Few non-Gypsies have ever visited an official halting site. Many sites epitomise the definition of a ghetto – a racially-segregated and enclosed settlement located near sewer works, landfill sites or noisy industrial facilities, split by pylons, close to substations, beside a motorway, or on land susceptible to flooding. Many Councils charge higher rents for Gypsy/Traveller pitches than they do for bricks-and-mortar Council houses.
Gypsy/Travellers (or direct descendants thereof) include:- Elvis Presley, Charlie Chaplin, Cher, Wayne Rooney, David Essex, Rita Hayworth, Bob Hoskins and Shayne Ward.
Walking around Scotland we found Travellers to be more helpful and hospitable than some campsite owners. The lurcher was common ground between us, though the German Shepherd arouses suspicion initially. When stranded in Inverness by the misnamed Citilink bus company, only the Travellers in a bar offered lifts and gave us contact phone numbers. At Fort William the unofficial Traveller encampment was most welcoming, whereas the campsite owner complained because our lurcher was yelping in our tent, suffering from midge attacks.
No ethnic groups have aroused as much curiosity, hatred and fear as Gypsy/Travellers. The terminology is important – anyone who has a nomadic way of life is a Gypsy/Traveller. Some prefer to self-define as ‘Travellers’. Often misunderstood, maligned and exoticized, most people’s perceptions of them are based on a mixture of romanticism, prejudice and ignorance.
The carefree nomads once romanticised as ‘lords of the heath’ by Victorian artists, aristocrats and anthropologists are now living modern lives that are as controversial as the ones their ancestors led. 300,000 Gypsy/Travellers live in Britain today – 15,000 of them in Scotland. It’s the same size as the Bangladeshi community.
Gypsy/Travellers can be divided into ethnic groups like Romani Gypsies and Irish Travellers, and those who live on the road for purely economic reasons such as New Travellers and Showmen. There isn’t one community but many, each with their own particular culture and history.
Who are Gypsy/Travellers? Their culture, lifestyle and history.
Ethnic Travellers are born into traditionally nomadic cultures. Their identity is defined by their race and lifestyle. The two groups recognized under the Race Relations Act as ethnic groups are Romani Gypsies and Irish Travellers. The following conditions apply:-
• Long shared history
• Cultural tradition of their own
• Common geographical origin
• Common language
• Common tradition
• Common religion
• Characteristic of being a minority or being oppressed by a dominant group within a large community
Romani Gypsies have travelled and worked in Britain since at least 1515 after migrating from continental Europe. The term Gypsy is a corruption of ‘Egyptian’ which is what the settled population perceived them to be because of their dark complexion, but linguistic analysis of the Romani language proves that Romani Gypsies came from India. Romani Gypsies are Europe’s largest and fastest growing ethnic minority.
Irish Travellers form a separate and distinct ethnic group, sharing some of the same cultural values as Romani Gypsies, but there are also differences. Most Irish Travellers are Catholics and have a language called Cant, said to come from the Gaelic ‘cainnt’ meaning ‘speech’. Cant uses English but mixes it with ancient Gaelic words.
New Travellers, or New Age Travellers, are generally people who have taken to life on the road in their own lifetime, though some New Traveller families have been on the road for 3 consecutive generations. The culture grew out of the hippy and free-festival movements of the ‘60s & ‘70s.
Showmen, or Occupational Travellers, are a cultural minority that have owned and operated funfairs and circuses for many generations. Though culturally similar to Romani Gypsies, their identity is connected to their family businesses. They operate rides and attractions that can be seen throughout the summer months. They generally have winter quarters where the family settles to repair the machinery that they operate and prepare for the next travelling season. I may be in danger of romanticism and cherry-picking my family tree, but I must declare an interest here – my great-grandmother married into the Bartlett Circus family, which in turn merged into Chippenfield’s Circus.
There are other groups of Travellers travelling throughout Britain, such as Scottish Travellers and French Manush Gypsies, which have a similar origin and culture to Romani Gypsies. There is also a large population of Roma immigrants that have come to Britain from Eastern Europe.
When Henry VIII sat on the throne, the penalty for simply being a Gypsy was execution. The 1554 ‘Egyptians Act’ forbade Gypsies from entering England and imposed the death penalty on those that remained in the country for more than a month. In more enlightened times, the death sentence was reduced to transportation. The 1597 Vagrancy Act made it possible for those that ‘will not be reformed of their roguish kind of life’ to be conveyed to ‘parts beyond the seas’.
