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Scottish Gypsy Travellers, Human Rights and Socialism

Colin Turbett looks at the struggle of Scottish Gypsy Travellers against prejudice and discrimination.
Scottish Gypsy Travellers are so marginalised a community in Scotland that their lack of rights and basic human dignity is almost taken as read amongst the settled population.

That statement is not an exaggeration. If you get involved in conversation about Gypsy Travellers almost anywhere in Scotland, it is likely that you will soon be hearing stories about drunken “tinkers” who live on the fringes of the law in a descriptive form that assumes that these people are sub-human and outside normal society. Even if the stories are tinged with compassion, sympathy and fondness, there is likely to be little respect shown for the Gypsy Traveller lifestyle as an alternative that we could even learn from. For socialists, to paraphrase Pastor Niemoller, the duty to defend minorities is no liberal pastime, it stems from the knowledge that not to do so imperils us all: a society divided is not about to become converted to socialism.


Shamus McPhee, a Gypsy Traveller activist from Perthshire, spoke at this year’s SSP conference: his opening remarks focused everyone’s attention: “In my halcyon days as a university student, I never imagined that all these years later I would find myself still living on the margins of society – in a caravan with no facilities and unable to get the type of work and living I had studied for.” Shamus’s description, and that of other members of his family, of how they fought against discrimination throughout their time at school in order to get a decent education, are harrowing. Shamus and his brothers and sisters grew up on a site in Pitlochry established as a racial experiment in 1946 to wean Gypsy Travellers away from an itinerant lifestyle into settled housing. The overcrowded second hand huts were deliberately low in standard so as to encourage upward mobility into normal council housing. The experiment failed as the residents steadfastly refused to give up their family ties and way of life, and the site was virtually abandoned even though to this day it is still lived in, and upgrading is still awaited over 55 years later.

A flavour of a travelling lifestyle that has almost been lost can be gleaned from the writings of Jess Smith (1). These describe a life on the roads of Scotland rich in quality and variety; Jess however pulls no punches about the persecution experienced and has demanded an apology from Alex Salmond on behalf of the Scottish Government for the treatment of Scottish Gypsy Travellers. Her father, like Shamus McPhee’s, fought fascism in World War Two only to return to the type of persecution in Scotland that, in extended ethnic cleansing form, had wiped out some 1.5 million Romany Gypsies in Nazi extermination camps.

In the 1950s, Hamish Henderson, Communist and Scottish folklorist, spent a number of Summers travelling with the Gaelic speaking Travellers of the Northern Highlands, learning their stories and soaking up the simple richness of their lives. His memoirs of those years describe a culture that has now disappeared (2), although the oral storytelling tradition, through the likes of Jess Smith, lives on. The tales that have been passed down from generation to generation offer a code, ethics and practical advice that had real meaning to the listeners whose lives were risky affairs on the edge of society.


No one should be in any doubt that Gypsy Travellers who still choose to pursue a mobile lifestyle in Scotland today face an uphill struggle. Traditional stopping places have been closed off, caravans are denied entry to most caravan sites (e.g. those used by touring caravans and mobile homes), and if they want to remain living in a caravan, Gypsy Travellers are corralled onto official sites which themselves reduce in number all the time. Such sites are policed by council officials, often overseen by CCTV cameras, and regulated strictly. Council policies often ignore Gypsy Traveller culture and family links, and force people to live together on sites regardless. Traditional incomes have been eroded by changes in farming practices and the exploitation of foreign migrant workers. As always happens with persecuted minorities, the sins of the few (or those from visiting groups) are magnified out of all proportion and used to justify persecution and discrimination. In early 2008, after a series of inflammatory pieces in the local press, an Ayrshire Labour MP Brian Donohoe raised a debate in parliament to discuss the “problem” and put pressure on the Minister to give local authorities more powers to move people on who are perceived as a nuisance (3). This was backed by other Labour M.P.s including Renfrewshire MP Jim Sheridan, and left unchallenged by their colleagues. The racist language used in Parliament would be familiar to readers of the Daily Express and other tabloids which frequently stir up anti-Gypsy feeling.

