By Lorn Macintyre

When I was a boy at Dunstaffnage House, Connel, Willie the tinker arrived with the cuckoo.

He came over the hill one morning, descending to our house, The Square, where my father spoke with him in Gaelic and gave him money. He proceeded 300 yards down the drive to my grandmother’s residence. Angus Campbell, 20th Captain of Dunstaffnage Castle, lived nearby in a modest chalet, his mansion house having burned down in 1940. My grandmother, who was Angus’s housekeeper and confidante, was told by him to serve Willie his breakfast. She told me that she set out the tray, with a Spode eggcup, two boiled eggs to Willie’s liking, toast and silver cutters to remove the tops of the eggs for the honoured wayfarer. The spoon would also have been silver. All items were returned with grateful thanks.

Tinkers were always welcome at Dunstaffnage House. A brilliant man who had fought against the Bolsheviks in Russia, Angus Dunstaffnage knew that they were a rich part of Highland culture. His mother Jane, who resided at historic Inverawe House at Taynuilt, ordered the cook to leave the larder open so that visiting tinkers could have their pick. How many would leave a door, far less a fridge, open for a tinker nowadays?

I prefer the word "tinker" (and particularly the Gaelic word "ceàrd", because that was what my father called Willie) to the more politically correct "traveller". Surely "traveller" is a misnomer, because they no longer travel. The name ceàrd-staoin, a tinsmith, has in its acoustics the echo of their skills, a delicate hammer fashioning tin into kettles and teapots, and repairing these items when they came round the doors in early summer. They sold clothes pegs and wooden flowers which they had fashioned themselves, and they were a source of labour for farmers, helping to bring in the harvests of fruit and crops. Some of them wintered in the city, at sites such as Vinegarhill in Glasgow, before going on the road for the good weather, in the days before motorised traffic increased, their carts pulled by horses at a leisurely pace towards traditional stances where they had pitched bow tents and lit campfires for generations.

That is the appealing way of life that my new novel, The Summer Stance, celebrates. It is set in the present century and the main character is Dòmhnall Macdonald, a boy raised in a tower block in Glasgow with his tinker family, who no longer move out into the countryside for the summer. Dòmhnall spends a lot of time with his blind grandmother, his tutor in Gaelic. He learns about their summer stance, Abhainn nan Croise, the River of the Cross, so named because a stone cross was found there by a holy man and paraded for veneration round Scotland. The site becomes a place of enchantment to the boy as he learns about the horses that took the Macdonald family there and the Gaelic names for the otters, birds and plants that the old woman, the Cailleach, remembers.

When she is diagnosed with terminal cancer Dòmhnall is determined to take her back to Abhainn nan Croise so she can die there, surrounded by her precious memories. After much opposition the other members of the family agree to go, but on arrival they find they are no longer welcome. The situation descends into violence and bitter recrimination.

I wrote this novel because of my veneration of tinkers, the fascination I have for them from my earlier years at Connel, where they came each year to a stance at Kilmaronaig, and, we were told, went out to the nearby island on Loch Etive to collect gulls’ eggs for eating. I never heard of them causing any trouble.

When my father Angus was appointed manager of the Clydesdale Bank in Tobermory in the late 1950s we met a charismatic tinker by the name of Donald MacAllister, known as Dykes. His partner, Agnes, from Oban, he called affectionately “the long haired mate.” He wore my father’s cast-off suits with pride, as if he had been transformed into a financier, and Agnes had the choice of my mother’s cleared-out wardrobe. I watched from the window of our house as the couple set out in an open boat on a voyage to Tiree, and I remembered him in a poem called Dykes, maintaining, with his “ingratiating charm” that “he could have been a courtier at Urbino/instead of gathering whelks at Camas na Bò.”

I do not romanticise tinkers in my novel; one of the characters is a persistent lawbreaker. But many people judge them by the actions of the lawless few. In some places where it has been proposed to establish permanent sites with modern facilities, there has been angry opposition. Little wonder tinkers who have moved into permanent housing don’t declare their origins for fear of reprisals, as I discovered while researching a programme for Gaelic television. We have forced tinkers to deny their identities because, as one woman residing in the city told me: “If my husband knew I was of tinker stock he would leave me.”

If anyone doubts the continuing hostility towards tinkers, look at the YouTube site The Truth about Life As a Young Scottish Traveller, by the eloquent Davie Donaldson. He asks: “Is it right that my people are still banned from shops like dogs? We’ve been in Scotland for more than 1,000 years. We have our own language, our own customs.”

The other related theme of my novel is the destruction of parts of the Scottish countryside through indiscriminate development. On a legendary day in July 1921, Major George Huntington of Bonawe House, Taynuilt, with my grandfather John, hooked a very large salmon in the pool known as Casan Dubh near where the railway bridge crosses the River Awe. When it was landed safely and hung on the scales the salmon weighed 57lbs, a record that will never be beaten because the barrage across the river at the Brander has destroyed spawning pools. Furthermore, fish farms are accused of passing on disease to wild salmon.

These are the environmental problems, in particular the ruination of the site at Abhainn nan Croise, which concern Dòmhnall in my novel. He is a well-informed nature lover who cares passionately about the river and its inhabitants at the old summer stance. He fears that the evocative Gaelic name for the place will disappear because no one will know how to pronounce it.

By turning against tinkers and isolating them, we are destroying a precious part of our heritage that links up with European gypsies who perished in the ovens of the Nazis. We forget that the recordings made by folklorists such as the late Hamish Henderson and the late Dr John MacInnes form a priceless part of the archives of the School of Scottish Studies. We forget that we have been blessed by great tinker storytellers and singers such as Jeannie Robertson who have preserved the tales told round the campfires, stories of the phenomenon known as second sight which I can relate to, because my family – most notably my late aunt Margaret – had the ability to see into the future.

One of the reasons tinkers have been demonised in the past, particularly in Gaelic speaking areas, was because superstitious people felt threatened by them, believing they had the ability to place a "mallachd", or curse, on those who denied them food and a place to camp.

We need to be more tolerant and reinstate the word tinkers, a term of fraternal respect. We must welcome them into our communities and make sure these ancient summer stances are returned to nature, the bones of dead horses left undisturbed.

The Summer Stance, by Lorn Macintyre, is out now on ThunderPoint, priced £7.99.