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Living in Tents

The Traveller’s tents, known by them as ‘benders’, are made by bending over branches whose ends have been stuck into the ground, tying the tops, and placing over the framework a covering of tarpaulin, sacks, or clothes and other materials. Inside, there is usually a home-made stove and straw to sleep on. In the early 1970s, between one and two thousand people lived in bender tents in Britain.

Most of the tent dwelling Travellers lived in Scotland or Ireland. The bender tent dwellers were the hardest of all Gypsies and Travellers for me to reach. They were, perhaps understandably, hostile to Gorjios whom, in the areas of Perthshire and Lanarkshire where I travelled, they referred to as ‘Country Handles’ or just ‘Handles’ for short.

I felt that there was a quality of terror and dread present in some of their lives which it is difficult for those of us who sleep in beds to understand.

A bender tent is a vulnerable place to live even in the summertime, amidst a hostile community. In winter, when the wild Scottish winds sweep across the moors ...

I count myself fortunate that three of them agreed to speak with me.

The Gypsies who live in tents are the only Gypsies in this book whose names I changed.

Mr Russell Bilton

I joined the housing list,

but never got no word back from them’

A large tent made of green tarpaulin stands amid the Scottish scrub. There is a home-made stove at one end and a hole has been made near the top of the tent for its chimney. The stove is made from an oilcan which has had a hole made in the top with a lid that can be pulled on or off, and a square hole near the bottom of it for the draught to go in. The floor of the tent is cold earth over which carpeting has been placed which has now become the same colour and consistency as the earth.

A wild looking man sits behind the stove pipe and behind the stove there is also a small corrugated iron coop containing puppies. In this tent live Russell Bilton, his wife and three children. The entrance is in the middle. They have a double bed at one end and sit on boxes and old chairs round the stove at the other.

I’m shown the way there by the light of a weak torch held by one of the children.

The earth around the place is littered with roots and branches and a scrub of trees. There’s a large telly on a box with a Benny Hill programme playing.

Mr Bilton has three children. One of them is barefooted, on this cold night, on the cold earth.

Himself he sits, unshaven, on the bed and is the most dispirited of any Traveller I have met so far.

Mr Bilton: ‘All the land’s tooken over by the pylons and all, you know, big lairds, you know.

‘If you stop nowadays, you might be there for five minutes when a policeman comes round and just puts you in the road right away. You have to go, if you don’t go you’d be pulled up. And if you’re not fined you’d be tooked to gaol.

‘A few years ago they picked us up four times for being just camping at the same place. And fined a pound each time. They kept us in this cell from ten o’clock at night to two o’clock the next day. And then they took us to court. We had nothing to eat or drink while we were inside. Just one cup of tea about eleven o’clock next day.

‘Here we’re being left alone though. There’s not much work though, only a bit of potato-picking you get here.’

I asked, ‘Do you have trouble claiming from the Social Security?’

‘No, they’re all right.’

‘Some Travellers have been saying that they think travelling will be finished soon in Scotland.’

‘Well, it’s coming that way now, it’s dying out.’

‘What do you feel about that?’

‘In one way it is sad.’

‘But in another way you wish to be in a house?’

‘Oh yes.’

‘Have you actually joined the housing list anywhere?’

‘Well, I joined the housing list, but never got no word back from them.’

‘Were they discriminating against you?’

‘Well, I think so. They don’t want much Travellers around; some parts don’t want Travellers to mix up with the local people, you know what I mean. But down South Scotland here they’re not quite so bad, up North they’re very particular who they take on, you know, and who they give houses to. Down South here they’re not quite so bad.’

‘Have you got happy memories from the past?’

‘Well, at the berry-time in Blairgowrie used to be the happiest times. There used to be a lot of ceilidhs, pipe music, ‘cordion, guitars, everything. And plenty of dealing: car dealing, horse dealing and all this carry on.

‘A lot of the old Travellers is dying out you know. This travelling life is getting finished. Well, in a few years’ time I think it will all be finished.’

Mr Bilton pays a pound a week to a farmer so that his family can live on this bit of scrub.

Mr William Merchison

I prefer a tent to a house.’

A simple bender tent. The entrance is three feet high with a striped bit of tarpaulin to go over it. The tent is about ten feet long and at its highest is about four feet six inches.

Inside it is dark but very snug. There is straw at one end which is covered with blankets on which Mr Merchison sleeps. The tent is at the side of a large field. He says that he has problems from water since he’s under a high bank and when it rains the water comes down ‘like a burn’.

Mr Merchison is sitting by a home-made stove with a friend in the dark warmth of the interior.

‘My father got lifted you see. Well my mother was due for me. They had nowhere to go and she had nowhere to go, we were in just an open wilderness. And my mother went over for my Granny for to make a bed. So about one o’clock in the morning my mother took bad and she gave birth to me. So the next morning we were at the hotel grounds in Malaig and a lady came down you see, and she saw my mother lying there. And she says to my Granny, “She’s got to go. She’s got to move out of here.” “Sorry,” she says, “she can’t go, my daughter she’s given birth to a baby.” “Oh my goodness,” she says. “Whereabouts?” So she saw the child. And they took my mother and they moved her into a house, it was an old house but she give her blankets and so forth to comfort me and, well, for ten days they kept my mother there till she was fit and well to go on the road again. And she gave my mother five pounds, she said, “That’ll get something for the children and the baby and Granny.” My father was in gaol. He was lifted. He’d been fined a half a crown. But a half-crown was as hard to get as what was a pound today. So they went to the police station and paid this half-crown and got him out. And I suppose, my father, he was the boss and he demanded a pound for drink. So he got the pound for drink. And he went off to get a cover so we could have another tent.

‘During the time he’d been away, my mother and my Granny couldn’t carry the other cover, so they dumped it. It was too heavy to carry.

‘They left it where they could find it. But when they went back it wasn’t there; it wasn’t there. It was a very tragic time, there’s no doubt, yes. And my father was tooken away through drink. Just a quarrel you know through the drink. He just got lifted.’

‘What has been the best time of your life?’

‘The happiest times I recall were down picking the berries. Lots of Travellers around. Have a sing-song, a dance and so forth. I used to play the pipes then, but not now because my chest’s away.

‘I prefer a tent to a house. With a house it can be very, very draughty. And damp. The old houses up here, they’re very damp, these old houses, they’re getting very old and they’re usually damp. Oh yes. But in a tent, I mean you stay there with the fresh air all the time, all the time. I mean during the frosty weather I always keep an extra fire on in the tent. Keep plenty of heat. You can’t do that in a house.

‘I been always in a tent. I wouldn’t mind a trailer. It would be all right if you could afford to get one. Yes, but I mean to say to buy one just now, they’re too dear. I had an old one here last year, but that was very old, it was damp. I just broke it up.

‘This is much more cosy actually than a varda which can be very damp. And if the roof goes they get very damp, once they get wood rot.’

‘To put up a bough tent like this takes, oh, a couple of hours starting from scratch. From cutting them, well you get boughs from round about, I mean, if you got to travel for your boughs that’ll take you more time. But to get it up when you’ve got the boughs, roughly an hour to stick ‘em up.

‘And then you make the stove yourself. Just use a chisel and hammer, that is all we use.

‘I have no horse, now. If I want to move, well you can go on a bus, but there’s usually somebody to shift us around, somebody with a car.

‘The things I can’t take like that bit of furniture there, I just leave it behind.

‘We tie the boughs together with string. Tie ‘em round with string, put the canvas over the top and stones round the bottom to weight it down. Then it will never shift.

‘A friend of mine, he’s a gentleman and he took a copy of one of these tents and he made a – what you’d call a rose byre, and he built one like this and he planted roses up each stick and all grew up into an arbour. In the summertime he can have his tea outside in the summer and smell roses, beautiful. And he just uses it as a summer-house. It’s lovely, you know, when you see the roses all growing about.

‘When I lost my wife, I found it hard to start with. To keep the boys – tea and bread and cheese is no use for boys, you got to get soups and that for ‘em. You’ve got to have a lot to keep them going.

‘What’s the farthest I’ve travelled? Oh well, I’ve been all over. I’ve been in England. Been in Inverness, Aberdeenshire, up at Ayrshire, Edinburgh. I’ve been all over.

‘Well I like Perthshire the very best. Perthshire’s a great place, I think. Always come back, yes. I like a bit of fishing and there’s some nice fishing in Perthshire.’

I asked, ‘Do you think that travelling will go on or come to an end?’

‘Oh, I think it’s coming to an end. Like, the Traveller people in the glens, they’re still making baskets, tinware, and that. But you don’t see ‘em coming around here with ‘em any more because they’re all getting off the road into houses. You miss them coming around with their baskets, tinware, and that.’

‘Would you be sorry yourself to see the young ones giving up the old Traveller’s traditions?’

‘Well, not in a way, because I mean there’s nothing on the road no more, the road is finished.’

Mrs Ethel Anderson

My husband, he’s a great go-ahead.’

I am at Coatbridge in Lanarkshire. It is to be the scene, soon after I was there, of the tragic triple death of three members of the same Gypsy family, two burned to death in a tent, one run over.

Just before a railway bridge I turn right along a road past a factory. Then along a muddy track, past a desolate-looking farm, across a dank moor whose edges are rimmed with the distant view of evening-sodden rain-washed townscape.

Just as I’m beginning to think I must have taken the wrong turning, I see them. A collection of bender tents, huddled like huge stones together. Horses and ponies standing around, munching hay.

There is hazy smoke rising from the chimneys of the tents. The ground is sodden, churned-up mud, rank grass, stretching away to where, amid even deeper bogs, vast machines are constantly moving, emitting an ugly droning sound.

