Through the "Eye of the Skull": memory and tradition in a travelling landscape.

Author:Reith, Sara

It has been a privilege to research the cultural traditions and creativity of the Scottish Travelling People, (1) an indigenous and traditionally nomadic group credited with the guardianship of one of the richest oral cultures in Europe. (Neat 1996, vii) The pioneering collection work of Scottish folklorist Hamish Henderson in the early 1950s first brought the attention of non-Traveller society to the "magnificent folk riches" (Neat 1996, 66) preserved and nurtured within Traveller culture. Henderson was immediately captivated by the depth, longevity, dramatic sincerity and stylistic embellishment of the Traveller repertoire and his fieldwork yielded a quantity of ballads, songs and traditional stories which placed Travellers unmistakably at the forefront of traditional performance. Within Scottish society, Travellers gained a new venerated status as ubiquitous "tradition-bearers" (von Sydow 1948, 12-13) that remains uncontested today although the nomadic way of life that sustained this function is now believed to have virtually disappeared.

Hamish Henderson appeared to have stumbled upon Scotland's "most substantially ancient" culture, "lying totally unregarded and essentially unknown," (Neat 1996, 65-6) held together by blood ties, inheritable knowledge and ancestral memory. Looking earnestly for remnants of the past in his fieldwork he found them in vast quantities in the Travellers' age-old traditional repertoire, family structure, ancient clan names, and hereditary craftsmanship. In addition, Henderson's knowledge of Scottish history led him to view Travellers as an "underground clan system of their own," (Henderson 1981, 378) the tribal remnants of the Gaelic society broken by the destruction of the clan system following the Battle of Culloden in 1746. (Kenrick and Clark 1999, 6) Explaining to Henderson the difference between a Traveller and a singular migrant, one young Traveller told him, "that sort of lad just lives from day to day, but we live entirely in the past." (Henderson 1981, 377-78)

The Idealisation of the Past

These idealisations of the past now constitute problems of perspective and representation on a number of levels. An unintended consequence of this early collection period has been the development of a "devolutionary" (Oring 1975, 41) perspective through which "an intact culture is projected onto the past". (Okely 1983, 32) "Gleaned" and extensively collected in the 1950s (Nicolaisen 1995, 73), the creativity of Travellers apparently came to a standstill when the folklorists went home. Indexed, shelved and saved for posterity, the archives in the School of Scottish Studies are now where the interested minority can consult a recorded testimony of a now lost culture. 2 This golden-age image con- conveys the impression that traveler culture in its present form has degenerated into the forgotten memories, faceless voices and culturally dislocated sounds of recorded reels on dusty shelves.

No longer visible by their distinct material culture--their wares and craftsmanship considered obsolete (3)--the Travellers, it would seem, have disappeared completely replaced, if at all, by a "different" sort of Traveller. Contemporary media representations often accentuate this idea. Reports often distance settled Travellers from the their collective past while those Travellers, forced by the reality of closed camping grounds, to camp on increasingly marginalised and public spaces are branded "rogue" Travellers. (4)

Of course many Travellers have time honoured traditions and lead law abiding lives. But an increasing number are causing great distress to local communities by setting up illegal camps on green belt sites and building homes without the required permission. (Editorial, Scottish Daily Mail, March 22, 2005) These recent comments are new expressions of an ongoing discourse in which Traveller identity is continually contested and misunderstood. As Betsy Whyte remembers from her 1930s childhood, "We Travelling people were judged without knowledge. Every crime, sin, foulness, acts of violence, cruelty, stupidity, and brutish behaviour under the sun was, to their [non-Travellers'] way of thinking, the heritage of all Travelling people". (Whyte 1990, 88) Even when expressed in nostalgic and cautiously positive terms such as "The Summer Walkers" (Neat 1996, vii) and "the mist people", (Whyte 1979, 24) these views reveal little more than the elusiveness of Travellers to settled society. In contrast to the distinct ethnic identity by which Travellers see themselves Traveller culture, since the time of its so-named "discovery," has been largely defined by a materially rustic form of nomadism, and regarded as a way of life already threatened with extinction. (Porter and Gower 1995, 3-5)

