'we worry about the problems the other kids bring

to school, the sex and the drugs'


Anne is up and strutting now, a mug of tea in one hand and a book in the other, swatting away at a fly. She spills the tea. The book, well- thumbed and dog-eared, is a children's tale about rabbits. A little flaxen-haired girl wearing nothing but a pair of pants and a grin trundles over, blethering away in her thick Irish brogue, as her mother and aunties chatter. Her name is Megan. She is joined by another girl, Bonnie; then her cousin Davy, who relaxes a little deeper into a chair. Sonny is being shoogled in his pram.

Anne will not go into the full details, but there had been some trouble at home in Coalisland, in County Tyrone. Their brother had been beaten up by a group of men from a paramilitary group. So they left for Scotland. ''If that's on [she points to the tape-recorder] we're saying nothin'.'' Then she breaks into a smile. ''And don't you go taking down any plate numbers an' all.'' The women laugh and mutter among themselves. A box of crayons lies scattered on the ground.

The family, a group of Irish Gypsy travellers, arrived in Dumfries a few days ago. They are permanently on the move, they say. Always packing for a fresh start, travelling for work - or just travelling for travelling's sake. Whether it is wanderlust or restlessness, they all share the conviction that they can find a better life somewhere else. This time round they moved because of the ''buffers'' - boys from the settled community. They might stay for a few days, a week, maybe more. ''This is how it is,'' says Margaret, a bull-necked woman in her twenties who is trying to fix a diesel people-carrier that has just broken down. It refuses to budge. The sky is flinty grey. The children tack back and forward between the car and a neat row of caravans. A pile of washing is spread out over a clothes line. Restless parents, restless children.

Today there are no men on the site. They have loaded up their vans and gone to look for whatever work they can get - although, according to their wives, they might have to move again because ''they haven't turned a coin all week''. And, they say, ''the buffers don't give us as much work as they used to''. Animus towards Gypsy travellers - from individuals, local authorities, employers and central government - is so great, says Anne's older sister, Noreen, that she believes her community is running out of places where they feel even remotely welcome. ''By the time you put the kettle on, the peelers [police] are comin' to get youse.''

Anne's daughter Megan attends pre-school classes in a Portakabin sitting near the entrance of the site at Thistle Grove, Collin. She has changed into white frilly socks and a pretty pink dress before going to the classroom. Today she is doing her colours. A few hours later Jimmy-Dean, Shannon and Charlene return to the site, having spent the day at nearby Collin Primary. Jimmy-Dean tells me he has ''learnt to spell my name''. The children are all Gypsy travellers. Eve-Cherie and Kelly-Marie, another pair of Gypsy traveller sisters from England, have joined the group for a cigarette and a cup of tea. Eve-Cherie, a pretty, dark-haired girl in her early twenties, is lamenting the lack of a boyfriend or husband. ''I'd take a buffer too,'' she laughs, ''if I could find one.''

Thistle Grove is a permanent site for the Gypsy travelling community. Each pitch can house two large caravans, a van or a four-wheel drive. Neat, clean and well-maintained, it is more like the exception than the rule when it comes to Gypsy traveller site accommodation. The majority of sites set aside by local authorities for Gypsy travellers are not traditional ones, and are barely suitable at all. Many are close to electricity pylons, dumping grounds and railway lines; while most have the basics of running water and electricity, they lack any community facility. There is no hall or shop, or anything for the children. In most circumstances, Gypsy travellers are perceived as a welfare situation, yet they do not particularly want any help or handouts, preferring instead to continue as they have done for centuries on the road. This, however, is proving extremely difficult.

''I don't mind the children going to school to learn the basics,'' says Anne, fresh from cleaning her spotless caravan full of glass and china. ''The travellers' lifestyle is changing now and we need to keep up with the times, especially for the girls. They need to be able to learn what the buffers know so they can work. I wouldn't stop my kids from going to college, as long as they didn't lose their culture. I just want them to be happy. The priest used to teach us about integration, about children being the same. Sure, if my daughter wanted to marry a big black fella, I wouldn't care as long as she's happy. But we worry with the problems that the buffer kids bring to school, the sex and the drugs. If we saw one of our men doing the drugs over there '' She points. ''We'd turn our backs on him. We don't want that.''

While primary education is fine, secondary schooling is seen as anathema to their culture. Ann Cummings is a traveller education teacher based at the Collin site. There are two nursery teachers available five days each week - the law requires two members of staff even if it is only one pre-school child - while for the older group, the ones between 12 and 16, Cummings is usually there by herself three times per week. The number of children in attendance changes constantly, but is never really more than a handful.

