Kathryn Welch: Sharing the stories and experiences of Scotland’s modern Traveller culture

Curating 'Conversations' has become a key part of the programme at the Macrobert Arts Centre.
Curating 'Conversations' has become a key part of the programme at the Macrobert Arts Centre.
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It was back in November 2017 when we first learned that Dundee Rep Ensemble were developing a new stage production of The Yellow on the Broom.

Some of us had read Betsy Whyte’s memoir – about life in a Travelling family in the 1920s and 30s - and more copies were quickly sourced and devoured.

Kathryn Welch is Development Manager, Macrobert Arts Centre.

Kathryn Welch is Development Manager, Macrobert Arts Centre.

As we passed copies of the book around our team, Betsy’s stories and experiences generated a myriad of questions and discussions.

We talked not only about the trad­itions and cultures of Travellers, but also more widely – about family structures, the importance (or not) of material possessions, and the way we look back on our lives as time passes. We were hungry to learn more.

At Macrobert Arts Centre, curating ‘Conversations’ has become a key part of our programme. Three times a year, we choose a theme or topic that has relevance to our lives and times, and invite our community to join us to explore, question, discover and discuss.

Together, we’ve explored the importance of mental health, looked at the legacies of the coal industry and miners’ strikes, and considered the way that military service affects family life.

It was clear that The Yellow on the Broom was an opportunity for a new Conversation.

Programming a Conversation around this story brings real responsibility, and it’s not one we take lightly. A 2016 report by the Equality and Human Rights Commission found that Gypsies and Travellers faced “multiple disadvantages” in education, health, the workplace and the justice system.

Despite being classed as ethnic groups and protected by equality legislation, discrimination against Gypsies and Travellers by the public, the police and other authorities was found to be “common across Britain”.

By using The Yellow on the Broom as the focus for our autumn season, we hope to build understanding and empathy for people whose lives may look different from our own.

We’re bringing together professional artists, creative people, Travellers and people from across our local area (and many people who fit more than one of those identities), and have made a point of handing over to people from – or who are closely connected to – the Travelling community to share their stories and experiences.

We made a connection with MECOPP Carers Centre, who’ve spent years developing an exhibition of transcribed interviews and photographed portraits with members of the Gypsy/Traveller community.

The resulting ‘Moving Minds’ exhibition highlights what modern Traveller culture looks like, through the stories of objects which community members hold with particular significance.

We were delighted that they were keen to join the Conversation and lend their exhibition for our programme.

We also reached out to artist Seamus McPhee, a relative of Betsy Whyte, and Eleanor Thom, author of novel The Tin-Kin – a fictionalised family story about three generations of Scottish Travellers that draws on Eleanor’s own family heritage.

We were so pleased when both artists agreed to join our Conversation and share their perspectives and experiences.

With those building-blocks in place, we got to thinking about how we could include everyone in the Conversation.

We’ll be launching a new book club this summer, and will kick off by reading and discussing The Tin-Kin. And we’ll be inviting participants of our adult film-making masterclass to explore their own family stories and traditions.

Finally, we were inspired by Betsy Whyte’s description of how few photographs her family owned, and how precious they were, to launch what we hope will become a regular public photography competition.

We’re inviting photo submissions on the theme of ‘Essential and Treasured Possessions’; the winning entries will be exhibited in Macrobert Arts Centre this September. Just as we hoped, each conversation around The Yellow on the Broom has led us to new people, new insights and new perspectives.

As with many of our discussions, the more we learn the more we discover – in the words of Jo Cox, MP – that we are far more united and have far more in common with each other than things that divide us. Many of the themes of The Yellow on the Broom are once we can all relate to – stories of love, loss, belonging, loyalty and friendship.

The play comes to us this September, and will be complemented by the thoughts and insight of Seamus McPhee, Eleanor Thom, the ‘Moving Minds’ exhibition and our photo competition winners. The Conversation’s barely started, and it’s already proving more nourishing and thought-provoking than we could have imagined.

Here’s to September, and to continuing the conversation.

Kathryn Welch is development manager, Macrobert Arts Centre