Gypsy/Travellers share a suspicion of authority created after centuries of persecution. In many ways, it is easier to define Gypsy/Travellers by what they are not, by looking at media treatment and the myths which are propagated about them.
Media treatment– a true reflection?
Media coverage has a real impact on individual people’s lives. Erroneous reporting of Gypsy/Traveller issues in Scotland has resulted in people being harassed, bullied and worse. Balanced media coverage fosters understanding between and within communities, encouraging action to address the issues that impact on both Gypsy/Travellers and the settled community.
The media continues to spread the myths that Gypsy/Travellers are strange, exotic and deviant characters that blight British society. Coverage alludes to ‘Gypsy invasions’. Negative headlines and blatant misrepresentation of Gypsy/Travellers would never be tolerated if employed about any other ethnic group.
Aberdeen newspapers (P&J; EE) both feature in the top five publications in Scotland judged to discriminate against Gypsy/Travellers.
Myths and falsehoods. Truths. Redressing the unbalanced.
‘Gypsies are foreign.’
Irish Travellers also have a cultural root in another country, but most Irish Travellers in Britain were actually born in Britain, although they may have family in Ireland. The myth of the pure-bred Romani is just that – a myth. The Romani of Britain today are much as they always were – a hybrid nation made up of the descendants of original Indian nomads, sturdy beggars, landless poor and the economically displaced.
In many ways, Gypsy/Travellers are Britain’s internal refugees. Communities like Romani Gypsies and Irish Travellers have always lived alongside and inter-married with each other. From blonde-haired, blue-eyed scrap metal dealers to dark-skinned cockneys, Gypsy looks are as a diverse as the Romani language itself, a mixture of English slang and Asian, with words picked up from every country passed through along the way. Within Europe, there is a wide diversity of Romani dialects. It is a very effective way of retaining a language and excluding people from outside the culture whom you don’t want to understand what you are saying.
Gypsy/Traveller music, poetry, story-telling and art have long been part of Scotland’s wider cultural heritage. Story-tellers such as Duncan Williamson and Jess Smith and singers such as Sheila Stewart and Martin Taylor continue to contribute to Scotland’s cultural life today. Gypsy/Travellers belong to Scotland and date back to the C12. They continue to make a rich and valuable contribution to the country’s economic and cultural life. Gypsy/Travellers arouse fear, loathing and fascination, but if they are not considered to be part of our society by now, then we have a serious problem. So let’s look at some myths and falsehoods.
‘Gypsies are dirty.’
Gypsy culture is built upon strict codes of cleanliness learnt over centuries of life on the road. Concepts such as mokadi and mahrime place strict guidelines on what objects can be washed in what bowls. Never a sink, always a basin.. Gypsy/Travellers rarely let animals inside their homes, because they believe them to be carriers of disease. Romani Gypsies have strict taboos about how men and women should interact. These views are not shared by New Travellers. Many Gypsies view gorgias (non-Gypsies) as unclean because of the way they live.
‘Gypsies are criminal.’
Like other ethnic minorities, there are a small minority of individuals who engage in unlawful behaviour. Gypsy/Travellers say they have been criminalised by laws created to curtail their traditional lifestyle. Many say that legislation passed to curtail their traditional way of life is inherently racist.
Nowadays, official policy towards Britain’s travelling population recommends ‘toleration’. The relationship between Britain and its Gypsy population has come a long way. But many within the community feel it’s time the culture was not just tolerated, but celebrated.
The conflict between Britain’s nomadic and settled population has still to be resolved. Despite the widespread and continuing closure of traditional stopping places, common land has survived the centuries of enclosure and provides enough lawful stopping places for nomadic people. But in 1960 the Caravan Sites and Control of Development Act gave local authorities the power to close the commons and other traditional camping places to Travellers. Many Councils proceeded to do so with great energy.
Gypsy/Traveller families attempting to live on their own land are often denied planning permission. Over 80% of planning applications from settled people are granted consent, while more than 90% of applications from Gypsy/Travellers are refused. The current conflict over ‘illegal’ Traveller sites is in part caused by this history.
