Monday, February 1, 2010


Three years ago, I was "found" by my Scottish second cousin, Shirl. An excellent amateur genealogist, Shirl had amassed a great deal information on the Munros of Sutherland County, Scotland, and had turned her attention to the ones who had emigrated to Canada and the U.S. She found exactly one link to the Munros of North Dakota: me! Since then, Shirl has provided our family with tons of information about the Munros who stayed behind in Golspie, Scotland, and access to the Sutherland Golspie Family Tree on

A line about my Great Aunt Christina "Teenie" Munro really caught my eye. Teenie, it said, loved it when the tinkers came around, so that she could practice her Gaelic on them. This piqued my interest about tinkers.

Not long after, a Scottish blogger named Ruthie mentioned two books about Scottish tinkers. My interest was piqued even further, and I did some research on Scottish tinkers, also called travellers (British spelling). I wrote a post about the Scottish Highland Travellers on my regular blog, Celtic Lady (

Since writing my post, I have read "Jessie's Journey: The Autobiography of a Traveller Girl" by Jess Smith. (I also purchased the other book mentioned by Ruthie, "The Yellow on the Broom", by Betsy Whyte, but have decided to save that for a later time.)

In case you didn't follow the link above, here's a bit of background on Scottish Highland Travelers: They are among seven different types of nomadic people found in Scotland. Unfortunately, all of them have been lumped together under the prejudicial term of tinker or gypsy after the ancient Roma group that originated in Northern India and spread throughout Europe.

Scottish Highland Travellers, however, are not Roma Gypsy. They are a Gaelic-speaking people indigenous to the Highlands of Scotland. They traveled around peddling their wares, mending household items, fishing for pearls, doing farm labor and tinsmithing. In fact, the word tinker comes from the Gaelic word tinceard, or tinsmith.

Over the years, tinker has become a pejorative term, which is why many of the original tinkers came to call themselves Travellers. (Another, lovely name for them is the Summer People).

For 10 years, between the ages of 5 to 15, Jessie Riley traveled around all of Scotland and part of northern England in an old blue Bedford bus, also home to her seven sisters and her mom and dad, Charlie and Jeannie Riley.

Although the Rileys had little money, they truly loved their life on the road. Jessie's father, especially, was loathe to settle down in one place. Theirs was a loving family, and they also enjoyed the times spent with extended family members met up with on the road.

Their world was by no means perfect. Although they were an honest traveling family, they encountered discrimination and prejudice from people who thought them dirty, thieving "Gypos". They are forced to move from their campgrounds by English police; they are barred from burying their dead in traditional ground by a prejudiced landholder. Jessie, especially, was subjected to bullying at the schools the Travellers were compelled to attend.

However, the good outweighs the bad in Jessie's recounting. As with many other travellers, Jessie is a wonderful storyteller, whether she is discussing the foods they prepared, her delight in the natural world, her experiences peddling and fortunetelling with her mom, the death of an elderly Traveller woman, a family feud erupting into a gun fight or her own hair-raising adventures, like the eerie encounter with a piper on ghostly Culloden Moor.

Highland Scottish Travellers carried a wealth of oral storytelling, and Jessie weaves these tales of Highland heroes, ghosts and Banshees into her story. Thanks to Jessie and people like her, these tales have now been written down. The travellers have also preserved ancient Highland ballads and songs that might otherwise have been lost. In short, this book is about a way of life nearly extinct in Scotland today.

Jessie's poem, "Scotia's Bairn", printed at the end of the book, is alone worth the price of the book. Here are some excerpts from this poem by a self-described "Child of the Mist":

"Yes, it may be said that you are 'better' than I, your peers have obviously blessed you with a grand home, fine clothes, the best of schooling, good clothes, etc.
I, on the other hand, saw life from the mouth of a 'tinker's' tent.
But I have felt the breath wind of John O'Groats.
I have seen the hills of Glen Coe clothed in purple heather, heard her mountaintops whisper a thousand curses on the murderers of the MacDonald bairns,
The ghosts of Culloden brushed against my cheek as I sat on a rock seat, watching heaven's lightning streak across the land to the sea beyond..."


"We are different, you and I: I am the wind in your hair, you are the voice of mistrust:
I am the blue of the Atlantic as she thrusts her watery fingers into Scotland's west coast.
You are the gates that stop me from entering the forest.
I am the grouse in the purpled heather, you are the hunter who denies me my flight.
I am the salmon that leaps to her favorite spawning stream, you are the rod who would end my epic journey.
I am the seed of all who went before me. I am the brave ones who hid, not burned the tartan. I am from those who spoke the Gaelic in secret places. I am part of the 'true' Earth, the sea, the sky -
I am the Scotia Bairn."

Jessie continued her story in two other books, "Tales From the Tent" and "Tears For A Tinker". As a traditional storyteller, she is in great demand for live performances throughout Scotland.

1 comment:

Jess Smith said...

Dear Julie, how happy it made me feel to read your uplifting comments on my books; to reach inside with my love of my ancestors is all I want from life. To share with others how precious those days on the road were. My parents have long gone and I hope wherever they are I have given them reason to be feel a sense of honor that I wear my coat with pride. Many thanks, I am indebted to you. I have also published a novel-'Bruar's Rest' which begins in Sutherland, and a ahort story collection -Sookin' Berries.