Just passing through—the Scottish Travellers

Posted by | September 9, 2015

Oh, Lady Margaret she sat in her high chambers.
She was sewing her silken seams.
She lookit east and she lookit west
And she saw those woods grow green.

So, picking up her petticoat
Beneath her harlin gown,
It’s when she came to the merry green woods,
There she let them down.

Oh, she had not pulled one nut, one nut,
One nut nor scarcely three,
When the highest lord in all the countryside
Came a-riding through the trees.

–opening of Lady Margaret, a traditional Scottish Traveller song
told by Duncan Williamson; transcribed in ‘Scottish Traveller Tales’

Who are the Scottish Travellers (a small contingent of whom emigrated to Appalachia in the late 19th century)? In the Old Country, this nomadic group has pitched its bow-tents just on the outskirts of villages and earned money there as tinsmiths, hawkers, horse dealers and pearl-fishermen for at least 500 years.

They were called tinkers, from the Irish tincéirí, eg. tincéir or “tinsmith.” “It’s not worth a tinker’s dam” (a little rivet for repairing stuff) is the original saying from whence we get the less polite common saying. Travellers themselves now consider the term derogatory.

Tinsmith in shenandoah valley vaCaption reads: Tinsmith at work in drainpipe section in one of the flourishing shops in the Shenandoah Valley. Photo John Vachon, 1941.

In Scotland, they developed regular routes and sold goods, repaired carts and pots and pans, and worked the horses or land as they went from one side of that country to the other. In Appalachia the men are still itinerant in the sense that their work takes them away from home for many months at a time, but they have a home base where the women and children stay during the school year.

The Travellers never bank their money but spend it quickly, or keep large amounts of cash on hand, or they turn it over into silver and gold and carry that with them. They don’t trust banks or governments, so they fend for themselves.

Scottish Travellers devised two languages. One was Cant, a combination of Scottish Gaelic, English, Romany and Arabic. The other language is a version of Gaelic unique to the Travellers alone called Beurla Regaird.

These languages are guarded. They are taught only in the community, taught from birth, and those who marry outside the community do not teach their new families the language. In fact, to marry outside the community is to die to your family.

Scottish Travellers in America do intermarry with other groups from time to time. Most frequently, when they marry outside the Travellers, they marry Melungeons, Gypsies, or mixed blood groups such as Redbones, Brass Ankles, the Guineas of WV, or Lumbees.

mule traders in campton kyPhoto caption reads: “Jockey” Street, near the courthouse. Here is where mountaineers and farmers trade horses and mules. Campton, Wolfe County, Kentucky. Photo by Marion Post Wolcott, 1940.

Scottish Travellers are and were known as storytellers, entertainers, humorists, and musicians. Scottish Travellers have a word in the Cant language – conyach. Conyach describes the state when who you are, and what you are doing, merge into one. It’s a highly sought after state when one is the singer, dancer, or storyteller at a ceilidh.

In a traditional informal ceilidh, family and friends got together after dinner and the dishes were done, and there was that little bit of time between then and time to go to bed, and they sat and visited with each other. And they talked, and sometimes they got to telling stories or singing together.

Stories were often told that were hours long. They could be drawn out over several days, told in parts every night. Common stories included the Jack Tales that we now associate with Appalachia, but were originally from the British Isles. They exist both in Gaelic and the Scots tongues.

Usually at the ceilidh, songs would be sung about local people. This was a form of social control. You could spread gossip, make fun of someone, express admiration or love for someone, spread bad news about someone, or ruin the reputation of someone, just by singing a song about them, or inserting their name into an already existing song.

Travellers share a love of words in songs & stories. Also — a desire to constantly move on. They tend to travel before a birth so that the children have the right to be in more than one country. They tend to be drawn to thrown away people, or outcasts, the broken, or the hidden. They are known for passing through quietly, not making a noise unless they are wanted, needed. You might move on an hour or so down the road or you might move to another country. That is the way of the Travellers.


sources: Scottish Customs: From the Cradle to the Grave, by Margaret Bennett, Polygon, 1992
Scottish Traveller Tales: Lives Shaped through Stories, by Donald Braid, Univ. Press of Mississippi, 2002
The Thistle and the Brier, by Richard Blaustein, McFarland, 2003

6 Responses

  • Love the poem. This is an interesting post I am Scottish myself.

  • Richard, I remember your fiddling and you so fondly. Charlie and Dorothy Acuff have both passed away now and his father’s fiddles were sold. We miss Charlie dearly. David went to see him at the nursing home in Newport as often as he could. David recorded a tribute CD of tunes he learned from Charlie. We would love to see you if you’re ever in Nashville–still at the same house I’ve lived in since 4th grade. We have two sweet girl grandchildren from our daughter, Holly. our son, Nathan, lives in Cincinnati with his wife. I’m hoping you will get this and stay in touch–Trish Cannon

  • Jane irvin says:

    great article. Explains so much to me about my mum and her family…. I dont think they have ever forgiven her for getting married to a english non traveller and bringing us all here to live in Australia in 1965. We were never told of her Scottish Traveller background. I only found out 5 years ago…. I have been referred to by them as a gorja breed of the scummy kind as we dont always see eye to eye. very sad bunch indeed. And yes, they spread untruths about us…. so proud of my mum, God rest her soul.

  • Jenny Terry says:

    I am very interested in Appalachian history. My entire family lived in the mountains of Tennessee, but many settled in SE Kentucky. They seem to be a wild bunch. Coal mining, farming and making shine was their way of living. They are primarily Scots and irish

  • Crook says:

    The more I Lear, the more I want to know.

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