SCOTTISH Gypsy/Travellers have painted a shocking portrait of what has been described as Scotland's "last form of acceptable racism” and a source of "shame" in our society.

Today is World Human Rights Day, and, to mark it, Holyrood’s Equalities and Human Rights Committee last week held a session focusing on what remains a disgraceful issue – the treatment of the Scottish Gypsy/Traveller population. What emerged was a catalogue of discrimination and abuse aimed at Scottish Gypsy/Travellers. Their stories speak of a Scotland in which gypsy travellers are frequently dismissed and taunted as “tinkers” and “pikeys”, discriminated against for work, bullied in school, and institutionally marginalised.

Among those who spoke was Davie Donaldson, a gypsy traveller who describes himself as the “only Scottish Traveller I know studying at university”. He said: “Speaking to my grandfather, nothing’s changed. If anything, things have got worse in certain areas. People seem to be more inhospitable to folk camping, more aggressive towards folk shifting and the nomadic behaviour than what my granddad received when he was younger.”

Speaking after the session, Gypsy Shamus McPhee, observed that Scotland’s treatment of its Gypsy/Traveller ought to be a source of “shame”.

The statistics speak volumes. The most recent Scottish Social Attitudes survey found that 34 per cent of people in Scotland believe that a Gypsy/Traveller is "unsuitable" to be a primary school teacher, and 31 per cent would be unhappy if a close relative married a Gypsy/Traveller.

Committee convener Christina McKelvie MSP said: “Continued discrimination against the Gypsy/Traveller community will be a concern to all of us who want Scotland to be a tolerant, welcoming place.”

Many Scottish Gypsy/Travellers feel the need hide their ethnic identity in some part of their lives. Charlotte, a 16-year-old Gypsy/Traveller who works in a nursery said that she had done so in her job from the moment she applied. A report by the Institute for Research and Innovation in Social Services (IRISS), observes that though the official figure is around 4,000 gypsy travellers, a better estimate might be closer to 50,000 since so many are not disclosing their ethnic identity. But, also, history reveals a shocking story of mistreatment, cultural insensitivity and attempts to force integration. During the 16th and 17th centuries Gypsies were burned at the stake and hanged, and later shipped off to the Caribbean as slaves. In the 1940s “experiment” sites were set up offering sub-standard accommodation, with the aim of encouraging travellers to set up home in one place.

In recent years Scottish Gypsy/Travellers have become more, rather than less, economically marginalised. Scrap metal dealing that had long been their trade is now more limited due to enforcement of licensing laws. Traditional jobs such as fruit-picking now tend to be taken by European migrants.

Gypsy/Taveller Anthony, 22, a witness at the session recalled: “I went to primary school and from my teachers got treated like an animal. They hated to see me coming because of where I come from. Because they knew, a sheet of paper saying I’m a Scottish Traveller. As soon as I’ve got that mark against my name: blacklisted my whole life.” He left school at 12 years old, partly because he wanted to learn to work with his father, but also because he felt driven away and ostracised.

He described how it had become increasingly difficult to find employment. Now, when he travels to find work as a landscaper, he finds doors were always slamming in our face, often accompanied by the words, “you’re a tinker”.

A 2012 Scottish parliament report found there had been little progress in recent decades. 50 per cent of the population were spending at least part of their lives without ready access to running water. Life expectancy was “shockingly” low, 92 per cent of young Gypsy/Travellers reported bullying and prejudice.

Since 2008 Scottish Gypsy/Travellers have had ethnic status under the terms of the Race Relations Act. However, Kerry Musselbrook, manager of a gypsy traveller project at the IRISS observes: “Though they are classed as an ethnic minority, many of the public do not seem to know this.”

Such is the lack of acknowledgement of this minority that there is still little awareness around even how they prefer to be named. The official term, accepted by the Scottish parliament in 2001 is Scottish Gypsy/Traveller, but individuals have their different naming preferences.

