TOBAR AN DUALCHAIS: Travelling folk and a rich well of tradition

A family photo taken in 1956, eight year old Jess sits with a child on her knee. Pic Jess Smith

To celebrate Gypsy, Roma and Traveller History Month, this month’s Tobar an Dualchais feature has been written by the author and storyteller Jess Smith. Jess is from a Scottish Traveller family and was privileged to sit round campfires enthralled by all kinds of tales and legends from the traveller tradition.

‘All life travels to the place of one’s birth, to the richness of the well.’

In Traveller Cant, the word for the ‘pathway’ is Tobar, which means the ‘road to the well’. 

Travelling people, who for centuries had walked their trade routes as the seasons dictated, winter-stopping and off again when the lambs arrived and broom burst forth from their bush beds.

To them a willow tree was the ribcage for a tent home; one where children were born and life ebbed from the old.  Essie Stewart used to travel with her family in the summer and gives an account of how their tents would be erected. (Track ID on 35499).

The willow also provided wands for sturdy baskets, a necessity for carrying all their worldly goods and for a baby cradle after a newborn was able to sleep out with mother.

Jess with her father. Pic Jess Smith

Travellers could sustain life from nature, as long as their way was clear and campsites available. They lived as close to mother earth as any suckling babe of nature.  

Being different from the settled population they seldom shared their cultural ways and customs.

The knowledge they needed to survive was generationally handed down from parent to child and had sustained their way of life for centuries.

In fact it is written that Scottish Travellers came from within a tribal system that had predated recorded history.


Travellers’ skills were many and included pearl fishing, horn spoon carving, lace making, pottery making, tin ware, horsemanship, building wagons and carts, making bagpipes and fiddles, carving wooden flowers and dye dipping them, cutting the heather roots and tying them for scouring pots and besom branching.

Betsy Whyte talks about pearl fishing and a particular pearl which her father found (Track ID 110259). Rabbit snaring for food and gathering of the skins were some of the other skilled crafts they could turn their hands to.

Nothing was wasted in this process and nature provided well. 

The sharpness of mind and intelligence of the wandering Traveller would allow many skills to be applied on a daily basis. Handmade crafts would be sold as they travelled through villages and this was how they lived upon the tobar, where a fine well of cool water usually awaited them.

An account is given of Traveller families of Stewarts, Reids and Mackenzies who used to travel through Perthshire twice a year, to do seasonal agricultural work and make heather brooms and pot scourers, tin mugs and willow creels. (Track ID: 88943)

Shops like Woolworths sold everything ‘cheaply’ and then plastic goods brought the death knell to the chap women with their tin pails/pans and wooden flowers. 

Glasgow heralded shipbuilding. Edinburgh, being the capital, saw a boom in their beer industry and Fife was known for its mines and linoleum.

Aberdeen was one of the main harbours of transportation and fishing. Scotland was on fire with a fast-growing economy.  

Travellers did try to survive in their usual ways and also as seasonal workers for farmers and landowners, but it was becoming harder as the old campsites were closed down, and laws to educate their children made certain it was imperative to settle down in some place.


Children could be removed from their home environment and placed in an institution if those rules were ignored. Betsy Whyte talks about the rules regarding school attendance for Traveller children when she was young and describes the persecution she faced at school (Track ID 39610).

After the Second World War, at least 50 per cent of Scottish Travellers had given up their old way of life, and denied themselves the magic of the tobar and the icy cool waters of the ‘sacred’ well.

They still gathered in each other’s homes for weddings, funerals and christenings and in this way could remove their settled (scaldy) coats and honour their ancestors in the only way they knew how, by telling stories, singing songs and ballads, playing their pipes (peebs) and fiddles.

Hamilton traveller camp. Pic Jess Smith

Duncan Williamson describes how when Travellers who were pipers met together, they would talk about the tunes they had heard on their travels.

They played by ear, and didn’t write music, so they would communicate the tunes by canntaireachd or diddling (Track ID 66523).

Some lights can never be extinguished and a culture so powerfully steeped in Scottish ancestry was one such flame!  

In academia and such places, at one point somebody had felt the heat of that flame and wanted to reach closer to the source.

Travellers who summer camped and even those who went back on the road after the children had been educated and had children of their own, were still existing in the old ways, still wandering and moving.


Janet Robert gives an account of summer camping on the Old Road of Lumphanan in Aberdeenshire (Track ID 49866).

They began to see ‘been cowls’ (gentile strangers) coming to their campfires. At first, they were feared as figures who might be detrimental to Traveller survival and safety, and some were actually chased away.

Dogs growled around them but what could they want from Travellers if not to harm and hurt?

However, they didn’t have the dreaded ‘hornies’ (police) with them, so what trouble could they bring? Cups of tea were accepted, with a cozy chair at the campfire and a hand of friendship offered.

Stories were scattering around which came all the way from America about Traveller songs being sung and tales told, along with dances of tap/toe and clog being recorded onto a machine.

Where in Scotland could they find people willing to share songs and stories with them?

These ‘been cowls’ were evidently there to listen not judge, not steal their children. They genuinely desired Travellers to share their story and customs and they were not disappointed! 

Travellers through perhaps a fear of ‘if we don’t share a little of our culture, we may well fade out of our ancestral lineage as if we never existed’ indeed shared.

Out of their hearts poured forth a golden wealth of culture prompting one such collector to famously say, “It’s like holding a tin can under the Niagara Falls.”

This iconic quote from Hamish Henderson of the School of Scottish Studies was to cement Traveller culture forever as a source of learning and is admired by academia throughout the world.

Hamish interviewed the great Gaelic storyteller and tinsmith Alec Stewart (Ailidh Dall) who told the story of a cobbler who got rid of a fairy changeling. (Track ID 34061)

The Tobar an Dualchais/Kist o Riches website would one day be witness to the fruition of many of the School of Scottish Studies’ folklorists, cultural collectors and those who recognised Scotland’s rich cultural seams within the Travelling community. 

There is not enough room in this article to mention them all but know that your work is blessed by an entire culture.    

The website contains some 50,000 oral recordings of songs, music, poetry and factual information made in Scotland and further afield.