by Jess Smith, Scottish author, musician and story-teller from Perthshire’s Travelling People
The Tinker’s Heart is a small arrangement of white quartz stones embedded in the ground at the junction between the road to Strachar (A815) and Hell’s Glen (B839) in Argyllshire.
For years it has stood as a testimony to the survival of Scotland’s Travelling people. A sacred place where couples wed, babies were christened and the dead blessed. In 1872 there is proof of two local people getting married there. There is no written evidence as to how old it is and like the oldest ballads that Burns listened to, it is all oral – no dates nor names. Reasons for the stones being placed there are associated with the Battle of Culloden and the Highland Clearances as well as the eradication of the Culture by removing children from campsites. It is sacred to my people from all over the world and needs to be protected and restored.
Image: Old photograph of Tinkers’ Heart from fionatinker’s website
Several years ago someone told me of the sorry state of the Heart. A visit had me in tears. Highland cattle were trampling over it, a single strain of wire threaded through three metal poles was all there was to protect it (see picture above). It was dying and I had to save it.
I began by writing to the landowner Ms Kate Howe but she refused to answer. I wrote to her cousin Christina Noble but got the same response. I spent ages looking through the internet and found a very informative piece in Secret Scotland – Gypsy Wedding Place. (1)
I needed help so contacted my local MSP, Mike Russell. He was excellent and he set up a meeting with Ms Howe but was not prepared for her negativity. He’d not come across her attitude before. I presumed by his reactions that this landowner did not hold Travellers with much respect. Here is a rich landowner who owns 7048 acres of Scotland yet is not prepared to part with a few yards of old road.
Every step seemed to be getting harder. I went to visit a couple representing the landowner with Mike but got no joy there. Another meeting, this time at Argyll and Bute council headquarters with Mike Russell, Councillor Louise Glen-Lee, the Council’s tourism officer and a gentlemen from Historic Scotland, resulted in more negativity with Historic Scotland stating they would allocate funding for restoration but only with the landowners approval.
Two years moved fast the little heart was crying for help! Then out of the blue a black cage was erected over the heart (see picture below). I was pleased to see the ‘heart’ caged and safe but it looked more like a prison than the decorative stone wall and cairn I’d long visualised. While it remains in Kate Howe’s ownership it is very vulnerable. it has no legal protection and at the stroke of a pen she could develop the area, its a prime spot and I feel she just might have her sights on such a plan. But even if she didn’t, she will in time die as will I. Who will care for the place then?
No – this has to belong within the public domain. I contacted the Scottish Parliament to lodge a petition. Four months passed and each time I phoned the reply was “not petition material”! However Mike Russell managed to convince them of the history and importance of the site to Scotland’s culture. Just before Easter came the news that the petition will go live!!
That is how things stand today. Our ancient culture, timeline, respect and historical truths are now at this final stage and I am praying to Mother Earth to do what is right. If we are failed then Scotland’s future will be at the mercy of wind farms, shooters of our wild life, greedy strangers, land fracking and nimbys with lots of cash.
My petition “calls on the Scottish Parliament to urge the Scottish Government to direct Historic Scotland to investigate what action can be taken to ensure the restoration and preservation of the Heart of Quartz stones positioned in a field next to the A815, opposite the junction of the B839, overlooking Loch Fyne, known as the Gypsy Wedding Place, referred to locally as the Tinkers’ Heart.”
Please sign the petition. You can find further information on the petition page and at the Saving the Heart of the Travelling People facebook page. The Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland has a record here.
(1) Content here has been removed but relates to the comment from John MacDonald below.
Petition signed. I’m not sure the text is up to date in relation to the new fence that surrounds the heart. But if anything, that makes the situation worse as it seems to make access impossible without hurdling skills. Good luck with the petition.
thank you for comments and support. Its not a big area but to the Scottish Travelling people of Tinker/Caird extraction, it is the world. Our culture suffers so much negativity and with lack of sites and old grounds being swallowed up by councils, livelihoods no longer sustainable we are afforded little respect. Caravan clubs emulate our lifestyle and not much to offer our young apart from history, we truly need one single marker, just a pointer to who we were and are. Our days in the past were remaining close to the earth, we held our camping grounds with great respect. The Heart of Argyll is a legacy where our young can visit, build pride in their roots and know we walked this land for a very long, long time.
