Douglas Ross and the war on Scotland’s Travellers
How the Scottish Tory leader has prised open one of the country’s oldest and deepest racist fault lines
“‘Tinks’, ‘pikeys’, ‘gyppos’: racist names, you can take that,” George Stewart told me recently. “But organised racism, that’s the worst.”
George was born in Elgin, in the north-east of Scotland, in the 1950s. From the age of 13, like his ancestors before him, he spent his life on the move. In 2010, he and his family bought a plot of land back in Moray, the council area that surrounds Elgin, where they planned to establish a Traveller site.
But there was a problem. The chair of Moray’s planning committee was soon to be an ambitious young Tory named Douglas Ross.
“He waged a campaign to get rid of us ... I was flabbergasted,” said George, who claimed that he and his family repeatedly saw Ross at the bottom of their drive, taking photos of their home, and that “he was going round the farms” asking people to sign a letter saying “they didn’t want us here”. Speaking to the local paper in 2011, Ross called his attempts to stop his constituent from establishing a Traveller site a “battle”.
Get one whole story, direct to your inbox every weekday.
The Stewarts’ neighbours rallied to their support. A rival letter was circulated, backing their application, which got more signatures than the one opposing it. Eventually the Scottish government approved the site. But more striking was Ross’s response to the decision: “I am disappointed and frustrated that we seem to have to bend over backwards for this ethnic minority,” he said, in 2013.
Today, Ross leads the Scottish Conservatives. His attitude towards Scotland’s Gypsy/Traveller community is no secret: when he was first elected an MP in 2017, he notoriously said that his number one priority, if he were prime minister for a day, would be “tougher enforcement against Gypsy Travellers”. But the extent of his history of persecuting Travellers has never been properly explored. Until now.
“He quite clearly had an issue [with Travellers], it was quite vitriolic at times,” recalled Gordon McDonald, an SNP councillor who also sat on the planning committee Ross chaired. “He was very fierce in his arguments against them.”
In 2010, Ross voiced opposition to a different site on the grounds that it was too far from urban centres, saying “I have concerns about the ability to manage and control the site if it is in a more remote and rural area.” But in 2013, his committee ruled that Traveller sites would not be allowed within a kilometre of existing settlements, a policy described to me by Traveller community elder Lynne Tammi as “apartheid”.
Ross would later use his position as chair of the planning committee to ask officials what would happen if the council took the “novel approach” of refusing to host any sites for Gypsy/Travellers. He was told that his Traveller site ban would breach basic human rights laws.
In three weeks’ time, Scotland will vote in what many have called the most important election in the history of the modern Scottish parliament. If pro-Independence parties get a majority, it will widely be seen as a mandate for another referendum.
Just as they did in 2016 with Ruth Davidson, the Conservatives are trying to sell their new leader as a candidate to unite the country against such a vote. But Douglas Ross has built his political career not on bringing people together – rather, on prying open one of Scotland’s oldest and deepest racist fault lines.
I put the findings of my research to the Scottish Conservatives. A spokesman said: “These historic accusations are false. They do not accurately represent Douglas Ross’s work as a councillor, his time on the local planning committee, or his views. At all times Mr Ross acted within the Councillors Code of Conduct when he chaired the cross-party planning committee.”
The decline of Scotland’s Travelling community
To understand Ross’s actions we need to see attitudes in their full context. In 2015, a third of respondents to a survey said that Gypsy/Travellers shouldn’t be allowed to be primary school teachers in Scotland. A similar proportion said they would be upset if a close relative married someone from that background.
Yet because the persecution of nomadic communities – elsewhere in the world, as well as here in Scotland – is violently underreported, this is a context it’s easy to forget. It’s a window into the human experience that, too often, we choose not to look through.
Anti-Traveller prejudice was my first experience of racism. I don’t remember the ‘N-word’ or the ‘P-word’ being thrown around at my primary school in the Angus Glens, 90 miles south of Moray. The ‘T-word’, on the other hand – ‘tinker’, a slur for Scottish Travellers – was common, usually spat out with a nasty adjective attached.
Travellers were people we encountered; some of the children probably even came from Traveller backgrounds, though they didn’t admit it. Every summer, we’d see the camps – I can still remember exact spots – as families arrived to pick berries and tatties. But you don’t see them anymore.
