It is gratifying to find that the publication of The Summer Stance
, my new novel about travellers (tinkers) coincides in theme with an action plan stating that: 'Improving the lives of our gypsy/traveller communities is a significant human-rights commitment for Scottish Government and COSLA, and is crucial if we are to tackle deep-rooted inequalities and deliver a fairer Scotland'. Furthermore: 'As leaders in national and local government, we are united in our view that in a modern and inclusive Scotland there is no place for what the Scottish Government's independent race equality adviser Kaliani Lyle called "the widespread exclusion, deprivation and social antipathy that gypsy/travellers face"'.
I do not like the term 'travellers' when applied to tinkers because the latter name was always used without discrimination or social contempt in Scotland. Besides, travellers also include new agers and others, who are not tinkers, though some of them may be itinerant.
I had an enchanted childhood at Dunstaffnage House, Connel, growing up under the tutelage of the brilliant Angus Campbell, the bachelor 20th Hereditary Captain of Dunstaffnage Castle. Stevenson's Kidnapped
came alive after Angus allowed my brothers and I to handle the long gun that came from his family's Callart House, Onich, and which, his family tradition asserted, was used by Allan Breck Stewart, a welcome visitor to Callart, to commit the Appin Murder.
Tinkers were part of the childhood of my brothers and myself at Dunstaffnage House where my mother was brought up. Willie always arrived over the hill at The Square, our old house, at the same time as the cuckoo. He would have a conversation in Gaelic with my father and, having been given money and clothes, if needed, Willie would proceed down the avenue to the house of my grandmother Daisy, Angus Dunstaffnage's housekeeper and confidante. She knew to feed any tinker who came to her door because Angus appreciated that they were a rich part of Highland culture. His mother Jane, who owned historic Inverawe House at Taynuilt, had ordered the cook to leave the larder open so that the visiting tinkers could have their pick. How many would leave a door, far less a fridge, open for a tinker nowadays? My grandmother set out the tray, with a Spode eggcup and two boiled eggs, done to Willie's liking, with toast and silver cutters to remove the tops of the eggs for the honoured wayfarer. The spoon also was silver. All items were returned with grateful thanks.
I prefer the word tinker, and particularly the Gaelic word ceàrd, because that was what my father called Willie. I never heard the term traveller used then. The name ceàrd-staoin, a tinsmith, has in its acoustics the echo of their skills, a delicate hammer fashioning tin into kettles and teapots, and repairing these items when they came round the doors in early summer. They sold clothes pegs and wooden flowers which they had fashioned themselves, and they were a source of labour for farmers, helping to bring in the harvests of fruits and crops. Some of them wintered in the city, at sites such as Vinegarhill in Glasgow, before going on the road for the good weather, in the days before motorised traffic increased, their carts pulled by horses at a leisurely pace towards their traditional stances where they had pitched their bow tents and lit their campfires for generations. That Renaissance man, Hamish Henderson, recorded their rich culture of songs and stories.
That is the appealing way of life that my new novel The Summer Stance
celebrates. It is set in the present century, and the main character is a boy, Dòmhnall Macdonald, raised in a tower block of flats in Glasgow where his harassed tinker family resides, no longer moving out into the countryside for the summer. Dòmhnall spends a lot of time with his blind grandmother, his tutor in Gaelic. He learns about their summer stance, Abhainn nan Croise, the River of the Cross, a place of enchantment to the boy. Dòmhnall is determined to take her back to Abhainn nan Croise so that she can die there, surrounded by her precious memories, but when they reach there, they find that they are no longer welcome, a situation that descends into violence and bitter recrimination.
I do not romanticise tinkers in my novel, because one of the characters is a persistent lawbreaker. But many people judge tinkers by the actions of the lawless few. In some places where it has been proposed to establish permanent sites with modern facilities for them, there has been angry opposition. Little wonder that tinkers who have moved into permanent housing don't declare their origins for fear of reprisals, as I discovered while researching a programme for Gaelic Television. We have forced tinkers to deny their identities because, as one female residing in the city told me: 'If my husband knew I was of tinker stock, he would leave me'.
If anyone doubts the continuing hostility towards tinkers, look at the YouTube site The Truth about Life as a Young Scottish Traveller
by the eloquent Davie Donaldson. He asks: 'Is it right that my people are still banned from shops like dogs? We've been in Scotland for over 1,000 years. We have our own language, our own customs'.
The foreword to the Scottish Government's and COSLA's most welcome action plan is signed by Christina McKelvie MSP, Minister for Older People and Equalities, and by Councillor Elena Whitham, COSLA Spokesperson for Community Wellbeing. It states: ‘Through our work to develop this action plan, we have seen and heard evidence that gypsy/travellers have often missed out on improvements that the majority of people and communities across Scotland have enjoyed.
'As well as seeing their traditional lifestyle eroded, our gypsy/traveller communities experience poorer outcomes in terms of living standards, education, health and employment, and often face extreme and persistent stereotyping and hostility as they go about their lives.
'Across Scottish Government and COSLA, our 32 local authorities and the Scottish Parliament, there is a clear recognition of these injustices and the need for action to improve the lives of gypsy/travellers and for changes to be lasting.'
The Summer Stance
by Lorn Macintyre (Thunderpoint Publishing
) is available to buy now