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Gypsies and Travellers in Scotland

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Gypsies and Travellers in Scotland

Scotland’s Travelling communities, sometimes called Gypsies and Travellers do not comprise a homogenous community. The terms refer to different communities distinguished by their different histories, cultures and life-styles. Importantly, the capitalization of the word ‘Traveller’ distinguishes people belonging to one of a number of Traveller communities from an everyday understanding of ‘traveller’ as an individual engaged in everyday travelling, i.e. 'Traveller' is a term that refers to a social/cultural identity, part of which may involve a family's mobility or travelling as a cultural/lifestyle choice.

A brief description of each is below. For further information see Colin Clark and Donald Kendrick's book, Moving On: The Gypsies and Travellers of Britain (1999 University of Hertfordshire Press). Also a useful publication, which addresses issues common to all groups of Travellers, Travellers’ Times, maybe obtained from

Scottish Gypsies/Travellers

Scottish Gypsies/Travellers is an official term, used by the Scottish Parliament and Scottish Government, that immediately signals debates among the families who belong to Scotland’s indigenous ethnic minority as to how they want to be called. In the past, people comprising these communities were known as travelling people or Travellers, some of whom called themselves Nawkens or Nachins, or more famously ‘tinklers’ or ‘tinkers’. The term ‘tinker’ is no longer an acceptable term as it is frequently used as a term of abuse.

The slash between Gypsies/Travellers reflects an official awareness of the fact that some families now call themselves Gypsies, while others prefer to call themselves Scottish Travellers. This web site uses the term Gypsies/Travellers to reflect an awareness of the different preferences expressed by families who make up Scotland’s oldest indigenous ethnic minority communities.

However, recent legal changes may give rise to further developments in the naming of these communities. At a recent employment tribunal (October 2008), Judge Hosie arrived,

‘at the view that Scottish Gypsy-Travellers have “ethnic origins”, with reference in particular, to Section 3(1) of the 1976 Act, and that they therefore enjoy the protection of the Act.’

Of profound importance to the communities involved this judgment will provide the legal basis for challenging the discriminatory treatment frequently experienced in Scotland as a result of being a Scottish Gypsy-Traveller. For example, ‘Gypo’ is a currently used as a term of abuse. Scotland’s indigenous ethnic minority’s use of the term ‘Gypsy’ runs counter to European naming of communities of people they would recognize as ‘brothers’ or ‘sisters’ i.e. Roma.

It is difficult to be clear about the numbers of Scottish Gypsies/Travellers, probably about 15,000, as many are reluctant to self-identify as a Traveller or as a Gypsy for fear of prejudice or official interference. The" 2014 Census will include a category ‘Gypsy/Traveller’, which will provide an official source of information. Many Gypsy/Traveller families guard their Traveller identity while maintaining aspects of their traditional Gypsy/Traveller lifestyles, particularly the centrality of the family in their everyday lives.

Some Gypsy/Traveller families travel all the time, living in caravans or trailers, on local authority or privately owned sites and by the roadside. Others may live on the same site for most of the year. Many Gypsy/Traveller families live in houses for part of the year. Others live in house for all of the year, but may move from one house to another. Whether living a mobile lifestyle or living in a house, Gypsy/Traveller families still have a strong sense of their Traveller identity and of belonging to a community of traditional Travellers. Many Gypsy/Traveller families have a strong commitment to the maintenance of their Traveller identity, life styles and cultures.

Scottish Gypsies/ Travellers oral tradition has given rise to a rich source of storytelling and songs. Many Gypsy/Traveller people speak a form of non-standard Scots, called ‘cant’, which includes many words that have much in common with Romani words. Scottish Traveller cant also contains Gaelic and old Scots words. Scottish Travellers share many cultural features with European Roma communities such as a belief in the importance of family and family descent, a strong valuing and involvement with extended family and family events, a preference for self-employment, and a strong commitment to a nomadic lifestyle; even when living in a house.

