Gypsy History

Origins of Gypsies and Summer Travelers

Adapted from

I think each of us might admit to being a bit jaded about what comes to mind when we think of a Gypsy.  Most images are not positive ones.  Mostly because the life of a Gypsy seems to fly in the face of our civilized notions about progress and success.  Yet the Gypsy, the Nomad and the Traveler may hold some keys to new or old ways of thinking about life that can be entirely relevant to the new demands in our 21st century.

As their name suggests, Gypsies were initially believed to have come from Egypt. The Gypsies’ true ancestors, however, were a group of people who left India between AD 800 and 950. The best estimates have dated their earliest official appearance in Europe, in modern-day Turkey, to around AD 855. However, it is always possible that there were Gypsies in Europe before they received this official recognition. By tracing the development of their dialect, a linguistic mix referred to as Anglo-Romany, scholars have been able to trace the movement of the Gypsies throughout the entire European continent. By the 1300’s, their migration had entered southeastern Europe; by the 1400’s, western Europe. Finally, in 1505, the Gypsies reached the British Isles. Here is where we pick up their story. Because of their itinerant lifestyle, the Gypsies of England played a unique role in both the economic sphere and the entertainment business of nineteenth-century society.

The Gypsies are a race of nomads. The Gypsies of nineteenth-century England travelled the countryside, carrying all their belongings in covered wagons and pitching tents wherever they stopped. For Gypsies, travelling is not a pastime or leisure activity, but a way of life. In fact, a common belief of the latter part of the nineteenth century suggested that the inclination to travel, called “wanderlust,” was a product of genetic determinants. This view was the basis for the claim that “it was as natural for Gypsies to move as it was for the majority of the population to stay in one place”. Another argument of this time period was that itinerancy resulted from socialization to a travelling way of life. Therefore, “being raised as a nomad and being accustomed to the rigors of travelling from an early age would undoubtedly have increased the likelihood of inter-generational itinerancy”. Whatever its source, the Gypsies’ itinerant lifestyle naturally made it necessary that their occupations involve mobility. It was in the economic sphere, then, that Gypsies interacted with settled society.

Both in the nineteenth century and today, Gypsies have played an important economic role in society. In nineteenth-century England, they made their living primarily by hawking (selling small homemade goods) and tinkering (repairing pots and pans). In this way, Gypsies filled the small-scale and irregular demands for goods and services in the non-Gypsy population. Gypsies also met the high demand for seasonal employment on farms. During the late summer and early fall, Gypsies harvested fruits and vegetables. This kind of employment was “plentiful, regular, and temporary” and thus perfectly suited to the Gypsy lifestyle. They also followed a diverse number of other trades, such as chair-bottoming, basket-making, rat-catching, wire-working, grinding, fiddling, selling fruit, fish, and earthenware, and mending bellows. However, the Gypsy lifestyle was not all work and no play.

Aside from these labor-oriented functions, another activity in which the Gypsies have participated is entertaining. They danced, sang, and played musical instruments. However, the form of entertainment for which the Gypsies are perhaps the best known is fortune-telling.  Gypsy women sold fortunes at fairs and made considerable profits. They read palms and tarot cards, and cast charms and spells. In nineteenth-century England, fortune-telling was the equivalent of the modern-day horoscope and taken as seriously by many. Fortune-telling was an important part of Gypsy tradition.

Indigenous Highland Travelers

In Scottish Gaelic they are known as the Ceàrdannan (“the Craftsmen”).The English term ‘travelling people’ has been adopted into contemporary Gaelic as luchd siubhail (people of travel) but this is a wider term covering other groups of travellers too and it still has to gain full currency and comprehension amongst ordinary Gaelic speakers. Poetically known as the Summer Walkers, Highland Travellers are a distinct ethnic group and may be referred to as traivellerstraivellin fowk, in Scotstinkers, originating from the Gaelic tinceard or (tinsmith) or “Black Tinkers”. Mistakenly the settled Scottish population may call all travelling and Romani groups tinkers, which is usually regarded as pejorative, and contemptuously as tinks or tinkies.

Highland Travellers are closely tied to the native Highlands, and many traveller families carry clan names like MacfieStewartMacDonaldCameronWilliamson and Macmillan. They follow a nomadic or settled lifestyle; passing from village to village and are more strongly identified with the native Gaelic speaking population. Continuing their nomadic life, they would pitch their bow-tents on rough ground on the edge of the village and earn money there as tinsmithshawkershorse dealers or pearlfishermen. Many found seasonal employment on farms, e.g. at the berry picking or during harvest. Since the 1950s, however, the majority of Highland Travellers have settled down into organized campsites or regular houses.

Origins and customs

The Highland Traveller community has a long history in Scotland going back, at least in record, to the 12th century, and share a similar heritage, although are distinct from the Irish Travellers. As with their Irish counterparts, there are several theories regarding the origin of Scottish Highland travellers, one being they are descended from the Picts, excommunicated clergy,[28] to families fleeing the Highland potato famine, or the pre-Norman-Invasion, have been claimed at different times. Highland travellers are distinct both culturally and linguistically from other Gypsy groups like the Romani, including the Romanichal, Lowland Scottish Travellers, Eastern European Roma and Welsh Kale groups. Several other European groups are related to the Scottish Highland Travellers, and share similarities to other non-Romany groups across Europe, namely the YenichesWoonwagonbewoners in Holland, and Landfahrer in Germany. As with Norwegian and Swedish Travellers, Highland travellers origins may be more complex and difficult to ascertain and left no written records of their own.

As an indigenous group Highland Travellers have played an essential role in the preservation of traditional Gaelic culture. Travellers’ outstanding contribution to Highland life has been as custodians of an ancient and vital singing, storytelling and folklore tradition of great importance. It is estimated that only 2,000 Scottish travellers continue to lead their traditional lifestyle on the roads.

6 comments on “Gypsy History

  1. tabitha says:

    this is an awesome artical

  2. Anthony Du Varene says:

    Most informative; however, for me I had already read most of this in the history of Gypsy;s – I now live a New Age Gypsy way of life near Epping Forest UK on a small-holding – well-done for your effort with the children m8 x

  3. It is so interesting to read about how the Gypsies lives was and maybe is till today.I’am from South Africa and my forefathers all traveled over the mountains with there wagons from 300 years ago. Maybe not like the gypsies but also in wagons with there cattle and families.Then there was the war with the blacks those days as well.I admired the people in there wagons,and I admired the way they all lived.Thank you to listen to me

  4. tom shaw says:

    There is a lovely gypsy story on amz kindle in a book called MADE A GYPSY SMILE If you are part of all this you will feel the breeze blow on your face when yo read. little Mama Nening

  5. tom shaw says:

    There is a painting by Sir Alfred Cummings of gypsies in a paddock running after a horse drawn cart circa 1935. As soon as I see it my modern life is all wrong. I want to be there. It is as though the English Countryside consumes me. And this is just a painting.

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