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About travelling communities

Travelling communities in Scotland

This section provides information about communities in Scotland who are currently mobile or have a tradition of mobility.  Travelling communities in Scotland are not a single group. There are many different groups. Each is defined by its different history, culture and lifestyle.  While each group is made up of extensive family networks, these may have little or no connection with other Traveller groups.

Central to each community is its right to self-identity, and to be recognized and respected by the society it lives in. The idea or actuality of ‘nomadism’ is a shared feature of these groups. In some places, this website uses the umbrella term ‘Travellers’, a traditionally accepted terminology among the communities in Scotland. Written references to Traveller groups should use non-derogatory terms and capitalize the first letter, e.g. ‘Gypsy’, ‘Roma’, ‘Traveller’ or ‘Showmen’.

Obtaining clear understandings about the distinctions between Travelling groups is an on-going challenge for policy makers and providers of public services, e.g. patterns of Travellers’ public service needs vary across the communities so ‘one size does not fit all’. A clearer understanding of the groups, and flexibility in service delivery, would be of economic, social and cultural benefit to Travellers, the local communities where they live, national and local policy makers, and public service providers. Drawing on education as an exemplar, we provide brief descriptions and background information on some of the groups.

The complex and proud history of Gypsy/Travellers in Scotland is not fully understood. Historical records of Romani people, whose ancestral home is India, date their arrival in Scotland as the late 15th century. Over the centuries, Romani people mixed with indigenous groups in Scotland, some of whom may also have had nomadic traditions. It is suggested that some Gaels, displaced from their lands following the Jacobite Uprising and subsequent Highland Clearances in the 18th and 19th centuries, joined communities already travelling in Scotland. This complex history is reflected linguistically in the ‘cant’: a language used by Gypsy/Traveller people, which draws on Romani, Scots and Gaelic words. An indigenous, nomadic ethnic minority Gypsy/Traveller history has been entwined with, but distinct from that of the wider Scottish population for many centuries. For some, school experiences are positive, however, a range of interrelated factors, such as a history of discrimination, contribute to poor engagement and attainment in the school system.

Showpeople or Showmen bring fairgrounds to urban and rural settings all over the UK. Many Showpeople also travel further afield to attend European fairs. Wherever they travel there is an expectation that the whole family will contribute towards the life of the fair.  Showpeople make up a business/cultural community who self-define in terms of their livelihoods. Showpeople’s distinctive identity is built on their tradition of bringing entertainment and other services to local communities. Scottish Showpeople share in this strong cultural identity and have a long, proud history of living and working in Scotland. Many Showpeople belong to The Showmen’s Guild of Great Britain, a national non-profit Trade Association that governs the setting up of fairs in partnership with local government officials.

Showpeople have a long history of engagement with the Scottish Education system. Nowadays, most families live on permanent Showmen’s yards and commute to fairs. This allows children to attend local schools.

Roma refers to a group while Romani is singular or referring to an individual.  The Roma are thought to be the largest ethnic minority in Europe. In the European context, the term ‘Roma’ officially refers to a variety of groups of people who describe themselves as Roma, Gypsies, Travellers, Manouches, Ashkali and Sinti, as well as other titles.  Movement may be triggered by the need to find work or escape violence, racism and discrimination.  Family networks make up the diverse Roma groups. In the most traditional Roma communities, extended family members will travel together and if settled, will share accommodations. Roma communities maintain their culture and language wherever they have settled.  For example, the Romani language has been preserved demonstrating its central role in their cultural identity.  There is no official written version of Romani, so remains an oral tradition.  Families also learn the language of the surrounding populations.  A population as dispersed as the Roma means that in addition to cultural similarities within the population, language, practices, attitudes, dress, and occupation may vary greatly among different groups.  Roma families usually appreciate the value of school education for their children.  Despite this, the intersectionality of language, gender, mobility and Roma ethnicity presents major barriers to education.  On account of continued discrimination and a lack of trust in authorities, many do not identify as Roma. 

Patterns of mobility

It is useful to understand different patterns of mobility a family may experience and how each may affect the families’ capacity to engage with the education system.

Some families are completely settled. Although the children may come from a travelling background the family will have decided through necessity to settle in one area, often in a house for economic reasons or to gain access to services such as health for an older relative. Although settled Traveller children may attend school, families may not ascribe to their cultural or ethnic background for fear of discrimination. Whole school approaches to recognizing and valuing the culture will be necessary.

When families are semi-nomadic the children will usually have enrolled in a base school but families will travel fairly predictably during the travelling season for work. Schools will have opportunities to plan how to keep in touch with young people when they travel and may provide schoolwork packages usually based on the use of digital technology.

Nomadic families have unpredictable travelling patterns and seek access to a range of different schools. Children often find it difficult to settle into school life and form relationships. Schools will need to be able to engage families quickly and access previous attainment and achievement records. Flexibility and nurturing strategies will be necessary to reassure children and build confidence.

Some families have no tradition of attending school. The families can be fairly settled, live on sites or houses or be continually mobile. The families may educate their children at home and children will develop skills in line with family work traditions.