AS a writer with a Romani background growing up in Scotland I was fed a diet of history, heritage and tradition. I belonged, in part, to a community that as a child I never fully understood but was always intrigued by.

My father's people were shrouded in secrecy.

They lived in trailers, and often spoke in a language that was strange to the ear.

This was cant', a Roma dialect, and the older family members were loathe to divulge any of its meaning to strangers.

My dad and his people, like generations before and after, were deeply distrustful of what they called the gorger' - you: the non-Romani.

Here, as the world prepares to celebrate the International Day of the Roma on Wednesday, the Sunday Herald takes a tour of my wonderful but little understood culture.

THE HISTORY The Roma are an ethnic group believed to have originated in the northern part of the Indian subcontinent, beginning their migration to Europe and north Africa through the Iranian plateau around 1000 years ago.

The reason for their dispersal remains a puzzle to some. But contrary to popular belief, they did not exhibit typical nomad behaviour. What moved them and continues to do so according to historians was banishment, flight and fear.

Their mass exodus from India is likely to have taken place due to the raids by Mahmud of Ghazni, between 1000 and 1026. Otherwise known as the plunderer of India, due to the acquisition of jewels, gold and silver - which was estimated to be in excess of three billion dinars - Ghazni was responsible for the slavery of thousands.

The Roma migration from India went through Mesopotamia to Turkey, where most settled from the twelfth to the fifteenth century, acclimatising them with a new culture and paving the way for their transition into Europe.

They then made their way through Asia Minor and the Balkans, settling for some time in Greece, before advancing up the Danube valley to central Europe. They continued to travel to the Caucasus, Russia and onto Scandinavia.

By the fifteenth century the Romani people had began to scatter throughout Europe. But hostility and xenophobia soon replaced curiosity and they were enslaved for up to five centuries in places like Wallachia and Moldavia, until the abolition of the Roma slave trade, known as the Slobuzenja, in western Europe in 1856.

Elsewhere in Europe, they were subject to ethnic cleansing, forced labour and had their children abducted - an ironic and cruel twist given the myths perpetuated that Roma people steal children.

Free once more, the Roma were on the move again with massive emigrations to western Europe and America.

They continued to be discriminated against with books being published in Germany in the early 20th century describing the Roma as a "plague" and a "menace" which the German population had to defend itself against using "ruthless punishments." It warned of the dangers of mixing Romani and German gene pools.

THE CULTURE Romani ancestors belonged to the Dom' caste of Indian society. They used a language which came from Sanskrit and was related to modern Hindustani. Today their language consists of many Sanskrit words adapted into English.

Referring to Romanies as gypsy' is seen as derogatory in their culture.

Historians and linguists say it is the wrong term to use as it is a shortened form of Egyptian which the Romanies are not.

Their culture is rich and varied because of their travelling history.

Yet in spite of the diversity of their culture, they share similar value systems wherever they are in the world.

Virginity is essential in unmarried women and couples often marry young.

There has been controversy in several countries over the Romani practice of child marriages.

Childbirth is considered "impure" in Romani culture and must occur outside the home; the mother is considered "impure" for 40 days. The first born son is named after the father.

There is a taboo about cutting fingernails and toenails. Instead, they must be filed down with an emery board.

Death is also seen as impure in Roma culture. The whole family remains impure for a certain period after a bereavement.

They bury the dead person's private belongings with them as they are also considered impure.

The Romani do not cremate their dead. The bodies must be buried.

They believe the soul of the dead person does not enter Heaven until after the burial.

In Roma tradition the worst punishment is to be cast out from the community. Expulsion from Romani society is feared, and is accompanied and associated with contamination.

It's thought that while still in India, the Romani people belonged to the Hindu religion.

But they usually adopt the dominant religion of their host country, so most Eastern European Romanies are Catholic, Orthodox or Muslim while those in Western Europe are mostly Catholic or Protestant.

Features of Roma music are vocals that are soulful and melodramatic and the music often incorporates prominent glissandi or slides between notes.

Their music strongly influenced bolero, jazz, flamenco. European-style Gypsy jazz is still widely practised among the Romani people.

