Scottish Gypsy and Traveller groups

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Scottish Travellers, or the people in Scotland loosely termed gypsies or travellers, consist of a number of diverse, unrelated communities that speak a variety of different languages and dialects that pertain to distinct customs, histories, and traditions.

There are four distinct communities that identify themselves as Gypsies/Travellers in Scotland: Indigenous Highland Travellers, Romani Lowland Travellers, Scottish Border Romanichal Traveller (Border Gypsies) and Showman (Funfair Travellers).

Lowland Travellers and Border Romanichal Travellers (Romani Groups)[edit]

Lowland Scottish Gypsies/Travellers[edit]

The ethnic origins of Scottish Lowland Travellers are not clear, but can be categorised into two main theories:

1.) They are Romani in origin and have a common ancestry with the English Romanichal,[1] and their language and culture simply diverged from the language and culture of the Romanichal like what happened with the Welsh Kale.

2.) They are a fusion or mix of Romani and an indigenous Lowland Scottish Traveller group, and their roots are just as Romani as they are Scottish.

Regardless of both theories, Lowland Gypsies are still viewed as a Romani group, with Romani culture clearly being a massive part of Scottish Lowland Gypsy culture.

Lowland Scottish Romani Travellers share many cultural features with other British Romani Travellers (English Romanichal Travellers and Welsh Kale Travellers) 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, purity taboos (among the Romani people the purity taboos are part of the Romanipen) and a strong commitment to an itinerant lifestyle. They are particularly very closely related to the Romani groups of England, Wales, Norway, Sweden and Finland. They speak Scottish Cant, which is a para-Romani language (similar to Angloromani and Scandoromani) meaning that it is a mixed language. Scottish Cant is a mix of Scots and Romani.


There is written evidence for the presence of Roma travellers in the Scottish Lowlands as early as 1505, when – during the reign of James IV – an entry in a book kept by the Lord High Treasurer records a payment of four shillings to a Peter Ker to take a letter from the king at Hunthall, to the "King of Rowmais". Two days later, the King authorised a payment of £20 to a messenger from the "King of Rowmais".[2][3] In 1530, a group of Romanies danced before the Scottish king at the Holyrood Palace and a Romani herbalist called Baptista cured the king of an ailment.[3] Romany migration to Scotland continued during the 16th century and several groups of Romanies were accepted there after being expelled from England.[4][5] Records in Dundee from 1651 note the migrations of small groups of people called "Egyptians" in the Highlands, and are noted to be of the same nature as the English Gypsies.[6] By 1612, communities of Romanies were recorded to exist as far north as Scalloway in the Shetland Islands.[4][7]

The Finnish Kale, a Romani group in Finland, maintain that their ancestors were originally a Romani group who travelled to Finland from Scotland,[8] this is because Finnish Kale and Norwegian & Swedish Romanisæl Travellers are distantly related to present-day Scottish Lowland Romani Travellers, English Romanichal Travellers, and Welsh Kale, with all of these groups having common ancestry, being descended from the Romani who arrived in Britain in the 16th century.

Romani people in the South of Scotland enjoyed the protection of the Roslyn family and made an encampment within the Roslyn castle grounds. However, as with its neighbour England, the Scottish parliament passed an act in 1609 against Romani groups known as the “Act against the Egyptians”;[5] which made it lawful to condemn, detain and execute Gypsies if they were known or reputed to be ethnically Romani.[4]

Scotland has had a Romani population for at least 500 years; they are a distinct group from the Highland Travellers. Lowland Gypsies Romani Travellers share a common heritage with English Romanichal Gypsies and Welsh Kale. They enjoyed a privileged place in Scottish society until the Reformation, when their wandering lifestyle and exotic culture brought severe persecution upon them.

Travelling groups from other parts of Britain often travel in Scotland. These include English Romanichal Travellers, Irish Travellers and Funfair Travellers (Showman). English Romanichal Gypsies/Travellers from the north of England mainly in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne and Cumbria commonly travel into the Scottish Borders. The annual gathering at Appleby Horse Fair could be considered part of the common culture that Lowland Scottish Travellers living in the Lowlands and Romanichal Border Gypsies living in the Scottish Borders share with the UK's other Travelling groups.

