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THE LANGUAGE OF TRAVELLER STORYTELLERS


To the question of the origin of the Scottish travelling people there is no simple answer and there is no hard and fast historical evidence to prove the various theories that have been put forward. Calum Maclean described the Highland travellers as "descendants of itinerant craftsmen," and Timothy Neat and Hamish Henderson see a link between traveller unsmiths and the great metal-workers of Celtic society in the Heroic Age. Ross Noble, curator of the Highland Folk Museum at Kingussie says. "They were known in Gaelic as 'cairdean' the iron-workers or metal-workers, and their original function was to go round from warring clan to warring clan making and repairing weapons; they were the armourers of these Celtic warrior princes."

Many of the travellers believe, as so do many non-travellers, that their forebears were the remnants of the scattered clans after Culloden, although their skills are much older than that. They were certainly not outsiders in Highland society. The clans themselves have an equally shadowy history and claim descent from legendary ancestors with whom their connection is based simply on oral tradition. But oral tradition is not an entirely unreliable source of information as their transmission of family history and story and song proves very clearly, confirmed by records. The practice of registering the birth of children, partly to get on parish registers for welfare and partly out of fear of bodysnatchers, makes it possible to trace the family trees of many travellers.

One thing is certain : the Scottish travellers were not gypsies, although there may have been intermarriage between the two groups in the 16th century and after, particularly in the Lowlands and Borders, when the gypsies or Egyptians, a Romany people from Central Europe were forced into Western Europe by the Mongol invasions of Russia led by Genghis Khan. The gypsies certainly came into Scotland from the South but never came north in any numbers, almost certainly because they found native metal-workers there already, as also happened in Ireland.

Sharon Gmelch in her book Gipsies, Tinkers and Travellers, refers to early Christian times when "whitesmiths, working in bronze, gold and silver, travelled the countryside making personal ornaments, weapons and horse-trappings in return for food and lodging." This matches the observations of Duncan Campbell of Glenlyon, a teacher and journalist born in 1828, who wrote in his memoirs entitled Reminiscences and Reflections of an Octogenarian Highlander of tinkers in the time of his grandfather as "skilled silversmiths," who made "brooches, rings and clasps for girdles or decorate hilts of swords and daggers." The fact that she was writing about before the tenth century and he was writing about the early eighteenth century, only serves to indicate the antiquity of the metal-working tradition whose secrets were handed down through countless generations. Even in the twentieth century, Willie MacPhee, sometimes referred to as "the last of the unsmiths" until recently had his stake (small anvil) and his unsnips and soldering irons and still has the know-how to use them. Although historical change has repeatedly rendered obsolete the ancient skills of the travelling people, through changing fashion, technological progress and social and political upheaval, such as the Act of Proscription of 1746, and the Highland Clearances, they have survived because of their endless adaptability and resourcefulness.

In taking up other occupations, however, the tinkers did not radically change their way of living. Their oral culture, their attitudes and values remained the same and it is only in the present day, when they are settling in houses in greater numbers and having their children schooled, that these are disappearing. Through education and the mass media, the grand-children and great-grandchildren of older travellers are absorbing the materialism of the twentieth century. The extended family group is broken up into the conventional family units of the settled population, perhaps because this is the basis on which houses are built and sold or let. This virtually destroys the basis of the old way of fife that was part of the clan system and founded on kinship and the extended family ; it was in this context that storytelling flourished. It is difficult to say how many travellers are still leading the traveller life in Scotland, as they move about, sometimes in houses, sometimes in trailers, sometimes on sites. But bureaucracy and the law make it very difficult for those who wish to continue their traditional way of life.

It is in the oral culture of the northern travellers that one finds the most convincing proofs of their identity. Hamish Henderson has said of them, "They still keep alive an ancient and vital oral literature that makes theirs one of the most dynamic folk cultures of Europe," and " they are carriers of an essentially Celtic culture." Their story tradition is largely Gaelic in origin, content and style, for of course, in the north, their ancestors would have been Gaelic speakers. There are many stories in their repertoire which are international folk tales, with parallels in many languages. The traveller versions are closer to their Gaelic parallels than to other European versions.

After the '45, the travelling artisans were affected by the Act of Proscription, which forbade the wearing of tartan, and the ornaments and weapons that went with it. As Duncan Campbell of Glenlyon observed, "When the demand ceased, the art was soon lost," and the tinkers turned more to the making of useful tinware which they sold to the farming people in the glens and straths. By this process they would also lose their Gaelic. Soon, of course, these useful skills also too went out of date when the industrial revolution provided the means of mass production and in our own time has been superseded by plastic. Pans and kettles, flagons, bowls, buckets, besoms and scrubbers, baskets, horn spoons and wooden flowers can no longer provide a livelihood for travellers. Horse-coping, another subsidiary trade of the wandering smith, has been replaced by dealing in second-hand cars. As farming methods improved in the Lowlands, the tinkers were forced to leave their beloved glens and come down to the potato or berry harvests or to do other seasonal work on farms. Their survival is largely due to their readiness to turn their hands to whatever offered a subsistence; knife-grinding, umbrella-mending, stripping larch trees for telegraph poles, stripping oak bark for dye, tarmacing paths and drives, stone-cleaning and pearl-fishing, have all been done by travellers.