Social exclusion results in some Gypsy/Travellers turning to crime to survive. There are many more with legal businesses that contribute to society. There is no evidence that offending is any higher among the Gypsy/Traveller population than in any other sector of society. Factor in targeting by the authorities and ostracizing/racism/discrimination, and any statistics are virtually meaningless.
‘All Gypsies live in caravans.’
90% of Gypsies across the world now live in houses. Being nomadic is more common in Western Europe. But even here only 50% of gypsies live in caravans. Around half of all Gypsy/Travellers overwinter in houses; the other half live in caravans on private and public council sites, and on unauthorized encampments wherever they can find land that is suitable.
With little outcry, annually 850,000 gorgia caravans and campervans take to the British roads for holidays.
‘Gypsy/Travellers avoid paying taxes.’
A gypsy with a new car and caravan may look flash, but his wealth is just more visible. The amount of capital their home is worth is far less than the equity many gorgias have in their houses, but is constantly depreciating in value. On official sites Council Tax is usually collected. There are good examples of Councils providing skips and portaloos for road-side camps, a service for which Gypsy/Travellers on the campsite pay. Of course, by providing facilities for ‘the illegally-camped’, the Council in part are seen to legitimise their presence.
‘Gypsy/Travellers are workshy.’
Gypsies have a traditional preference for self-employment, but the old trades like knife-grinding and horse-dealing have little relevance to the modern information economy. Folk tend to associate Gypsy/Travellers with rural-based economic activities, yet they are engaged in a wide variety of employment from forestry to teaching and journalism. They joined the Armed Services and worked in the land effort during two World Wars.
“They recognise us when we sign up to fight for our country, but they won’t recognise our right to live here.”
Within the past 50 years the Gypsy/Traveller community has experienced dramatic and traumatic upheaval as economic change and draconian legislation have undermined its traditionally nomadic way of life. The community’s usefulness as agriculture labourers has declined due to mechanisation and the importation of cheaper Eastern European and asylum seeker labour. Gypsy/Traveller culture has adapted by continually working within trades that are highly mobile.
‘Gypsies are endowed with special supernatural powers: they have the ability to curse people and see into the future.’
Some Gypsies may well have psychic powers, but no more than anyone else. Myths can be turned to a community’s advantage. A nation without an army is forced to defend itself with curses and superstition. Gypsies have also earned a living by exploiting the myths that have been created about them. Gypsy/Traveller fortune tellers have cultivated the mystery that has always surrounded gypsy culture.
‘Gypsies have a genetic wanderlust.’
Persecution has always been a factor in nomadic life. Some Gypsies like travelling and others don’t. Nomadic life has been created by two factors – the pull of economic opportunity and the push of persecution.
Problems facing the community.
Gypsy/Travellers face many obstacles living their traditional lives. The economic challenges facing the community are not the only problems. All Gypsy/Travellers have trouble accessing services that many within the settled population take for granted.
The greatest single issue facing Gypsy/Travellers is finding suitable accommodation where they can live in their caravans, a struggle with a long and bitter history. They require a range of accommodation provision encompassing sites, housing and road-side camps in order to meet their individual needs and circumstances. The number of all-year council-owned pitches for Gypsy/Travellers in Scotland declined from 560 in 2003 to 480 in 2006.
Road-side camping is often blamed for causing a mess which can incur clear-up costs. Many Gypsy/Travellers are concerned by the tensions caused by the current situation and have suggested a number of solutions. These include the establishment of a network of transit sites (areas with hard-standing, skips and portaloos which Gypsy/Travellers can pull on to for a short period of time) and agreeing a charter of traditional stopping places which Gypsy/Travellers can use.
High profile evictions of Gypsy/Travellers from their own land regularly make the headlines. The settled community say that if Gypsy/Travellers want a settled or ‘scaldie’ base, they should move into houses like everyone else. The Gypsy/Travellers retort that they need a settled base from which to travel and from where they can gain access to education and healthcare for their families. There is an accommodation crisis within the community. It is in everyone’s interest to resolve the current conflict over Gypsy/Traveller site provision through educating the wider public about Gypsy/Traveller culture and needs.
Access to health care
Many of Scotland’s health services continue to exclude Gypsy/Travellers. Some GPs surgeries refuse to register Gypsy/Travellers as patients. Doctors are reluctant to visit sites. Gypsy/Travellers have no alternative but to seek care through A & E clinics. Research among young Gypsy/Travellers has shown that 84% feel that access to a doctor or dentist has not improved since 2001. Mainstream health education and preventative programmes rarely include Gypsy/Travellers. The NHS has done little to engage directly about their needs and how to meet them.