It’s not just Scotland’s Travellers who are being made sedentary. Semi-nomadic Inuit cultures are melting as the world heats. The Chinese government is violently forcing hundreds of thousands of transhumant pastoralists to settle. Moken Sea Nomads in South-East Asia struggle to travel because of borders and bigotry. From Middle Eastern Bedouins to American Apache; Australia’s Spinifex to Patagonia’s Kawésqar canoe people, itinerant cultures everywhere are being fenced and tethered.
I am disappointed and frustrated that we seem to have to bend over backwards for this ethnic minority
Kathy Townsley McGuigan was born in Argyll, in western Scotland, in the 1960s. As they had done for generations, her family shifted about, living in bow tents made from hazel branches, similar to Mongolian yurts or Sioux tipis.
Kathy has watched her culture be strangled. Argyll Travellers, she told me, “travelled these places and picked shellfish for generations, but now you don’t see them anymore. You don’t see camps, you don’t see kids playing, you don’t see a multitude of Travellers out and about”.
Scottish Travellers are one corner of a European patchwork of traditionally nomadic peoples who, despite enduring various persecutions, including Nazi genocide, remain oppressed and marginalised. There are Indigenous Norwegian Travellers, Ireland’s Mincéirí, the Yenish, Tunodo, and Merchero peoples, and the rich mosaic of Romani cultures, from Finnish Kale to Iberian Gitanos.
Reports of a nomadic group of tinsmiths and storytellers – once known non-pejoratively as ‘tinkers’ – go back to early Christian Scotland. References to them weave through folklore and emerge in Scottish literature: Peter Pan’s Tinker Bell and Walter Scott’s Edie Ochiltree.
“There's records of banquets being held in our honour when we moved into an area,” Davie Donaldson, from Angus, close to Dundee, told me.
Around 1500, Roma nomads from northern India arrived in Scotland, too. And at some point in the Middle Ages, travelling Showmen took to the roads. These days, Glasgow is thought to have Europe’s largest concentration of Showmen’s yards, and an estimated 4,000-6,000 Scottish Showpeople.
These different cultures, which together comprise the Gypsy/Traveller community in official Scottish terminology, have their own languages. Gaelic’s cousin Beurla Reagaird (“speech of the metal workers”) is spoken in the Highlands. Scottish Traveller Cant with roots in Romani, Gaelic and Scots is found in the Lowlands. Border Gypsies carry Angloromany back and forth over the Tweed. The Mincéirí people, who have long traversed the Irish sea, speak Shelta, a cousin of Irish, while travelling showmen have Polari.
Hostile attitudes from parts of Scotland’s population – and some of its politicians – are only one of the threats the communities face. Without formal support, Traveller languages are falling silent. Every poem ever written in them is being redacted, every song muffled. A whole view of history deleted.
From the Nyíregyháza ‘ghetto’ to Govanhill
Yet Traveller communities remain in Scotland, probably with populations in the tens of thousands. And recently, a new square has been added to the patchwork.
In autumn 2018 a friend and I took a car share from Budapest to Miskolc, in eastern Hungary, to meet Roma people being cleared from their homes to make way for a stadium. Our companion on the journey, an off-duty policeman, ranted about their ‘Gypsy’ culture. The only “solution”, he said, was to remove their children. Later, some of those kids showed us videos of the police beating their families, for no apparent reason.
Last February, in a bar in Banská, central Slovakia, a young man told me he was voting for the neo-Nazi Marian Kotleba, because he wanted to “kill the Gypsies”. The next week, I was given a tour of a Roma settlement on the edge of Nyíregyháza in eastern Hungary. Running water came from a shared hand-pump and mud sucked at my boots. But the community was fighting to stay. The government wanted to move them into an area they called ‘the ghetto’. That, they said, would be worse.
The next day, at a demonstration in Budapest against segregated schools, a teacher told me that she had taught a Roma-only class. There were no toilets on their floor, so one of her pupils had gone up to the non-Roma floor. He was kicked down the stairs by his head teacher.
Her pupils took a case against segregation to the country’s high court, and won. But the prime minister, Viktor Orbán, described the children as “aggressors against the majority”, saying they shouldn’t be paid the court-ordered compensation.
Orbán has ignited such powerful bigotry against Hungary’s Roma population that many are fleeing. In 2018, 70% of those who applied for asylum in Canada proved sufficient persecution to be declared refugees.
