Douglas Ross and the war on Scotland’s Travellers

Jess told me that the school was established because the settled parents refused to have their children educated alongside Travellers. It’s a story that is sadly resonant to this day.

“My granddaughter was badly bullied because she’s a Traveller,” said Kathy Townsley McGuigan. The problem is so significant, she added, that it’s the main reason why a large number of Traveller children leave school early. “The children [are] so brutally bullied at school, the parents end up taking them out,” she said.

A spokeswoman for the Scottish government told me that they don’t keep statistics on literacy rates in the Traveller community “as many Gypsy/Travellers do not go on to high school”.

Forced settlement

Kathy stopped living in bow tents in the 1980s. “Social work came to us”, she told me. “They didn’t make it as a threat. They do it in a roundabout way – ‘we’re going to have to keep visiting you’, ‘you could end up fighting for your kids’ – I was just a young mother.”

Her family moved into a council house in Perth. “I hated it,” she said. “It was really hard for me, because I had never been in a house. I missed my parents, I missed my family, I missed having all these strangers around me – it was traumatic”.

Many Travellers I speak to say they’ve faced the same threat from police trying to move them on: “do as we’ll say, or we’ll arrest you, and then your children will be taken off you.”

Often, this puts Travellers in an impossible position. Scotland used to have a patchwork of Traveller sites, some of which families had used for centuries. But in recent years, most of these ‘greens’ have been built on or blocked off.

Partly, this is because farmers need less seasonal labour now that machines bring in much of the harvest. Partly, it’s because of legislation.

The 1865 Trespass (Scotland) Act was introduced to keep Travellers off their traditional camping grounds. The 1984 Roads (Scotland) Act bans camping near a road. The 1994 Criminal Justice Act bans six or more vehicles from camping together, proscribing cultural gatherings. The 1986 Caravan Sites and Controlled Development Act restricted the size of caravans and forced Travellers to conform to the norms of settled holidaymakers.

Selling door to door – a traditional Traveller job – has been heavily regulated. In theory, you need a licence. In practice, it can be very hard to get one: Kathy was told by her local police in Argyll that they didn’t exist, and had to travel to another county to get one. And even if you get one, signs have been glued to doors across the country, saying peddlers aren’t welcome.

Freshwater pearl fishing – an ancient Traveller trade – was banned in the 1990s after pollution and overfishing from scuba divers nearly wiped out the mussels that produce the pearls: a rancid environmental injustice.

Metal recycling, a traditional Traveller trade, has also been restricted. The vast bubble in house prices has unleashed an obsession with land value and ownership, replacing ancient negotiations over land use with moral panics when camps show up.

Often, traditional Traveller greens have been turned into tourist caravan parks, and the invention of enterprise zones in the 1980s and 1990s encouraged industrial estates on the edges of cities, transforming what were once Traveller sites into grim concrete jungles. Often, Lynne Tammi points out, you still see caravans outside warehouses, as Travellers have nowhere to go but their now-grey greens.

The overall effect of these changes, said Davie Donaldson, has been to sever the bonds that did exist between the Travelling and settled communities. In the past, when the powerful tried to inflame fear of Travellers, there were too many settled people who had worked or played alongside them for panic to take hold.

More recently, it’s easier for tabloids and right-wing politicians to spread fear, as has been clear since The Sun’s 2005 “Stamp on the Camps” campaign, says Davie.

‘Neither land nor master’

In most of the world, for all of recorded history, nomadic and settled communities have lived alongside each other. Sometimes, there’s conflict over resources and prejudices. Sometimes, there’s mutual learning and respect.

There is more wisdom in the latter approach. After all, for those of us from settled communities, there is much to learn from nomads, whose environmental impact is much lower, who pass through land rather than pouring concrete into it, and for whom the act of moving is often an effective form of resistance against the systems which oppress so many of us.

The first piece of Scottish legislation I can find which criminalises Gypsy/Travellers, from 1575, also targets “others neither having land nor master”.

Much of Traveller society is built on the idea of commons: greens are shared between families. The skills of tinsmithing are shared within the community. Pearl mussels were harvested sustainably. For centuries, this has enabled Travellers to transgress both feudal and capitalist systems.

It’s that act of transgression that many in the settled community – and particularly those with power – seem to resent. It’s harder to exploit workers if they can easily leave. You can’t jack up the rent for someone who can take to the road.

“A population that travels from place to place, a population that doesn’t pay mortgages, [that] lives off the land, it doesn’t really lend itself to a capitalist agenda,” said Davie.

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