Lost in translation: The mystery behind Scotland's travelling community

Scotland's Gypsy/Travellers are a mystery tomost people, but they have a rich and vibrant culture underpinned by their own language

SO this is it," says Shamus. "Bobbin Mill." Shamus McPhee, a warm, sharp, gently melancholy 39-year-old with silver hair and a silvering beard, lives in Pitlochry's Bobbin Mill Woods along with four sisters, an elder brother, and two other members of the extended family. The McPhees are Scottish Gypsy/Travellers, to use the official term, though they think and speak of themselves as Nackin - an old word thought to have its roots in Hindi. Despite the exoticism of his ethnic origin, Shamus is as rooted in Bobbin Mill as the grey and leafless oaks which are being battered with rain on the morning I visit.

Bobbin Mill has been a Gypsy/Traveller stopping place since the mid-18th century. In 1946 it became the site of the so-called Tinker Housing Experiment in which the political and religious authorities established low-grade huts for nomadic families in an attempt to assimilate them into mainstream society and - as Shamus, who was born here, puts it - "dilute the culture to the extent that all Gypsy contamination was eradicated".

But it didn't work. Today, Bobbin Mill is simply home to eight adults and a number of slinking cats. It could not be less like Channel 4's hit series Big Fat Gypsy Weddings. There are no meringue dresses, and stretch limos are in short supply. Instead, there are old-fashioned touring caravans, some stained green with mould, and six wooden chalets. These chalets are a very recent development. For most of their lives, the McPhees got by without electricity or hot water, washing clothes in a large, blackened tin kettle over a campfire. Growing up, they would clean themselves in the burn with a bar of carbolic soap; the nearby waterfall was an ersatz shower.

Shamus continues to live in a caravan, considering anything else an "alien environment". It is not always comfortable; he has woken up in winter with his beard frozen and the carpet hillocked with ice, but it is the life he knows. His sister Roseanna, a teacher of Gaelic in her forties, tried living away in a flat in Pitlochry but it didn't work out. "You'd come back from work and there would be a note on your door saying, 'Go home, tink, we don't want you here'," she recalls.

Both siblings have struggled to find employment, which they put down to prejudice. Big Fat Gypsy Weddings gave the impression that the community had a great deal of money to spend; in fact, 90 per cent of those living on authorised sites are unemployed. Shamus does casual outdoor work - tree-planting, turf-digging and the like - and struggles financially.

To meet the McPhees is to experience a temporal collision.These are sophisticated people - articulate university graduates who speak with ease about wireless connections and dongles and telly shows, but they also inhabit an old world of ritual, custom and superstition. They understand the etiquette of cursing and the correct way to read tea leaves. They also speak Cant - the old tongue of the Scottish Gypsy/Travellers which is still spoken widely within the community. Roseanna, in fact, struggled at school at first because English was essentially her second language. Though Gypsy/Travellers tend not to speak Cant in front of outsiders, Shamus seems pleased to be asked about it. To hear him say those words feels like a privilege.

"The language I speak and the language the Roma in England speak is very similar," he explains. He is a linguist with a postgraduate diploma in translation. "Like, I'll say 'yarra' for egg and they'll say 'yorro'. I'll say 'yag' for coal, they'll say 'yog' for fire. 'Peev' is to drink in Cant. 'Peev a tass of chai' is to drink a cup of tea. Language is a real mark of difference between us and wider society. I might say to you, 'Jaar shan gadgie jal avree tae the gav, bing anee tae the chovi, feek hizz a wichin habben fur ma juggala tae ha.' That means, 'Ask the strange man to go to town, go into a shop, and get some food for my dog.'"

There are an estimated 20,000 Gypsy/Travellers living permanently in Scotland, though no-one knows for sure. Shamus believes the true figure to be closer to 50,000. There are population clusters in Perthshire, Aberdeenshire and the Highlands.

The Scottish Government recognises Gypsy/Travellers as a distinct ethnic group. This year's census will contain, for the first time, a Gypsy/Traveller option within the ethnicity category. Though their precise ancestral origins are disputed, one theory is that the present population is a genetic mix of indigenous nomads from the Celtic period, Roma incomers who arrived in the early 16th century, and wandering clansmen burned out of their homes following the Jacobite uprisings.

