The Travelling People include two groups - the Romany Gypsies and the Highland Travellers. Although linked loosely in culture and language, the Highland Travellers have their roots in Gaeldom, though their precise origins remain unclear; Romany Gypsies, on the other hand, originated in India.
Gypsies have been part of Scottish society for at least 500 years. The first official mention of Gypsies in Britain was in 1505, when it was recorded that seven pounds were paid to 'Egyptianis' by King James IV at Stirling. They enjoyed a privileged place in Scottish society until the Reformation, when their wandering lifestyle and exotic culture brought severe persecution upon them.
The 'Ceardannan' or 'Black Tinkers'
Although Gypsy blood is found in some Highland Traveller families, they are more strongly identified with the native Highland population. Many families carry clan names like Stewart, MacDonald, Cameron and Macmillan. In Gaelic they are known as the 'Ceardannan' (the craftsmen, or 'Black Tinkers'), or poetically as 'the Summer Walkers'.
Highland Travellers and the settled population
Like Romany Gypsies, Highland Travellers followed a nomadic lifestyle; passing from village to village among the settled population. They would pitch their bow-tents on rough ground on the edge of the village and earn money there as tin-smiths, hawkers, horse-dealers and pearl-fishers. Many found seasonal employment on farms, e.g. at the berry picking or during harvest. They also brought entertainment and news to the country folk.
An outstanding cultural contribution
Certainly Highland Travellers have played a crucial role in preserving traditional Gaelic culture. Their outstanding contribution to Highland life is as heirs and custodians of a vital and ancient tradition of singing, storytelling and folklore. The Travellers' tongue includes a fascinating 'pigeon-Gaelic' called 'Beurla-reagaird'. It is related to the Irish Traveller 'cant' or dialect known as 'Shelta'. It was used, just as Gypsies used the Romany tongue, as a way of keeping their business secret from strangers.
An uncertain future
Although worldwide interest in Celtic music has renewed interest in Traveller culture, the reality for all Travellers has been the decline of their traditional life 'on the road'. Most families stopped travelling in the 1950s, and of those who did not most now live in caravans on special campsites provided by local authorities. There are probably fewer than 2,000 Travellers and Gypsies still living 'on the road' in Scotland. Metalworkers became scrap-metal dealers; horse-dealers moved into road haulage. The pressure to conform within modern society has proved unavoidable; employment, health and social services demand a fixed address.
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