The Gypsy/Traveller community within the Gairloch area
June is Gypsy, Roma, Traveller History Month, and in celebration we’re exploring the long history of the Gypsy/Traveller community within the Gairloch area. Throughout this month you’ll hear about the families recorded within census records, memories from the 1950s, and related objects held within the Museum. But first, we’re discovering the local place-names which have Gypsy/Traveller connections…
Until recently, Gypsy/Travellers would have been common in rural locations such as Gairloch and the surrounding areas. As well as being skilled craftspeople who could make and mend metalware, baskets and horn objects, they also bought domestic items such as ceramics and sewing materials from towns and cities into the area, hawking (selling or swapping) them from door to door. Every Traveller family lived differently, but it was common to ‘overwinter’ somewhere in a house or large tent, giving the children a chance to go to school. Once the warmer months came, the family would begin to move to where there was work within farms and crofts, or the chance to sell or trade new items. Sometimes staying a few days, or sometimes months, some families might travel the same roads each year, whilst others went wherever they wished. During summer it was common for families to stay in a tent known as a bow tent. Although the style and materials vary from family to family, as well as for how long it was to be lived in, they were generally made from lengths of willow or hazel, a large waterproof canvas which was moved from place to place and reused by the family, and stones found nearby to hold the canvas down. These materials left no trace on the landscape, but within the Gairloch area the presence of Gypsy/Travellers can be found within place-names, many of which were documented by local Gaelic scholar Roy Wentworth.
Historically, a Gypsy/Traveller within the Highlands would have been known as a ceàrd, pronounced ky-aart, which translates to a smith, reference to the community’s skilled craftsmen. Within the Gairloch area however Roy spells it as ceàird which reflects variations within the dialect. The following place-names have been collected from Roy Wentworth’s dictionary and other local sources with the help of Nevis Hulme.
Tobair nan Ceàirdidhean, the Travellers’ Pool, NG 7430 7109
This is a pool or deeper part of the river Allt Ùmh ’Chlèibh in South Erradale, just above Droichid Ùmh Chlèibh, the bridge over the burn. Travellers used to camp nearby and drew water for themselves and their horses from this pool.
Làthrach nan Ceàirdidhean, the Travellers’ stance, NG 7438 7292
A flattish, sandy area to the west of the sharp bend on the road where it climbs An t-Achadh just outside of Opinan, where Travellers would camp. The usual spelling of làthrach is làrach and it more usually translates as site.
Poll nan Ceàirdidhean, the Travellers’ pool, NG 8199 7233
A pool in the River Kerry, beside which Gypsy/Travellers would camp. You can hear more about this camp later on in the month.
Glac nan Ceàird, the Travellers’ hollow, NH 0243 6098
A sheltered hollow on the Kinlochewe to Torridon road to the north of Cromasaig. It lies on the west side of the road immediately beside Allt a’ Chùirn and is enclosed by this burn on the south, by the road on the east and by steep banks on the north and west. It is now fairly densely wooded with birch. This used to be a favourite spot for the Travellers to camp, though many have wondered how in a spot so sheltered and full of vegetation the people could bear the midges there in summer.
Làthrach nan Ceàirdidhean, the Travellers’ stance, NH 0211 6279
A small area just to the southwest of the Kinlochewe to Gairloch road, at the foot of the path that runs up the hill beside Allt na Sguabaig. Formerly used by travelling people for camping, it is now a car park for walkers on the path. There was formerly a stance about a mile northwest at Taagan but one night the Travellers saw something there they believed was supernatural which frightened them, and as a result moved to the foot of the Allt na Sguabaig path.
Cnoc nan Ceàirdidhean – the Traveller’s knoll
The exact location of this spot is unknown, but it is thought to be on the seaward side of the road, near the area which is now Fasaig.
Sand school, from the late 1920s. Tommy Miller is second left on the top row, Mary Miller second left on the bottom row, and Jean Miller fourth left on the bottom row. From the collection of Gairloch Museum, GARHM IMG1331
A Gypsy/Traveller camp within the Gairloch area, exact location unknown. From the collection of Gairloch Museum, GARHM IMG1266
In this, our second post for Gypsy, Roma, Traveller History Month, we are tracing several Gypsy/Traveller families through the census records, from 1851 until 1911.
Within the UK, the census has been taken every 10 years since 1841 to record who is living where and with who. It also includes a person’s occupation, age and where they were born. Although there are no mentions of any Gypsy/Travellers in our area in the 1841 census, with the help of Dorothy Malone we’ve found many families after this, including MacFee, McAlister, Williamson and Stewart. The following three families frequent the Gairloch area year after year, living, working and having children here.
