MELVYN Thomas throws open the doors to his shed in the east end of Glasgow with a flourish, revealing a cavernous space that is treasure trove and museum rolled into one. Almost every surface is covered with curious and colourful objects.

There are bubblegum machines, amusement games and neon signs. Ornate water cans hang from the ceiling and a row of laughing clowns' faces are propped up next to a carousel horse and a wooden cowboy.

In pride of place sits a beautiful, old-fashioned caravan and a newly restored pre-war lorry, the rich burgundy and gold paintwork gleaming like a new penny.

"It is organised chaos but I know where everything is," laughs Thomas as he points things out. "I like anything to do with the past, especially if it involves the fairground."

Thomas, 66, is a proud member of the showpeople community and will be lending items from his collection to a display at the Riverside Museum in Glasgow.

A Fair Life – which will be unveiled today – charts the traditions and history of showpeople who, for hundreds of years, have travelled around the country.

Scotland is home to as many as 5,000 showpeople, a group distinct from gypsies and Irish travellers. An estimated 80 per cent call Glasgow home, living in around 50 privately owned and leased yards – the largest geographic concentration in Europe.

Their story is woven into the tapestry of Scottish life, yet few outside the community know much about the pivotal role showpeople have played in shaping the nation. They were early adopters of entertainment technologies, introducing electricity and moving cinemas as part of their shows and, in turn, helped bring such innovations to the masses.

The display will examine how their travelling lifestyle has evolved, from horse-drawn wagons to diesel-fuelled lorries. Among the objects included is a steam traction engine, two carousel horses and a waltzer car alongside archive footage and oral history commentary.

The fourth generation of his family in the business, Thomas has lent an antique rotating clown head that was used as a traditional ball toss game.

Thomas's face lights up while talking about his time as a showman."I've had a great life," he says. "Our family travelled with a double stall that was a shooting range on one side and darts on the other.

"We had a children's chair-o-plane ride and a kiosk selling toffee apples and candy floss – we didn't do burgers, this was the early years."

Standing among his treasured artefacts, Thomas recalls simpler times. Alongside the big rides there used to be menageries, waxworks, peep shows, jugglers, clowns and acrobats among others.

"That's all died out," he laments. "I still remember the circus and the side shows. There was a toy town with white mice running about the streets.

"I remember another show called The Leprechaun which was basically a man – what we would have called a midget – sitting in a small wooden house.

"There were magic mirrors, the rib tickler and boxing booth: those are dying out or gone."

His great granny had a stall that was a .22 rifle range built on to the side of her caravan. "That was live ammunition. It went through a tube and hit a target at the back. You then wound a string and it brought your ticket back to display the score."

The travelling fairs are under increasing pressure as new technologies offer alternative diversions. Thomas is sanguine when asked about how the shifting sands of time have affected the business.

"I'm old-fashioned and I can't tell you the names of today's rides because they do not interest me," he says. "My favourite is what we call 'the jumpers' which is a big carousel with horses. I love chair-o-planes because that was our family tradition and the speedway, or the Noah's ark as we called it.

"My Uncle Norman had a speedway. It looked like a waltzer but there were motorbikes that went up and down the hills instead of the waltzer cars spinning round. When they first came out, speedways were called Noah's arks because they had rows of animals instead of bikes."

His parents decided to settle in Glasgow in 1968, buying a house in Shettleston. Thomas purchased the land where his yard stands almost 30 years ago. It is permanent home to 14 families who live in chalets on the acre-and-a-quarter site.

He and his wife Jacqueline, who have two grown-up children, are adjusting to a slower pace of life.

"I retired in July from the Forge Market," says Thomas. "I had two children's rides, a bouncy castle and a barrow with candy floss. We retired the year before from the travelling, doing gala days and such like.

"I feel my age. It just hit me all of a sudden. I started to feel sore when I was pulling the machines to start and stop them or lifting the kids on and off the rides. Everyone said: 'Your body will tell you when it's had enough,' and it certainly did."

Still, he muses, retirement should give him ample time to tinker with his memorabilia. "I always wanted to travel but at an early age I imagined I would work with animals or maybe run a museum," he says. "It is still my hope to open my own museum one day."

Among the oldest items in his collection is a hand-turned wooden ride with horses and cockerels, a style that dates from 1899. Asked about the quirkier pieces, he points to a tall glass-fronted lime green box that reads "Treasure Cave" in bright red letters.

"When you put your money in, there is an elephant that disappears inside a mountain," he explains. "When it comes back, it has a wee box on its back that it tips over so it comes out the front. Inside is a gift, usually a ring or a brooch."

A Fair Life at Riverside aims to capture the showpeople's rich history while addressing the discrimination that they still regularly experience.

"I'm looking forward to being able to share stories about our way of life," says Thomas. "There shouldn't be prejudice, yet it still goes on. It can feel isolating. These days I have as many friends outside the business as in it, but there are people who just don't want to know us."