Gypsy/Travellers are widely recognised to be Britain’s most marginalised community. They suffer from the highest rates of infant mortality, the lowest life expectancy and highest rates of illiteracy of any ethnic group. The young ages engraved on Gypsy/Traveller gravestones tells its own tragic story – the health of Britain’s Gypsy/Travellers is often bad, that their life is often short. There is blatant discrimination, bad communication with and ignorance about Gypsy/Travellers within the healthcare system. Gypsy/Travellers rely on self or family: they are suspicious of health services. They believe that the treatment won’t do them any good.
The blatant racism against Gypsy/Travellers in the health system has also been experienced in schools. Bullying by pupils and staff, under-achievement and a traditional lack of literacy skills have often placed Gypsy/Traveller pupils at a disadvantage in schools. Their oral traditions, culture and heritage is not recognized or valued in school: some suggest that the secondary school curriculum will not equip them with the skills they require. There are also cultural reasons why Gypsy/Travellers do not value formalised education as highly as the settled population. Gypsy/Travellers expect to be discriminated against in the labour market and so value forms of self-employment much more highly than formal education and employment.
Education remains a double-edged sword for many. It is valued as a way of learning to read and write, but distrusted due to inherent cultural pollution. The parents of today’s young Gypsy/Travellers received little or no schooling themselves. They are suspicious of what comes with Education. They see school as a source of what can only be described as “gorgification” (becoming like a non-Gypsy) – a process which weakens Gypsy/Traveller identity and values. Parents feel that school introduces their children to drugs and courting with non-Travellers, and can even affect the way they speak and see themselves.
There are economic reasons as well – teenage Traveller girls are often expected to help at home or with caring for younger siblings. Teenage Traveller boys are expected to be working with their fathers receiving an apprenticeship in how to earn a living.
The Scottish Government is developing online learning opportunities for Gypsy/Travellers who cannot attend school. However, parents and pupils remain concerned that the majority of teachers do not understand Gypsy/Traveller culture, doubt that the curriculum can meet their needs and believe that the pervasive bullying of Gypsy/Traveller children is not being tackled effectively.
On October 25th 2003, the relationship between Gypsy/Travellers and the settled community hit the headlines when members of the Firle village bonfire society in East Sussex burnt effigies of a family in a caravan complete with the number plate “P1 KIE”. At that moment, the underlying racism against Britain’s largest rural ethnic minority found physical form and a symbol more at home in the deep south of the United States. Fire-bombings of Gypsy caravans and physical assaults are commonplace. In May 2000 a young Irish Traveller called Johnny Delaney was beaten to death on Merseyside simply for being a Traveller.
In April 2003 the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE) published its first Gypsy/Travellers strategy. CRE chairman Trevor Phillips sees parallels with the way blacks have been treated in the past. “There is no question that Gypsy/Travellers are probably the single most intensely discriminated against group in the country,” Trevor says. “I’ve described it as being akin to how black folk were in the deep south of the USA were treated 40 years ago. It’s awful and seems that almost anybody can say or do anything they like to Gypsy/Travellers, simply because of what they are.”
Racial discrimination against Gypsy/Travellers is rarely reported to the authorities because the community distrust the police, believing they will not do anything about it. The community feels that the police are racist towards them.
Execution, deportation and toleration have not dealt with the problems which Gypsy/Travellers face. Gypsy/Travellers are here to stay and are becoming increasingly adept at demanding that their culture and way of life is accommodated.
There, I’ve managed to finish this without mentioning the extravagant ‘My Big Fat Gypsy..
I’ll end with an incisive quote from Willie Young, City Council finance convener, commenting on the (lack of) permanent halting sites in Aberdeen. ‘If the travellers are not in one place they are in another’.
This article is largely a collation of work by a) Jake Bowers, a Romani journalist; and b) a media resource from the Equality and Human Rights Commission, Scotland.
Further reading and research
Travellers Education and Information Project, The Bridges Centre, 4 Poynernook Road, Aberdeen. Tel. 01224-596156.
Traveller’s Life – The Autobiography of Sheila Stewart. Published April 2011, Birlinn £9.99. Press