The MacDonald family first appear in the 1851 census in Kinlochewe. At this time, the whole area came under this name, so we don’t know exactly where they were camped. The family is Alexander, a widower of 89 years who was a spoon maker, and with him are his grandson, 32-year-old Donald, and 22-year-old Jane. Donald was a tinsmith from Kintail and Jane was a tin merchant born in Gairloch.
By the 1861 census Donald is shown in Laid [sic] Udrigle still working as a tinsmith, and now married to Jane Stewart, with three children.
For 1871 the family had moved to Bualnaluib, near Aultbea, and were living in a house which had one room with a window. Donald was still a tinsmith, and their family had risen to seven children, three of whom were at school. But they must have moved several times over the years before this as three of the children were born in Mellon Charles, one in Strath, one in Gairloch and the two youngest in Bualnaluib.
The Wilsons are first mentioned in the 1871 census at Cromosaig near Kinlochewe, probably in Glac nan Ceàird (the Travellers’ hollow) which was mentioned in our last post. In their tent is Andrew, a 34-year-old tinsmith from Inverness-shire who is living with his wife and five children, as well as Andrew White, a 75-year-old tinsmith cousin.
In 1891 at Tolly, near Poolewe, there is a hawker’s camp housing three families of Wilsons. James is 60 years of age, from Forfar and is staying with his wife and two children. William, the son of James above, was 26 and camping with his wife and son who was born in Gairloch. And John was a 33-year-old widower camping with his three children.
In 1901, two families of Wilson are shown back in Cromosaig. William, who we saw in 1891, is now recorded as 34 and has a second child, born in Lochcarron. Staying with this family is James Wilson, also a hawker and a tinsmith, with his wife and his two sons.
The Miller family first appear in the 1871 census at Talladale, just south of Gairloch, where six of them are living in a tent. William is a 60-year-old widower living with his unmarried daughter, his married son and daughter-in-law and their two children. The four adults are shown as travelling hawkers.
By 1891 two families of Millers are at Kerrysdale living in two tents, which are recorded perhaps ironically as having no windows. In one was Thomas, a licensed hawker, and Catherine his wife, who are the son and daughter-in-law of William, seen in 1871. Thomas was born in Grantown and Catherine in Brora, but their four children were all born in Gairloch. In the second tent is William, another licensed hawker, who is William from 1871s grandson born in Gairloch, with his wife and two young children. By 1901 this William was in a tent in Applecross, working as a tinsmith.
Our access to census data ends in 1911, but through a member of the local community we’ve been told that a Miller family was living permanently near Big Sand during the 1930s. A photo of Sands School within our collection, dated to the late 1920s, shows Tommy, Mary and Jean Miller who are recorded as being from North Erradale. We’re not totally sure, but we think they are the children of a Gypsy/Traveller family who are staying in a house or large tent during the cold months. Does anyone else within the local area remember this family?
In our last two posts celebrating Gypsy, Roma, Traveller History Month you’ll have seen that a pool on the River Kerry, Poll nan Ceàirdidhean, was named after the Gypsy/Travellers who would camp nearby. Here Willie MacRae, who’s family have farmed Kerrysdale since 1936, tells us about the families and camps he remembers from his childhood in the 1950s and 60s…
The MacRae family began farming Kerrysdale Farm in 1936 and are aware of families camping by the River Kerry for many years before that. One of the only photos we’ve been able to find of Gypsy/Travellers within the Gairloch area can be found in Christopher J Uncle’s book Old Ways Through Wester Ross, which depicts a bow camp in front of Sìthean Mòr, thought to be taken around 1913.
Willie remembers that during his childhood in the mid-1950s several families would be frequent visitors, travelling by horse and trap from places like Muir of Ord and Beauly in the east coast. The River Kerry was a favourite spot for many families as there was enough space for a tent and for their horses to graze too. Each family would carry their tent materials with them in their carts, and these would be bow tents like in the picture, made from bent lengths of willow or hazel, covered with a canvas and secured with stones. Each tent would be large enough to house 6 or 8 people, and there would often be a stove inside with a metal chimney poking out the top.
The Stewart family, with head of the family George “Geordack”, would come every year during the mid-50s until the late 1960s, and he had a wife and about 6 children. George’s brothers Robbie and Donald and their wives would sometimes come too. This family were tinsmiths and they’d go to the local iron mongers in Gairloch, owned by Simon ‘Hector’ MacIntosh, to buy sheets of metal to work. This would be used to make pails, pots and pans which would be sold around the local houses. In Kerrysdale, these goods would often be bartered for hay, especially if the spring had come late, as extra fodder would be needed for the horses.
