Martyn Bennett: Travellers

Martyn Bennett: Travellers

By the age of twelve I was winning prizes in many of the junior piping competitions around Scotland, however I was really more interested in playing the folk scene. Being a young prodigy meant that I got a lot of attention at the folk festivals, as there were very few young musicians around at that time. It was also a total gas being snuck into the pubs under someone’s coat and getting the pipes out before anyone had noticed the under-age drinker. By the time I’d got through the first tune and the place was jumping they were hardly going to chuck me out were they?

It was at these festivals that I met with 'real' people. People who came from an oral tradition that had been passed down; folk like the Travellers (Romany Gypsies), Gaelic singers and bards - all great musicians, storytellers and tradition bearers, of whom many are sadly no more. I’m aware that this is an experience that very few people of my age will ever know and one that I feel has been a privilege to pass on - see GRIT.

Martyn was usually composer, performer and producer on his albums with his talent allowing him to play several parts and mix them together, along with the sampled sounds, anyway he wanted. His last album, GRIT, saw him focus on the songs of travelling people and the sounds of the Gaelic songs of the west coast of Scotland to produce what he called ‘my hardest, most beatiest project yet’. The vocals featured on the track 'Move' from the album are that of the famous Scottish tradtional singer Sheila Stewart of Rattray who came from a family of Travellers. Martyn had known Sheila since he was a youngster. The track also features extracts from ‘The Moving on Song’ writen by Ewan MacColl which served to highlight the struggle and persecution of the Roma, the oldest race of nomadic people in Europe. In Martyn’s liner notes he states ‘They have certainly been in Scotland for well over one thousand years’. - What A Voice: Gypsy/Travellers

'As far as culture is concerned, travelling people are the roots and the heart of the Scottish tree. There are many branches that need putting in their place in Scotland.'
Sheila Stewart, MBE Ballad Singer and Author

The origins of Scottish Gypsy/Travellers are as elusive as they are fascinating; their vibrant culture, nomadic  way of life and strong family ties are all part of a tradition  in which many of us can find our roots - indeed, 'settled life' as we know it is a relatively modern phenomenon. Often romanticised, repeatedly criticised: the nomadic lifestyle and heritage of Gypsy/Travellers always provokes a strong reaction.

NB: The term Gypsy/Traveller has sparked debate throughout the travelling community, with many preferring to self-define as 'Scottish Traveller', or, more simply, 'Traveller'.


'The origins of the Scottish Gypsy/Traveller population remain disputed, but there is a degree of common  opinion that suggests they have their roots in a Celtic - and possibly pre-Celtic - nomad population in Scotland.  There has been, historically, some inter-marriage and social/trading networks  with the Roma, a nomadic  population that, it is argued, migrated from India, through Egypt and through Eastern Europe [hence I Gypsies I & I Romanies j to Western Europe [Whyte: 2001].

Written evidence of their presence in Britain can be dated 1505 in Edinburgh and is taken from an account written up by the then Lord  High Treasurer of Scotland. [Fraser 1995, pp.111-112] [....] Objectively, we can say that contemporary Scottish Gypsy/Travellers in Scotland are part of a nomadic community that has endured for centuries throughout the whole of Scotland.' Clark, C., [2006] Scottish Affairs, No. 54, Winter [pp. 39-67].

No longer viewed a forgotten minority, the Scottish Gypsy/Traveller community is now recognised by the Scottish Government as an ethnic  group - bringing them under the protection of the Race Relations Act 1976 - and is comprised of several distinct groups; each with their own rich cultural origins, traditions, histories and language. The term 'Traveller' is an all-encompassing and generic one, used to describe someone with a nomadic heritage and/or lifestyle, and includes the following groups: Highland and Lowland Scottish Travellers, Occupational  Travellers, Romanichals, Irish Travellers, English Gypsies, Welsh Kale, European Roma and, more recently, 'New Travellers'.

New Travellers [people who have shunned the constraints of mainstream life and taken to the road] are not regarded as 'proper' Travellers however, and are accordingly not afforded the same protection on the basis of their ethnic status.