''We accept that, as part of the Gypsy traveller culture, people can get up and leave at a moment's notice,'' says Cummings. ''Sometimes there is just one [pupil], depending on what family is here. Families leave on a whim. Some have just left.

''With regard to the teenagers, they would come here because they don't like going to secondary school. We do literacy skills, computer skills, art craftwork and that kind of activity. We get life skills work as well - dealing with money, banks, doctors' appointments, job applications and generally filling in forms. Most of the parents want their youngsters to be involved in this. But when they get to about 12 they prefer to stay outside the school system. They think schooling is our world and not theirs.''

In January this year, new guidance to help schools understand and develop inclusive approaches to the needs of Gypsy travellers was published by the Scottish Traveller Education Programme (Step). Addressing issues such as bullying, how to manage interrupted learning and the difficulties experienced in accessing education services, the campaign also aimed to celebrate the positive aspects of the diverse Gypsy traveller culture. Speaking at the Traveller Education Centre in Collin, Cathy Jamieson, the education minister, emphasised that every child in Scotland had the right to a high-quality education. She conceded that ''much still needs to be done'' - although on paper at least, many of the issues of the Gypsy traveller community appear to have been addressed.

In reality, though, the story is different.

The Irish sisters are not alone in their dismay. In June this year I met with Davy at the Dennystone Forge site at Dumbarton. Davy, who has lived at the site for more than 20 years, does not believe in schooling after the ages of 11 or 12: ''Nothing they can learn there they can't learn with the community.'' However, he says that the nearby school, Renton Primary, is quite good ''because they tolerate the children OK''.

Beside us when we talk is Mark Kennedy, a spokesperson for the Scottish Gypsy Traveller Association (SGTA). With his boxer's heft, thick neck and solid shoulders, he visibly bristles at what Davy has said. ''I hate that word. Tolerate. We shouldn't just be tolerated: we've every right to be treated the same as anyone else. These are children we're talking about.'' Kennedy shakes his head, exuding a very specific sense of gravity.

The SGTA office was forced to close in December 2002 because the Scottish Executive ceased its financial support and the group was unable to pay its phone bills or rent. ''There have been people in authority who have been displeased with the SGTA,'' barks Kennedy, ''because it keeps prodding. I call it institutional racism. But we'll keep going.''

In 2001 the Scottish Parliament's equal opportunities committee published a report calling for an end to discrimination against Gypsy travellers, highlighting that such discrimination was particularly widespread in terms of housing, education and health services, and also noting that the average life expectancy among Scottish travellers was just 55. The Executive accepted 37 recommendations from the publication, and a further progress report will be published later this year.

Kennedy and I walk over to a small group of children. Martin Gilheney, ten, is in primary six at Renton. He likes school, he says, ''because you get painting and stuff'', although he doesn't like sums. His cousin Patrick McPhee, nine, quite likes school but not homework. James Gilheney, five, hates it. He picks his nose. His sister Charlene, 12, with her big hooped earrings, is in primary seven. She is hungry and walks off for something to eat. ''I hate it sometimes,'' decides Martin. ''The teachers roar at you all the time. It's better here [on the site] because you get to play and all that. Nobody roars at you.'' What about the other children at school, I ask: how do they treat you? ''OK,'' he replies. ''Sometimes they give you a hard time. Hittin' me and all that. I telt the teacher and she never believed me.''

Kennedy sits down on the grass. ''I used to like to go shifting [travelling],'' he says, grinning and energised. ''The minute the sun came out, I wondered where we were going now. Do you shift? Do you like it?'' Martin's face lifts. ''I like shifting. I prefer it. I like the water. I get sent for sticks for fires and stuff when we're away camping.'' He stops, distracted by something in the distance. ''That's a good Audi, in't it? I know about motors. We all know about cars. My favourite's a BMW. A soft-top. I've got a motorbike, 100cc. I run a quad [bike] too.'' Little Patrick pipes up: ''Mine's is a Mercedes.'' Martin says he has been driving for years. Patrick tells me he wants to go to high school, and Martin looks at him and pulls a face. ''I don't want to go to the high school,'' he says. ''I want to work with my daddy.''