Scottish Romanichal Travellers (Scottish Border Gypsies)

It is also important to note that Romanichal Traveller communities exist in the Scottish Borders, they are linguistically (Due to speaking Northern Angloromani) and culturally (Due to following Romanichal traditions and customs) identical to the Romanichal Traveller communities in Northern England. They are known locally as Border Gypsies. They live in separate and distinct communities from Scottish Lowland Travellers, although both are Romani groups with Romani cultures, languages and heritage.

Scottish Romanichal traders were upwardly mobile, by 1830 they travelled to the potteries in Staffordshire and buying china and other goods, selling the items chiefly in Northumberland, while based in Kirk Yetholm in Roxburghshire.[9] By 1874 these Gypsies were commented on as "Having physical markers in their dusky complexion that is characteristically Gypsy]...and...[a language that is clearly Romani".[10] Some Scottish Romanichal Travellers from the Scottish Borders are even members of Romani organisations based in England.[1] Scottish Romanichal Travellers are known locally as Border Gypsies.[1][11][12] Border Gypsies had a 'Royal' family, from an early date. The Faa family occupied this role until 1847 when it passed to the Blyths, commonly called Faa-Blyths. The last 'king' died in 1902 and there has been no more recent claimants. Besides the Faas and Blyths, common Border Gypsy (Scottish Romanichal) surnames include Baillie, Tait, Douglas, Gordon, McDonald, Ruthven, Young and Fleckie. [13]

Scottish Cant (Also known as Scots-Romani or Scotch-Romani)[edit]

The Lowland Gypsies speak a mixed language of Scots and Romani called Scottish Cant (Also known as Scots-Romani or Scotch-Romani) which includes many words of Romani origin, mostly Angloromani origin words. Up to 50% of Scottish Cant originates from Romani-derived lexicon.[14]

Music and song[edit]

Donnie Munro's "Where the Roses" and "Queen of the Hill", from the album An Turas, are based on the author's childhood experiences with the Tinker People in the Scottish Highlands.


  • Mauro the Gypsy (1972) Television dramatisation - by the Children's Film and Television Foundation Ltd. A story about a family of gypsies and the discrimination and hostility they experience in a Scottish village when they apply for a permanent camp site. When chickens start to disappear and scrap metal litters the countryside, the time has obviously come for Mauro and his family to be moved on, but the gypsy family are innocent and were framed by the locals and are allowed to stay. The film received a special award for contribution to racial tolerance by the Moscow International Film Festival in 1973.[15][16]

Novels and short stories[edit]

  • Scottish Traveller Tales: lives shaped through stories by Donald Braid 2002 — the storytelling and ballad traditions of the nomadic minority of Scottish Travellers.
  • Pilgrims in the Mist; Stories of Scotland’s Travelling people by Sheila Stewart — a collection of Traveller stories from across Scotland.
  • Northern Traveller tales by Robert Dawson — traditional tales collected from Travellers in the East Midlands, North of England and Scotland.
  • Travellers: An Introduction by Jon Cannon & the Travellers of Thistlebrook — insight into the history, culture and lives of Travellers in Britain today.
  • Rokkering, Crecking and Cracking by Robert Dawson — the Romani language and cant dialects of travellers and Gypsies found in present-day today.

Non-Romani groups[edit]

Indigenous Highland Travellers[edit]

In Scottish Gaelic they are known as the "Ceàrdannan" ("the Craftsmen"),[17] or less controversially, "luchd siubhail" (people of travel) for travellers in general. Poetically known as the "Summer Walkers", Highland Travellers are a distinct ethnic group and may be referred to as "traivellers", "traivellin fowk'", in Scots, "tinkers", originating from the Gaelic "tinceard" or (tinsmith) or "Black Tinkers".[17] Mistakenly the settled Scottish population may call all travelling and Romani groups tinkers, which is usually regarded as pejorative, and contemptuously as "tinks" or "tinkies".[18]