Today, the identity of Gypsy/Travellers can take many forms: some families are constantly on the road, some only travel for part of the year and others live in 'bricks and mortar' houses. Sadly some were even taken away from their own families in an attempt to assimilate Gypsy/Travellers into mainstream culture  and destroy their community. However, regardless of lifestyle and upbringing, members of the Gypsy/Traveller community share a strong sense of cultural identity - which continues to thrive through traditional crafts and fairs, and via the oral mediums of storytelling and music.

NOMADIC [nəʊˈmædɪk]

In a society that places such a strong emphasis  on education, people within the settled community find it difficult to comprehend a culture that does not value formal education as much as they do. Various attempts have been made over the years to try and assimilate Gypsy/Traveller children into mainstream education. However, it is important to remember that the skills traditionally required by Scottish Gypsy/Travellers are not dependent  upon participation in formal education.

Travelling culture emphasises the importance of passed-down skills, caring for your family and learning through an oral culture of parables and story-telling. This, along with issues such as a lack of authorised sites [which makes long-term access to education  difficult], and the horrific abuse and bullying Gypsy/Travellers often face at school because of their ethnicity  and way of life, means that even today Scottish Gypsy/Travellers  often do not complete mainstream education.  That said, there is anecdotal evidence to suggest that if schools provided classes in vocational  subjects  such as landscape gardening or forestry, there would be a greater incentive for young Gypsy/Travellers to stay in school.

A more culturally aware approach to education needs to be implemented on a nation-wide basis; remote learning - or 'e-learning' - provides a realistic platform for non-mainstream education, as would  on-site teachers. More Gypsy/Travellers working  in the teaching profession would also perhaps encourage Traveller children to attend school, thus helping to resolve the literacy issues that are still a daily part of the lives of Gypsy/Travellers living in Scotland today. Literacy issues impact upon many important areas of everyday life, such as: health care, employment and learning to drive- something of obvious significance to a person who lives a transient lifestyle.

HERITAGE [ˈhɛrɪtɪdʒ]

Despite being a part  of British society for over 500 years, much of the history of Scottish Gypsy/Travellers has not been recorded and, as a result, many theories abound concerning their origins. What can be said with complete confidence however, is that Scottish Gypsy/Travellers are descended from true survivors; survival still being a key characteristic within the community today.

References in documents & literature as far back  as the 12th  Century  give mention of groups of itinerant people moving around the country looking for work. Common Scottish Gypsy/Traveller surnames include McPhee, MacDonald & Stewart [variations of these names are not uncommon within the Gypsy/Traveller community]; this connection with some of the greatest tribes of Scotland has led many to believe that Scottish Gypsy/ Travellers are descended from 'wandering clansmen'. Marriage between groups such as Scottish Travellers and Romany Gypsies has broadened the travelling community and strengthened bonds between these different cultures.

