THEY are small huts, scattered across the country, which appear on the outside to be fairly unassuming

But behind the walls of the barely habitable dwellings lay the truth of a bizarre experiment that saw Scottish authorities attempt to control a distinct racial group in a bid to get them to integrate into mainstream society.

Known as the "Tinker Experiment", it saw members of the travelling community placed in specially provided huts, far from the rest of society, in a bid to break them into joining the rest of the population and effectively kill off their culture.

Remarkably, most of these sites only closed in the 1980s, but one in Pitlochry remained in use only a decade ago.

READ MORE: Gypsy Travellers: Scotland's human rights shame 

Now members of the travelling community are demanding an official apology from the Scottish Government for what they call Scotland's secret shame, and they're planning a protest at Holyrood next month.

They are angry that other sections of society have received apologies for historically poor treatment from the state while they still wait, despite it being illegal to discriminate against gypsy travellers on grounds of race since the Equality Act of 2010.

Shamus McPhee, who was a subject of the experiment at Bobbin Mill, Pitlochry, pointed out that each reason the Scottish Government had given why it couldn't apologise for the Tinker Experiment could be rebutted through a previous apology to another distinct group.

He said the Government had in the past said it was unable to apologise for the actions of a previous government, ignoring an unreserved apologise to the gay community. On another occasion, he said, it claimed claimed it couldn't apologise for local government initiatives or the actions of public bodies but apologised for the Scottish Child Abuse Inquiry.


Mr McPhee said another government defence had been that it couldn't offer apologies for events which predated devolution, but that that overlooked an apology to those affected by the contaminated blood scandals of the 1980s and 1990s.

He said: "A programme of eugenics saw Gypsy Travellers separated out on racial grounds for removal from Scottish society. This marked a top-down, concerted approach, designed to eradicate a specific group of people.

"I think that quite a striking analogy can be drawn between our treatment, almost colonial in aspect, especially the level of subsequent denial, and that of the aboriginal people in Australia. The extent of that institutional racism is most clearly illuminated in the response from central government in Scotland, which has been described as 'wilful blindness' on the part of the ruling elite."

READ MORE: Scotland needs to do better for Gypsy/Travellers 

His sister Roseanna adds: "Although the authorities said it was a housing experiment it was actually a racial experiment, it was a form of eugenics because nobody could be put in the houses unless they were what they called a 'tinker'.

"There was no one from mainstream society who was put there and we were kept away from that mainstream. These houses were specifically designed to ease the tinker problem."

The genesis of what became known as the Tinker Experiment in private government circles began just over a century ago. In a deputation to the Secretary of Scotland in 1917, it was claimed that "with kindly treatment, tinkers could be reclaimed and brought into line with ordinary civilisation".

The chair of the Department of Tinkers in Scotland, the Duchess of Atholl, asked for a Scotland-wide census on the numbers and social make-up of these communities.

This was an attempt to measure what was called at the time in the press as the "Tinker Problem", and then solve this problem by assimilating travellers into mainstream Scottish society by threatening to remove their children into care.

By forcing them to send their children to school for a set number of days, the gypsy families would have to settle in permanent accommodation as governments and local authorities recognised that the families had a close bond with their children.

Due to the secretive nature of the plan, exact figures have been hard to come by, but it is believed that thousands of individuals were forced to exist in properties with no hot water, electricity or proper washing facilities.

Those who refused had their children taken into care.

Throughout the 20th century huts to house travellers were built in at least 10 different locations across Scotland.

These included the Bridge of Don barracks in Aberdeen, Red Rocks in Inverness-shire and Muir of Ord on the edge of the Black Isle.

These sites were basic by design with minimum living facilities and were closely supervised by the authorities.

On the Muir of Ord site, the idea "was to train the tinker how to live in a house, instead of in sheds, old buses and under canvas which would give them a better chance in life".

In Perthshire alone, 35 traveller families were housed in substandard huts, many unaware that they were part of a racial experiment.

Perthshire Council initially bought a former WWII prisoner of war hut to be used as housing for four gypsy families.

In a letter from 1945 concerning the creation of the property, the council ignored bylaws for minimum standards of housing, instead applying regulations intended for tents, vans or sheds.

The huts were deliberately substandard to encourage travelling families to quickly move into mainstream accommodation and so be assimilated into Scottish society, reasoning no-one would put up with the property for more than three years.

However, this assimilation was difficult as many gypsies felt they couldn't practise their own culture living in a council estate isolated from their own community.

Those affected have repeatedly asked the Scottish Government for an apology, but without success.

Most of these sites closed in the 1980s but one in Pitlochry remained in use only a decade ago.

The Bobbin Mill huts were partitioned with asbestos-coated wood into four sections for different families to occupy.

Each hut consisted of one bedroom and a toilet and cold water sink. It had no electricity and accommodated up to 10 family members.

Yet according to resident Alexander Johnstone, who lived there from the 1960s, the poor conditions were despite the fact there was ready access to utilities. "Even though there was a gas tank nearby and a house over the back that had electricity only about 30 metres away, they wouldn't install it for some reason.


"I never saw a council person the whole time I was there, and if anything was broken we just had to fix it ourselves."

The building was condemned as unfit for human habitation in 1962 yet the council continued to place families there throughout the decade.

Many former residents believe that their recurring health problems today stem from the asbestos dust and freezing conditions of their childhood home.

Roseanna McPhee recalls a locum doctor who had previously worked in South Africa making a house call.

She said: "He compared the huts to Soweto. If you didn't just get on with living in the bad conditions and thole it, the children would be taken into care."

Even if the families did suffer in silence, their children were still at risk of being removed.

Jessie McPhee's family were also occupants, but she and her twin brother Robert were taken into care in 1956 at birth as the local council decided there was not enough room to accommodate any more children in the family of 12.

She believes her parents simply accepted the authorities' decision out of fear that all of their children would be taken away from them.

Jessie returned to the family home to start primary school, but Robert was placed in a boarding school because of his behaviour. He kept running away from the home because of the treatment he received there, coming from a minority group. She is convinced Robert, who died 20 years ago, never recovered from the double rejection.

She said: "He felt he had been rejected twice, by my parents when he was taken into the children's home and then by the boarding school. He was an alcoholic who drank himself to death because he couldn't accept what had happened to him."

The experiment in assimilation failed as the children were mercilessly bullied at the local primary and secondary school and then became stigmatised because of their sub-human housing, which affected their chances of forming relationships outside those in the same situation.

Roseanna explains: "You couldn't assimilate. If you went out with someone from the wider community and they found out you were from the hut, you never saw them again.

"People could accept you were a traveller or a gypsy but they couldn't accept that you were living in these appalling conditions – they couldn't understand that you didn't want to be there – they didn't understand that you were put there."

When asked about the Tinker Experiment, the Scottish Government acknowledged the treatment the travellers had received and the impact it had on them, but again stopped short of an apology.

READ MORE: It needs guts to take the road less travelled. And for Gypsies, that means protecting their children from the outside world. But at what cost? 

A spokesperson told The Herald on Sunday: “The lives of many gypsy travellers have been blighted by the historical housing polices of councils and charities. We absolutely recognise the devastating impact which these polices had on families, many of whom are still suffering the consequences.

“A joint Scottish Government and Cosla £3 million action plan to tackle the discrimination and challenges faced by the gypsy/traveller community was published in October.”