We’re a’ Jock Tamson’s bairns. This is a saying I remember from my childhood and is a statement of equality equivalent to ‘we are all God’s children’. It is said that the Reverend John Thomson, minister of Duddingston Kirk, Edinburgh, from 1805 to 1840, called the members of his congregation ‘ma bairns’ (children in English).
Today the western world is once again having to face up to the engrained issue of racism in the modern society we all inhabit. We focus on those who shout loudest about their plight and there is no doubt in the UK the racism we focus on is recent, particularly since the end of the British Empire.
When I was a young boy I had to deal with racism of a home-grown kind. Back in the 1950s when I was growing up there were no families from the old British Empire living in the village outside of Glasgow where I spent my early youth. We lived in a council house built by the local authorities and our neighbours were all born and bred in the Glasgow area with many rehoused from the slum tenement houses that were being demolished in Glasgow.
My long summer holidays were spent up in the Highlands on my uncle and aunt’s croft. A croft is a piece of land, with a crofter’s dwelling. My uncle as a crofter is someone who has use of the land as a tenant farmer. As you can imagine life for them was tough and communities stuck together like glue.
During the long summer I can always remember the visits of people we back then called ‘tinkers’ in English and who my aunt referred to in Gaelic as ‘ceàrd-staoin’. In the politically correct world of today we refer to these people as ‘travellers’. Back then families of travellers moved about Scotland living in what some still call tinkers tents but more correctly known as bell tents due to their shape.
Today ‘traveller’ is a misnomer, because they no longer travel. The name ceàrd-staoin means tinsmith in English highlighting their skills with a delicate hammer fashioning tin into kettles and teapots, and repairing these items when they came around houses, especially in summer. They sold clothes pegs and wooden flowers which they had fashioned themselves, and they were a source of labour helping to bring in the harvests.
Many of them would travel to cities such as Glasgow where they wintered sheltering from the worst of the Highland weather. Come the Spring they would hit the road in the better weather their carts pulled by horses at a leisurely pace towards traditional stances where they pitched their tents and lit campfires as they had done for generations.
Unfortunately, many people judge them by the actions of the lawless few amongst the traveller community. Today in some places where it has been proposed to establish permanent sites with modern facilities, there has been angry opposition.
Little wonder tinkers who have moved into permanent housing don’t declare their origins for fear of reprisals. Some go to extraordinary lengths to hide their identity and as one woman residing in a Glasgow housing estate said, “If my husband knew I was of tinker stock he would leave me.”
A young Scottish traveller called Davie Donaldson recently asked on a YouTube video, “Is it right that my people are still banned from shops like dogs? We’ve been in Scotland for more than 1,000 years. We have our own language, our own customs.”
One of the reasons tinkers have been demonised in the past was because superstitious people felt threatened by them, believing they had the ability to place a “mallachd”, or curse, on those who denied them food and a place to camp.
We need to be more tolerant and cease this Scottish home-grown and inappropriate racism.