ORIGINS [ˈɒrɪdʒɪns]
  • 53 B.C.E. Post Roman Invasion: fairs are being held within the United Kingdom.
  • 11OOs 'Travelling Smiths' are mentioned in Scottish documents.
    Travellers are recorded in Ireland.
  • 1200s Fairs are being commissioned by the Royal Charter.
    Towards the turn of the 13th Century, Roma begin to arrive in Western Europe.
  • 1498 Christopher Columbus makes his voyage to the New World, with four Gypsies.
  • 1505 King James IV paid money to 'Egyptians' who had stopped in Stirling.
    Parish records show Irish Travellers living in England.
  • 1530 King Henry VIII forbids Gypsies to enter England and deports any already living in the country.
  • 1554 Mary, Queen of England, passes a law [The Egyptians Act] which meant Gypsies were subject to the death penalty. The Egyptians Act also outlawed keeping the company of Gypsies; this too was punishable by death.
  • 1570s Scottish Gypsy/Travellers are ordered to stop travelling - or leave Scotland.
    Evidence of the Kale Gypsies in Wales is recorded for the first time.
  • 1650s The last known  recorded  evidence  of a Gypsy being hung for the 'crime'  of being a Gypsy.  Gypsies at this time were being deported to America.
  • 1660-1800  English Gypsies, referring to themselves as Romanichals, find work and safety from trusted people living within the settled community.
  • 1685 Appleby Fair is granted chartered fair status by King James II.
  • 1714 Gypsies from Britain are shipped as slaves to the Caribbean.
  • 1780 Certain anti-Gypsy laws begin to be repealed.
  • 1830s Horse-drawn vardos make an appearance, but many Gypsy/Travellers continued to live in bow tents.
  • 1880s Agricultural depression hits England, and many Gypsy/Travellers are forced to move into extremely poor urban areas.
    High numbers of Irish Travellers arrive in Britain.
  • 1908 The Children's Act makes education for Gypsy/Traveller children compulsory in England- but only for half of the year.
  • 1939-45 World War Two: lists of British Gypsies to be confined are drawn up by the Nazis; Roma, Sinti and other Gypsies have all their human rights taken away from them - including forced sterilisation.
    During the Porraimos [the 'Devouring'], which is the European Roma Holocaust, it is believed that an estimated 600,000 Gypsies were shot by execution troops, fascist gang members or murdered in concentration camps and gas chambers.
  • 1945-60 The use of more modern trailers - or caravans - begins.
    Land for private sites is being bought by Gypsy/Travellers.
  • 1960 The Caravan Sites [Control of Development] Act prevents new sites from being built in England and mass evictions of Gypsy/Travellers take place.
    The Irish Government  makes provisions to attempt to integrate Irish Travellers into mainstream society via their Commission on ltinerancy.
  • 1968 Caravan Sites Act: from 1970 the government are under obligation to provide authorised sites for Gypsy/Travellers.
  • 1989 Romany Gypsies are recognised under the Mandla Criteria, and are therefore protected  under the Race Relations Act 1976.
  • 1994 The Caravan Sites Act is abolished under the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act,  at the time leaving more than 5000 families without a legal home.  Local councils become obligated to find land for private purchase, an obligation which not one adhered to.
  • 2000 Irish Travellers are recognised as an ethnic minority under the Mandla Criteria and are therefore protected under the Race Relations Act 1976.
  • 2008 Scottish Gypsy/Travellers achieve recognised ethnic status.
TRADITION [trəˈdɪʃən]

Perhaps the one aspect of their culture for which Scottish Gypsy/Travellers are most revered, is that of their traditions. The celebrated oral culture  of Scottish Gypsy/Travellers still continues to thrive through traditional songs and ballads, story-telling and the sharing and passing down of history and traditional crafts from generation to generation.

The implementation of an oral culture can be attributed to living an insular and nomadic lifestyle - resulting in isolation from mainstream society and its influence - and the pursuit of traditional means of employment which do not require a person to be able to read or write.


For many settled or 'country' people, the one thing most associated with the travelling community is their living accommodation. The image of beautiful and intricately carved wagons - or vardos - pulled by very well looked after horses often springs to mind. However, many Scottish Gypsy/Travellers up until relatively recently lived in bow tents; bow tents, or gelly tents, are made using flexible wood such as willow or hazel which is woven together and covered to form a shelter, blending in exceptionally well with their surroundings [often hidden wooded areas]- very eco-friendly by today's standards.

Today the majority of Scottish Gypsy/Travellers live, at least throughout the travelling season, in trailers [known to country or settled folk as caravans]. Indeed, some manufacturers specialise in creating trailers according to Gypsy/Traveller custom and tradition.

"The squirrels of Scotland were once red. You must still remember these small, agile creatures that lacked the aggressive qualities of the grey squirrel? These creatures gradually massacred and drove out the more demure and refined Scottish breed. the native red squirrel is now a rarity, confined mostly to very small pockets in the north of Scotland. The remorseless grinding-down of the Scottish Travelling culture can be likened to the gradual decline of our native red squirrel. But being born into such a struggle should not lead to despair. We do not especially like the idea that one day we shall be tapped on the shoulder and informed that our way of life is over. We may differ on many things but what we respect is our freedom to lead the life of our ancestors. And we shall defend it. Very often, the test of one's allegiance to a cause or to a people is precisely the willingness to stay the course when things get tough. So we must always be prepared to go one more round with those hostile and indifferent grey squirrels."
Sandy Reid, Author

FAMILY [ˈfæmɪlɪ ˈfæmlɪ]

Family is of huge importance to Scottish Gypsy/Travellers, with many still travelling and/or living together as extended family units. This close-knit community provides great support, companionship and protection for the Gypsy/Traveller population - and is not dependent on living a transient lifestyle.

