The last "acceptable" prejudice

Scottish Travellers have been around for centuries, but are still being persecuted and shut out of wider society

27th December 2018

“Ours is the last civil rights movement to happen,” declares Scottish Traveller and activist Davie Donaldson.

The nomadic Scottish Traveller community — whose ancestral roots date back to the 12th century — is facing a multitude of social injustices. The indigenous group are met with signs plastered onto restaurants, cafes, bars and local shop windows, reading, “The management reserves the right to refuse any Gypsies or Travellers.”

Donaldson decries, “treatment which would be associated with historical US segregation where ethnic minorities were barred from establishments. In Scotland today, that is shockingly still the case.”

This much-maligned ethnic group are met with many different forms of social injustice — displacement from traditional sites, low education levels, widespread anti-Gypsy rhetoric, minimal political representation and a lack of accessibility to healthcare centres.

The 2011 census was the first time Scottish Gypsies and Travellers were catalogued as an ethnic minority, despite records demonstrating a 900-year history in Scotland.

The nadir for these communities is the deterioration of official, state-sanctioned sites, with a mere 27 official sites currently in operation in Scotland; albeit the official number of sites which once existed is unclear, due to historical under-reporting and a lack of official records.

Displacement issues

Amnesty International examined the local housing strategies of the 27 mainland local authorities. Of these, nine suggested good planning for gypsy/travellers (G/T), 14 were vague in their plans and five included no accommodation plans for the group. This has contributed to accommodation shortages, breakdowns of trust between G/T and local authorities, and sometimes rouses tensions between the settled and G/T communities.

“The history of our culture was taught when travelling from camp to camp, each site engrained with heritage and tradition. Now they’re boarded off, built upon or closed down. This is an important part of our heritage that has now been destroyed.”

The lore of the travelling community was preached during these stops. The environment was used to teach young travellers Scottish Cant, their native tongue. The sites were a place where storytelling was a glowing part of their culture — where camaraderie and friendships were strengthened. It also served another purpose, by giving Travellers a sense of identity and belonging.

In an effort to maintain their way of living, G/Ts have erected impromptu sites, officially called “unauthorised sites”, while waiting for slots at council sites to become available. This, however, often leads to animosity between the settled and Traveller communities.

Speaking to Core Politics in 2017, Scottish Tory MP Douglas Ross said: “The settled community continually complain that Gypsy Travellers receive preferential treatment, whether it is with regard to planning decisions or just the way they take over a piece of land or lay-by and then often leave it in a significant mess which has to be cleaned up at a cost to the local taxpayer.”

When asked what he would impose if he were prime minister for the day, Ross said “I would like to see tougher enforcement against gypsy travellers.” Later, he clarified he was referring to those who “flout local planning procedures with illegal encampments, as we have seen in Moray many times”.

The Scottish Conservatives declined the opportunity to apologise, saying, “Ross was reflecting the views of his constituents.”

Local councils don’t have an obligation to provide basic sanitation facilities, such as portaloos and bin bags

The Traveller’s Times, which highlights issues in the gypsy traveller community, says, “Blatant displays of anti-Gypsyism by those meant to protect our rights, only serves to contribute to the high levels of intolerance and racism directed towards Gypsies and Travellers in society.”

Donaldson confesses that littering can be a problem on these sites. “Local councils don’t have an obligation to provide basic sanitation facilities, such as portaloos and bins, meaning it can be very difficult to get rid of rubbish. That’s why most of the mess left on the sites will be domestics waste — lots of milk cartons, nappies and things along those lines.”

Another complication affecting the community is their inaccessibility to skips. Donaldson says, “When travelling, our community tends to travels in trucks, HGVs, and other large vehicles which render us unable to use skips, as these vehicles are not permitted onto skip sites. One possible way to get around this issue would be to fill out documentation which requires a permanent address — information that our people cannot supply. Even if Travellers are living on council-provided sites, their address is often still denied because it is not considered ‘permanent’.”

Freedom to speak

Donaldson treads carefully when labelling his role within his community, aware of the cultural sensitivities attached. He claims to speak through the lens of experience and in no way sees himself as a spokesperson. “I have never said that I am a spokesperson, as I cannot claim to talk for my whole community. I’m just an activist who draws from my personal and lived experiences.

“Scottish Travellers are unlike any other nomadic community, since we have never had kings or leaders.”

Scottish G/T society gives credence to each family within the community by democratically sharing the clout of influence, providing each family with a voice, promoting equality and inclusion for all. So when a spokesperson arises — particularly a self-professed one — it’s often viewed as antithetical to their values.

Davie Donaldson
Donaldson doesn’t consider himself a spokesperson for his community but simply shares his lived experience

“When I’m talking about the travelling community, out of courtesy I visit every family I can in the area in order to get the information approved and corrected if needs be.”

The movement for change is being externalised by the youth. Donaldson recalls a conversation with his uncle, who said, “We uneducated folk have been told for so long that we can’t get the message across. Like every civil rights movement, the power is with the youth.”

Donaldson attends university, a feat not possible for many in his community, considering education levels are way below the national average among Gypsy, Roma, Traveller (GRT) pupils — who are 10 times less likely to attend university than the average student. Donaldson’s activism is far-reaching, as he explains, “I work across Europe, within Scottish organisations, across the U.K, helping the G/T community in general — not just Scottish Travellers — to help tackle the inequalities that face our peoples”

Political desires

The often-heard “resisting assimilation” narrative, to Donaldson, doesn’t hold up. He explains that G/T aren’t indifferent to politics — renouncing a common-held belief. “Travellers are political, politically educated and aware, it’s just that we don’t feel represented; every Traveller camp I visited was discussing the EU referendum. Most Traveller men have no further education, yet they have in-depth knowledge about the intricacies of Brexit.”

He adds, “Our people are excluded from political manifestos and discouraged from engaging in local politics. There’s no concerted effort to include Travellers into mainstream political discourse, therefore no politician is willing to stick their head out of the sand and represent us, as this would be counterproductive to his political goal of re-election.”

This consequently has led to Donaldson not pursuing a career in politics. “People often ask me, do you see yourself in politics in the future? I respond by saying it is extremely difficult for a person from my background to succeed in politics, the endeavour would almost be futile because I probably wouldn’t be elected due to racial discrimination — but I hope to change that!”

A mural of Bernadette Devlin, the only known parliamentarian to come from a traveller background 📸 Gary Stevens

Just one MP, Bernadette Devlin, a Northern Irish civil-rights activist who represented Mid Ulster from 1969-1974, has been known to come from a Traveller background.

Social progression is moving at a glacial pace, the Scottish Parliament’s equal opportunities committee has stated, “Twelve years on from the first Scottish parliament inquiry into G/T life, and it is galling to see that the appalling situation for many G/T is little changed. We are staggered to find ourselves hearing the same issues and making the same recommendations that were heard and made in the 2001 inquiry.”

The wheels for change have been slowly set in motion, but more, honest, good-faith conversations must continue to take place in order to ameliorate the repressive treatment of these culturally misapprehended people.

27th December 2018