Davie Donaldson is a young Scottish Traiveller. He has a shock o Scandinavian yella hair, paired wi a pale, honest face. He is a student at Aiberdeen University, an a spokesperson fir young Traivellers. Although Davie is nae mair nor twenty year auld, he is richt at the hert o a debate that has raged fir centuries. Whit exactly is the place an whit are the richts o Scotland’s Traiveller population?
Davie brocht us doon tae a modren Traivellers camp, whaur the inhabitants are unner threat fae eviction. The camp is cried North Esk Park, nae far fae St Cyrus, in the sandy strand by the North Sea north o Montrose. The Park taks the form o a puckle caravans in tarmac cul-de-sacs on a grassy flood plain, wi a low waa biggit aroon an a big, official sign seyin “North Esk Park”. Next door is a BnB. A fairm hoose is hauf a mile aff doon the single-lane road. Aawye else is just wind-blawn grass an a bonnie auld viaduct.
Tae the untrained ee, North Esk Park leuks tae be naethin mair nor a wee rural caravan holiday park. It isnae. It is in fact pairt semi-permanent Traiveller encampment an pairt business interest, set up bi a few Scottish Traivellers. It is hame tae aroon a hunner Traivellers o a mixed, but largely Scottish, backgrun, includin a nummer o young faimlies. There’s also a large gravel area that gies a commercial stappin-grun for fellow Traivellers o aa colours. Davie telt us that thon’s awfy important.
“Whiles Traivellers cannae get a pitch on normal campsites. They hae commercial vehicles, or else the fowk wha run the site dinnae want Traivellers there an sae turn them awa. This gars hail faimlies park up in carparks or pitches on the edge o toon, as they dinnae hae onyither place. That can lead tae a fecht wi the local community, effectin Traiveller-Scaldie relations. Sae tae hae a site sic as this at North Esk means that Traivellers ken they hae a place tae stap wioot fear o prejudice or refusal.”
North Esk Park. photie by Davie Donaldson
The park stertit life wi a rammy. Accordin tae neebors, the laun wis bocht, an owrenicht diggers muived in an stertit biggin waas an tarmacin owre the field. This wis in 2013. Efter a period o months, whaur the Traivellers ignored orders fae the Cooncil tae stap biggin, a retrospective application for the richt tae big the site wis submittit. The application wis blootered aboot like a fitba bi the Cooncil fir years, afore the richt tae big the site wis gien in 2016. A sma but virrsome band o local opponents were bealin.
The Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) were caaed in tae gie their opinion, an fun that the hail site was biggit on the floodplain o the North Esk, an wisnae fit fir habitation. Wi that, Scottish Ministers declarit that aabdy bidin intae the site maun flit afore July 2018.
Davie went in tae the reception caravan aheid o us, an made the introductions. Journalists arenae trustit bi Traivellers. But Davie wis weel-kent an trustit bi the community, sae I wis alloued tae interview ane or twa fowk an get a wee tour.
Ae young laddie (wha, like aabdy else, preferred anonymity) o fowerteen spoke tae us first. His mammy hud pitten a guid skelp o gel through his short broon hair an dressed him up in his Sunday Best. I speirt at him anent his education.
“Ach, ma parents lairn me the basics. I need tae dae screivin, an nummers is gey important. I’ll wark at the roofin wi ma faither, sae its important tae dae sums an that.”
But whit aboot the wider studies, o fremit leids, o science, o the airts? He shrugs his shouders.
“Whit am I meant tae dae wi Chemistry? How’s that meant tae help us?”
Tho academia doesnae get great mense in the community, practical skills dae. Ma young interviewee wad ging tae college tae study practical skills, a mair common educational route amang Traivellers. I spoke tae the mither aboot the advantages o life at the camp. She telt us that her daughter is awfy no weel, an has benefittit fae bein registered wit the local GP. They aince spent years stravaigin roon England an couldnae get reliable access tae the NHS.
They gart me realise that it wadnae just be a place tae stap that wad be tint gin the camp wis shut doon next month. Gin they get puntit on, then the connection wi the local NHS wad be tint, wi an adverse effect on bairns’ health. The camp high heid yins wha bocht the laun an biggit the site wad lose a significant amount o siller an tyne their business. Also, ither Traivellers wad lose a sympathetic stappin grun, wi the nearest council run ane in the local authority bein in Banff, a guid three hours awa alang wee roads wi a caravan ahind ye.
An so on tae the tour o the site. It is weel-biggit, wi muckle static caravans that wadnae leuk oot o place gien respite tae A-list stars on Hollywood sets. A couple ither young fowk saw me an Davie daunerin aboot an jyned us, happy enough tae blether awa wi me. Ae mither gied us a smile an a wave fae her caravan windae. It wasnae unlike a rural hamlet. Nae men o warkin age were aboot, aa aff tae wark. They widnae, I was telt, consent tae interview onywye, oot of fear o repercussions in the workplace gin fowk kent they were Traivellers. They shawed us the new ‘scuil’, jist bocht fir the bairns bi the community: a shipping container, ane o the muckle metal kists ye see aside docks. Twa wee windaes, ane at either enn, an a strip-licht in the roof. Aroon thirty totty wee bairnie-sized seats are arrayed aboot in it.
“It isnae a scuil as such,” Davie explained. “It’s mair a learning centre whaur bairns get basic education fae an Aiberdeenshire Cooncil warker that helps them transition intae mainstream scuil. It’s the first time a cooncil has made the provision tae a private Traivellers site, that I’m aware o.”
Education o the mony bairns that bide there is ae issue aye raised in objection tae the site. Faimlies on the site tak the lead owre their bairns’ education, but wi low levels o baith literacy an numeracy rife in Traiveller communities, it is clear that tae be raised at North Esk Park is tae be raised wioot a modren Scottish education.
The justification fir the eviction is SEPA’s claim that the laun is on a flood plain. There’s nae doot that the site is a hunner metres fae the pooerfu North Esk river, which does come breengin owre its banks tae rax across the hail area fae time tae time. In 2015 Storm Frank saw the area o arable laun aroon the site transformed intae a clarty broon lochan, feet deep in places. The temporary Traivellers flitted oot the road. The inner sanctum o the Park was, houaniver, left “dry as a bane”, as Traivellers on the site assured me an photaes fae the time confirm. Several fowk I spoke tae doon at the Park insistit that SEPA had got it wrang: the park itsel is raised a wee bitty abuin the flood plain, an telt us that private experts hae confirmed their findings.
Opponents pynt oot that the camp didnae seek permission, an tae allou the Traivellers’ camp tae remain wad set a precedent fir sic behaviour. Cooncil officers hae admitted that the lack o stappin-grun fir Traivellers in Aberdeenshire, an the failure o the local authority tae big ony, is pairt o their reason fir allouin the site tae remain.
I ettled tae speir at ane o the site’s neebors tae get their input, sae chapped a nearby door. “If you’re onythin tae dae wi that lot next door you can f**k aff,” I was telt, afore I could identify masel.
We should ken the final decision efter a gaitherin on the 28th o June o the full Aiberdeenshire Cooncil. The hail Traivellin warld will hae an ee on the result.