Mrs Anderson stands in the mud at the door of her bender tent. She’s a short woman, smartly dressed.

‘Yes, they’re pumping it. They’re pumping water out of it. They say, so they can build more houses there. They pump the whole night through,’ says Mrs Anderson. ‘Keeps me awake.’

I asked whether she would ever want to live in a house or whether the travelling way of life was valuable to her.

‘He’ll never give it up! Mr Anderson! He’ll no give it up. I would but he won’t.’

‘He loves it, does he?’

‘Ay, it’s his life. He’s been used to that. I came out of a house, you know, I’m not a Traveller. I came out of a house. I’m just like you, you know. I’m a Country Handle. I find it a hard life this, right enough. I’d rather be in a house, having all your comforts and all, you know. I find it hard. But they don’t seem to. They don’t seem to notice it. I thought I would have got my man away from this life but I could nae manage it. I tried but it was impossible. But he’s a good husband ‘cos he’s a good worker and can earn money. We could have nothing tonight and he’d get to work and we’d have a hundred pounds tomorrow morning.

‘He’s good at selling horses and buying them and dealing, you know. He doesn’t go out ragging nor skiving scrap. He hasn’t done that for a couple of years now. Just the horses he works with and I would rather have him out working with the horses. I don’t like a man going out with the rags and scrap and that. I say it’s too poor a looking thing that. I say I’d rather have him work his living with the horses. It’s much better and he’s richer since he got with the horses.

‘He goes to the sales and he buys horses and then he sells them. Sometimes I go with him and sometimes I don’t. If it’s very early in the morning I don’t go with him. I like to stay in bed in the morning, especially wintertime, I don’t mind getting up in the summertime. Often my man’s away at four o’clock in the morning, he’s up and lifted with his self while there I lie still in my bed. My husband, he’s a great go-ahead. But that way he gets the bargains. Oh he goes all over the place. He gets as quick as a man in a motor. Like he was thumbing lifts and things and getting in buses. He goes quick but he canna drive a motor. If my man could drive a motor he would have a motor but he can’t drive one. So he has to go on the buses and things, and gets lifts with friends and that. Then he brings them back here. See he’s run up a fence here, by the tents. If he gets the customers he brings them here then they get a good look.

‘Aye, he would nae go into a house, and sometimes when we’re stopping in the tent in the winter nights I says, “Now what would be nicer,” I say to him, “a nice house, that’s where you could have your door shut, sittin’ with your slippers on and what have you, TV and bairns.” But he will nae have it.’

‘Do you and he have children?’

‘I had two children but I lost them. That’s why I’d like to be in a house. Maybe in a house I would nae have lost ‘em. Travellers are good people. Travellers are happy people and very happy. Some of them are always fighting with one another, but I never bother with the Travellers, it seems to be the parents that fight with one another and not the children. That’s funny isn’t it? God knows why they do it. Maybe they’re jealous.’

‘Jealous of what? Jealous about each other’s women?’

‘No, jealous of each other getting on. Going daft ‘cos my man is doing better than them. That sends them jumpin’ mad ... but thank God that’s going away. Travellers aren’t really bad.’

Mrs Anderson said that they were all very worried because the owner of the farm where they had put their tent before they came here was claiming that they had paid no rent, although they had.

‘You see, my man has no record. He didn’t get a receipt. We were there for about three year and the police never bothered us. Then all these other Travellers came in and they made a mess. They had big lorries and motors and they stirred up muck over the ground. And after that we all got shifted.

‘You see we’ve only got horses and carts, you know – they don’t turn up the ground. But that other lot – they made it like muck up there. They did nae care. No they did nae bother.

‘The farmer says he never got any money from us. I don’t know how it’ll go – they’ve to go on the 16th of this month to court.’

‘Have they got a solicitor?’

‘No. There were others, brothers – they got lifted. They were told to be off the ground at twelve o’clock and they were told to be in the court at twelve o’clock. So how could they be in the court at twelve o’clock and off the ground at twelve o’clock? They could nae be. No man’s an invisible man could be in two places at once. I don’t know what they’ll do about this, I told them that. They should have told the police that, “Do you think I’m an invisible man or something? Being down in court and being off the road?” It was either stay on the ground and go to the court or don’t go to the court and get off the ground. But they never went to court – they got off the ground, you see. It was put back to the High Court, you see. So I don’t know how they’ll get on – they’re quite worried about it, seeing that it’s winter and the mother so old now. She takes bad turns and all like, she’s too old for just travelling about the country, isn’t she? And then the boys, the boys ... they shifted and then they got lifted ... if they had nae shifted ... then ... they maybe would nae have got lifted ...’

As I drive away from the little camp, I see the tower-blocks of Coatbridge standing up sheer against the evening sky. Behind me, smoke twists into the sky above the little bender tents.


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