An important influence on travellers' language has been the extent and the location of their travelling. For example, the Stewarts, who originated in Perthshire , were croft-based and more mobile in summer than in winter. They stravaiged through Angus and Aberdeenshire, Invemesshire, Argyll and the West Highlands and Islands, as well as parts of Ireland, England and even Canada. Some of them have more recently also visited parts of Europe and the States as performers. As a consequence, they speak Perthshire Scots mixed with English and elements of poetic language, slang, cant and Gaelic idioms. Travellers who have not gone so far afield tend to speak the language of their area most strongly, although the schooling that the majority of them have had helps them to modify it when necessary ; that is, when speaking to people from elsewhere. After all, if communication is essential to make a living, then travellers will adapt themselves to that requirement. Most of them can match their manner of speaking to their listeners.

Most travellers who grew up with the story tradition identify an older relative or relatives as their family source. No doubt there were travellers particularly noted for their prowess as storytellers, but in ceilidhing, every one had to take a turn, whether it be singing, storytelling or piping. There is a tale type popular in both Scottish and Irish tradition of The Man Who Had No Story to Tell, who had to undergo all kinds of extraordinary experiences in order that he should have a story to tell in future. Storytelling had many functions in ancient society and continued to have among the travellers. As well as entertaining, it strengthened family bonds, reinforced values and attitudes, customs and beliefs, in the community, helped cope with strong feelings like fear and anger and provided a template for psychological development. Many stories loved by the travellers teach the message of the present-day Green party : we should live in harmony with nature. They also believed in heeding the wisdom of their ancestors and many stories feature a wise old man or woman. Storytelling techniques were also applied to the narration of family history, which the travellers were always concerned with, as a way of keeping their identity. Traveller names include Stewart, MacPhee, Williamson, Higgins, Robertson, Reid, Townsley, Whyte, Johnston, Macgregor, McAllister, McDonald and Kelbie. Well-knowm traveller storytellers of today include Duncan Williamson, Stanley Robertson (nephew of the legendary Jeannie), Willie MacPhee, Belle Stewart, and the late Betsy Whyte. All of them have either had their stories recorded and published in collections or have written books themselves.

It should be pointed out in considering what has contributed to travellers' storytelling that features of their lifestyle that are usually thought of as disadvantages - their isolation from the settled community and their minimal schooling - are in fact what have preserved their oral tradition. Now that they are settled in houses and their grand-children and great-grandchildren are going to school and being influenced by that and the mass media, the oral tradition of song and story is being lost. The children of traveller tradition bearers now say, "We don't relate to this stuff. It doesn't have anything to say to us." As Duncan Campbell wrote of their ancestors' silversmithing skills, "when the demand ceased, the art was soon lost," so it is happening with their storytelling skills. This may be slightly off-set by the interest that has been taken to record the stories and learn their techniques and explore their meaning, but nothing can really take the place of tradition handed down in families.

When we come to consideration of the various types of language they combine in their speech and their storytefling, we have to recognise Scots, Scots/English, English, archaic Scots, Gaelic influenced Scots, poetic language, slang and cant.

By Scots I mean any of the forms of Lowland Scots that can be heard spoken in everyday life all over the country, using Scots vocabulary and constructions. Examples of this include the following :-

she carried the milk in a luggie
she gien the king chuckle stanes tae eat
he askit for a puckle strae
the bumbee lived in a foggy dyke
it wis aa lyin reesh-rash
they sat crackin by the fire
he bud in a wee cottage
a chap cam tae the door
they made straik intae England
its puddens were at its feet
oot owre the muir an up abeen the brae
he scarted his oxter
he couldna see that trees

Scots/English is the mixture that many Scots speak of both Scots and English mixed up together with a Scots intonation. An example of that would the Buchan farmer whom I interviewed and who said to me, "I suffered from many maladies in my youth and double pneumonia was een o them."

From my storytellers I can quote the following examples :-

walkit, hauf-croon, hairt's bluid, lang-leggit, gaun strang,
no weel, lettin on, heid yins, ludgins, jist new oot.

English is the language that schooling has tried to din in and which some Scots try to speak when they are being formal. I've picked some examples of this from some of the stories I recorded :-

everything was in a turmoil
three or four minutes elapsed
eventually curiosity got the better of him
not by his own exertions
the queen was having her confinement
most of the story concerns Jack
in the same situation
to feed the poultry
he examined the tablecover
a thunderous wallop
studded with diamonds and other precious stones
somebody of importance
they were really determined to have it
she really and truly was a classical dancer

My story tellers also used quite a number of really old Scots expressions not often heard amongst the rest of the population nowadays. Some examples of this are :-

she wis gotten deid
he did the samen thing
he blew up the fire wi breezes
they lived in a wee cotter hoose
sheep's parks
he was tentful to his family
there was an auld packman
we'll be pitten awa
he travelled with a yoke

