Ross Ahlfeld: How 'the Shows' helped educate me about our travelling communities in Scotland

CommonSpace columnist Ross Ahlfeld says the famous fair tours of Scottish summers brought local communities together with traveller communities and helped break down barriers

THERE is a beautiful song called 'Je n'en connais pas la fin' which was first released by Edith Piaf in 1939. –

I used to know a little square

So long ago, when I was small

All summer long it had a fair

Wonderful fair with swings and all

I used to love my little fair

And at the close of every day

I could be found, dancing around

A merry-go round that used to play

I love this song very much; it reminds me of my childhood and of 'the Shows' coming to my wee town during the summer months. The fun fair was the highlight of the summer, not just for me but also for all my pals who grew up near or beside the Battery Park in Greenock.

Over the years a few of us got to know some of the showpeople and some of the older lads even managed to secure a few weeks seasonal work from the showmen. Alternatively, a few other Greenock teenagers (who shall remain nameless) managed to secure their first winch behind the waltzers.

We were always a bit sad (and slightly jealous) when the travelling showpeople moved on with their kids. We would not get to enjoy the shows again until the brilliant Christmas carnival that ran at Kelvin Hall during the winter.  

We were always a bit sad (and slightly jealous) when the travelling showpeople moved on with their kids. We would not get to enjoy the shows again until the brilliant Christmas carnival that ran at Kelvin Hall during the winter.  

Therefore, I was very pleased learn that the Riverside Museum in Glasgow has just launched a new exhibition called 'A Fair Life'. This exhibition will capture the rich hidden history of our Scottish showpeople, while addressing many of the misconceptions that have resulted in showpeople experiencing many different forms of discrimination over the last 200 years.

Hopefully, it will resolve any confusion around the identity of showpeople who have themselves, at times, been frustrated by the fact many of us 'county folk' (or settled people) fail to understand (or bother to learn about) showpeople’s unique identity.

They have a culture and history which is very distinct from other types of Scottish travelling folks and itinerant communities. It is very odd that a community which has had such a big influence on the cultural life of Scotland remains quite unknown by the majority of us Scots who often confuse it with Roma, Gypsies, Scottish travellers, Irish travellers and even new age travellers. We often don’t bother to establish which particular group is passing through our towns.

Interestingly, back in the 1980s when the Shows eventually moved on from the Battery Park in Greenock, different travellers' caravans would sometimes appear on the same site in the park which had been previously occupied by the fun fair just a few weeks earlier.

It is very odd that a community which has had such a big influence on the cultural life of Scotland remains quite unknown by the majority of us Scots who often confuse it with Roma, Gypsies, Scottish travellers, Irish travellers and even new age travellers.

However, these travellers who appeared later in the summer were what people used to called 'tinkers' (a derogatory term). These particular travellers even had their own language – 'Beurla Reagaird', the speech of metalworkers.

It seems that our area has been a stopping place for Scottish travelling folk of all types for very many generations. Clues to this claim are reinforced by the names given to two well known features in Gourock - Tinkers Well and Tinkers Cave sit just a few miles apart along the Clyde coast. It’s thought that the travelling folk would stop here, before crossing the Clyde and heading up toward Loch Fyne.

And so, for hundreds of years, it’s not just the showpeople who have travelled up and down the country, providing entertainment with their rides and attractions - the Scottish tinsmiths and Scottish gypsies have also travelled the byways and highways of Scotland selling their wares. 

Some speculate that indigenous Scottish travellers are descended from people displaced by the Killing Times or the Battle of Culloden; others suggest that they are descended from the victims of the Highland Clearance. Showpeople, on the other hand, may be descended from merchants and traders who came to market town fairs many centuries ago.

Despite all this history, travellers of all kinds still face discrimination and prejudice on a regular basis. For some reason, the normal and fair standards of law and order often go out the window in favour of collective guilt whenever the gypsy camp rhetoric starts flying around. 

Despite all this history, travellers of all kinds still face discrimination and prejudice on a regular basis.

It’s not unusual to hear and read comments about all travellers being unhygienic, untrustworthy thieves and conmen. It’s not unusual to read claims that shoplifting increases when travellers are in town due to the habits of their allegedly 'feral children'.

Similarly, proposals to introduce a permanent site for gypsy travellers in Port Glasgow at Kelburn near Parklea have always sparked protests and the plans have eventually been abandoned. 

Yes, some traveller groups leave a mess but many don’t and to be fair to travellers, it is difficult to be tidy when no bins or sanitation is provided by local authorities (this is why a permanent site was suggested). 

It’s also worth pointing out that our own settled community has similar social problems. just as some of us people who live in houses also dump stuff and leave rubbish in parks and at beauty spots.

My solution to these problems is quite simple: if an individual breaks the law then they should prosecuted regardless of their accommodation type or particular community.

Yet, this deep level of mistrust of travellers wasn’t always the norm. For example, my grandfather spoke often about people around here doing business with travelling folk and working with travelling folk.

However, none of these stereotypes square with my own experience of travellers as a teenager or now as an adult community worker. What I’ve found is that travelling folk are generally quite poor and also poorly educated. 

I’ve observed that some travellers are nice folks and some other types of travellers aren’t so nice. I’ve met travellers who are brawlers and drinkers and others who are teetotalers because they are born again Christians (Evangelical/Pentecostalism is sweeping through the Irish traveller community). 

I once asked a traveller why a revival is taking place among Pavees (Irish travellers). I was promptly informed – "Ah, cause we needs it!"

Yet, this deep level of mistrust of travellers wasn’t always the norm. For example, my grandfather spoke often about people around here doing business with travelling folk and working with travelling folk. It seems to me that travellers have come and gone for generations without too many problems. Therefore, we have to ask - what changed?

I suspect that the answer might have something to do with the fact that there was once far more free land available for travellers to stop at. It is ironic that some of the 'incomers' who moved into huge, multi-million pound new builds, in recent years are now complaining about individuals who have been stopping at the same sites for hundreds of years. 

It seems to me that travellers have come and gone for generations without too many problems. Therefore, we have to ask - what changed?

In my opinion, gentrification does far more damage to our communities than travelling folk ever do. Travellers eventually move on, the affluent upper classes do not and their garish Mac Mansions out in the countryside are permanent.

Therefore, let’s try and make some distinctions between each of the different itinerant groups and let’s also remember our travelling community’s rich tradition of storytelling and song and the contribution they’ve made to the cultural life and social history of Scotland.

Picture: CommonSpace

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