Even today, for many Gypsy/Traveller families, caring for relatives is not generally done outwith the family, and it is still relatively rare to see an elderly Gypsy/Traveller in a care home or a child placed in a nursery. Often girls will leave school early [at least by mainstream education standards] in order to help out with raising younger siblings and looking after the home.
This is seen as preparation for marriage, and as older sisters leave to start their own married lives, younger ones will step-up and take on their duties until they start a marriage and family of their own.

Close family ties also extend to work; with fathers, sons, brothers and uncles often working together in a trade passed on through the generations.

HEALTH [hɛlθ]

Health is one of the key areas in which Scottish Gypsy/Travellers face huge discrimination and inequality. Many find it difficult to access a decent level of health care - a basic human right which the majority of the settled community in the United Kingdom take for granted.

Issues such as a lack of fixed address and a reluctance to interact with health professionals, due to mistrust and experience of prejudice and discrimination, have led to Gypsy/Travellers suffering a range of preventable health problems  - leaving them subject to a shorter life expectancy [compared with the general population]. According to the Equality and Human Rights Commission [EHRC], the life expectancy for Gypsy/Travellers, both male and female, is around ten years less than the national average. The EHRC also state that Gypsy/Traveller parents are 20 times more likely to experience the death of a child than parents within the wider general population.

The absence of any real culturally tailored health care system, stress as a result of the lack of official sites/continually being moved on by authorities, discrimination within the work sector and literacy issues can all cause physical and mental ill-health - with mental ill-health still being a subject of fear and denial. It is important also to note that being forced into 'bricks and mortar' accommodation can itself brings its own range of issues.

RITUAL [ˈrɪtjʊəl]

The culture of Scottish Gypsy/Travellers is steeped in ritual - adding to the mysticism often associated with the travelling community.

Gypsy/Travellers tend still to adhere to traditional gender roles: the men going out to work and the women staying home to look after the children, cook and clean. It is commonplace for young Gypsy/Travellers to start these roles from early adolescence.

Gypsy/Travellers still marry young by today's standards, with many being wed in their teens. In the past, some families would marry off their daughters in order of age, and in some cases the marriage may not have been legal in the eyes of the law, but it was most definitely binding to those involved. Today, as before, many families hold strict views of how their daughters should behave, and sex before marriage is not generally endorsed by older members of the travelling community.

The miracle of life is very much seen as a female domain within the Gypsy/Traveller community. Traditionally, women would be attended by members of their family and extended  social network at the birth of their children. Many babies were born in tents which would then be burned afterwards, as a result of the view that childbirth and post-natal women were ritually unclean. This view also meant that for a period of time after the birth, post-natal women would be relieved of their normal 'duties'; these tasks would be carried out in the interim by female relatives.

Today, it is relatively common for Gypsy/Travellers give birth in hospitals; however, many do not attend ante-natal and post -natal care due to the perceived negative attitude of health care professionals and mothers from the settled community.

As a birth is celebrated by the whole community, so is a death mourned. In the past it was commonplace for the trailers of the deceased to be burned upon their death. With such a strong respect for their elders, it is only natural that when a loved one dies their loss is felt not only by their immediate kin, but also by their family and friends within the wider community - with the news spreading quickly through Gypsy/Traveller networks. Often the resting place of the deceased is visited on a regular basis and the practice of using 'family names' is still very popular. Other rituals surrounding death include: wearing 'mourning clothes' and not eating red meat for a specific period of time after a loved one has passed away.

One strange stereotype associated with Gypsy/Travellers is that they are dirty. In fact, this could not be further from the truth: Gypsy/Travellers adhere to a strict set of rules relating to cleanliness. Gypsy/Travellers tend not to use the toilets in their trailers, with some utilising them as storage instead.  Many also have trailers made to their own specification,  leaving out kitchen and toilet areas in favour of more useable living space. It is considered unhygienic to go to the toilet in the same area as you cook or clean, and many Gypsy/Travellers have separate spaces for these necessities - or they prepare their food outside; Gypsy/Travellers traditionally never wash their hands in the same place as they wash their dishes.

Religious beliefs are still very important to many Gypsy/Travellers, with certain  religious conventions attracting large numbers from within the travelling community. As with any other culture, everyone has their own beliefs - which are to be respected by others.