Dance for the Roma represents freedom of personal and spiritual expression and incorporates the flamenco, belly dancing and various folk dances resembling those of the Punjab and Rajasthan.

ROMANI IN THE UK The number of Scottish and Irish Travellers living in the UK is uncertain and estimates have veered between 15,000 and 300,000.

Travellers, popularly known as gypsies, are often treated to racial slurs such as: gyppos, tinkers, tramps and thieves. They form part of a number of diverse and unrelated communities and speak a variety of different languages.

They hold firm to their customs, histories and traditions.

Gypsy communities in Scotland are the Scottish Highland Travellers; Funfair Travellers, or Showmen; Irish Travellers; Scottish Lowland Travellers; Romanichal Travellers, and New Age Travellers .

A national census in 2006 reported that there were 22,400 Travellers living in Ireland - just over 0.5% of the Irish population. But it's thought the figure does represent the true size of the Traveller population in Ireland.

GENOCIDE Most people associate the genocide of the 1940s with the persecution and systematic murder of around six million Jews in the Second World War. Many are unaware of the holocaust of the Roma community during the same period.

The Porajmos, which means devouring', is a term introduced by Professor Ian Hancock, the world's premier Romani scholar.

This great crime has been neglected and largely overshadowed by the Nazi campaign to exterminate the Jews. But the Roma suffered the same indignities.

Romani prisoners in German concentration camps such as Auschwitz were made to wear an inverted brown triangle on their prison uniforms to distinguish them from other inmates.

The sterilization of Romanies was started as early as 1933 while camps were being established by the Nazis to contain them at Dachau, Dieselstrasse, Mahrzan and Vennhausen.

Former German president Roman Herzog, said: "The genocide of the Roma was carried out from the same motive of racial mania, with the same premeditation, with the same wish for the systematic and total extermination as the genocide of the Jews."

Because the Romani communities of Eastern Europe were less organized than the Jewish communities, it is more difficult to assess the actual number of victims.

Activists and historians believe that 70 per cent of the Romani population of Nazi-occupied Europe were murdered during the holocaust.

Jana Horvathova, deputy director of the Museum of Roma Culture in Brno said: "As far as the total number of Roma victims during WWII is concerned, it is still being discussed because there is little documentation.

"The numbers vary between 350,000 and two million. I personally think that there were about half a million victims."

To date, there has been no Romani speaker at the annual Holocaust Remembrance organized and hosted by the UN Headquarters in New York.

In response to written Romani protests, the organizing committee for the UN's annual observance said: "There are many issues to be addressed in Holocaust remembrance and we are doing our best to present as many as we can."

THE ROMANI CONGRESS The World Romani Congress of the International Romani Union wants to see the standardisation of the Romani language, improvements in civil rights and education, the preservation of the Roma culture and reparations for the genocide inflicted on the Roma during the Second World War. The congress also wants international recognition of the Roma as a national minority of Indian origin and an end to prejudice, discrimination and racism. The Council of Europe supports the motives of the congress. In a statement, the CoE said: "We have a duty to protect the Roma community from systematic, regular and repetitive racism. Its members continue to be victims across Europe on an almost daily basis. Sometimes this persecution takes the form of violent acts committed by deranged individuals or groups, which is terrible. Very often it takes the form of official acts, which is even worse."

ROMANIS TODAY The Roma community continues to suffer discrimination in Europe and the UK. The number of poverty-stricken Romanies in socially-deprived ghettoes is rising in the Czech Republic and recent reports say they suffer from far-right neo-Nazi extremism. In Europe, rapes, murders and assaults on Romanies by skinheads and neo-Nazi street gangs have increased over the past decade. When eight other eastern-European nations joined the EU in 2004 there was an influx of migrant workers in the UK as citizens were given free access to the labour market. Romanies came to seek employment and escape discrimination but found they were living in expensive, overcrowded and poor-quality accommodation; they suffered cuts in wages and were exploited by middlemen. Another strand of the UK's homeless, their community is one of the most vulnerable in society. Many came to Scotland and thousands settled in Glasgow. Roma now form a large part of the community in Govanhill.