It is a beautiful day in early May, and we are driving through the meandering roads of Fife, straddled by rolling fields glistening in the early summer sunshine. Barely two miles from Cupar and on the road to Edinburgh, we take a sharp right turn. Nowhere on our short journey have we observed a signpost or mere indication of the place we are visiting, other than the innocuous bus stop nearby. Upon entering the drive we are greeted to the words “Warning: Security cameras are in operation on these premises – 24 hour video recording facility” and what appears to be a height restriction barrier. A few dozen yards further, past a guard house, the road winds into a small lane with a dozen or so caravans parked to its sides, monitored by eleven security cameras.
Welcome to Tarvit Mill. Just under twenty minutes from St Andrews, it is the largest traveller site in Fife, but by all appearances you could be forgiven for mistaking it for a buffer zone of some sort on entry. Having heard so much of the persistent discrimination Scottish Gypsy Travellers suffer, we have come to hear about it first hand right on our very doorstep, in the company of no less than Roseanna McPhee, one of the country’s leading activists on this issue.
The official term Gypsy Travellers encompasses a diversity of communities with distinct backgrounds and customs. Irish Travellers and Romani are among the best-known, but the most numerous and historically prominent here are those native to Scotland. The origins of Scottish Travellers are to this day shrouded in uncertainty, but they are in all probability the country’s oldest ethnic group, references to them dating to the 12th century. Over the centuries they have made their mark on the country’s economy and culture, most conspicuously in the latter field, with outstanding contributions to Scottish music, art and language. Travelling is a fundamental aspect of their cultural heritage, and by no means a “lifestyle choice.” Current numbers are difficult to account for, roughly 2,000 not spending time in housing and 15,000 who do.
But even today, Gypsy Travellers in Scotland suffer from discrimination on a scale and scope all too reminiscent of that of their European and British relatives. In terms of housing, local councils provide nowhere near enough sites and road-side camps, fitted with adequate services and in safe surroundings, to meet demand, and successful planning applications are notoriously rare. Some GPs refuse to attend to Gypsy Travellers or visit sites, poor accommodation conditions also contributing to sharply lower life expectancies than the national average. Employment discrimination, even targeting graduates, is rife, education boards fail to properly consider the needs of Gypsy Traveller children and tackle bullying of them, and available legal representation is rare. That is before endemic racial abuse and harassment are even mentioned.
Arriving with Roseanna, we are welcomed into Kenny and Mary’s caravan (fearing retribution from the council, they request their real names not be published) to talk about their lives. They have been in Tarvit Mill ever since it was built in 1988, as have many of the other twenty families. Confirming that unemployment is an issue, affecting 90% of those living in Tarvit Mill, Mary tells us she has never held a formal job and only just begun her second informal one. Despite her endless efforts, she says the inclusion of Tarvit Mill, or any traveller site, as an address on a job application form is effectively a death knell for any employment prospects. A police van whistles into the drive and out, an average surveillance check by the council, Kenny suggests.
Regarding their personal experiences of discrimination, Kenny says for years he has enjoyed boxing and playing in a nearby pipe band, only to give up the former and now have to commute all the way to Pitlochry to reherse, upon his trainer and bandmates discovering that he was a “Tinker.” As for the cooperation of Fife Council, they tell us it is usually stubbornly slow in coming, perhaps deliberately so, highlighting that in the throes of the last winter, the coldest in living memory, the council failed to turn up for weeks to restore basic services and clear snow, in spite of numerous calls and it being based a mere two minutes’ drive away. Their hopes for change are modest; better accomodation and services and reform of a system which charges for the “slab of concrete” on which the caravan is parked a rent, comprising both council and community taxes, equal to or even higher than that for a three-bedroom house.
We left under the impression that Kenny and Mary’s reality was a little better than we had initially feared, something they themselves suggested when citing the conditions of other sites. In fact, Fife Council is considered to be among the better ones in their treatment of Gypsy Travellers. But not all is perfect here, a need for more transit pitches highlighted by Amnesty Scotland and word of health discrimination near Kirkcaldy and tensions in Crail surrounding the establisment of a new site such examples. On a national level, a landmark ruling in 2008 granting Gypsy Travellers legal status as an ethnic group and the Church of Scotland’s apology in May for its historic treatment of them, are small steps in a decade in which the issue has finally entered the political debate. None of that though represents a sea change in attitudes, a disturbing proportion of society polled as hostile to the travelling community and successive governments doing next to nothing to decisively end the travellers’ misery and proffer a genuine opportunity for their acceptance and integration. As we walked out of the site, wary of attracting attention under the cameras’ watchful gaze, reaching Cupar and the “settled community” within minutes, the scale of that detatchment and neglect became very real to us. It is up to us to press for an end to this medieval reality in 21st century Scotland.
This is the original version of the article ‘A Traveller’s Troubles,’ published in The Saint newspaper on March 1, 2012 (http://www.thesaint-online.com/2012/03/a-traveller%E2%80%99s-troubles/)