There are no figures for the number of Gypsy traveller children in Scotland at mainstream primary and secondary schools. For a Gypsy traveller, visible and vulnerable to authority, to go through the whole school system is difficult. Culturally it is problematic - and this is a story I hear repeated by many Gypsy travellers throughout the summer. The way they think their lives should be is very different from that of the settled community. You have modern young men and women growing up in a modern-day society who want to participate in life the same as everybody else. But they happen to be Gypsy travellers, and they also want to be able to maintain their own traditions and their own way of life. Many Gypsy travellers, for example, do not keep written records of birth certificates; nor do they always even register their children. They might not always reveal the real age of a child if it means

keeping a few of them together at primary instead of an older one having to leave for secondary. Similarly, if they want to get them into primary, they might say they are three when they are only two.

Notes from a Gypsy traveller site at Annathill, North Lanarkshire. Broken bottles. Decrepit out-buildings. Old gas tanks. Furrow-faced children. Run-down, irregular and decaying. Bad smell. Katie's nice garden. Rubble. Concrete. Play-swing. Expensive houses across the back. Broken washing machine. A stubbornly literal place. Four tenants. A tangle of children. A pool of dirty water. Oil stagnating in a drain. Stationary utopia?

Annathill is where Katie McAllister has spent the last 15 of her 74 years. Katie, whose husband died three years ago, says she would be happy dying here at the site now that he is gone. But, she claims, North Lanarkshire Council want her off the site. She says they have given the tenants until October 17 to leave for another site - Forrest Street, in Plains, just outside Airdrie - or to make alternative arrangements. The tenants believe they are being moved for financial reasons - that the large expanse of land is worth a small fortune to developers - but this is an accusation the council denies.

On the day I speak with Katie, she is nursing her six-month-old granddaughter Gypsy Summer. ''The past three years, they're trying to get me out my house,'' she says. ''Now they're denying Gypsy her birthright. And I'm happy here.'' Katie's daughter, Kathleen Macdonald, who is 49, has also been threatened with eviction. Another of Katie's granddaughters, Frances Antonio, six, is playing on the swings. It is the only part of the site on which the children can play comfortably.

Andrew, Kathleen's ten-year-old nephew, has just finished some work around the site. ''There's no point in sending Andy to high school to learnt [sic] how to hold a pint and smoke a fag,'' she says. She pauses. ''I don't mind the primary. But we don't like the high school. I had a boy who was never one bit of bother until he went to the high school, not one bit. Then there was problems.'' She pauses again. The site, which has been run down over the last five years with no new allocation of pitches, looks like a set of bad teeth. ''I've been here on and off over the last few years. I don't think it's fair that they want to push us off.'' She points over to the back. ''My mother was here before they put those houses up.''

The ''not in my backyard'' syndrome is a contentious issue - but, according to John Gormley, the tenancy operations manager with North Lanarkshire Council's Housing and Property Services, the decision to concentrate on Forrest Street at the expense of other sites was not taken lightly. The options available to the council were the subject of research undertaken by the housing service, and followed consultation with a number of interested parties including the SGTA, the local Gypsy travellers themselves and other residents living adjacent to the sites.

''The need to review the council's provision was prompted by the fall in demand for pitches,'' says Gormley. ''Only four tenants are in residence at Annathill, despite there being 52 pitches provided. The age and condition of [the site] now means that extensive repairs and improvements are required to maintain the pitches to a lettable standard.

''The site at Forrest Street is relatively modern and in good order, hence the reason the four tenants have been offered a transfer to that site. As yet, they have still to advise the council as to whether they will accept the offer or make alternative arrangements. To assist with the move, a disturbance allowance will be paid to cover the cost of relocation. Indeed, the closure date has been put back until October 17 to give the four residents extra time to prepare for their move.'' Kathleen Macdonald, however, claims they were offered a (pounds) 6 compensation voucher to cover diesel.

Mark Kennedy believes that most of the officially recognised sites are now no more than cultural graveyards. ''What's happening here is social exclusion. Decisions are being made about people's lives without taking into account what is actually going to happen to them. If someone takes your link away or the rock that you hold on to, then who are you?''

''There's a lot of misunderstanding about Gypsy travellers' culture,'' insists Mary Hendry, who works with Glasgow City Council and is the chair of the SGTA. Part of her remit with the council is to look at issues that affect Gypsy travellers within education services. ''A lot of people think that you can simply opt into this way of life,'' she says. ''You can't. It's a very, very bona fide way of life. The Scottish Equal Opportunities Commission has stated in its recommendations that Gypsy travellers are in fact an ethnic minority and should be treated as such under the Race Relations Act.''