But most who left central Europe used EU travel rights – including, before Brexit, coming to Scotland. Often, they would travel to Glasgow’s Govanhill, where they lived in extreme poverty, surviving by begging or selling The Big Issue, and facing sometimes grim racism. They may have escaped persecution in central Europe, but Scotland has its own shameful history too.
Persecution in Scotland
In November 1700, James Macpherson was arrested in Keith, a town in what is now Douglas Ross’s constituency, and found guilty of being a Gypsy. His final speech before he was hanged was later turned into ’Macpherson’s Rant’ by Robert Burns.
Macpherson was condemned by the Scottish Parliament’s 1609 Act Regarding the Egyptians, which said that “it shall be permissible to all his majesty's subjects ... to execute to death the said Egyptians ... as common, notorious and condemned thieves.”
The same year, James VI and I made Scotland’s clan chiefs sign the statutes of Iona, which instructed them “not to entertain wandering bards, or other vagabonds of the sort”.
It’s not known how many Gypsies or Travellers were killed or forced to settle as a result, but the persecution of the community continued.
Laws cracking down on Highland culture after the 1745 Jacobite uprising, the Highland Clearances, and the potato famine all had brutal effects on Scottish Traveller culture. By 1865, one observer wrote that the erasure had progressed to such a stage that “they are not now to be distinguished from others of the community”.
From murder to mass transportation
Gracie was born on 18 May 1903 in a tent outside Ayr, in south-west Scotland. Her mother Annie was a pedlar and her father, John, a basketmaker. One day in 1906, when the family was camped outside Perth, John and his son (also called John) came back from work to find that Gracie and her sisters, Margaret and Mary, were gone.
Someone from the local authority had come to their camp, and forced their mother to give up her girls. Over the next three years, they lived in a children’s home run by the charity Quarriers, while the family organised a campaign to bring them back. The family priest was among those who wrote to the home asking for their return.
Instead, the three girls were sent by the Quarriers – trafficked, effectively – to Canada, where Margaret, the oldest at 14, was sold into indentured labour. She died in her twenties. The younger John never forgot his sisters. He traced a trail of paperwork, and decades later, they were reunited. Gracie died in 2003, at 99.
John’s granddaughter, Lynne Tammi, has kept that trail of paperwork, and sent me copies. She says that the only unusual element of the story is that these records exist.
The Quarriers still exists, and I contacted them to ask about the claim that they were involved in taking children from Traveller families and deporting them. A spokesperson said: “Our records show that although very small numbers of children from Traveller families may have been supported, this was due to their individual family situation. There is no indication from our files that coming from a Traveller family was criteria for support or for migration.
“We ask anyone in this situation to please speak to us so that we can offer support. Alternatively we would encourage them to speak to the police or to the Scottish Child Abuse Inquiry.”
Davie Donaldson told me a similar tale from his family. In the early years of the 20th century, one of his ancestors, a McPhee, had a baby who died: a sadly common occurrence at the time. The state accused the parents of child abuse, on the grounds that they were living a Traveller lifestyle. Specifically, they lived in a cave in Moray. The McPhees had another nine children taken from them, who they never saw again.
A Canadian NGO, British Home Children, has gathered what data it can on the children transported there from British orphanages. Its database shows that in 1906, a teenager called Johan McPhee was transported from Scotland to Canada. Her place of birth is listed as “Cove Sea Cave, Duffus, Moray”.
When I showed Davie the document that corroborated his family’s story, his reply was simple: “It’s horrific to see it in black and white. It was state-sanctioned cultural genocide.”
Davie and Lynne both say that the policy of kidnapping Traveller children and deporting them to the colonies dates to 1895, when Westminster’s then secretary of state for Scotland, George Trevelyan, wrote ‘The Scottish Traveller report’. His father, the colonial administrator Sir Charles Trevelyan, is most famous for his quasi-genocidal approach to the Irish famine, which he described as “an effective mechanism for reducing surplus population”.
Jess Smith, a Traveller from Perthshire, believes George learnt closely from his father. “It was an eradication report,” she told me, describing how it pushed a policy of forced assimilation, which was maintained for decades to come.
Between 1869 and 1939, more than 130,000 children were trafficked from the UK’s orphanages to Canada, Australia and other colonies. Some 10,000 went from Scotland to Canada alone. Only 12% were actually orphans. Many ended up in indentured servitude, and all were part of a racist programme to displace Indigenous and First Nations peoples in the colonies.
