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The Summer Stance
By Lorn MacIntyre


Intimate portrait of a maligned and forgotten people

Lorn Macintyre fondly remembers the Gaelic-speaking tinker folk who take centre stage in his new novel The Summer Stance.

(Adapted from The Herald Magazine, September 21, 2019)

When I was a boy at Dunstaffnage House, Connel, Willie the tinker arrived with the cuckoo. He came over the hill one morning, descending to our house, The Square, where my father spoke with him in Gaelic and gave him money. He proceeded 300 yards down the drive to my grandmother’s residence. Angus Campbell, 20th Captain of Dunstaffnage Castle, lived nearby in a modest chalet, his mansion house having burned down in 1940. My grandmother, who was Angus’s housekeeper and confidante, was told by him to serve Willie his breakfast. She told me that she set out the tray, with a Spode eggcup, two boiled eggs to Willie’s liking, toast and silver cutters to remove the tops of the eggs for the honoured wayfarer. The spoon would also have been silver. All items were returned with grateful thanks.

Tinkers were always welcome at Dunstaffnage House. A brilliant man who had fought against the Bolsheviks in Russia, Angus Dunstaffnage, who had a profound influence on my brothers and myself, knew that tinkers were a rich part of Highland culture. His mother Jane, who resided at historic Inverawe House at Taynuilt, ordered the cook to leave the larder open so that the visiting tinkers could have their pick. How many would leave a door, far less a fridge, open for a tinker nowadays?

I prefer the word tinker (and particularly the Gaelic word ceÓrd, because that was what my father called Willie) to the more politically correct Traveller. Surely the term Traveller is a misnomer, because they no longer travel and because the name refers to other groups. The name ceÓrd-staoin, a tinsmith, has in its acoustics the echo of their skills, a delicate hammer fashioning tin into kettles and teapots, and repairing these items when they came round the doors in early summer. They sold clothes pegs and wooden flowers which they had fashioned themselves, and they were a source of labour for farmers, helping to bring in the harvests of fruit and crops. Some of them wintered in the city, at sites such as Vinegarhill in Glasgow, before going on the road for the good weather, in the days before motorised traffic increased, their carts pulled by horses at a leisurely pace towards their traditional stances where they had pitched their bow tents and lit their campfires for generations.

That is the appealing way of life that my new novel The Summer Stance celebrates. It is set in the present century, and the main character is a boy, D˛mhnall Macdonald, raised in a tower block of flats in Glasgow where his tinker family resides, no longer moving out into the countryside for the summer. D˛mhnall spends a lot of time with his blind grandmother, his tutor in Gaelic. He learns about their summer stance, Abhainn nan Croise, the River of the Cross, so named because a stone cross was found there by a holy man and paraded for veneration round Scotland. The site becomes a place of enchantment to the boy as he learns about the horses that brought the Macdonald family to there, some of the animals buried there; and the Gaelic names for the otters, birds and plants that the old woman, the Cailleach, remembers.

When she is diagnosed with terminal cancer D˛mhnall is determined to take her back to Abhainn nan Croise so that she can die there, surrounded by her precious memories. After much opposition the other members of the family agree to go to the former site, but when they reach there, they find that they are no longer welcome. The situation descends into violence and bitter recrimination.

I wrote this novel because of my veneration of tinkers, and the fascination I have for them, from my earlier years at Connel, where tinkers came each year to a stance at Kilmaronaig, and, we were told, went out to the nearby island on Loch Etive to collect gulls’ eggs for their own consumption. I never heard that they caused any trouble.

When my father Angus was appointed manager of the Clydesdale Bank in Tobermory in the late 1950s we met a charismatic tinker by the name of Donald MacAllister, known as Dykes. His partner Agnes from Oban he called affectionately “the long haired mate.” He wore my father’s cast-off suits with pride, as if he had been transformed into a financier, and Agnes had the choice of my mother’s cleared-out wardrobe. I watched from the window of our house the couple setting out in an open boat on a voyage to Tiree, and I remembered him in a poem called Dykes, maintaining, with his “ingratiating charm” that “He could have been a courtier at Urbino/instead of gathering whelks at Camas na B˛.”

I do not romanticise about tinkers in my novel, because one of the characters is a persistent lawbreaker. But many people judge tinkers by the actions of the lawless few. In some places where it has been proposed to establish permanent sites with modern facilities for them, there has been angry opposition. Little wonder that tinkers who have moved into permanent housing don’t declare their origins for fear of reprisals, as I discovered while researching a programme for Gaelic television. We have forced tinkers to deny their identities because, as one female residing in the city told me: “If my husband knew I was of tinker stock he would leave me.”

If anyone doubts the continuing hostility towards tinkers, look at the YouTube site The Truth about Life as a Young Scottish Traveller by the eloquent Davie Donaldson. He asks: “Is it right that my people are still banned from shops like dogs? We’ve been in Scotland for over 1,000 years. We have our own language, our own customs.”

The other related theme of my novel is about the destruction of parts of the Scottish countryside through indiscriminate development. On a legendary day in July 1921 Major George Huntington of Bonawe House, Taynuilt, with my grandfather John, hooked a very large salmon in the pool known as Casan Dubh near to where the railway bridge crosses the River Awe. When it was landed safely and hung on the scales the salmon weighed 57 lbs., a record that will never be beaten because the barrage across the river at the Brander has destroyed spawning pools. Furthermore, fish farms are accused of passing on disease to wild salmon.

These are the environmental problems, in particular the ruination of the site at Abhainn nan Croise, which concern the tinker D˛mhnall Macdonald in my novel. He is a well-informed nature lover who cares passionately about the river and its inhabitants at the old summer stance. He fears that the evocative Gaelic name for the place will disappear because no one will know how to pronounce it.

