Case Study: Archaeology on the Move: The Material Culture of Gypsies/Travellers in the Highlands

Eric Grant

Very little research has been undertaken on Traveller archaeology and material culture in Scotland. Defining and researching the archaeology of a community that was transient and often marginalised is not easy. At the simplest level, a family of Travellers pitching a tent overnight and then moving on leave very little evidence of their temporary settlement. Everyday goods such as tents and tent poles, hand carts, horse harness, kettles, cooking pots and iron supports for them, crockery and metal vessels have a poor survival rate when they can be broken on the road or abandoned in haste or seized by authorities.

The traditional Romany caravan or vardo can be seen in specialised museums of gypsy culture elsewhere, but these were uncommon in the Highlands of Scotland. In more recent times trailers (caravans) have become the homes of choice and although some are now on permanent Traveller sites, there are unlikely to be preserved for the future even although they are often personalised and decorated by Travellers themselves. What is likely be preserved are the highly decorative items of china and glassware displayed by Travellers living in trailer caravans.

Few if any Traveller camp sites have been excavated or even recorded; the travelling community is very sensitive about their traditional campsites which may have deep folk associations. Travellers sometimes lived in caves, either short term when traditional cave sites may be occupied as part of the summer journey, or on a longer term or semi-permanent basis. Highland literature contains many references to “Tinker” and “Tinkler” caves, but these are now seen as pejorative descriptions and should not be used except in a historical sense. The Rosemarkie Caves project‘s excavations in coastal caves at Learnie (MHG50574) on the Black Isle have indicated that the caves contain a wealth of material from the post-medieval period, such as ceramics, bottle glass, knife blades and handles, iron fittings, bone and mother of pearl buttons, studs and pins, fragments of oil lamps, and remains of clay pipe. Not all may be Traveller-related artefacts and some may indicate seasonal occupation by fishermen.

One area of Traveller material culture that is better known is the repair and manufacture of a variety of goods that Travellers sold and traded to the settled community. These items may be poorly identified in the archaeological record but because many are decorative or “interesting” they find their way into museums although they were often not acknowledged as Traveller made or not considered worth displaying. The manufacturer of horn goods such as spoons, drinking vessels, shoe horns, powder horns, snuff boxes and snuff mulls, was a traditional Traveller occupation (Figure 3).

Silversmithing may have been an ancient Traveller occupation but settled urban jewellers cornered the market leading Travellers to produce poorer quality silver brooches and silver mounts for snuff mulls. Tinsmithing, making and repairing paraffin cans, candle and jelly moulds, sieves, colanders was a major Traveller occupation until the mid-20th century (Figure 4). Many items of this type can be seen in the Highland Folk Museum but many other everyday objects were made or repaired by Travellers. The making of wooden clothes pegs and wooden flowers is well known but it is now established that skilled Traveller woodworkers made stave-constructed salt boxes, bickers (ie beakers), quaichs and luggies (Figure 5). Some of these are beautifully made with feathered stave work and applied silver bands, being wonderful examples of the skill and decorative abilities of the Travellers who made them.

Figure 2: Selection of tinsmith products on display at a temporary exhibition at the Highland Folk Museum. ©Eric Grant
Figure 3: Wooden stave ware traditionally made by travellers (private collection). ©Eric Grant

The contribution of Traveller non-material culture such as folksong, bagpipe playing and storytelling is now well appreciated, but it has taken much longer for Traveller material culture – referred to as Nacken chaetrie by the Travellers themselves – to become a legitimate area of academic and popular study. Many items seen as traditionally “Highland”, such as brass plaid brooches, silver “luckenbooth” brooches, horn snuff mulls, stave-made quaichs, etc. were supplied by the Travelling community to the settled community. Before the advent of modern communications and shopping, Travellers played an immensely important part in servicing and supporting the wider Highland community.

Further information

Grant, I F 1961 Highland Folk Ways, Routledge and Kegan Paul: London. 

Thomas, Rachel 2018 ‘Highland and traveller crafts’, in Long, Philip and Norman, Joanna (eds) The Story of Scottish Design (Victoria and Albert Museum), Thames and Hudson Ltd: London, 54-55. 

Ramsay, Rhona forthcoming 2021 ‘Unsettling Nacken chaetrie: the material culture of Gypsy/Travellers in Scottish museums’, PhD thesis, University of Stirling. 

Rosemarkie Caves Project website (accessed November 2020)

Important collections of Traveller artefacts can be found at the following museums:

Highland Folk Museum, Newtonmore; interesting blogs on some objects can be accessed here (accessed November 2020)

Inverness Museum and Gallery, Inverness

The West Highland Museum, Fort William National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh