Old Time Travellers
Lauren's Life Lines
about the Travelling People of the Isle of Lewis. Recently while researching online I tried to find it again but it was no longer available online. So today I had a EUREKA! moment, I remembered that I'd copied & saved the news item, so here's that excerpt from the WHFP...
Our teachers told us they were tin-smiths, a perfectly honourable occupation, and all of us used their pails, mugs and buckets to carry water from the well and milk from the cow (or the dairy). Besides, John Bunyan had been a tinker, and that invested his class with the aura of his genius. But even if it hadn't, there was still that physical bit. It wasn't simply that they were bigger. In all those things that mattered to boys they were better: better at football, better at scrapping and better at running. And as if all that weren't enough, when it came to horses they were magic. Man and boy, they could ride bareback like rodeo stars, clinging to the mane as their horses galloped across road and moor; and if they fell off they thought nothing of it. One minute they seemed doomed under flying hooves; the next they were leaping unerringly on to the horse's back.
At school, they shared our classrooms: Jacob, John Angie and Coll (all MacDonalds); Jimmy, Jimsie and Dolly (Stewarts); and Evan and Archie (Drummonds). Evan it was who risked his life to save a sheep trapped in broken ice on the Laxdale River; and Archie it was who loved to rise to the assistant head's teasing question, "Who do you think you are?" "I think I'm Archie, sir!" But they had a raw deal. On their first day in school, they were put in the back seat and there they stayed till the day they left. After 10 years of the sort of schooling we had in the good old days, most of them could barely write their names. The very fact that you were a tinker was taken to mark you as someone with serious learning difficulties.
Yet, neglect was only a small part of what they suffered. Almost every day, the tinkers were late for class; and almost every day this meant a belting, even though everyone knew that tinkers didn't have clocks and that being late wasn't the child's fault. Supposing there was nothing else, that one fact damns for me the whole school culture of my youth. Thank heaven for the changed world of today, where education is child-centred, the belt is banned and schools provide pupils of all backgrounds with a safe, reassuring environment! It must have been particularly tough for the girls. Hannah was just my age, an undernourished, gentle and patient slip of a girl who walked home from school with us and afterwards joined in our games. Years later, when she was married in Lochaber and I was the Free Church minister of Kilmallie, she startled a crowded bus by yelling with delight when she saw this wraith-like, dog-collared boy-cleric come aboard. I was on my way to the manse, she to the encampment at Annat, but we had shared a childhood.
And there was Bella, sister to Jimmy who was about my own age and was the best (and certainly the most willing) footballer in the place. Jimmy died in his early teens, from a brain tumour, and his death rocked our little boy-community. Bella was a replica of the young Princess Anne: golden curls, golden smile and infinite civility and charm. She married young and it was in connection with her wedding (I hope she won't mind me telling this) that the story was told of the minister approaching her future husband to ask, "Are you the bridegroom?" "No!" he said, "I'm only the man who's getting married!"
Bella appeared at our door frequently, usually to ask for aspirin or some other medication. The men never seemed to call, but the women appeared frequently, carrying enormous packs on their backs: the "malaid", we called it, after the Gaelic. Made of sacking, it contained the wares they peddled round the doors of the village. No sooner had they entered than the malaid would be opened on the floor and an elaborate game would begin between Clemag and my mother. Item after item would be taken out: needles, combs, cotton-reels, hair-nets and other bric-a-brac; and each time my mother would comment, "Gheibh mi na's saor e ann a Woolie's!" ("I'll get it cheaper in Woolworth's", whence indeed most of it came). But after the game was over, Clemag would have her cup of tea and take her leave, half-a-crown richer (and a few needles poorer).
It would be absurd to portray these people as saints. They were human beings, and there was a good deal of human nature in each of them. Some of the girls were viragos and some of the boys were bullies. Some of those who sold horses were crooks and many's the crofter who bought a huge, magnificent beast for a bargain price, only to discover as soon as he tried to harness it that the animal was ex-army and hopelessly shell-shocked. When the men drank they fought, when the men fought the women joined in and when the women joined in all hell could break loose.
The reason was simple. In Lewis they had three permanent sites: one at Marybank, one at Tong Bridge and one at Laxdale. None of these were official. They were merely sites on the common grazings, where tinkers had lived unmolested for generations. They had no legal title to these sites. Significantly, however, the land was owned not by some jealous laird, but by the Stornoway Trust, which turned a blind eye to these squatters and was prepared to argue, if challenged, that their residences were not permanent dwellings.
Which they certainly weren't. They were simple tents consisting of nothing more than large canvas sheets stretched over long branches of willow, a tin stove in the middle and a tin pipe carrying the smoke through the roof. What fuel they burnt we never knew. They were surrounded on all sides by crofters' peats, yet none of these peats ever disappeared. But no fuel could have made these primitive shelters hospitable in a Lewis winter and how they survived is a mystery.
Gradually things improved. They began to replace their tents with sheds built from such timber as they could find, cladding it with tin sheeting secured by splitting empty tar barrels. Again, the trust turned a blind eye, as did the community, to whom the tinkers were a natural part of God's creation. Socially, too, things began to improve. The Drummonds showed a natural talent as entrepreneurs; others found employment locally; and a few left for work on the mainland, never to return (among them all of Clemag's sons, including my friends, John Angie and Jacob).
In 1954, one girl from Tong Bridge passed the Qualifying Exam and duly took her place in the Nicolson Institute. The Drummonds moved on from horses to lorries and from tents to big houses (and Willie felt confident enough to sue the sheriff for referring to him as "the man with the red nose"). The decisive step was taken when Comhairle nan Eilean decided to build a terrace of attractive bungalows just beside the tinkers' Laxdale site. Travelling-genes or no travelling-genes, they moved in, soon to be joined by others from the council's ordinary waiting list. Today, Bridge Cottages (the traditional address given by the MacDonalds and Stewarts when they enrolled at school) is as trim, prim and well-kept as any similar terrace in the country. Nobody is interested in whether any of the tenants is (or was) a tinker. They're just people.
This is no special plug for the humanity of the Western Isles. Lochaber effected a similar transition. The council house next to the Free Church in Caol was tenanted in my day by one of Clemag's daughters, heroic mother to a succession of children suffering from tragic phsyical handicap.
I am not going to preach a sermon. But Wester Ross is surely vast enough and empty enough to provide permanent sites for travelling people. Without them, my childhood would have been immeasurably poorer. And I would hate to be judged by the amount of rubbish I generate at two different sites every week." Unquote.