There are no records of how many of these children were from Gypsy/Traveller communities, but Travellers I interview consistently have stories from their families of children in their grandparents’ generation being stolen from their parents, and disappearing.
Tammi estimates that up to 50% of the children trafficked to the colonies were Travellers.
Those who stayed – or rather, were allowed to remain – faced other forms of exclusion. Jess Smith’s family traditionally lived in bow tents in the woods around the Perthshire town of Pitlochry, near where I grew up. In 1940, her mother tried to enrol her older sister in the local school, but was told she couldn’t. Instead, she would have to send her to a special ‘Tinker’ school.
Jess’s research into this episode of her family’s history has revealed that in the 1930s and 1940s there was an experiment with racially segregated schooling in Perthshire, in the form of the Aldour Tinker School.
“Uncle Nicky was one of the older pupils in the Tinker school,” she told me. “Although ink wells were on the school desks, there were no pens. When he enlisted as a soldier, weapons of war (unlike his need for a pen) were plentiful. Within six months of entering the war, he was shot and killed.”
Jess told me that the school was established because the settled parents refused to have their children educated alongside Travellers. It’s a story that is sadly resonant to this day.
“My granddaughter was badly bullied because she’s a Traveller,” said Kathy Townsley McGuigan. The problem is so significant, she added, that it’s the main reason why a large number of Traveller children leave school early. “The children [are] so brutally bullied at school, the parents end up taking them out,” she said.
A spokeswoman for the Scottish government told me that they don’t keep statistics on literacy rates in the Traveller community “as many Gypsy/Travellers do not go on to high school”.
Kathy stopped living in bow tents in the 1980s. “Social work came to us”, she told me. “They didn’t make it as a threat. They do it in a roundabout way – ‘we’re going to have to keep visiting you’, ‘you could end up fighting for your kids’ – I was just a young mother.”
Her family moved into a council house in Perth. “I hated it,” she said. “It was really hard for me, because I had never been in a house. I missed my parents, I missed my family, I missed having all these strangers around me – it was traumatic”.
Many Travellers I speak to say they’ve faced the same threat from police trying to move them on: “do as we’ll say, or we’ll arrest you, and then your children will be taken off you.”
Often, this puts Travellers in an impossible position. Scotland used to have a patchwork of Traveller sites, some of which families had used for centuries. But in recent years, most of these ‘greens’ have been built on or blocked off.
Partly, this is because farmers need less seasonal labour now that machines bring in much of the harvest. Partly, it’s because of legislation.
The 1865 Trespass (Scotland) Act was introduced to keep Travellers off their traditional camping grounds. The 1984 Roads (Scotland) Act bans camping near a road. The 1994 Criminal Justice Act bans six or more vehicles from camping together, proscribing cultural gatherings. The 1986 Caravan Sites and Controlled Development Act restricted the size of caravans and forced Travellers to conform to the norms of settled holidaymakers.
Selling door to door – a traditional Traveller job – has been heavily regulated. In theory, you need a licence. In practice, it can be very hard to get one: Kathy was told by her local police in Argyll that they didn’t exist, and had to travel to another county to get one. And even if you get one, signs have been glued to doors across the country, saying peddlers aren’t welcome.
Freshwater pearl fishing – an ancient Traveller trade – was banned in the 1990s after pollution and overfishing from scuba divers nearly wiped out the mussels that produce the pearls: a rancid environmental injustice.
Metal recycling, a traditional Traveller trade, has also been restricted. The vast bubble in house prices has unleashed an obsession with land value and ownership, replacing ancient negotiations over land use with moral panics when camps show up.
Often, traditional Traveller greens have been turned into tourist caravan parks, and the invention of enterprise zones in the 1980s and 1990s encouraged industrial estates on the edges of cities, transforming what were once Traveller sites into grim concrete jungles. Often, Lynne Tammi points out, you still see caravans outside warehouses, as Travellers have nowhere to go but their now-grey greens.
The overall effect of these changes, said Davie Donaldson, has been to sever the bonds that did exist between the Travelling and settled communities. In the past, when the powerful tried to inflame fear of Travellers, there were too many settled people who had worked or played alongside them for panic to take hold.
More recently, it’s easier for tabloids and right-wing politicians to spread fear, as has been clear since The Sun’s 2005 “Stamp on the Camps” campaign, says Davie.
