Saturday, 25 July 2009

Issues Close to Home - Scottish Traveller Community Marginalised (By Colin Turbett)

Scratch beneath the surface of opinion in Scottish rural communities and you will very probably find attitudes that would make an apologist for apartheid in South Africa blush.

There is little doubt that Scotland’s Gypsy Traveller community remain marginalised and misunderstood, and that prejudice against them is rife. As with most racism and bigotry this has its roots are in official attitudes that continue to this day.

At the Bobbin Mill site in Pitlochry, Perthshire, two large extended families face yet another harsh winter in dilapidated accommodation with no amenities on a site described in a recent BBC report as ‘squalid’.

I spoke to Shamus McPhee by phone from the warmth and comfort of my home - Shamus meantime was wrapped up against the cold in a candlelit caravan he estimated to be worth £36. Perth and Kinross are charging him Band A Council Tax, even though they provide no amenities - the separate charge for water and sewerage was only dropped after persistent campaigning on the basis that these were not provided.

In 2006 the Scottish Parliament pledged £97,500 for the provision of a new chalet for Shamus’s father. Also part of the deal the SNP led Perth and Kinross Council were to provide an additional 25 per cent for a communal washing facility and provision of basic services: water, electricity and sewerage.

Nearly two years on and the Council are still at the planning stages for these amenities that are taken for granted elsewhere. Their argument that Bobbin Mill was an ‘unauthorised site’ cut little ice with the residents who had been placed there sixty years previously by the Council’s forebears, and this reason for lack of action seems to have been quietly dropped. Meantime with nowhere to wash his body and clothes properly Shamus found himself unable to get work and an unsympathetic Job Centre stopped his benefit for six months.

He found himself unable to pay his Council Tax and given the lack of progress with the promised upgrade, has felt reluctant to start since. Local MSP and government minister, the SNP’s John Swinney has not visited Bobbin Mill for many years and seems uninterested in the problems on the site.

Bobbin Mill was established in 1946 as a racial experiment to assimilate Gypsy Travellers. The reports that describe this and similar experiments elsewhere in the UK talk of the problem of travellers being a ‘stain on the welfare state’ and use language similar to that used by the Nazis when describing misfits in their society (including gypsies) who eventually became the victims of the ‘final solution’.

As the residents were not considered fit to live in normal council houses they were given huts that soon fell apart in the harsh climate of the Scottish Highlands. The logic that this would somehow wean residents away from generations of travelling and into acceptable conformism was lost on the victims of the experiment.

Instead marginalisation was reinforced and it continues to this day.

Despite the fact that Shamus and four of his fellow residents at Bobbin Mill are actually university graduates, they feel as much the victims of prejudice and societal ignorance as their forebears.

In recent years Gypsy Travellers have been recommended for status as an officially recognised ethnic minority.

This could afford protection under the anti-racist laws, but as yet there have been no test cases through the Courts and the legal establishment seem reluctant to pursue the matter.

The Scottish Parliament see racial identity as a matter for Westminster so have argued that they can do nothing more.

The last Scottish Parliament Equal Opportunities Committee produced a report in 2005 that concluded that no progress seemed to have been made in the previous five years in addressing issues raised from the travelling community: accommodation, education, health, representation and engagement. Under the new SNP parliament interest and momentum seem to have been lost and the issues shelved.

Scottish Gypsy Travellers have a rich culture of story telling and singing that has been celebrated by socialist folklorists like Hamish Henderson. Their simple mobile lifestyle provided vital labour in past years in rural communities requiring seasonal labour.

Prejudice and misunderstanding have pushed them to the margins of society and like similar groups elsewhere in the world, alcohol abuse has taken its toll. Shamus and other Gypsy Travellers consider that there is a continued systemic effort to end their lifestyle and forcibly assimilate them into mainstream society.

He and his family can trace roots and language back across the world to Asia and a migration that happened centuries ago; they are not prepared to let their traditions go.

The SNP vision of a new inclusive Scotland has no resonance in Bobbin Mill.

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