It is a beautiful day in early May, and we are driving through the meandering roads of Fife, surrounded by rolling fields glistening in the early Summer sunshine. Barely two miles from Cupar, we take a sharp right turn. Nowhere on our short journey have we observed a signpost or mere indication of the place we are visiting, other than the innocuous bus stop nearby. Upon entering the drive we are greeted by the words “Warning: Security cameras are in operation on these premises – 24 hour video recording facility” and a height restriction barrier. A few dozen yards farther, past a guard house, the road winds into a small lane with a dozen or so caravans parked to its sides, monitored by eleven security cameras.
Welcome to Tarvit Mill. Just under twenty minutes from St Andrews, it is the largest traveller site in Fife. Having heard so much of the persistent discrimination Scottish Gypsy Travellers suffer, we have come to hear about it first hand with Roseanna McPhee, one of the country’s leading activists on this issue.
The official term Gypsy Travellers encompasses a range of diverse communities with distinct backgrounds and customs. Irish Travellers and Romani are among the best-known, but the most numerous and historically prominent here are those native to Scotland.
The origins of Scottish Travellers are to this day shrouded in uncertainty, but they are, in all probability, the country’s oldest ethnic group, with references to them going back to the 12th Century.
Over the years, they have made their mark on the country’s economy and culture, most conspicuously in the latter field, with contributions to Scottish music, art and language. Travelling is a fundamental aspect of their cultural heritage, and is by no means a “lifestyle choice.” Current numbers are difficult to account for; roughly 2,000 do not spend time in housing and 15,000 do.
Even today, Gypsy Travellers in Scotland suffer from discrimination on a scale and scope all too reminiscent of that of their other European relatives. In terms of housing, local councils provide nowhere near enough sites and road-side camps fitted with adequate services and safe surroundings to meet demand, and successful planning applications are notoriously rare. These poor accommodation conditions also contribute to sharply lower life expectancies than the national average. Some GPs also refuse to attend to Gypsy Travellers or visit sites.
Employment discrimination, even targeting graduates, is rife. Education boards have been accused of not properly considering the needs of Gypsy Traveller children- councils’ response to bullying is one bone of contention. Legal representation is rare. These issues are before endemic racial abuse and harassment are even mentioned.
Arriving with Roseanna, we are welcomed into Kenny and Mary’s caravan (fearing retribution from the council, they request their real names not be published) to talk about their lives. Like many of the other twenty families, they have been in Tarvit Mill ever since it was built in 1988.
Unemployment is an issue affecting 90% of those living in Tarvit Mill; Mary tells us she has never held a formal job and has only just begun her second informal one. Despite her endless efforts, she says the inclusion of Tarvit Mill, or any traveller site, as an address on a job application form is effectively a death knell for any employment prospects. A police van whistles into and out of the drive, an average surveillance check by the council, Kenny suggests.
Regarding their personal experiences of discrimination, Kenny says for years he has enjoyed boxing and playing in a nearby pipe band, only to give up the former and now have to commute all the way to Pitlochry to rehearse, upon his trainer and bandmates discovering that he was a “Tinker”.
Mary tell us that Fife Council is stubborn and slow to cooperate, perhaps deliberately so. She highlights that in the throes of the historically cold winter in 2010, the council failed to turn up for weeks to restore basic services and clear snow. This was in spite of numerous calls and the council being conveniently located two minutes drive away.
The couple’s hopes for change are modest: better accommodation and services and reform of a system which charges a rent comprising both council and community taxes, equal to or even higher than that for a three-bedroom house, for the “slab of concrete” the caravan is parked on.
Kenny and Mary clearly face many hardships, but they suggest that they live in much better conditions than other Gypsy Travellers in Scotland. In fact, Fife Council is considered to be among the better ones in their treatment of Gypsy Travellers.
But not all is perfect here; Amnesty Scotland highlighted a need for more transit pitches, and there has been word of health discrimination near Kirkcaldy and tensions in Crail surrounding the establishment of a new site. On a national level, a landmark ruling in 2008 granting Gypsy Travellers legal status as an ethnic group, and the Church of Scotland’s apology last May for its historic treatment of them, are small steps forward.
However, none of that represents a sea change in attitudes; a disturbing proportion of society was polled as hostile to the travelling community, and successive governments have done little to decisively end the travellers’ misery and proffer a genuine opportunity for their acceptance and integration.
As we walked out of the site under the cameras’ watchful gaze, reaching Cupar and the “settled community” within minutes, the scale of that detachment and neglect became very apparent to us. We return to St Andrews, shamed by this medieval reality in 21st Century Scotland.