Highland Travellers are closely tied to the native Highlands, and many traveller families carry clan names like McPhee,[19] Stewart, Callaghan, MacDonald, Cameron, Williamson and MacMillan. They follow a nomadic or settled lifestyle; passing from village to village and are more strongly identified with the native Gaelic speaking population. Continuing their nomadic life, they would pitch their bow-tents on rough ground on the edge of the village and earn money there as tinsmiths, hawkers, horse dealers or pearl-fishermen. Many found seasonal employment on farms, e.g. at the berry picking or during harvest. Since the 1950s, however, the majority of Highland Travellers have settled down into organized campsites or regular houses.[citation needed]

Adam Smith, the economist and philosopher, was reportedly kidnapped by Highland Travellers at a young age before quickly being freed.[20][21]


The Highland Travellers' speech includes a dialect called 'Beurla-reagaird'. It is related to the Irish Traveller Shelta as a creol of the Gaelic language group. It was used as a cultural identifier, just as Romani groups used the Romani language. However like the Highland Travellers themselves the language isn't related to Romani.

Origins and customs[edit]

The Highland Traveller community has a long history in Scotland going back, at least in record, to the 12th century as a form of employment and one of the first records of that name states a "James the Tinker" held land in the town of Perth from 1165-1214[10][22] and share a similar heritage, although are distinct from the Irish Travellers. As with their Irish counterparts, there are several theories regarding the origin of Scottish Highland Travellers, one being they are descended from the Picts,[22] excommunicated clergy,[22] to families fleeing the Highland potato famine, or the pre-Norman-Invasion,[22] have been claimed at different times. Highland Travellers are distinct both culturally and linguistically from other Gypsy groups like the Romani, including the Romanichal, Lowland Scottish Gypsies, Eastern European Roma and Welsh Kale groups. Several other European groups are non-Romany groups, namely the Yeniches, Woonwagenbewoners in the Netherlands, Indigenous Norwegian Travellers and Landfahrer in Germany. As with Indigenous Norwegian Travellers, Highland travellers origins may be more complex and difficult to ascertain and left no written records of their own.

As an indigenous group Highland Travellers have played an essential role in the preservation of traditional Gaelic culture.[23] Travellers' outstanding contribution to Highland life has been as custodians of an ancient and vital singing, storytelling and folklore tradition of great importance. It is estimated that as little as 2,000 Highland Travellers continue to lead their traditional lifestyle on the roads.

Notable Highland travellers[edit]

  • Lizzie Higgins, Scottish folk singer (daughter of Jeannie Robertson).
  • Jeannie Robertson, Scottish folk singer.
  • Belle Stewart, Scottish traditional singer.
  • Sheila Stewart, daughter of Belle Stewart, who was awarded the British Empire Medal for services to her country's cultural oral tradition in Scots and Gaelic.
  • Duncan Williamson, author/storyteller who wrote down the oral history, stories and ancient tales of the Highland Traveller. He recorded over three thousand stories over his lifetime.
  • Stanley Robertson, Master storyteller, ballad singer and author of several books of Lowland Traveller tales. (nephew of Jeannie Robertson)

In popular culture[edit]

  • Rob Roy — 1995 film featuring Liam Neeson that details the exploits of the early 18th century Scottish clan chief and outlaw Rob Roy MacGregor. The film opens with MacGregor and his clansmen retrieving 32 stolen head of cattle from a band of Travellers led by Tam Sibbalt. After killing Sibbalt, MacGregor disarms the others, whom he calls "Tinkers", and allows them to go. After his return home, Mary MacGregor (Jessica Lange), expresses shock when her husband expresses sympathy for the Travellers, saying that they once had families and Clans to which they belonged. She is even more shocked when he compares the Travellers' poverty with that of their own Clan. She insists, "The MacGregors were never Tinkers." In response, Rob tells her that many MacGregors are only one bad winter away from joining the Travellers. He explains that his greatest fear is of finding some of his Clansmen among them.
  • Death Defying Acts — a film about Harry Houdini and his encounter with a Scottish traveller woman and her daughter.[24]

Memoirs, fiction, etc.[edit]