Meanwhile in the North East, a small voluntary organisation, the Gypsy Traveller Education and Information Project, established to assist Gypsy Travellers, sacked a worker, Ken MacLennan, because of his advocacy activity which had brought them into conflict with local authorities. Their case partially rested on the premise that Scottish Gypsy Travellers were not a minority and that MacLennan’s work did not therefore enjoy protection under the Race Relations legislation. In a landmark judgement in November 2009, Ken MacLennan successfully challenged an initial ruling in his former employer’s favour, using evidence from Scottish Gypsy Travellers about their roots and cultural heritage. This included evidence from Strathclyde University academic Colin Clark (4), effectively demolishing alternative narratives from academics such as Timothy Neat that argued that “Scottish travellers” (as they describe them) are not Gypsies by origin. After several months of uncertainty which activists believe was used against Scottish Gypsy Travellers, a clear legal decision had at last been made in their favour.


The impact of the MacLennan judgement was felt immediately in Scottish Government circles: a long awaited statement from the Minister on commitment to race equality appeared in December 2008: this included reference to Scottish Gypsy Traveller rights and made reference to the MacLennan judgement. Not that the parliament had been previously inactive on the issue: the Equal Opportunities Committee had taken evidence and issued detailed recommendations concerning Scottish Gypsy Travellers as early as 2001, and this had been revisited in 2005: action however has not taken place and a recent Equality and Human Rights Commission review (5), remarked on this lack of progress on establishing fundamental legal rights for Gypsy Travellers in Scotland.

At the same time as these developments the principal self-organised group in Scotland concerned with Gypsy Traveller rights, the Scottish Gypsy Traveller Law Reform Coalition (SGLTRC), recently held an event sponsored by Patrick Harvie MSP in the Scottish Parliament to launch a draft human rights and equality bill specifically for Scottish Gypsy Travellers. This is based on Irish legislation, but is now the subject of debate about whether it is a reserved matter for the Westminster parliament or not. To Scottish Gypsy Travellers this looks like just more avoidance and buck-passing, whilst the daily problems their community face, continue. SGTLRC activity though has begun to bring other forces into play: UNISON Scotland has shown recent interest in the matter and a motion based on UNISON policy, is coming before this year’s STUC congress in Perth. Amnesty International passed a motion at their recent conference which called amongst other things, for an investigation into the Equality and Human Rights Commissions apparent reluctance to become more forthright in taking up the cause of Scottish Gypsy Travellers.


There are issues for public sector workers who find themselves at the cutting edge of potential discrimination. Brian Donohoe MP, who raised the debate referred to above in Westminster in January 2008, has spelled out where he is coming from in this: he sees two ways of addressing the Gypsy Traveller “problem”: either self regulation by Gypsy Travellers themselves (an impractical suggestion for an ethnic minority rather than an occupational group), or “…. a policy of zero tolerance where-by the moment a travelling community set up camp illegally, they are targeted by all relevant organizations such as police, the education, social work departments, work and pensions, customs and excise and trading standards…… Inevitably some or all of these organisations would encounter illegalities or irregularities which would result in legal action.”(6). This is nothing short of organized state harassment and should be resisted by social workers and others, through basic human rights argument within their services and through the trade unions. It is interesting to note that after pressure (that as a populist politician he obviously had not expected) Donohoe has removed most of the more offensive of his pronouncements on Gypsy Travellers from his website.

Donohoe’s perspective is not unique and is likely to be replicated amongst public officialdom until such time as Scottish Gypsy Traveller rights are enshrined properly in law. That of course will not necessarily change anything as we know from other types of racial discrimination. It will however make it harder for such matters to be applied systematically and for racists to stir up intolerance without challenge. Socialists have a vision of a diverse society where minority cultures are not hounded out of existence through the need to make us all the same type of consumer and wealth producer. Socialists uniquely can argue that capitalist society will always have difficulty in pluralism and that only socialism in its true form can offer such guarantees.


  1. Jess Smith (2003): Jess’s Journey (and two sequels), Edinburgh: Mercat Press.
  2. Timothy Neat (1996): The Summer Walkers, Edinburgh: Canongate.
  3. Colin Clark: “Defining Ethnicity in a Cultural and Socio-Legal Context: The Case of Scottish Gypsy Travellers.” Scottish Affairs No 54 Winter 2006 (available online).
  4. Hansard 30/1/2008
  5. EHRC Research Report 12, March 2009, available on:
  6. Irvine Herald newspaper 22/8/08

The Scottish Gypsy Traveller Law reform Coalition can be contacted for advice and, within the limits of their resources, are willing to act as advocates for Scottish Gypsy Travellers and their families: