This past winter I wrote a post about Scottish Tinkers and Travellers on my regular blog, "Celtic Lady". It led me to read two books by women who wrote about their experiences as tinker children. I reviewed Jess Smith's "Jessie's Journey" on Feb. 1 and Betsy Whyte's "The Yellow on the Broom" on Feb. 22.
My post and reviews garnered me an appreciative note from Jess Smith. Betsy Whyte is long gone, but I did hear from her great niece, Patsy Whyte, who wrote to thank me for bringing the plight of Scottish Highland Travellers to the forefront. Sadly, says Patsy, "Travellers in Scotland still have a really tough time. Discrimination is as bad as it ever was. Everywhere else, things seem to have moved forward - but not in Scotland."
Patsy and I have exchanged several e-mails and she gave me permission to print anything she wrote, so here is an excerpt from one of her "letters":
"Many thanks for adding my comment to your blog and for your interest in Scottish travellers. As I relate in my book, I was born in a disused army barracks, condemned as unfit for human habitation, which was taken over by the city authorities in Aberdeen." (My note: that's Aberdeen, Scotland, not Aberdeen, SD.)
"My mum and dad and seven children, including me, lived in two damp rooms which had neither hot water or electricity. All of us children slept in the same double bed! My dad turned his hand at anything to earn some money. Sometimes he and mum would go hawking around the doors, selling old clothes and anything else they picked up in the market in the Castlegate.
"When spring arrived, marked by the yellow on the broom, we all piled on the back of a horse and cart and travelled the countryside for weeks on end. We'd meet up with other travellers on the road or at the traditional camping grounds, exchanging news and telling stories and singing songs around the camp fire.
"Of course, I was much too young to remember any of that . . .
"When the summer was over, we returned to the miserable conditions of the army barracks. I fell ill and the day I was taken into hospital was the last day we would ever spend together as a family."
Like Jessie and Betsy, Patsy is a wonderful writer, and has set down her story up to age 16 in her first book, "No Easy Road", which she sent me. "In a sense," she told me, "my book hopefully takes over where my great aunt's book leaves off."
Jessie and Betsy, like all HIghland Travellers, were cruelly treated and discriminated against, but they also had happy times on the road. However, Patsy had very little of the joy of a Traveller child and all of the grief, heartache, abuse and neglect. Her book is almost too painful to get through. My heart went out to her time and time again.
The day that Patsy was torn from her family, she was just 19 months old. She was almost adopted from her first residence, the not-too-bad Airyhall, but that fell through and she was transferred to be "brought up" in the Castlegate Children's Home in Aberdeen. In a world of cruel people, Castlegate's house mother seems to be among the cruelest. One of the saddest incidents was when pretty little Patsy was chosen to switch on the city of Edinburgh's Christmas lights. She was a princess for a night, with a beauty shop hairdo and wearing a beautiful dress and cloak purchased by the house mother. After the ceremony, the housemother strips Patsy's lovely clothes away from her and they are never seen again.
School was just as bad as the home, as was the embarrassment of encounters with her down and out mother, who lived nearby. She had only intermittent contact with her siblings, some of whom moved in and out of the same children's home. Eventually, she leaves the place at age 15, but is thrust from the frying pan into the fire, into the network of social services and hostels. (Don't think of hostels as being friendly youth hotels.)
Finally, she empancipates herself from social service workers, who have betrayed her at every turn. But even then, Patsy falters. She was given some fine chances at employment but messes them up. She has an abusive boyfriend (whose first act is to rape her), she is nearly pimped out as a prostitute and has brushes with the law. But she does rebound from each experience and she does learn from them. I really couldn't fault her actions given the circumstances of her hard life.
"No Easy Road" is a testament to the powers of endurance and survival. I honestly don't think I could have endured some of the experiences she lived through.
Patsy now lives in a town called Glenrothes near Edinburgh and has five grown children. I asked her about her life now and she replied: "Most of my time is taken up with trying to push my book. I am also working hard on a second book, taking my life forward from age 16."
I'm anticipating Patsy's second book to see what else she had to overcome. For, as she says, "It took another eight years or so for my life to eventually settle down into some kind of normality."
I haven't yet mentioned the fascinating psychic experiences Patsy relates in "No Easy Road": Seeing a silent lady every day in the orphanage dining room (who turns out to be the ghost of her grandmother), being visited in bed by a little girl who "went to buy sweeties and was murdered", a rescue from near rape by a man who then mysteriously disappears, and an "imaginary" friend, a young boy who escorts her to and from school every day. She was also once rescued from drowning by what I would call an angelic presence. Patsy says her follow-up book will include further psychic experiences, which became more and more a part of her life.