  • Scottish Traveller Tales: lives shaped through stories, by Donald Braid, 2002 – The storytelling and ballad traditions of the nomadic minority of Scottish Travellers.
  • The Yellow on the Broom: the early days of a Traveller woman, Betsy Whyte (1919–88), 1992 – Life on the road for Scottish Travellers in the early part of the 20th century.
    • "The Yellow on the Broom" is a song which Adam McNaughtan wrote for Betsy Whyte to sing.[25]
  • Red Rowans and Wild Honey, by Betsy Whyte, 2004 – The sequel to "Yellow on the Broom"; the life of Scottish Travellers till the outbreak of the second World War.
  • Red Eye Ghost by Micky MacPhee – The story of a Scottish Traveller who encounters a ghostly victim of the Highland Clearances.
  • Last of the Tinkers, by Sheila Douglas, 2006 - A collection of stories, songs and anecdotes from Willie MacPhee providing a link between the ancient history of his people and their situation in present-day Scotland.
  • Northern Traveller tales by Robert Dawson – Traditional tales collected from Travellers in the East Midlands, North of England and Scotland.
  • The Summer walkers: Travelling People and Pearl–Fishers in the Highlands of Scotland, Timothy Nest 2008 – The story of the itinerant tinsmiths, horse-dealers, hawkers and pearl fishers who made their living 'on the road' in the Highlands of Scotland.
  • Jessie's Journey, by Jess Smith, 2003 – The first book of a trilogy and an autobiographical account of stories from the Highland traveller family.
  • Tears for a Tinker by Jess Smith, 2005 – The third book of a trilogy; recounting a collection of stories from the authors family tales, ghosts, poems, tales of the road from a family of Scottish Highland Travellers.
  • Tales from the Tent, by Jess Smith, 2008 – The third book of a trilogy of stories from the authors own folk tales.
  • Bruars Rest, by Jess Smith 2006 – A story of love and loyalty and the journey a woman makes for the love of her husband.
  • Stookin Berries, by Jess Smith 2006 – A collection of stories for younger readers, ancient oral tales of Scotland's travelling people.
  • Queen Amang the Heather; The Life of Belle Stewart, by Sheila Stewart 2006 – The moving autobiography and life of Belle Stewart, traveller, folk composers and singer who was awarded the British Empire Medal for her contribution to folk music.
  • Pilgrims in the Mist; stories of Scotland’s Travelling people, by Sheila Stewart – A collection of Traveller stories from across Scotland.
  • Never to Return: the harrowing true story of a stolen childhood, by Sandy Reid, 2008 – The true story of a family of tinker children taken from their families.
  • The Book of Sandy Stewart, by Alexander Stewart, 1988 – Biography of a Perthshire Tinker
  • The Last of the Tinsmiths: the life of Willy MacPhee, by Sheila Douglas, 2006 – A collection of songs, tales and stories from the rich Highland travelling people.
  • The Horsieman: Memories of a Traveller 1928-58, by Duncan Williamson – Memoirs of a Traveller family living at Loch Fyne.
  • The King and the Lamp: Scottish Traveller tales, by Duncan Williamson, 2000 – A collection of stories from the rich oral tradition of the Scottish Highland Travellers.
  • Fireside Tales of the Traveller Children, by Duncan Williamson, 2009 – A collection of traditional travelling stories.
  • No Easy Road, by Patsy Whyte 2009 – Memoir of a traveller child separated from family and taken into care in the 1950s.
  • Horse Healer: Eclipse (and other stories in the horse healer series) by Judy Waite 2007 – Includes some short stories based on Highland Travellers.[26]
  • MacColl, Ewan; Seeger, Peggy (1986). Till Doomsday in the Afternoon: the folklore of a family of Scots Travellers, the Stewarts of Blairgowrie. Manchester: Manchester University Press. ISBN 0-7190-1813-7

Fairground travellers[edit]

Super Star, Freak Out and KMG Booster, night.jpg

Travelling funfair showmen are a community of travellers officially called occupational Travellers, that can be categorised broadly defined as a business community of travelling show, circus communities and fairground families. Occupational travellers travel for work across Scotland, the rest of the UK and into Europe. The Show/Fairground community is close knit, with ties often existing between the older Romanichal families, although showmen families are a distinct group and have a vibrant social scene centered both around the summer fairs and the various sites and yards used as winter quarters. Many Scottish show and fairground families live in winter communities based mainly in the east end of Glasgow. Housing an estimated 80% of all showfamilies Glasgow is believed to have the largest concentration of Showmen quarters in Europe, centred mostly in Shettleston, Whiteinch and Carntyne.