It is a sentiment echoed by Natalie Cowie-Kayes, 53, who, alongside her brother Colin and eldest son Evan, has helped create the Riverside display.

She says: "I see it as a window to the world to try to change the misconceptions that many people have about us.

"Showpeople have their daily lives like anyone else, where we take the kids to school, do the washing and go to work. We are small businesses that happen to take our homes – although less so these days – from place to place.

"We are not the same as the gypsy community and other travelling communities. There is a little bit of interaction, but not an awful lot."

Cowie-Kayes comes from long line of showpeople stretching at least four generations on both sides of the family and she is proud of her roots.

"It is rather amusing that my great-grandfather on my Scottish side was English and my greatgrandfather on my English side was Scottish," she says.

"If you go back closer to 200 years, we are a mix of performers, entrepreneurs, circus people and gypsies. We have all these different strains and bits in us. I think there is probably a bit of Mother Africa in here somewhere," she adds, pulling at her dark corkscrew curls.

These days her main job is event management, but at weekends she and her husband Mark, 53, operate small rides at galas and fun days. "You are born a showman," she asserts. "You don't choose to be a showman. This is too much like hard work."

Cowie-Kayes, who lives in a yard in Possilpark in Glasgow, talks about the strong ties that the showpeople have to the city.

"We have been around Glasgow for such a long time," she says. "There was a lot of input from showpeople during the Second World War where we put funds together and handed them over to buy a Spitfire and ambulances.

"We put fairgrounds on for the whole of the war and there was even one up in Perth that was completely blacked out for the entire duration. Our boys went over and fought and died the same as everyone else.

"We have been quite a big part of Glasgow without people realising it because we are usually out of the way in places like this yard, round the back of beyond."

She is aware of the snobbery that endures regarding showpeople's caravans, or wagons as they are known. "Your business travelled," she says. "You would only be in a house part of the year. The yard I live on, until I was about 16, I hadn't seen it at all in the summertime.

"We opened on the yard in March, went out to the first big fair and didn't come back until the middle of November. We would be travelling from place to place. Why would you have a big empty house? Your home went with you."

Her yard in Saracen Street is one of the oldest in Glasgow. "It was purchased by my great-grandfather around 1928. It was a showman's yard before he bought it and has been one for at least 100 years."

When new flats were built next door, some of the residents took umbrage at having showpeople for neighbours. Cowie-Kayes believes that TV shows such as My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding have reinforced negative stereotypes.

"My 95-year-old aunt lives at the back of the yard and as my husband was walking up to see her, some kids shouted out of a flat window: 'Dirty gypsy bastards.' On another occasion we overheard one of the tenants saying her new house was 'Fine, apart from the gypsies next door.'"

She goes to pains to spell out the difference. "In layman's terms, fairgrounds tend to be known as 'the shows'. Showpeople have the shows. Gypsies don't have fairground rides – only the showpeople do. That is about as simple as I could make it."

Glasgow became a base for many showpeople's families with the advent of the eight-week winter carnival that ran at Kelvin Hall from the 1930s until the mid-80s. "Showpeople don't sit about," says Cowie-Kayes.

"Back then we had worse winters and you didn't tend to operate as much. Glasgow was a good place to find work. My grandfather did some burning on scrap yards. Some of the lads would drive lorries in the winter.

"For many years, the council gritting was predominantly done by show lads because when it got cold was when we came in, and when it got milder was when we went out. So it suited the council and it suited the show lads.

"You could get a space to rent for winter because there was lots of bits of land left from the bombing during the war. If you found somewhere good, because we are a community, you would tell other people and often end up with a group.

"Once the carnival at Kelvin Hall became established, making it possible to operate in the colder, wet and snowy weather, it cemented Glasgow as the place to be for the winter months. By then a lot of people had started to put down roots."

Cowie-Kayes has donated her grandfather's steel water can to the display along with some "swag" that includes coloured glass pieces dating to the 1950s and prizes called gonks, an egg-shaped, googly-eyed furry toy that was popular in the 1970s and 80s.

Her brother Colin, 51, a blacksmith, has made a bespoke waltzer car, while her 22-year-old son Evan, an aeronautical engineering student, designed the display's text panels.

Heather Robertson, the museum's curator of transport and technology, says that overseeing A Fair Life was fascinating. "I've met some real characters," she says. "Their business is entertaining people and they have such interesting stories.

"The showpeople have such a long and unusual history, they have travelled all over and seen a lot of things, and their perspective on Scotland is different to mine, so I've felt very privileged to be involved."

The objective, she says, is to share a part of Glasgow that remains fairly hidden, while tapping into the cutting-edge transport and technology links of the showpeople.

"The display is very bright with lots of lights," she says. "There are three films along with synthetic smells such as candy floss and steam. Hopefully it will be a real showstopper."

A Fair Life opens at Riverside Museum in Glasgow today. Visit