Scottish Gypsy Travellers’ Life Under Lockdown

As an international think tank based in Scotland it is fitting that we begin this blog series with a post about a community right here at home; a community whose voice and struggles have been routinely silenced at every opportunity for the past 500 years. The Scottish Gypsy Travellers have been denied ‘identity, visibility and respect’[1], and the outbreak of the coronavirus and resulting lockdown measures are piling onto their pre-existing struggles.

‘Official’ history hides, misrepresents and mythologises Gypsy Travellers, serving to help socially and economically marginalise communities and quash their nomadic lifestyle, resulting in a situation when the average male lifespan is 52, and 95% are unemployed[2]. Being aware of how mainstream education is complicit in marginalising this community makes it all the more imperative that we work with them now, on their terms. So, let us firstly shed light on who they are, learning from their version of events using the pictorial history produced by community member Shamus McPhee as our source:

A history of persecution

The first official record of Romani Gypsies in Scotland was noted in the Book of the Treasurer to King James IV in 1505, and over the following 300 years the nomadic tinsmiths of Scotland merged with the Roma gypsies, resulting in ‘Gypsy Traveller’ clans, such as the McPhees. Right from the beginning of their official recognition, their persecution was legalised, including being legally hung and drowned in a manner resembling witch trials. Moving further through their history, progressive restrictions on roadside camping have been enacted. In 1865 it became a criminal offence to camp on private property without the consent of the landowner, and by 1994 the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act forbade it even when permission had been granted! The full array of targeted acts against their nomadic lifestyle were done to promote a settled existence, where dissent was punished accordingly, often taking the form of deportation to British colonies and inclusion in the Caribbean slave trade. Historical discrimination of communities frequently means they remain marginalised, being denied community-led redress.

During the 1950’s, ‘experiment sites’ were chosen as the best policy to ensure they remained settled. By providing Gypsy Travellers with substandard homes, their good behaviour and sedentary lifestyle was to be rewarded with improved housing.  Conditional on local councils’ approval, however, 90% of planning applications have been refused[3]. Such sites are still widespread and include Bobbin Mill in Pitlochry, picture above[4], where Shamus and his sister Roseanna grew up. Roseanna McPhee is a social justice activist and educator, having a key involvement in the historic ruling of 2009 that the Gypsy Traveller community are legally an ethnic minority[5]. Roseanna is also on the TGP board of directors; the production of this blog has been done with her involvement, and we are proud to work with and learn from her.

No heating, no help – not even on the map

‘Experiment sites’ are particularly vulnerable to the pandemic and the adverse impacts of lockdown, which is having a significant impact on residents. Many members of the Bobbin Mill site have long-term auto-immune and neuro-immune conditions (a result of their impoverished conditions at the hand of their historic discrimination), and, as such, an outbreak in the community could be extremely deadly. This is amplified by their cramped conditions- at the Tarvit Mill site for instance, just down the road from St Andrews in Cupar, Fife council advised a family get rid of two caravans where children slept because of apparent fire risks, moving a large family including teenagers and children into one space. Thus, the instruction to self-isolate should a family fall ill is made incredibly challenging.

Years of neglect by councils mean staying at home is incredibly difficult. Electricity, for example, is bought by toping up meter keys, so lockdown conditions have left some homes without heating (the central living areas have no heating facilities regardless). Bobbin Mill had a breakthrough in the last few days, after waiting for SSE to supply them with online meter key top ups.

Why did it prove so difficult to switch online?

Their site is quite literally off the map.

Their postcode is unrecognised, and despite a six-year battle with the council since a caravan burned down and the fire brigade was unable to find its location, it remains unrecognised… Supermarkets have issues delivering to the site, and a supply of logs supposed to be sent for additional heating has gone off the radar. For a community with low employment and education levels due to their marginalisation, community members are struggling to work online set ups, with Tarvit Mill also having difficulties. Despite high levels of disability and vulnerability of members at this site too, they never received letters confirming them as a ‘high risk’ category and therefore struggle with accessing food delivery slots. The end results are they live in poor health on sites which were purposely substandard in the 1950’s, are running out of coal and logs, and are having issues with purchasing more energy and food. The community worries that, because this is an issue which won’t affect the majority and they are so marginalised, it could turn into “a bit of an emergency”.

Briefly, it is necessary to mention the situation surrounding those who still are on the move. Roseanna tells us that because Scottish national parks have closed with police turning people away, alongside the instructions to stay home, the communities who travel have had to disappear off the map with people struggling to locate exactly where they are. The anxieties this causes around those in the wider Gypsy Traveller community who have lost touch with friends just adds to their fear and trepidation, especially knowing the difficulty they will be facing in getting hold of gas canisters for cooking in caravans.

An unprecedented opportunity?

These are worrying times for the community, and with few reassurances about their safety it is essential that these fears are heard. Few of us are aware of the realities Gypsy Travellers face- their voices are lost and ignored, falling into an abyss of stereotypes and discrimination. Today, we are all worried about our friends, family and access to resources; this is the stuff of everyday life for many members of marginalised communities. In all this despair there is hope: we can use this lens to look to a post-crisis situation where the voices of those facing injustice and marginalisation are offered the microphone. We can promote their endeavours, such as ‘RAJPOT’, which proposes to be the first Gypsy Traveller led inter-cultural peace centre aiming to give voice to their experiences and allow their stories to resonate. We believe this blog series is an opportunity to share these stories, experiences, and endeavours, and hope to continue offering the platform to as many frontline communities as possible.

* Anyone from the community reading this, the number for a remote top-up of meter keys call:  0345 070 7378 (Roseanna says it takes about a week for the new key to arrive with your new balance) *

Written by Jamie Hinch, TGP’s Emerging Researchers Programme Coordinator, in collaboration with Roseanna McPhee, Scottish Gypsy Traveller social justice activist and TGP board member.

References:

[1] https://www.iriss.org.uk/sites/default/files/2017-06/gt-timeline-A4-web.pdf

[2] http://www.hidden-treasures.org.uk/about-shamus-mcphee

[3] Ibid.

[4] Sent to us by Roseanna McPhee.

[5] For more information on the case, here is a lecture where Roseanna discusses the ruling: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0m4cMP8srSQ&t=1157s

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