Scottish Gypsies/Travellers: Background information when reading Beneath the Abbey Wall

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Beneath the Abbey Wall

by A. D. Scott

Beneath the Abbey Wall by A. D. Scott
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    Nov 2012, 352 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Karen Rigby

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About this Book

Beyond the Book:
Scottish Gypsies/Travellers

Print Review

One of the plot details in Beneath the Abbey Wall involves a family of Travellers whose histories twine with the murder victim's – Jimmy McPhee, and his mother Jenny McPhee, a highly regarded storyteller.

Scottish Travellers at the famous Aikey Brae Fair, Aberdeenshire, c.1906In Scotland, the Traveller population is referred to by the government as Scottish Gypsies/Travellers (distinct from Irish Travellers), though the names members use to refer to themselves varies by region. Travellers is more common in the Highlands, while Gypsies is used in the Lowlands and Border areas, with some regarding Gypsies as derogatory, preferring Romas instead. (For more on the Roma people in Britain, view the Beyond the Book for An Incomplete Revenge by Jacqueline Winspear.) Scotland also includes New Travellers, who are not born Travellers but who follow a similar nomadic lifestyle, though often for more political reasons (such as adopting a more green lifestyle), and Scottish Showmen (a business/cultural group of fairground families and travelling show people centered in Glasgow's East End who do not identify as Gypsies/Travellers).

Now recognized as a minority ethnic community, Gypsy/Traveller origins are not well known. They may include pre-Celtic, Celtic, or Roman roots. 15th century records indicate the presence of Romani people, many of whom blended with Scottish natives. Gypsies/Travellers may also include descendants of Gaels who were removed from their homeland during the Highland Clearances of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, which are sometimes attributed to agricultural revolution, but also, more darkly, to class conflict as well as prejudice.

Contrary to misperception, Gypsies/Travellers do not always live on the road – many contemporary families reside in homes during the winters or for longer periods. In 2011, the BBC featured a documentary series, Travellers, which follows the lives of two Scottish Traveller families in a variety of settings both urban and rural.


In 2008, Essie Stewart, granddaughter of gaelic storyteller Ailidh Dall Stewart (1882-1968) - pronounced Ay-lee Dow - patriarch of the Stewarts of Remarstaig Traveller family, presented stories at the Ullapool Book Festival. Visit the am baile Highland History & Culture archive to listen. More about Essie is included in the 1996 book The Summer Walkers by Timothy Neat.

Photograph from William Rennie, Stuartfield

Article by Karen Rigby

This article is from the January 9, 2013 issue of BookBrowse Recommends. Click here to go to this issue.

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