No ethnic groups have aroused as much vilification, fascination 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, stigma and ignorance.

Gypsy/Travellers (or direct descendants thereof) include:- Elvis Presley, Charlie Chaplin, Cher, Shakira, Django Reinhardt, Wayne Rooney, David Essex and Rita Hayworth.


The carefree nomads once romanticised as ‘lords of the heath’ by Victorian artists, aristocrats and anthropologists are now living modern lives as controversial as the ones their ancestors led.

Gypsy/Travellers can be divided into ethnic groups like Romani Gypsies and Irish Travellers – the two groups recognized under the Race Relations Act. Ethnic Travellers are born into traditionally nomadic cultures. Their identity is defined by their race and lifestyle. Then there are those who live on the road for purely economic reasons such as New Travellers and Showmen. So there isn’t one community but many – each with their own particular culture and history.

The word ‘gypsy’ itself is a corruption of ‘Egyptian’, which is what the settled population perceived them to be because of their dark complexion. In fact they originated in (Northern) India and began to leave some 1400 years ago. Displaced during a series of C11 Muslim invasions, many Romani were taken back to what is now modern-day Turkey. A majority of already-displaced Romani people later migrated to Eastern and Southern Europe. Romani music is still strikingly similar to Indian folk music, and their spiritual beliefs – despite conversion to local religions over time – still resembles aspects of Hindu cosmology. The Romani value rituals and they believe in karma, a balance viewing life as a continuous struggle between a divine being and the devil. Respect for elders is a crucial tenet. Spiritual energy, known as dji, can be depleted by spending too much time with those outside of their own community.

Angloromani is the main language of the Romani community, spoken by around 90,000 people in the UK and 200,000 globally. It is not recognised as a native language by the UK government. The language is a mixture of English slang and Asian, with words picked up from countries passed through on their travels. Linguistic analysis shows it is derived from ancient Sanskrit: phonetically and grammatically, it resembles tongues with Sanskrit roots like Hindi or Rajasthani. Within Europe, there is a wide diversity of Romani dialects.

In the English language, etymological problems include racist words like ‘pikey’, negative connotations, exonyms – terms imposed on ethnic groups by outsiders, slang usage and derivatives. “People say that they never knew the word ‘gypped’ had anything to do with gypsies, or that they didn’t realise it’s offensive.” says University of Texas Professor Ian Hancock, born in Britain to Romani parents. “My response is: ‘You didn’t know; but now you do. Stop using it. It may mean nothing to you, but when we hear it, it still hurts.'”

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. Romani Gypsies have travelled and worked in Britain since at least 1515. 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’. King Friedrich Wilhelm I of 18C Prussia allowed adult gypsies to be hanged without trial. Half a million gypsies were exterminated in Nazi concentration camps.

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. Erroneous reporting of Gypsy/Traveller issues reinforces stereotypes and ignorance, and has resulted in harassment, bullying and worse. The scapegoats become a Nation’s internal refugees. Some media coverage spreads the myths that Gypsy/Travellers are strange, exotic and deviant characters – lazy parasites who blight ‘society’. Treatment alludes to ‘Gypsy invasions’: headlines scream ‘Romas kidnap children.’ Negative, blatant misrepresentation of Gypsy/Travellers would not be tolerated if employed about any other ethnic group.


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.

Myths propagated include possession of supernatural powers, such as fortune-telling and cursing at will; that they are dirty nomads living in caravans, foreigners and criminals; that they do not contribute to the economy or culture.

With 11 million people, Romani Gypsies are Europe’s largest and fastest growing ethnic minority.  300,000 live in Britain today – 15,000 of them in Scotland, the same size as the Bangladeshi community. They belong to Scotland and continue to make a rich and valuable contribution to our country’s economic and cultural life. Cultures can co-exist or be integrated – they do not have to collide. If the Romani gypsies are not considered to be part of our society by now, we have a serious problem.


“I travelled long roads and I met lucky people” is the first line of the Romani international anthem “Gelem, Gelem”. Written in 1949, the text of the song was written by Zarko Jovanovic, survivor of three concentration camps during World War II. The original song title was “Opre Roma” (“Get up Roma”). The melody was taken from Serbian Roma love poems which feature in the ’60s movie “I Even Met Happy Gypsies”. Jovanovic designed the flag of the Roma people: he was their world culture minister and compiled their first dictionary.

Yaron Matras claims that folk are ‘adopting elements of Gypsy culture as a fashionable lifestyle choice. ‘Gypsy’ has become a brand of sorts, shaped over generations, that has more in common with fairytales than reality.’

‘Whether it is the persistent association of gypsies with the supernatural, fortune telling and curses, the warnings of the British popular press about Romanian immigration or the voyeuristic portrayal of fake tan, stretch limos and big dresses in Channel 4’s My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding, imaginary gypsies have a grip on us.’ David Stenhouse.

‘The Romani people are,’ Yaron Matras writes, ‘a nation like no other, without territory, sovereignty or institutions, and with no tradition of agriculture or ownership of land. Yet they are also a model of cultural tolerance and flexibility who are the only nation in Europe and western Asia that has never declared war on another nation and that has never tried to subjugate others into adopting its ways. We have a lot to learn from them. As citizens of the world, there is fresh force in the Angloromani phrase: “We are all one: all who are with us are ourselves”.’

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June is Gypsy Roma Traveller History Month.



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