“I wouldn’t take offence at being called a gypsy,” said Shamus McPhee, “but I would take offence at being called a traveller because it’s identified with nomadism and not ethnicity.” McPhee said his preferred term was the Cant word, nacken. Scottish Gypsy/Travellers, he pointed out, are part of an ethnic group that formed between 1600 and 1800 through cultural osmosis and intermarriage between the incoming Roma and a group that was already in the country.

McPhee, now 47, spent the early years of his life not in a caravan, or a house, but in a hut that Perth and Kinross council had adapted, at a site called Bobbin Mill. He was part of what documentation at the time called a “tinker experiment”, a project which McPhee described as “racial engineering”, in which he was “a lab rat”. It was one of a number of such attempts to place Gypsy/Travellers first in substandard accommodation, before moving them to local housing schemes.

The result has been that he has not only lived much of his life in the most basic accommodation, but he has been alienated from the mobile Gypsy/Traveller community. His sister Roseanna McPhee, who also grew up at Bobbin Mill, said: “Among the mobile community we’re described as 'the clever fools' because we got an education but no money.” Roseanna, though a teacher and former head of department, added that she had been unable to find work in teaching since she moved back to the area in which she had grown up and was known as a Gypsy.

Shamus McPhee, who holds an MA in Celtic Hispanic studies, described: “The other Gypsy/Travellers all seemed to be more prosperous and they were mobile, whereas we were deprived of that. There was no social contact because we were isolated on a site. It absolutely destroyed any chances of marriage, or having a family.”

Increasingly other Gypsy/Travellers are going through the same forced alienation from their culture, driven not by experiments like Bobbin Mill, but by wider restrictions on their work and where they can live: the fact that there are fewer sites, often only one within a local authority area; the blocking off of the lay-bys they used to stop off in; the problem that the Scottish short-assured tenancy means that tenants are not allowed to live off site for more than 12 months a year.

Asked why he thought this bigotry endures, Shamus McPhee said: “I think it’s to do with this idea that you are innately inferior. Vaclav Havel once said that 'the treatment of the Roma is a litmus test for civil society'. We’re at the very bottom of a social pecking order, less acceptable than other groups.”

McPhee said he believed what has happened to his family, and the wider Gypsy/Traveller community is clearly a violation of human rights on a long list of levels: "the right to freedom of movement", "the right to an adequate standard of living" ,"the right to effective remedy", "the right to respect for private and family life" and many others. “People have been in denial about the way that they’ve treated the community over a considerable period of time. The first step is for them to acknowledge what they’ve done and then attempt to remedy the situation by listening to people’s needs.”

“For too long,” said committee convener Chrstine McKelvie, “discrimination against Gypsy/Travellers has been the last form of acceptable racism. By using our World Human Rights Day session to celebrate Gypsy/Traveller communities, we want to clearly signal our determination to end the formal and informal discrimination they face.”

Charlotte, Gypsy/Traveller and nursery worker

“I’ve learned that it’s best sometimes to hide your identity. I applied for a job at a nursery and a younger girl went for the same role I applied for. She was more experienced and qualified, but somehow I got the job. When I went into work and was chatting to my co-workers – the ones that were looking over the applications – and decided to ask them how she didn’t get the job as she was more qualified. There reply was, “Oh you didn’t know, she’s a dirty pikey”.

This is only a taste of the racism is travellers face every day and that no matter how qualified you are if you tick that wee box saying Scottish Traveller that’s it they don’t even bother reading your application it’s just fling to the side.

I feel this is why many young travellers don’t bother with taking their schooling further. Why go through all that years of schooling for nothing to come out of it?

School is one of the many struggles a traveller faces if they are out about who they are. Many young travellers have to hide who they are which isn’t fair because us travellers are very proud of our heritage. A young kid at a school doesn’t want to face getting called a “pikey” “dirty gyppo” or “minks”, or getting into fights almost every day at school. And I have even seen this at school, within the last 10 years, when young travellers who have told people of their identity. At the end of the day we are just people, trying to live our life as happy as we can, and get through it just like everyone else.”