For further information, read:

Betsy Whyte, 1992. The Yellow on the Broom: The Early Days of a Traveller Woman, Edinburgh: Birlinn Ltd;
Betsy Whyte,2000. Red Rowans and Wild Honey, Edinburgh: Birlinn Ltd;
Jess Smith, 2003. Jessie's Journey, Tales from the Tent and Tears for a Tinker – a trilogy of books published by Edinburgh, Mercat Press; and
Sandy (Alexander) Stewart, 1988. The Book of Sandy Stewart, Roger Leitch, Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press.

Occupational Travellers

Scotland’s largest community of Occupational Travellers, Scottish Showmen or travelling show and fairground families, self-define as business communities, albeit with a strong and distinctive culture well known and enjoyed as the ‘shows’ that regularly travel across Scottish towns and cities. This community is not and does not claim minority ethnic status, and is distinguished from Gypsies/Travellers. Other Occupational Travellers include Circus and bargee families and other waterway family businesses (the latter two groups are most likely to be visitors). As business communities, the families almost by definition travel for work, across Scotland, the rest of the UK and frequently across Europe.

Scottish travelling show and fairground families are based in a yard, mainly in Glasgow’s East End, to which they return for periods of time to catch up with other families. Scottish Showpeople have a strong cultural identity and long proud histories of living and working in Scotland. A very good idea of their lives can be gained from their newspaper, World's Fair or their website:

More information is also available at the National Fairground Archive website:
The Showmen's Guild website will also provide information about their organisation and how it has governed the setting up of funfairs for over 100 years.

For further information, read:
Carol McNeill, 2004. Kirkcaldy Links Market. Fife Council - Community Services


New Travellers

Formerly referred to as New Age Travellers, New Travellers trace their origins to ‘settled’ communities, i.e. they were not born into a Traveller family, and made a choice to reject a ‘settled’ life-style for a range of reasons. Often borrowing from traditional Traveller life-styles, New Travellers make up diverse communities that typically draw upon different political and philosophical views about society.  Some New Traveller families can now trace their family’s choice of life-style back two and three generations.

Earle F, Dearling A et al, 1994. A Time to Travel. Lyme Regis: Enabler.


Travellers from other parts of Britain or from Europe.

Travellers from other parts of Britain often travel in Scotland. These include English Romanies or Romanichals, Welsh Kale or Irish Travellers and English Gypsies. English Gypsies from the north of England may be part of common communities with Scottish Travellers living in the Borders.

There have been Roma or sometimes called Gypsies from other European communities living in Britain for many years, for example the Coppersmiths and Hungarian Romanies in England. (See also, Andrew McCormick’s Tinkler–Gypsy Photographs (2006), which show images of Ursari Roma who travelled across northern England and southern Scotland between 1895 and 1897). However, in many parts of Europe it is not acceptable to use the term Gypsy because it too is considered to convey racist meanings. The preferred term is thus Roma.

Since the early 1990s the changing political situation and racist prejudice and violence in Eastern Europe have led to Roma families seeking refuge in Britain. See ‘Gypsy-haters, holocaust-deniers, xenophobes, homophobes, anti-semites: the EU's new political force.’ Stephen Castle in Strasbourg. Published: 16 January" 2014

With the expansion of the European Community, new Roma minorities have come to Scotland and many live in Govanhill, Glasgow. Roma are also not a homogeneous group. Roma families may have come to Scotland from the new EU member states. Either from the Czech Republic, Hungary, Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, Poland, Slovenia, and Slovakia – together known as the ‘accession 8’ (A8) countries, or from Romania and Bulgaria known as the A2 countries. Each Roma group has its own history and cultural identity and maybe a distinctive language. Importantly, families will identify themselves first in national terms and then as Roma e.g. Slovak Roma or Romanian Roma.

Collectively called Roma, groups of Romani people live in the different countries that make up Europe. (Roma refers to a group while Romani is singular or referring to an individual) Each Roma group has a different way of speaking Romanes, but as some words are similar, Romani people may be able to understand one another.

Because of the complex cultural and possibly linguistic differences between these communities, educators (along with other policy and professional and public service providers) must be sensitive to how such differences shape a family’s willingness and capacity to use public services designed to meet the needs of settled communities.