and we put it on the internet. A few months later we’d made contact with relations we’d never heard from before. Some were still in Scotland, but others were in Australia, Canada and the United States. We shared pictures and stories, and found that others knew a lot more about our history than we had been allowed to hear. One branch of the family was still travelling, and it was lovely to be able to visit them near Fort William.

I was still in the early stages of writing The Tin-Kin when a chapter I’d completed won the fiction category of the New Writing Ventures Award. ‘Wee Betsy’, the star of that chapter, is based on my mother as a child. After the competition my family knew there was a chance the book could be published, and looking back, they could have stopped answering my questions or made it difficult for me to continue. Sadly, some people whose parents or grandparents were Travellers still feel they have something to hide. Luckily, my relatives really wanted me to write this novel, and after the award they helped me even more.

The Tin-Kin is not just about the past. There are large communities of Gypsies and Travellers around Britain and Europe, some now settled, others continuing to travel. They face increasing hostility, often from those who would consider themselves open-minded, educated, and neighbourly. It was important to me that this issue was not left out of the book, so part of the novel is set more recently, in the nineties.

I don’t call myself a Traveller. This is out of respect for those families who, whether settled or not, maintained and passed down their traditions. I had to relearn a lot of things about Travelling from archives and interviews, and I can only ever stand on the threshold. Instead I say I am ‘off-of-Travellers’. Some cousins used that phrase to describe me, and I like how it sounds. Dawn, my character in the nineties section of the novel is off-of-Travellers too. She approaches a Travelling community as an outsider, and they help her piece together a forty-year-old mystery from clues she uncovers after the death of her aunt.

My family asked me to dedicate The Tin-Kin to John Williamson, a fondly remembered great uncle who died of tuberculosis in 1927. His handsome portrait inspired Uncle Jock, a major character in the book, and his death was a tragedy. But for me, John Williamson stands for more than himself. He was of the generation that was forced to seal their lips and forget their language and identity. And it is that loss that still needed commemoration.

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