LANGUAGE [ˈlæŋgwɪdʒ]

The language of Scottish Gypsy Travellers remains somewhat of a mystery; the insular nature of the travelling community has enabled this language to remain elusive - and Travellers intend to keep it that way. Indeed, Gypsy Traveller language differs between groups, much like any dialect, and there are various superstitions surrounding certain words.

Many consider it taboo to disclose the language of the Scottish Gypsy Traveller community, a language more commonly known as 'Cant'. However, aspects of this language - Romany, Old Scots and Gaelic - can give us an insight into the roots of Scottish Gypsy!fraveller culture. This language also emphasises again the importance of passing traditions down, and keeping them alive, through an oral culture. Cant has developed through this insular and traditional community into a language in its own right.

Despite the language of Cant remaining relatively elusive, some of the words used by Gypsy/ Travellers have become incorporated into the everyday language of people in the settled community. For example, did you know?

Barrie = Treat, Shan = Bad, Scran = Food, Gadgie = An Older Man, Radge = Wild, Cratur = Person

Scottish Gypsy/Travellers have always moved around in order to find work. However, traditional seasonal work such as: berry picking, pearl fishing, horse dealing, farm work and jobs such as travelling tinsmith or selling wares to people in their homes [known as hawking], have now given way to more 'modern', but still manual, forms of work, for example: roofing, dealing in scrap metal and landscaping - although many do still deal in horses, or go hawking [which is often done in family groups]. In order to legally go out hawking, Gypsy/Travellers, and indeed anyone else, must first obtain a 'Pedlars Certificate'; regional variations apply, and the police will first check that a person is 'of good character' before issuing this certificate.

Many Scottish Gypsy/Travellers are self-employed; this is due in large to both their lifestyle and the fact that discrimination and prejudice still play a major part in the problems they face in gaining employment within the settled community.  Indeed many often hide their ethnicity from employers and colleagues for fear of losing their job.

This discrimination, coupled with the literacy issues that are still all too prevalent, means that Gypsy/Travellers are still living and working very much as an insular community.  While this in itself is a good thing culturally, it is important to note that unless the Gypsy/Traveller community and the settled community learn to interact with and accept one another, fear, mistrust and discrimination will continue to thrive.

DISCRIMINATION [dɪˌskrɪmɪˈneɪʃən]

Discrimination, harassment and abuse are sadly all themes which coexist  with the long history of the travelling community. The 'moral majority' have always feared that which they perceive as different, and, in turn, threatening. Common myths and stereotypes about Gypsy/Travellers have contributed to this fear and dislike. Throughout history there have been various laws in place to govern the Gypsy/Traveller community; from punishments such as deportation and the death penalty, to more modern forms of control such as fines and imprisonment, the laws of Scotland, and indeed the United Kingdom as a whole, have served only to criminalise and demonise Gypsy/Travellers.

Today, Gypsy/Travellers are recognised by the Scottish Government as an ethnic minority; however, the discrimination this community faces on a daily basis is still all too common. Gypsy/Travellers continue to be victimised by negative press reporting which heightens the tension between the transient and settled populations. The lack of official sites, the blocking off of traditional stopping places and the discrimination  many face when they try to camp on public campsites, mean that Gypsy/Travellers are often forced into camping on unsuitable plots of land: next to busy roads, on industrial estates, near pollutants and so on. Others, having been subjected to continuing harassment from both the media and members of the settled community, choose to camp very remotely so as to avoid further victimisation. These types of camps are not suitable for various reasons, and it is difficult to access the services most of us take for granted such as fresh water, electricity and basic health care - leading to the community becoming increasingly cut-off and cast-out.

Negative stereotyping, expressed through the public and media's allegations of increased crime when Gypsy/Travellers enter an area, has led to the wide-spread belief that the Gypsy/ Traveller community is comprised of criminals. This is in spite of evidence to the contrary; indeed, the Association of Chief Police Officers state that they have no disproportionate problems of criminal activities within the travelling community, while the Equality and Human Rights Commission believe: 'the suspicion with which Travellers are regarded means they are likely to be reported by neighbours or targeted unfairly by the police.'
Equalities and Human Rights Commission [2009]

What A Voice: Article 12


In the United  Kingdom, Gypsy/Travellers continue to be periodically vilified by certain representatives of the British media. This deliberate misrepresentation of an already marginalised community is not only unethical, it also serves to put a whole community in danger.