Jess informs me that the new fence was erected after some press coverage at the beginning of April but before the Petition was lodged.The Petition, however, is about proper legal protection for the site and its cultural and historic importance. Physical measures are of course important.
About 200 years ago when the clearances were at the peak, about ten per cent of the population were homeless and classed as “tinkers”
Yes. Ann Cheallach poem by John Angus says this
Now she is pensioned off and full of years
and done with wars beside her own rooftree
She has forgotten how her hedge of spears
defiled the world and kept her children free
Rome came against her with a conquerers lust
she was beset by Viking and by Dane
Great Caesars glory turned to dust
the Norsemen scoured and sailed home again
For a millennium of blood and woe she fed the southern marches with her blood
no in her fair north land her children sew
and ‘tinker’ metal for their dole of bread…
I’ve signed the petition and as one who grew up near the largest permanent gypsy encampment in England, Cork’s Meadow, Kent; I fully support it and the need to preserve the traveler culture and traditions. Much better by far to preserve that tradition than the the lairdopoly!
Well done Jess and Michael Russell. This is part of Scotland’s diverse cultural heritage and should be protected.
I find the tinkers who come about looking for scrap more trustworthy than the lairds factor.
Good on Mike Russell for giving his support. Best of luck with the project.
Best of luck with your campaign. The neglect & vilification of the history & culture of Scotland’s travelling people, going back many centuries, shames us all. This might go some small way towards rectifying that recognition & in some small way help contribute to moving towards the official & legal parity they should definitely be given.
Petition signed. With such a huge amount of land in private ownership and a massive amount of money spent by Historic Scotland and Visit Scotland saving a small piece of land of historic significance should be achievable – surely?
Signed. Good luck and well done for your perseverance.
Good luck with this Jess. These small but significant sites are so easily lost.
When you win, hold a celebration!
Jan, Wakefield, England
I will certainly do that Jan. I’m amazed at the amount of interest coming fromTravellers, this was all I hoped for. Not very vocal, would rather sigh at negativity than address it xx
Well done. Petition signed.
Petition signed. ‘Best of luck! Having gypsy ancestry, I am keen to see greater recognition of and protection for Scotland’s gypsy and tinker heritage.
The cage is not a satisfactory long-term solution. More sympathetic and welcoming protection is required.
It took four years Graeme, to get the landowner to erect the cage; her choose, not ours. The minute our backs are turned there’s a fear it will be removed and given over to the cattle’s hooves for an organic destruction.
I am aware of how precious ancient sites are. Researching for last book on the culture of my people I was astounded to find that across Scotland the Tinkers left little markers to say, ‘we were here.’ I also discovered a ground breaking revelation; most of the old campsites were on our near pictish barrows, standing stones and plague circles. My maternal granny’s people camped in Kilmartin Glen in a place named Temple campsite. Pitlochry’s Black Spout Woods which has recently been designated as a place of historical significance was where my parents and relatives lived. People are buried there. Crieff, Muthill, Blairgowrie and all around the Almond River near Perth they lived and died. Aberdeenshire has dozens of places, now listed by Historic Scotland as sites to be protected. All through the Caledonian pine trees around Callandar, Strathyre and Balquidder there were places where the lived and died. Almost hiding away from society, like their very existence depended on being unseen, choosing to live amid the ancients because here a form of peace and protection existed. There was still enough superstition in the evolving Christian minds to be wary of the black Tinkers. This afforded us protection until the mind set changed. The Heart has survived but now like the very seed of our culture is under threat and that is why it is of vital importance that action is taken now!
It’s a very important part of Scotlands heritage. And should be classed as such. I would say to have this restored and given where it stands would be of great interest to any visitor. And to have this restored would ,I’m sure is really another little gem saved in Scotland’s history.
Agree with you there Jack x
The road from Lochgoilhead through Hell’s Glen to Ardno on Loch Fyne was built by the Highland Roads & Bridges Commission around 1808 which may help date the Heart. I suspect it must postdate the road as I can’t imagine early 19th century gentlemen road builders building around it.