‘Neither land nor master’
In most of the world, for all of recorded history, nomadic and settled communities have lived alongside each other. Sometimes, there’s conflict over resources and prejudices. Sometimes, there’s mutual learning and respect.
There is more wisdom in the latter approach. After all, for those of us from settled communities, there is much to learn from nomads, whose environmental impact is much lower, who pass through land rather than pouring concrete into it, and for whom the act of moving is often an effective form of resistance against the systems which oppress so many of us.
The first piece of Scottish legislation I can find which criminalises Gypsy/Travellers, from 1575, also targets “others neither having land nor master”.
Much of Traveller society is built on the idea of commons: greens are shared between families. The skills of tinsmithing are shared within the community. Pearl mussels were harvested sustainably. For centuries, this has enabled Travellers to transgress both feudal and capitalist systems.
It’s that act of transgression that many in the settled community – and particularly those with power – seem to resent. It’s harder to exploit workers if they can easily leave. You can’t jack up the rent for someone who can take to the road.
“A population that travels from place to place, a population that doesn't pay mortgages, [that] lives off the land, it doesn't really lend itself to a capitalist agenda,” said Davie.
I don’t think Ross should be in the job he’s in... It’s like saying you want rid of African-Americans. We shouldn’t stand for it.
Travellers have always been seen as spreaders of sedition. That’s why James VI banned them in 1609. And it’s why, after the 1857 rebellion, the British government in India passed the 1871 ‘Criminal Tribes Act’, which criminalised India’s nomadic tribes, alongside the transgender community, the Hijra.
Yet settled societies only emerged relatively recently in evolutionary history, around the time we invented grain farming in the Middle East, about 8,000 years ago.
Recent archaeological finds show that these habits didn’t take hold because sedentarism is superior – settled people lived shorter, sicker, more violent lives. They became dominant because grain fields form a foundation for systems of oppression: a landlord can come and cut your grain for rent, a state can take it for tax. And because their societies were so brutal, disease-ridden and unjust, they had to constantly go out actively looking to enslave surrounding peoples.
Some of humanity’s oldest stories are about this conflict: Gilgamesh’s nomadic comrade Enkidu cursed the people who tricked him into settling. God preferred nomadic Abel's sacrifice, so settled Cain killed him out of jealousy.
But while fear of nomadic peoples and lifestyles is ancient, it’s also very modern: a British slang term for ‘stolen’ is the racist ‘gypped’. Boris Johnson’s 2019 election campaign peddled hatred of Travellers to win votes.
Ecological collapse means we need to hear the wisdom of multiple human experiences. Instead, too many are trying to trim us into a monoculture.
A few months after Douglas Ross made his now notorious remarks about “tougher enforcement against Gypsy/Travellers”, there was a parliamentary debate on the rights of the community.
“There are, of course, many other issues that would be priorities for any prime minister,” he said, “and I have apologised for saying that enforcement against Gypsy Travellers would be my No. 1 priority, but I do not apologise for speaking up on behalf of the communities throughout Moray that have been affected by illegal and unauthorised encampments.”
He went on to list crimes he said were committed by Gypsy/Travellers in Moray, before adding that, “Of course, the vast majority of Travellers go about their life in a respectful and friendly way. Sadly, as is the case with much of society, the actions of a minority create a bad impression of the entire community.”
Kathy was upset by Ross’s comments. “I don’t think he should be in the job he’s in,” she said. “It’s like saying you want rid of African-Americans. We shouldn’t stand for it.”
“It makes me so sad that somebody in this present day should say something like that.”
It’s too easy to let racism against Gypsies, Travellers, Roma people and Travelling Showmen slide by unnoticed in Scotland. It’s too simple to allow it to remain normal. But we can’t keep doing that.
Because Travellers often don’t self-declare for fear of persecution, statistics on the community are hard to gather, but the 2011 census showed they are five times more likely to suffer from very bad health than the population as a whole. The Scottish government estimates that Gypsy/Traveller life expectancy is ten years lower than the national average. And Jess Smith tells me that the suicide rate among young Traveller men is soaring.
Over the past year, the world has had a reckoning with racism. Too often, in Scotland, we like to think of ourselves as a little above that, looking at bigotries abroad with horror. But the truth is that we have our own deep reckoning to do, our own history to relearn.
And that starts now, in this election.
Many thanks to Jess Smith, Lynne Tammi and Davie Donaldson for sharing their research
Get our weekly email