Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Tinkers: Rambling Recollections of my School & School Days – Part A

Article IX written by Alexander Gunn was printed in the Northen Ensign on 13 January 1881 – Part A

Ewen MacPhee is about to make an interesting 
discovery amongst the Badbea heather !


"How does it happen that Caithness is, and has been, pestered with the wandering tribes of tinkers that have been such a scourge to the community from time immemorial! Badbea had its regular visitations from these migrating tribes, and as there was a kiln in the place which was common to all, the tinkers made it their own for the time being. We young folk were very fond of getting a glimpse of tinker life; and being often on the outskirts of their camp, many a curious scene we witnessed."

Walter Geikie 1795 - 1837

Keg of whisky hidden in the heather

"One scene in particular outstripped all the rest. On one occasion, as a troop of these tinkers were making for Badbea, in crossing over the hills, they stumbled on a keg of whisky which some of the Badbea folk had concealed among the heather for fear of the gauger. The Macfees (for this was the branch of the tribe who happened to come on the scene at this time), gave expression to their feelings at the find in a loud and joyous hurrah, and in less time than it takes me to write this, the end of the keg was stove in, and the Highland whisky was dealt around the company in tin jugs, and gulped down with the utmost relish. This was an opportunity to get jolly which seldom happened, and which the company was not disposed to allow to pass unimproved. To think that Mr Macfee, etc, could drink himself mortal drunk on good Highland whisky, and that free gratis for nothing, was an event in Providence which had never before occurred, and a long life might terminate and the same chance never occur again. Under all these circumstances need we wonder that the opportunity was embraced, and the best and most made of it?"

Good Luck

"Well I am not quite sure if the same good luck came the way of parties who would consider it an insult to be put on the same level as the tinkers, but they might have used much the same liberty as the tinkers did; but, be that as it may, we were startled that afternoon by seeing the tribe making towards their habitation, the kiln, all reeling and staggering in the most reckless manner, and those who were able to stagger along at all, were doing their best in dragging along others who were utterly helpless, and whom they laid down on the grass in front of the kiln. The balance of the whisky which was not consumed on the spot, was conveyed in pitcherfulls to the kiln, and the spree was there renewed till there was scarcely one amongst them, male or female, who was able to move out of the spot."

"Those who were not totally disabled lighted a fire, and began to cook the supper, which was made in a large tin (full made tins being what were used for pots) of thick gruel or “brochan.” One of these cooks or waiters came out to a female who lay dead drunk on the grass, with a large tin-dealer full of the gruel, and wanted the helpless woman to partake of it, but she was utterly regardless of her entreaties, which roused the spirit of the generous donor to such a degree, that she splashed the whole contents of the divider in the face of the poor unconscious woman, after which she re-entered the kiln and joined in the spree, and I can assure you that the tribe had a night of carousal, such as they never had before, and that we young folks were witnesses to scenes anything but edifying, and such as we would never wish to witness again."

I don’t know where these Tinkers lived when they were not travelling but there is a fascinating cave dwelling at Forse not far from Badbea. These pictures were posted by Jacktar on the Caithness forum. There was another occupied cave at Wick.

My Comments:

I will admit to be struggling a bit to comment on this article for several reasons. 

First, I really have no first-hand knowledge of the history of the clans or groups of people Alexander Gunn refers to as Tinkers. Even though he published his letter in 1881 the time this incident occurred must have been between 1830 and 1840. From the little research I have done there are several highly rated books that celebrate the history and lives of Travelling People in the 20th century. The Yellow on the Broom by Betsy Whyte published by Birlinn has good reviews. I haven’t yet found anything available as an e-book so am trying to locate something from another source to correct my ignorance in this area.  

Second, this whole article shows deep disdain for the people being written about, which I find deplorable. In some ways it seems to me not much different to the long past Scottish attitude that saw slavery acceptable. But as Scotland now recognises it was involved in the horrors of the slave trade I wonder if there is a similar awareness of their guilty past in attitudes to Tinkers or Travellers. 

So just a few observations from me about this story.

  • I can’t help smiling at the stroke of luck the Macphees had. In fact I love it. Of course they were going to party all night. Who wouldn’t? And Alexander Gunn hints that they could hardly be blamed for making the most of the opportunity. But he is still disparaging.

Travellers beside their camp fire, c1930s 
Am Baile facebook
Photograph courtesy of Highland Folk Museum

  • There is a bit of a double standard going on with the Badbea folk who distilled and hid the whisky  - needing the revenue from it to supplement their meagre incomes – but who probably would not have judged anyone who paid for and drank the stuff at an Inn even if the resulting behaviour was the same.   

Travellers setting up camp, c1930s 
Am Baile facebook
Photograph courtesy of the Highland Folk Museum

  • It seems peculiar that the Badbea villagers, who had been treated so badly by their landowners and found themselves without a roof over their heads were not a bit more accommodating to another group of people, who also spoke Gaelic, had nowhere to live and, as well, were struggling for survival. The Tinkers were allowed to use the common kiln at Badbea – which at times would have been warm and dry – but the villagers held a morally superior attitude. 

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