In any case, the point is that there are huge numbers of people living in this country and throughout the UK whose lives and culture remain a mystery to most of us.

And where there is ignorance, there is sometimes hatred. Gypsy/Travellers say they are the frequent victims of hate crimes - name-calling, physical attacks, excrement smeared on their property - and subtler but perhaps more damaging discrimination in the form of lack of support from local authorities.

The most common complaint is that there is inadequate provision of pitches for caravans, and that those which are provided are often located next to refuse sites, beneath pylons or close to motorways. This leads to the use of unauthorised sites which, in turn, can cause bad-tempered conflicts with local people. The situation is likely to get worse this summer if Dale Farm in Essex, the largest site in Europe, is closed down.A proportion of its approximately 1,000 residents are expected to make their way to Scotland in search of work.

On Wednesday in Edinburgh, a number of Gypsy/Travellers visited several European consulates, highlighting discrimination in the countries concerned. A letter handed into Bute House, the official residence of Alex Salmond, pointed out the problems with pitches and with racist bullying in schools. The storyteller Jess Smith sang a song on the steps of Bute House and called for an end to hostility, ridicule and shame.

There is concern within the community that Big Fat Gypsy Weddings has already led to an increase in bullying at school and may incite racially motivated attacks. None of the Scottish Gypsy/Travellers to whom I speak recognises the culture portrayed. The provocative sexual display and dress of the young people has left them especially mystified. There is a great emphasis on privacy in Gypsy/Traveller society, which is why each adult family member requires a separate caravan. People tend not to undress in front of one another and avoid the likes of communal showers.

It is a society governed by codes of behaviour concerning everything from eating to laundry to relations between husband and wife. Gypsy/Traveller life revolves around the family, within which children are protected to the point that many find it restrictive. Children are sometimes taken out of the education system after primary school so that they do not receive sex education, a taboo subject.

"We've got separate values and systems of belief," says Shamus McPhee. "They are old-fashioned in some ways. You know, no sex before marriage. Don't believe in promiscuity or adultery. Divorce is uncommon. We don't believe in childcare or putting our elderly relations into nursing homes."

Couples marry young. A woman in her mid-twenties is considered an old maid. Marriages are not arranged, exactly, but a young man and woman will often be brought together by their respective families in the hope that they will hit it off. There is a popular idea that domestic violence is prevalent within the Gypsy/Traveller community but I'm told that it is simply less hidden than in mainstream society.

"We've also got our own wedding rituals," says Shamus. "A common practice is for the bride and groom to go behind the tent and urinate in a pot. You then throw that on the fire, and how much smoke is produced will tell you how successful and fruitful the marriage is going to be. But you don't see that on Big Fat Gypsy Weddings."

Increasingly, Gypsy/Traveller society is religious. There is a tendency towards born-again Christianity. However, faith coexists with a continuing belief in superstition. "That is almost like a religion to us," says Shamus. "We believe in warnings.When someone is going to die you get some sort of warning in advance." When Shamus and Roseanna's brother died at the age of 37, the family burned his caravan in a sanitisation ritual.

The idea of karma is also important within the community. "Cursing people is really frowned upon," says Roseanna. "But I'm not saying people won't do it. I had an argument with a lady here three years ago; her daughter got a Bible and cursed me and my father and my brother. She said my father would die with a yellow face and a lot of pain. Well, he took cancer and was jaundiced and then died. And I had a lot of bad luck and illness, and my brother was very ill. But then, after that, the woman who cursed me lost her mother and her brother and her sister all to cancer. There's an idea that it comes back on you. It's like the power of prayer in reverse."

When it's time to leave Bobbin Mill and catch my train, I'm sorry to go. Shamus and Roseanna have offered a glimpse of an older, stranger world within my own. It is a great shame that people who come from such a rich culture should live impoverished lives. Like so many others, Shamus has struggled simply because society has, for centuries, regarded his people with, at best, incomprehension and often with murderous hatred. First it was the kids at school who punched him and spat on him, now it's those who won't give him work, or who look at him as if he was dirt. Gypsy/Travellers have a low life expectancy, and in his own lowest moments, Shamus seems almost glad about that.

"I don't want," he says, smiling sadly, "another 40 years of this."