Travellers take to the stage to celebrate St Andrews Day

5 December 2019
Travellers take to the stage to celebrate St Andrews Day

This St Andrew’s Day, Aberdeen University’s Elphinstone Institute hosted a traditional Traveller ceilidh to celebrate Scotland’s diverse communities.

The evening began with incredible performances of contemporary and traditional Traveller music; from Scottish Traveller Singer-songwriter, Bob Knight; and Dr Tom McKean, Director of the Elphinstone Institute.

It was headlined by a performance from the renowned Irish Pavee singer, Thomas McCarthy (named Traditional Singer of the year in the Gradam Ceoil Awards 2019).

After the performances the event opened into a traditional Gaitherin’, empowering the audience to share and celebrate St Andrew’s Day in their own way.

As if around a Traveller campfire, surrounding a traditional pan and chitties, people shared everything from; storytelling, ballad singing, and poetry – to Far east instruments and memories. Expressing their identity and what is important to their communities.

The night, done in partnership with BEMIS Scotland, via Scotland’s Winter Festivals; was part of the St Andrew’s Fair Saturday Festival in which events take place across Scotland to build social bridges through culture. Celebrating the diversity of Scotland, and our communities who make Scotland their home is integral to this.

Scottish Traveller history wall
Scottish Traveller history wall

The purpose of our ceilidh was to explore Scotland’s national identity, who are we as a country? Are we truly all bagpipe bearing, kilt wearing, Highland dancing folk? We wanted to create a space where all people could celebrate St Andrew’s Day in their own ways.

We chose to use the traditional Traveller ceilidh, or gaitherin’, to celebrate by giving everyone a chance to explore Traveller orality, but more importantly the orality of their own identity; be they a Traveller or not. Through this we took Traveller culture from the margins of national celebration – and made it the foundation!

Catching up with our headliner, Thomas McCarthy, after the event, I asked him his thoughts on celebration and whether he felt Traveller culture is celebrated enough in national events.

 “Do you feel Traveller culture is celebrated enough at national celebrations?”

“No not at all Traveller culture is nowhere near on the same par celebrated, like let's say, Black history month, nothing televised or promoted like other cultures are highlighted, Diwali Ramadan  etc, hopefully attitudes will change.”

“When it comes to national identity what does Traveller culture have to offer?”

“Travellers are part of the nation's identity even if settled society dictates we are not. How many Scottish Travellers died during the world wars? and previous wars long before those? and Irish Travellers and Gypsies too?

I think we as a people are amazing, the numerous attempts to wipe out our culture have failed and seem to make us all the more resilient! That goes to show all through the centuries how strong our ancestors were; people to be proud of, to cherish that identity. I wouldn't swap that identity for the life of a king.”

"Travelling culture can offer national identities; morals, standards and values that settled people tend to have forgotten. Much more to offer too right across the board.”

“How do you feel the St Andrew’s Day event went on Friday?”

“The event was spectacular it showed the oral traditions passed down from generation to generation among us Travellers; I’m proud and feel honoured to listen to the culture, traditions, stories and songs that our ancestors cherished and held onto far longer than the rest of society.”

Those who attended the event expressed how happy they were to come to an event which celebrated Scotland’s national day differently; and allowed space for everyone to explore what makes them proud to live in Scotland. 

Dr Tom McKean, Director of the Elphinstone Institute, expressed his delight at the evening and hopes the celebration can become an annual event.

Storytelling at the ceilidh
Storytelling at the ceilidh

People of all backgrounds and walks of life, sang and laughed together on the night. Travellers and Non-Travellers came together in celebration.

We were all left with the powerful message that whatever your identity, express it in your own way, never forget who you are and never let culture divide – rather allow it the chance to unite.

Pictures, videos and words by Davie Donaldson for the Travellers’ Times

(Lead picture; left to right: Davie Donaldson, Thomas McCarthy, Bob Knight, Dr Tom McKean)