As well as making tin items, some families made paper flowers too, and message-style baskets with a round body and hooped handle. Another family, the Davies, crocheted and sold things like soft facecloths and babies’ shawls. When a Gypsy/Traveller family arrived at a house to sell goods they’d have all their items wrapped in a large piece of material, and when you opened your door it would be unwrapped to reveal everything, including clothes pegs, knitting needles, combs and darning needles for darning socks.
Depending on the weather, the families might stay for two weeks or more, and use their camp as a base for travelling down the overside towards Redpoint. Given that there wasn’t much machinery on the farms and crofts at this time, there could be potential work in planting and picking each different crop, such as hand-binding sheaves of corn. And it was common for families to travel to South Erradale and help with the harvest there.
As well as being skilled craftsmen and farm workers, every family was great with horses and one man, Johnny Stewart, was a dealer in horses. He used to go off to Uist and buy ponies, breaking them in himself. Lots of local farmers and crofters would buy these horses from Johnny, and Willie’s uncle who farmed by Shieldaig Lodge sold a horse to him once.
As well as having open fields which were good for grazing horses, Kerrysdale also had the River Kerry and it’s pearl mussels, which at the time weren’t protected. One family, the Davies from east Sutherland, were expert pearl fishers who fished the Oykel in Sutherland too, and they were good at fishing the pearls in a sustainable way. This would usually be in summer, when it was more pleasant to stand in the river all day. The Travellers would bring a long wooden fishing pole with them, and a metal box with a glass bottom which would be pushed into the water and used to see the riverbed. Someone in the late 40s or early 50s found a pearl with a value of £50, which today would be worth thousands of pounds. And if they found pearls that were immature and still brown, or misshaped and of little value, they’d give them to the MacRae children. Any pearls thought to be of value would be taken to Dingwall or Inverness to be valued.
Given that some of these families came by each year Willie and his brothers became friendly with the children, and they’d often come up to the farm to play football on the fields. If there were a lot of families it could be up to 12-a-side. It seemed more common for their babies to be born elsewhere in winter before the family took to the road, but one mother returned each year with a new baby wrapped in a huge tartan shawl, and if a baby were born in the tent then it’s first bath was in the Kerry. And there were parties too – one couple of Gypsy/Travellers were married by the local registrar and shopkeeper Heckie MacIntyre while they were camped here, and returned to celebrate with their families beside the river.
Objects within the Museum's Collection
In this final post celebrating Gypsy, Roma, Traveller History Month we’re exploring some objects within Gairloch Museum’s collection which have Gypsy/Traveller connections.
In our last two posts we’ve discovered a few of the Gypsy/Traveller families who have been visiting the Gairloch area since the 1850s. Some of them had occupations that have left little trace visible to us today, like George McAllister from the 1911 census who was a skin dealer staying on Port Henderson Lochside, or John Williamson, a horse dealer who was staying in a caravan in Talladale in 1901. But others, like the many hawkers and tinsmiths, would have sold and traded their goods in to the homes of the local community.
Working horn was a skill often possessed by the Gypsy/Traveller community, like Alexander Macdonald (mentioned in the 1861 census) who was a spoon maker staying in Kinlochewe. To craft a spoon, Travellers would often barter horns from local farmers or crofters – one to be made into a spoon, and the other as payment which could be crafted and sold elsewhere for a profit. Horn becomes malleable when it gets hot, a bit like plastic, so it would be split down the middle and heated, before being pressed flat. The basic shape is made by pressing this sheet between a wooden mould with ‘male’ and ‘female’ parts, before the shape is cut out and finished to a high shine. Within the Museum collection we have examples of different shapes and sizes of horn spoon, as well as several small horn beakers. These would be made by cutting both ends from a horn, heating it to make it pliable, and pushing the disk-shaped bottom down from the top.
Another item that we’re fairly certain was crafted by Gypsy/Travellers is a small peg, made from a piece of wood split down the middle and fixed at one end with a band of metal. It’s a style that is commonly seen across Scotland, and matches the description of pegs Willie MacRae remembers being offered to his family at Kerrysdale Farm.
A huge number of different items would have been hawked or sold in the Gairloch area, and we’re aware that Gairloch Museum’s collection currently doesn’t reflect this strong connection to the Gyspy/Traveller community. Does anyone reading this have any objects, photographs or memories of this community within Gairloch and the surrounding area? If so, we’d love to hear from you as part of an ongoing project to more fully document this community.