By turning against tinkers and isolating them, we are destroying a precious part of our heritage that links up with European gypsies who perished in the ovens of the Nazis. We forget that the recordings made by folklorists such as the late Hamish Henderson and the late Dr John MacInnes form a priceless part of the archives of the School of Scottish Studies. We forget that we have been blessed by great tinker story tellers and singers such as Jeannie Robertson who have preserved the imaginative tales told round the campfires, the stories of the phenomenon known as second sight which I can relate to, because my family, and, most notably my late aunt Margaret, had the ability to see into the future.

One of the reasons why tinkers have been demonized in the past, particularly in Gaelic speaking areas, was because superstitious people felt threatened by them, believing that tinkers had the ability to place a mallachd, a curse, on those who denied them food and a place to camp.

We need to be more tolerant towards Travellers, to reinstate the term tinkers to what it was when I was young, a term of fraternal respect. We must welcome them into our communities, and make sure that these ancient summer stances are returned to nature, the bones of dead horses left undisturbed.

Lorn Macintyre

The opening section of my new novel The Summer Stance, about a family of tinkers (Travellers) who live in a lawless housing scheme in Glasgow and who decide to take their matriarch to their traditional summer stance in the Highlands, so that she can die in the place she adored. However, their move leads to prejudice and violence.

The Summer Stance, paperback by Thunderpoint Publishing, is available from bookshops and Amazon at ú7.99.

A Kindle version at ú1.99 is available from Amazon.

Lorn Macintyre
___________________________________________________

One

The convoy of five caravans led by a motorbike passed through Speyside in the July afternoon of 2009, the remnants of the old Caledonian pine forest straggling below mountain slopes served by chairlifts. A stag limped away at the sound of the backfiring exhaust. The previous winter it had been ambushed by an Italian syndicate with lethal repeating guns in a high corrie.

The convoy passed Aviemore with its chalets and barbecue pits and went through the high pass of Sloc nam Muc (Hollow of the Pigs), where wild boars had roamed in the time of heroes. An eagle out of the Monadhliath Mountains rode the thermals as it watched the convoy coming through the glen. The motorcyclist was overtaken by other machines, new models of Yamahas, Ducatis and BMWs ridden by elderly men who had salivated over DVDs of the film Easy Rider, but who hadn’t been able to afford bikes until they were made redundant or retired early. Exhausts blasting, they reached the ton on long straights, but slowed down too late for the looming bend and broke their necks, or killed the occupants of oncoming vehicles.

The motorbike leading the convoy of caravans was a classic machine, a Triumph Bonneville of 1959, with a sidecar which was occupied by a woman in Ray-Ban sunshades and black leathers, a transfer of the Glasgow singer Lulu plastered to her helmet. The rider of the Bonneville was careful to stay within the 70 mph speed limit, to let the elderly bikers, low on testosterone, but high on the octane of illusion, roar past. The Bonneville turned off on to the loop of old road where drovers had grazed their cattle on their way to southern trysts and which had been left as a halt for touring buses to film the panorama.

The radiator of the leading vehicle, a Bedford van, the name of its previous owners visible under a white wash, was boiling. Blue jets were lit under kettles in the caravans and while they sat in the sun drinking their instant coffee, waiting for the radiator to cool, the motorbike rider opened the front door of the van and lifted out an old woman the size of a child. She had her arms round his neck as he carried her to the shade of a dyke, settling her down tenderly and kneeling beside her with the mug of tea.

The two greyhounds that had been slithering around the back of the Bedford were lapping the burn with noisy tongues. The sidecar passenger appeared from the bushes, zipping up her leathers. She kissed the rider on the cheek, took out a cigarette and tossed the packet over her shoulders. He retrieved it and pushed it down between her breasts.

He carried the old woman back into the van, kissing her forehead before settling her in the seat, leaving the belt off. The cooled radiator was filled with peaty water from the burn before the motorbike turned out on to the highway.Two hours later they turned west, entering a glen, the roofs of the caravans scraped by the overhanging hazels as they swayed round the bends on the narrow road. The river, whose Gaelic name meant grey, perhaps because it reflected the clouds, was dark as it flowed through the tight ravine.

The motorbike’s indicator was winking. The convoy turned off, crockery rattling as the caravans went through the open gate and bumped across pasture. The motorcyclist lifted the old woman out of the van and carried her to the standing stone by the river.

‘We’re here at last.’

He put her hand on the stone and she ran her fingers down it as if she were feeling the spine of a lover.

‘I was married at this stone.’

He carried her back to the caravan where her daughter-in-law Maisie made her strong tea from a kettle drawn from the river. Before departing for Africa a cuckoo in the glade on the other side of the flow was calling for the last time, as if asserting its intention to return to the same secluded place as the men collecting windblown branches. They soon had a fire going in the centre of the pasture and carried their supper plates from the caravans, sitting round the blaze with the kids and the boisterous dogs. The old woman was in her wheelchair, with a shawl round her shoulders, toasting her toes, breaking with ancient arthritic fingers the sparse food on her plate on her lap as she reminisced in Gaelic to the gathering. The others understood Gaelic, but had never used it in the city because they wanted to be absorbed, their tinker roots torn up.

‘I remember one day we came through the glen, it was so hot, the horses would have drunk the river dry if they could,’ the old woman was reminiscing in the language to which she had been loyal since infancy, with D˛mhnall the only one who was listening intently.

‘Our horse looked as if he was going to collapse with sunstroke. Do you know what Seanair (grandfather) did? There was a party of fancy people from a big car having a picnic, with bottles of wine cooling in the river. They had fallen asleep because they had drunk so much. Seanair crept up and took a straw hat off one of the heads. He cut holes in it for the ears and put it on the horse’s head. We laughed all the way here. Oh those were the days.'


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