The traveller storytellers are fond of poetic language and they can also be very inventive when they are looking for a picturesque phrase to convey their meaning. Here are some memorable ones :-

he was in the doldrums o the drink
ae slate loose an anither yin slidin
at the back o beyond where the devil fooled the fiddler
not in my time nor in your time but in some ither body's time
owre sheep's parks, bullock's parks an aa the parks o Yarrow
her nose and her chin were crackin nuts

As my storytellers' ancestors were Gaelic speakers, it's not surprising that their stories contain echoes of Gaelic ways of saying things :-

that's my word to you
you've got the first word of me
the door was a good while of being opened
he couldnae blow wind on this hare's tail
who came to the door but ..........
I'll make the highest stone in the castle the lowest in five
minutes

They also tell a story they call Mishamahee, which is clearly for the Gaelic "mise mo fhein" or "me masel." The slang they use is the same as you would hear commonly used by people in the community :-

OK, browned off, fed up, buggered aboot, skint, broke, touch (for
money), "donkeys" years ago, a bit of a do, a licking, a hammering, grub,
booze.

As far as cant goes, my storytellers certainly knew a good deal but they did not use it much in stories because they were telling them to me, a member of the country hantle or settled population. They supplied me with lists of the cant words they knew but of course, cant was a code language they might have used in the past between themselves in the presence of non-travellers. It consists of concrete nouns, a few verbs and a few adjectives. There are no abstract nouns in cant. A representative list might include the following :-

  • mort-woman (also manishee)
  • coull- man (also gadgie)
  • kinchin-child
  • geddie-youth
  • dilly - girl
  • chate-thing
  • nawken-tinker
  • buck-tramp
  • pannie-water
  • wattle-tent (also barracade)
  • strammel-straw
  • blaw-oatmeal
  • yerras-eggs
  • winklers-eyes
  • fammels-fingers
  • haben-food
  • peeve-drink (peevy-drunk)
  • lour or lowie-money
  • drom-road
  • pluffan-tobacco
  • stumers-pipes (stumerer coull-piper)
  • barrie-good
  • shan-bad
  • grib-take,hold,use
  • deek-look
  • jan-know
  • feck-take, give
  • chore-steal
  • bing-come,go
  • mang-speak
  • moolie-kill
  • wanner-buy,sell
  • stall-stop
  • The origins of cant are many and various and also mysterious. How did "vile" for example, which is Elizabethan thieves' cant for "town," migrate to Perthshire? Some like "cluishes" for "ears" comes from Gaelic. Some cant words like "gadgie," "kip" and "radge" have come into colloquial Scots, so perhaps that's the key; words get passed on and picked up by people coming into contact with one another.

    One other interesting use of language I noticed in my storytellers, which is characteristic of their oral storytelling technique is the use of what I call signal words and phrases. In analysing transcribed stories into episodes for comparison of parallel versions, I had difficulty at first deciding where one episode ended and another began. Then I noticed the repeated use of words and phrases that seemed to signal a new episode and provide a linking mechanism for the stories. The words and phrases were so simple that I did not really notice them until I had done most of my work. Then they seemed to flash upon my consciousness like a revelation; they were so obvious but I had not been able to see them for looking at them. They were words; like "So, well, now, but, anyway, however, come/go, as in"back he goes..." or "up he went," phrases denoting passage of time such as, "Three days passed" or "Next morning." They sound very obvious of course, yet in use they are so unobtrusive that I had missed them for a long time. But they are of paramount importance, because when you take them away, the story become disconnected, like a string of beads with the thread removed.

    There is no clear dividing line between the language of their everyday conversation and the language of their storytelling. This is due partly to the informality of their storytelling practice and partly to their lively awareness and love of the power of words, even in everyday conversation. Stories were told round the campfire or in the tent, in the family circle and within the community. In the Highlands, where storytelling and ceilidhing were part of the traditional way of life, travellers were welcomed wherever they went for their stories and their music, as well as for the articles they made and sold. It was only with the Folk revival of the Sixties that travellers have been called upon to tell their stories outwith their own circle. As a mark of how highly stories were valued, there are accounts among travellers of how they were used as currency in trade deals, a story being swapped for goods. Also travellers have been quoted as saying that the stories they were told by their parents and grandparents were their education. Certainly they have preserved their story tradition through the centuries in such a way that it is possible to record from older travellers even today good versions of stories that are hundreds or even thousands of years old. In the international tale-type register devised by Finnish folklorist Annti Aarne and American Stith Thompson called Types of the Folktale, each tale type has a reference number. In the stories I recorded from the Perthshire Stewarts, nearly half their repertoire have Aarne-Thompson numbers.

    The best resources available for studying traveller tradition are of course the travellers themselves, the older ones at least. But failing that, the sound and video archives of the School of Scottish Studies contain a good bit of recorded material, contributed by those who have collected and studied traveller culture in recent years, including Hamish Henderson, Peter Cook, Linda Williamson, Sheila Douglas, Barbara McDermitt and Stephanie Smith. Any study of traveller tradition, whether it be of story or song, should always be done in the context of Scottish tradition as a whole, since the two are related and can be understood fully only as part of a total picture. It is only thus that we can appreciate the enormous debt we owe the travellers for keeping the Scottish heritage alive, including the language.


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