Unbalanced reporting encourages prejudice; Gypsy/Travellers are a diverse people, and a vulnerable group in the hands of the media. Negative portrayals of Gypsy/Travellers fuel division and segregation from the settled community, increase prejudice and discrimination, and serve to galvanise inaccurate, widely held social beliefs about the culture of Gypsy/Travellers.

TODAY [təˈdeɪ]

As the situation stands today, the Gypsy/Traveller community is not really much further on in terms of acceptance than they were 500 years ago. They may no longer face deportation and the death penalty, but they are still a subject of fear and ignorance in today's society.

It is difficult to judge the exact number of Gypsy/Travellers currently living in Scotland, there are no realistic official figures and many are unwilling to identify themselves as Gypsy/Travellers. This is due not only to the mistrust of official bodies, but also for fear of negative repercussions for themselves, and members of their family, in both their personal and professional lives.

Forced to live 'illegally' many are being pushed to the fringes of society. Those who are living on one of the few council sites available in Scotland can be, and have been, subjected to racial harassment from those living around them, with many reporting sub-standard facilities and locations. The few that are lucky enough to live on private land are in the minority. Planning permission is rarely granted, in part largely due to local opposition from residents and council officials. Being forced to move constantly puts the travelling community behind the settled community in terms of access to legal representation, healthcare, education and employment- factors which all impact upon their daily lives.

In short, it has become widely acceptable to discriminate against, harass and racially abuse Gypsy/Travellers. In our politically correct  society it seems strange that this is so easily endured; it goes to show just how much work is needed to finally put a stop to this unacceptable everyday occurrence. In spite of this, the Scottish Gypsy/Traveller community is comprised of survivors, and will continue to thrive and flourish - with or without the approval of the wider society.

Sheila Stewart

The vocals featured on the track 'Move' from the album are that of the famous Scottish tradtional singer Sheila Stewart of Rattray who came from a family of Travellers. Martyn had known Sheila since he was a youngster. "You have achieved what I hoped you were going to achieve, which was to bring the old to the new, and you have bloody done it." Sheila Stewart, MBE Ballad Singer and Author commenting after hearing Martyn Bennett's track 'Move' from the album GRIT.


The name What a Voice was chosen to highlight the fact that, in spite of having an extremely strong cultural ethos, members of the Gypsy/Traveller community still experience huge levels of discrimination when trying to make their voices heard; and continue to be marginalised here in the UK to this day. It is hoped that both the exhibition and the video will be instrumental in helping to bring about the end of the racial discrimination, abuse, negative stereotyping and harassment faced by Scottish Gypsy/Travellers and indeed all Gypsy/Roma/Travellers world-wide on a daily basis.

The long and diverse history and culture of the Gypsy/Traveller community is indeed a fascinating area for research; however, Article 12 in Scotland decided to focus on areas that were of upmost importance to the members of our YGTL steering group. This exhibition covers the issues that this group of young Gypsy/Travellers wanted to highlight, while giving the reader a brief introduction to this fascinating and vibrant community and their culture.

The exhibition was written by Beth Cadger, YGTL Project Researcher; with invaluable input, information and 'fact-checking' from members of the YGTL steering group, who themselves are members of the Scottish Gypsy/Traveller community: lona Burke, Lacey Shaw Forsyth, Megan Gibson, Elizabeth McDonald, Jade McPhee & Bernadette Williamson. Thanks also goes out to Article 12 in Scotland staff - Jill Keegan, Tara McCarthy, Lynne Tammi, Regan Tammi and Chantelle Watson; and to Ritchie Feenie from Kinghorn Creative, for working so hard with the team in order to turn our words into a fantastic visual experience.

Outwith our organisation, Article 12 in Scotland would also like to thank Jess Smith, Sheila Stewart and Sandy Reid for the fine words they provided for our exhibition. Thanks also to Colin Clark, the Gypsy Roma Traveller History Month website, the Equality and Human Rights Commission and the Association of Chief Police Officers for the information that has been used in this  exhibition, and to the Martyn Bennett Trust for their support in using Martyn's music, 'Blackbird' from the album GRIT, in our video. Finally, thanks to our funders the Scottish Government and BIG Lottery.

Scottish Government Big Lottery The Martyn Bennett Trust