From the Highlands to the Borders, Scotland has a Gypsy history that has yet to be recognised, writes Damian Le Bas
The fact that the first record of Gypsies in mainland Britain is in Scotland is only one reason why Scottish Travellers (or “Nackins” as some call themselves) should have a pride of place in any Gypsy history. Travelling smiths are mentioned as far back as the 12th Century in Scotland, and King James the Fourth paid seven pounds to ‘Egyptians’ who were stopped at Stirling in 1505.
Toleration of the Scottish Gypsies was disrupted by the Reformation in the mid-1500s. But as with all Traveller populations, survival against the odds is one of the things that Scottish Travellers have done best.
There is a rich variety of languages among Scottish Travellers who until recent times had a history of living in Bender tents, as did many Travellers south of the border. Some speak Cant or Romani, some speak ‘Beurla-reagaird’ which is related to the Shelta that Irish Travellers use.
Scotland’s Travellers may be best known for their genius in music and storytelling. The singer Belle Stewart, who died in 1997, was given the British Empire Medal in 1981. Jeannie Robertson, another Scottish Traveller, was singing at the same time as Belle and there may have been a slight rivalry between them but one thing was for sure, they sang like nobody else from across the country. Along with singing, storytelling is something Scottish Travellers do better than most. Jess Smith’s books are priceless and moving accounts of Traveller life that have pride of place in Gypsy literature today.
Scottish Travellers are an ethnic minority, but they are not currently recognised as one by law. Scottish Traveller and artist Seamus McPhee states that “It’s a blatant negation of our existence and our right to exist. We know it’s a ploy to deny us our rights.” The Scottish Parliament have recommended that Scotland’s Travellers should be treated as an ethnic minority.
But as Seamus puts it, “There’s no legal remedy at the moment in Scotland or in Britain as a Scottish Gypsy Traveller”.
Regardless of what the law decides, Britain’s oldest community of Travellers will still be here in the future and continue to contribute their songs, stories and characters to our way of life.
About this story
This story originally appeared in the first Gypsy Roma Traveller History events Magazine of last year. Demand far exceeded supply of this publication, so we've reproduced some of the stories from that issue on this website.
One of the aims of GRTHM is to counter-balance the widespread ignorance of Traveller communities that often leads to hatred and conflict. Gypsy, Roma and Traveller History Month celebrates our culture and history by tackling the negative stereotyping and prejudices that have led to this situation.