Memory as a Conduit for Knowledge, Continuity and Creativity

I would suggest that neither Traveller nor sedentary culture can be relegated to inactivity and that both have undergone similar processes of transformation. Older settled Travellers feel an understandable nostalgia for their lives "on the road", using words like "freedom", or phrases like "the old days", and "a trip down memory lane", (5) to describe this sense of loss. The belief that their culture is dying out is common among the older generation who say "soon there will be no more Travellers". (6) Others lament the loss of annual gatherings, such as berry picking, for their combined value as social, working and family occasions, and for the enculturation and practical responsibility they offered to younger family members. (7)

However, as Perthshire Traveller Fiona Townsley remarked, "Travellers have always adapted". (8) In the absence of the real experiences once guaranteed by established cultural frameworks, Travellers have developed other routes to maintain the vitality of their culture and the strength of their social memory. In public and private performance--the key to real integration between people and lore--shared memories, retold with pride and experience, become energetic forces that revitalise the culture and strengthen family cohesion from within. (Bauman 1971, 33) The work of public representatives has sparked what some Travellers perceive as "a revival" (9) through the sharing of songs, stories, and language, or in the teaching of crafts such as basket and flower making to Travelling children. By becoming authors, performers and educators, Travellers continue to revisit, verbalise and teach the importance of their traditional identity in self-created ways. (10) Their work is an exemplary model for how memory and creativity combine to form the impetus that drives traditions forward. (Niles 1999, 15)

Relocating Memory in Place and Culture

From a distant angle, memory is a deceptively dormant force, disconnected save for bursts of nostalgia from the places and contexts of the present. Likewise, collections of memory, from recordings to heritage sites, can be deadened by imposed historicity and accompanied by perceptions of loss and social discontinuity. (Nora 1989, 19)

Zooming in on the experiential, a reversal of "the Gleaner's Vision", (Nicolaisen 1995, 71-76) Travellers seek to know the past as an access point which might inform the present. (Nicolaisen 2002, 9) One of many natural analogies for the past/memory which resonates within Traveller culture is that of "the carrying stream". (Macauly 2002) Memory is understood as a place in continual motion, a personal and collective archive of occasional (11) knowledge which, like repertoire, is subject to periods of increased relevance, creativity or inactivity in contextual relationship to the life cycle. (Goldstein 1972, 82) Cultural continuity is ensured by strong, well-informed individuals who perpetuate traditions. (Niles 1999, 15) In Traveller culture the idea of memory as an ongoing stream of conscience makes the content of oral traditions contemporary, instructive and meaningful. Memories transmit not only texts but also a coherent learning processes, the worldviews that provide the foundations for confident creativity and individualism. When viewed as creativity, memory becomes an evolving store of knowledge, a source of informed "imitation" and individualistic originality. (Kristeller 1983, 110-1)

Looking in on Places of Knowledge

These core "academic" (12) themes place narrative and symbolic representation within the didactic structure of Traveller culture. Moving beyond the linear into the idea of places as vessels or containers of tradition and symbols of memory (Ben-Amos 1999, 298), I will show that it is both the cultural structure of reciprocal and cyclical interaction between place and people (Robertson "Interaction between Man and Nature", 20022005), and the hostility commonly experienced when within sedentary culture that have given Traveller repertoires their breadth, creativity and resourceful quality. (Robertson "Poor Circumstances Rich Culture", 2002-2005)

Perhaps the most striking way in which Traveller traditions are used in Traveller contexts is for their implicit symbolic and metaphoric undercurrents. High importance is placed upon sensory experience, evaluation and effective communication. Their emphasis on the ability to understand and embody the characters, dramatic proportions and locations of traditional texts stresses the importance of an expansive understanding derived from use of all the senses.

North-East Scottish Traveller Stanley Robertson describes this intuitive methodology as "multi-dimensionality". (13) Relating texts to places and places to people, in "being", "doing" and "relating" knowledge, Stanley illustrates how to "look in" and "draw out" vital information about the essence of his traditions. "Looking in" (14) on settled society, the people "much maligned and persecuted for centuries" (Robertson 2001) have gained an extra edge of perceptiveness in often unpredictable surroundings. "Looking in" on the landscape is also a core aspect of...

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