Hendry grew up ''settled'' in Airdrie because her parents wanted her to go to school, although the family travelled around every summer. ''Trying to get Gypsy traveller children into secondary schooling is virtually impossible,'' she says. ''The parents just say 'no'. There are a lot of Gypsy travellers who have gone on and received further education, gone on to university and come out the other end and have gone into professions. Even for them, that's a very difficult road as well. They are up against their family, they are going against their culture and the big fear is that if you opt out you will lose what you are. That is a very big fear for parents. If someone [the authorities] starts a fuss, the parents just get up and go.''

Disappearing is never as easy as it seems. Rules and regulations governing where Gypsy travellers are allowed to live - the 1994 Criminal Justice and Public Order Act in particular - curtailed their peripatetic lifestyle. Ironically, the Criminal Justice Act was brought in principally to deal with New Age travellers, who came to prominence during the 1980s, by making it virtually impossible for anyone to travel in large groups and stay in lay-bys or on farmland. Yet it had a profound effect. Although it was not really meant to have an effect on traditional travellers, soon the statute book and the police were enforcing it. There was supposed to be a policy of non-harassment of traditional travellers (until such times as there were enough sites to accommodate all of them) but in practice this proved difficult and Gypsy travellers were constantly moved on in huge numbers.

Alex Kennedy was born in Lanark but grew up in Larkhall, where he learned the ropes of his father's scrap-metal business. Most of his early teenage years were spent driving his father's lorry on public roads instead of attending school. The education authorities kept coming to his parents' house demanding to know why he wasn't there. ''It was a different education,'' says Alex, who is now in his fifties, as he sits in the garden of a friend's house (there are two motor-homes nestling in the driveway). ''I call it survival on the roads. It's almost a thing of the past now, and it makes me feel terrible that it's going.''

Alex lives his life by the gospel of clear-eyed common sense. He is against ''tokenism'', and believes ''something is not always better than nothing''. In the fifties, many Gypsy travellers worked around the country in scrap and on the roads; in tinsmithing, pearl fishing and hawking; and around the strawberry and potato harvests. But most of that way of life has finished. There is no longer even a Gypsy king - yet when Charles Faa Blyth was crowned in 1898 in Kirk Yetholm, in the Scottish Borders, 10,000 people came to witness the event.

The knock-on effect has meant that traditional working practices have disappeared and there has been little or no money put into developing new skills. Although many Gypsy travellers have found it increasingly difficult to access much of what the non-travelling or settled community take for granted - simple things such as registering with a doctor at a surgery, allowing them a small foothold in the health service - the biggest stumbling block has been education.

Alex's three grown-up sons attended primary school but never went to secondary. Like his own father, he wanted them to learn about life outwith schools: ''Basic reading and writing, a bit of geography, a bit of history. When the boy hits about 12, he's a man. He comes out in the van with me and learns about life. But it's difficult for them to try and get an honest living because of people's perceptions. A lot of our traditional work is being stopped now because there's people that get up to a bit of detriment. There's rogues in our people as well, an awful lot, but the thing is we get the blame for everything. If there was ever any trouble that I've seen throughout my life, we've never involved what we call the gorges people, the house dwellers.'' He talks for a while, sometimes angrily, other times movingly, slipping in and out of the language of the Roma.

You can hear his ancestors in the way he talks. He speaks both Romany and cant, another travellers' language, but politely refuses when I ask for more examples. ''A few years ago I did a thing at a school, a wee talk, and there was some gypsy children there. I was talking about the wagons and I told them the two different ways of saying it in Romany and cant. I wrote it up on the blackboard and a wee travelling boy says to me, 'Hey, I'm telling my da. You're mangin' the cant, you're telling all the flatties how we talk.''

Alex's fears for his community, he says, are manifold. While he accepts that children need to be educated, he believes that too much schooling detracts from his own culture. ''They want to paint our faces white,'' he says.

Schooling, with all its encumbering baggage, only confirms the travelling community's own prejudices. Because the Gypsy travelling community has a strong idea of family and extended family, it does fear chaotic situations. As a result, the travellers' lack of desire to embrace the education and housing system confirms other people's prejudices of them as illiterate, uneducated and unsociable.

It is an accusation that cannot be levelled at Alex Kennedy. ''This is not just about our lifestyle,'' he says, massaging his large hands. ''It's part of Scottish history. The Scottish gypsy is a big part of this history. It's there for everybody. It's an education for them [the settled community] - if they only knew.''

He pauses. A pale apricot light touches his face. ''If we lose it, well, it's like shooting the last hippopotamus. What a shame. What a loss. Bang, bang, it's dead. You can't bring them back once they're gone.'' n

20.09.03 the herald magazine #