Gaelic teacher speaks out about gypsy repression

Roseanna at the Tinkers' Heart, Argyll, a traditional wedding site. Picture: Contributed
Roseanna at the Tinkers' Heart, Argyll, a traditional wedding site. Picture: Contributed
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IT is a world which has long been a mystery to outsiders – and the target of discrimination worldwide for decades.

Now a gypsy traveller living in Scotland has spoken out about the problems she has faced as a member of this ethnic minority and told of the pressure to keep her true identity hidden from mainstream society.

Writing in a book, From The Horse’s Mouth, about the gypsy community in modern Britain, graduate Roseanna McPhee, who lives in Bobbin Mill, a gypsy settlement near Pitlochry, has told of “chameleons” – gypsy traveller families who “play their public roles” but secretly speak in Cant, the traveller language, at home.

McPhee said her cousins, who have tried to blend in to ordinary residential communities by concealing their past, tell her to stop speaking Cant when she comes to visit – and to ensure that she does not arrive in a white Transit van, which could hint to the family’s gypsy heritage.

In her book she writes: “One might ask why anyone who has committed no crime would resort to such dramatic measures wherein they seek to disown their own ethnicity and hide behind their nationality in a land where no-one can detect this omission. The answer is fear – fear of repression; of economic hardship, of constant rejection, of revilement by the general public.”

McPhee, a qualified Gaelic teacher, has not been able to find work – but her two sisters, who moved away and “made no mention of their ethnicity”, have been in constant employment as teachers for more than 20 years each.

She said: “I, myself and my brother Shamus, both with multiple academic qualifications and merits at university level, chose to eschew the double life of having to pretend to be a non-gypsy and returned to live in a caravan on our traditional extended family site … and since then, we have never again been employed by a public body. Prior to this, I had worked as a teacher of Gaelic and English.”

Photographer Tina Carr, who, with Annemarie Schöne, edited the book and took the photographs in it, became interested in Roma and traveller rights after working on a photographic project in Hungary.

Carr said: “We had already worked with minority groups and had previously done a project on Roma groups in Hungary and went on from there.

“The point of this book was to produce something that showed them in a positive light rather than the negative discrimination that has been happening in recent years.”

The pair met McPhee and her brother Shamus at an event run by gypsy traveller rights group ByRight.

Carr said: “We got talking to Rosie and found out more about the situation in Scotland. We went up there to Bobbin Mill and spent some time with them and saw the conditions they were living in.

“That’s when we took the pictures that appear in the book.”

She added: “Roseanna is a prime example of a very highly educated woman who can’t get work because of her ethnicity.”

From The Horse’s Mouth will be launched in Scotland at the Scottish Storytelling Centre on 7 October, where the book will be introduced by culture minister Fiona Hyslop