Although there is Gypsy blood in some Highland Traveller families, scholars believe that genetic and historic links with Highland Travellers are more likely to be found among Scandinavian Lapps, northern Siberians and Canadian Inuit. However the precise origins of Highland Travellers remain unclear.
The Travellers were never without an income. On their travels they found work as tin-smiths, hawkers, horse-dealers and pearl-fishers as well as entertainers, salesmen and news-bringers. They also did seasonal farmwork such as harvesting and latterly berry picking.
There is no question that Highland Travellers have played an essential role in the preservation of traditional Gaelic culture. Apart from trading in goods and services, the Travellers' outstanding contribution to Highland life has been as custodians of an ancient and vital singing, storytelling and folklore tradition of great importance.
The Travellers' linguistic heritage includes a fascinating pigeon-Gaelic 'cover-tongue' called Beurla-reagaird. It was used, just as Gypsies used the Romany tongue, as a way of keeping their business secret from strangers - and is related to the Irish Traveller dialect known as Shelta.
Pressure to conform to a modern society has led to a decline in the traditional way of life. Employment, medical and social security opportunities all demand a fixed address. Most families stopped travelling in the 1950s, and the majority of those who have not entered the settled population now live in caravans on special council-owned campsites. Metalworkers have entered the scrap-metal business; horse-dealers have moved into road haulage. Today it is estimated there are no more than 2,000 Travellers and Gypsies still living 'on the road' in Scotland.
Click to enlarge the image, read the text then answer the following questions.
- What were the origins of the Highland Travellers?
- How have Highland Travellers helped to preserve Gaelic culture?
- What part did the Highland Travellers play in the Highland economy (i.e. what work did they do)?
- Describe how life has changed for the Highland Traveller communities since the 1950s.