Showmen families have a strong cultural identity as ‘British Showmen’, dating back to 1889 and the formation of the Showmen's Guild of Great Britain and Ireland, and are known within the UK as the “Scottish Section”.[27] As with other showmen communities they call non-travellers (but not other non related travelling groups including Romanichal, Roma, Scottish Lowland Travellers, Highland Travellers or Irish Travellers) as “Flatties” or non-`showmen’ in their own Polari language.[28] The label of "Flattie-Traveller" can include showmen who have left the community to settle down and lead a sedentary lifestyle.


Fairs in Scotland have been held from the early Middle Ages, and traditionally brought together the important elements of medieval trade and a festival. Many of the common markets and fairs are rooted in ancient times, from the medieval period or earlier, and are said to be 'prescriptive fairs'. Other fairs will have been granted a royal charter to cement their importance and secure their future, and these are known as Charter fairs. In the Middle Ages the Royal charters gave the fairs legal status and developed their economic importance. The majority of fairs held in Scotland and the rest of the British Isles can trace their ancestry to charters granted in the medieval period. Traders would travel long distances to sell their goods, as did travelling musicians and entertainers who kept both the traders and customers entertained. In the thirteenth century, the creation of fairs by royal charter was widespread. Between 1199 and 1350 charters were issued granting the rights to hold markets or fairs. Kirkcaldy links market remains the premier funfair in Scotland, evolving from a charter granted by Edward I in 1304. By the early 18th century the main aspect of these Scottish charter fairs had diminished and shifted to that of amusement with the advent of technology, and had evolved into the modern day travelling fairs.

The modern travelling showmen have as strong a family history and heritage as do their counterparts in Wales, England and Ireland. Fairs in Scotland are presented around the same time as they are in the rest of Great Britain and Ireland with a similar mixture of Charter, Prescriptive and private business fairs. The run of fairs include Buckie fair, Inverness, Kirkcaldy links market and the historic fairs held at Dundee and Arbroath. Annually a team of young showmen from both Scotland and England play an “international football match” known as the international,[29] where trophies and caps are held in high esteem. A Showman newspaper; World's Fair is in circulation and available to showmen and non showmen alike.[29]


