Heritage of Scotland’s Travelling People

Jess Smith, author and story-teller from Perthshire’s Travelling People, set out to protect The Tinker’s Heart; little did she know that Scotland needed educating in the ways of a tiny minority of her people.

Scotland’s Travelling People have been around longer than history portrays. I am a Traveller, and although not in the sense of ‘travelling the old roads as my family did in the past’, I still feel that sense of identity, of belonging to the seeds of my ancestors.

As a child I dreamt of one day becoming a writer.  Sadly, when a child is raised within the system of keeping certain threads of the community down, it seemed destined to belong in the realm of dreams.  Yet there’s an old saying, “if you wish hard enough…dreams can come true.”

Not actually as magical as it sounds because I did not just go to bed one night and get up an author. Aged 50, still clinging to my dream, I joined a writers group, took computer lessons and dribbled my memories onto paper; gingerly whispering my little tales as a wanderer’s child, living with a large family in a bus, to the other members of our writers’ group. They enjoyed, encouraged and insisted I send my work off to another reader, or in my case, ‘listener.’  He was an ex-editor of Scot’s Magazine and he liked my work. My story was about a child’s journey, my life as a Scottish Traveller. The publisher read my passion and accepted my manuscript. My journey had begun again. Dreams do come true.

A waterfall of words, memories and a girl to woman tale allowed for three autobiographical books.

Stories hidden in the throats of old Travellers filled the next book, a collection that would live on rather than face the grave. Scotland cannot afford to lose her threads of myths and legends no matter who holds them sacred.

Wars leave women folk in desperate situations, Travellers also fought and died for their country, therefore, I needed to write for them. A novel followed on from these sentiments. I wrote book six for historical reasons, to find as much of the truth as I possibly could unearth, a factual collection to educate the prevailing ignorance about the culture.

As an author, I talk to various organizations. I met a lady at one of the talks who told me about the state of the Tinker’s Heart.

I was stunned and ashamed. Stunned by the neglect and ashamed that for years I had never visited the site; after all it was our only monument, our sacred site of white quartz stones positioned on the road, the old junction.  Traveller’s married there, parents carried newborn to be christened and brokenhearted people took their dead to be blessed.  It had survived centuries, never moving or being dislodged. This is what happens when a place remains on the landscape. We take it for granted; never miss the water until the well runs dry, so to speak.It was at one of these talks (Sandbank near Dunoon) when an elderly lady informed me that our little monument was under threat; The Tinker’s Heart of Argyll, at the old junction with Hell’s Glen and the A815 road, was covered with dung and trampled by cattle.  There’s a new road that runs alongside, sending the old junction into a field.

As I stood on the spot overlooking loch Fyne a chill wind blew through my bones. I was left with one determined thought, “we need to get this old heart beating again!” So, I enquired as to who owned the land on which the now defunct crossroads lies and contacted them. I wrote letters but received no replies. I also went to the local group Here We Are, who refused to help but did, however, erect a cage around the stones and cleaned them up.

Locals had known of the heart for generations, so I began a search for the origins of the site. I heard various stories; one was repeated – that some of the fallen from Culloden were remembered by grieving families, who put in place the white quartz stones. In the far off past, Travellers were known as Cairds; they were connected to clans so maybe this could well be the case.

I approached Historic Scotland, who refused to help, stating the stones had been moved. We had to prove this was not so. They then said, “Stones didn’t meet their criteria”. In the 1920s Lady George Campbell would not allow tar to be laid on the stones due to its sacristy.

MSP Mike Russell then came on board. Nothing was working in our favour, so we went with a Parliament Petition; over 1000 signatures and a successful meeting with the petitions committee gave a new vigor to the campaign. Historic Scotland proceeded to change their criteria regarding Travellers, and on 18th June 2015 they scheduled the Tinker’s Heart as a ‘National Monument’.

I set out to protect a sacred site; little did I realize that Scotland needed educating in the ways of a tiny minority of her people.

No matter who we are, where we come from, we all matter…we all count.

Jess Smith