The use of slang used by Showmen or Parlyaree, is based on a cant slang spoken throughout the U.K. by Scottish, English, Welsh and Irish showfamilies. It is a mixture of Mediterranean Lingua Franca, Romany, Yiddish, Cant London slang and backslang. The language has been spoken in fairgrounds and theatrical entertainment since at least the 17th century.[30] As theatrical booths, circus acts and menageries were once a common part of European fairs it is likely that the roots of Polari/Parlyaree lie in the period before both theatre and circus became independent of the fairgrounds. The Parlyaree spoken on fairgrounds tends to borrow much more from Romany, as well as other languages and argots spoken by other travelling groups, such as cant and backslang.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c Acton, Thomas Alan; Mundy, Gary, eds. (1997). Romani culture and Gypsy identity. Hatfield: University of Hertfordshire Press. ISBN 978-0-900458-76-7.[page needed]
  2. ^ "Gypsies in Scotland, The Gypsies". Retrieved 2012-03-23.
  3. ^ a b Fraser, Angus M. (1995). The Gypsies. The Peoples of Europe. Oxford: Blackwell. ISBN 978-0-631-19605-1.[page needed]
  4. ^ a b c Weyrauch, Walter Otto, ed. (2001). Gypsy Law: Romani Legal Traditions and Culture. Berkeley: University of California Press. ISBN 978-0-520-22186-4.[page needed]
  5. ^ a b Winstedt, Eric Otto (1913). Early British Gypsies. Liverpool: Gypsy Lore Society. OCLC 14408598.[page needed] cited in: Weyrauch, Walter Otto, ed. (2001). Gypsy Law: Romani Legal Traditions and Culture. Berkeley: University of California Press. ISBN 978-0-520-22186-4.[page needed]
  6. ^ Firth, C. H., ed. (1895). Scotland and the commonwealth. Edinburgh: Scottish Historical Society. p. 29. OCLC 464777612.
  7. ^ Scottish Gypsies Macritchie[full citation needed] cited in Weyrauch, Walter Otto, ed. (2001). Gypsy Law: Romani Legal Traditions and Culture. Berkeley: University of California Press. ISBN 978-0-520-22186-4.[page needed]
  8. ^ Ethnologue website
  9. ^ Mayall, David (1988). Gypsy-travellers in Nineteenth-century Society. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-32397-0.[page needed]
  10. ^ a b Journal of the Gypsy Lore Society, Volume 2 by Gypsy Lore Society. Scottish Gypsies under the Stewarts Ch6, p175
  11. ^ Thorburn, Gordon; Baxter, John (1996). The Appleby Rai: Travelling People on a Thousand-year Journey. ISBN 978-0-9527638-0-2.[page needed]
  12. ^ Bhopal, Kalwant; Myers, Martin (2008). Insiders, Outsiders and Others: Gypsies and Identity. Hatfield: University of Hertfordshire Press. ISBN 978-1-902806-71-6.[page needed]
  13. ^
  14. ^ Wilde 1889[full citation needed] cited in Clark, Colin (2002). "'Not Just Lucky White Heather and Clothes Pegs': Putting European Gypsy and Traveller Economic Niches in Context". In Fenton, Steve; Bradley, Harriet (eds.). Ethnicity and Economy: Race and Class Revisited. Basingstoke, United Kingdom: Palgrave Macmillan. pp. 183–98. ISBN 978-0-333-79301-5.
  15. ^ "Children's Film and Television Foundation - Film Catalogue - M". Retrieved 2012-03-23.
  16. ^ "Mauro The Gypsy". YouTube. 2010-07-04. Retrieved 2012-03-23.
  17. ^ a b The last of the Tinsmiths: The Life of Willy MacPhee, by Shelia Douglas 2006
  18. ^ The Concise Scots Dictionary, Mairi Robinson (editor) (1985), p723
  19. ^ Ian Grimble, "Scottish Clans & Tartans" p199[full citation needed]
  20. ^ "What you should know about Adam Smith". BBC News. 13 March 2007. Retrieved 29 April 2010.
  21. ^ Grey Graham, Henry (1901). Scottish men of letters in the eighteenth century. A. and C. Black. p. 148. Retrieved 2010-04-29. kidnapped .
  22. ^ a b c d Hancock, Ian (1986). "The Cryptolectal Speech of the American Roads: Traveler Cant and American Angloromani". American Speech. 61 (3): 206–20. doi:10.2307/454664. JSTOR 454664.
  23. ^ Travelling People — Highland Travellers.
  24. ^ Amber Wilkinson, Death Defying Acts: Movie Review.
  25. ^ The Yellow on the broom; Sangstories--stories of Scottish songs
  26. ^ Zwicker, Marianne (November 2007). "Review of Nord, Deborah Epstein, Gypsies and the British Imagination, 1807-1930". H-Net.
  27. ^ "Research and Articles - History of Fairs - Showmen's Guild - Sections :: National Fairground Archive". Retrieved 2012-03-23.
  28. ^ "Voices - The Voices Recordings - Travelling showmen and women". BBC. 2005-01-24. Retrieved 2012-03-23.
  29. ^ a b Worlds Fair.
  30. ^ Partridge, Eric (1937) Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English


  • Scottish Clans & Tartans (ISBN 0-600-31935-0) by Ian Grimble (1973); 3rd edition (revised impression 1982)
  • Traveller's Joy: Songs of English and Scottish Travellers and Gypsies 1965-2005 by Mike Yates, Elaine Bradtke, Malcolm Taylor, and David Atkinson (2006)