Incidentally, I’m interested in the distinction (if any) between “tinkers” and “gypsies”. I thought tinkers were metal workers, often but not necessarily itinerant, and therefore a “culture” but not a “race” (although I do recognise that the terms “culture” and “race” are elusive). Whereas Gypsies are a race defined by speaking the Romany (Roma?) language who are often, but not necessarily, itinerant and metal workers. In other words a “tinker” is not necessarily a “gypsy” and vice versa. Then I looked in my Collins dictionary which said that in Scotland and Ireland tinker is simply another word for gypsy! What’s your (Jess Smith’s) take on this? Do (did) your people ever speak Roma(ny)?
Neil when I embarked on the history I was overwhelmed by the repetitive coverage of negativity. Chambers, Simson, Macritchie and countless others all sang from the same hymn sheet. I had a lot of digging to do to find any form of culture relating to both Tinker and Gypsy. The title Romany comes from a stamp of approval from Rome. According to George Borrow, when across Europe, Gypsies (middle ages) sold wares etc and performed in towns, they could only do so with a licence from a local bishop. This had to have the seal of the papal authority stamped on it. They in turn paid a tenth of all they made. That’s why today many Romany people use the word pure bloods. They were given free passage from place to place. During the same time there is mention of Travelling Tinkers; distinctly different but held together through an ancient tribal system from the bible lands. I know this does not correspond with Gypsy/Hindu origins. Any peaceful co-existence came to an abrupt end through the pen of Martin Luther. In a little book he prefaced and edited (1528) our fate was sealed. The book is titled Liber Vagatorm. Martin almost foams at the mouth warning the people of God to be aware of the devil’s children. “For surely,” he says,”the palmer worms, locusts eating up the earth, the vagabond are wicked! I know their cant language and these people are Hebrew, He was referring to the German Vagabond later to be known as Gypsy and Tinker. From Luther came the enlightenment–the modern church and hence every act against us took wings. The flight of the Gypsy in the sixteenth century sent them in every direction. Gypsies entered Britain through Leith. some remained most fled south. Both Tinker and Gypsy moved together, married and lived together. However Scottish Tinkers had been here far longer. Mentioned as being in Perth in the 12th century.They lived as sub clans and were referred to as Cairds. From Perthshire north every clan had a cairdrege. They were both Irish and Scots.
This is the written history but I have found evidence that the Egyptian was already in Britain; as introduced by either Agricola in AD 48 as slave or by Jewish merchant/warrior Judas Macabee as a freeman. This is heavy stuff and not being academic I can only ask that you read this part of our colourful past and make up your own mind xx
OK, Jess, I understand from that that Gypsies came to Scotland in the 16th cent. as part of a diaspora and married into the native Tinkers (cairds). As a result, both T & G strands have nowcome together into a distinctively Scottish version of the culture/race (brand it how you will) which – unfortunately for ease of understanding – doesn’t have a uniformly accepted name. Would that be fair?
As a gorger who lived next to Gypsys (Romanys) in Kent I found that at that time (1940s – 60s) they didn’t really differentiate between themselves (Gypsys and Tinkers) indeed their ponies were called ‘Tinker ponies’; they also accepted the Fairground folk as part of their community. there was bad blood between them and the Diddykai who got blamed sometimes with some justification for giving travelers a bad name.
My heart is Tinker, old fashioned yes, gone into the mists of time with Pict, cleared Gael and Cala. He held a trade, and was a worthy metal smith.
As I said that is written evidence but we have been here a lot longer than the pen. Tinkler Johnstone has a mention as being in Perth in the 12th century.( Archives in Perth museum).
As to a uniformly accepted name- well as I stated Neil, the church/state set out to annihilate the culture, religion and customs. Because of mere human survival, names changed, people denied their birth coats and lived day to day. Today we are listed as Gypsy Travellers. I am asked what do you call yourself? I answer ‘Jess’. What about your culture, ‘Scottish’ was my reply. My uncle died fighting for Scotland, my father suffered six years of hell for it. I have Johnstone in my line so if Tinkler Johnstone is listed in the 12th century, he did not just appear out of thin air. We have always been here. I honestly hope that we get independence because I’m going to set Scotland straight on how not to treat her fellow Scots. Lets start with me Neil…Scottish Tinker!
No more will a child be told to ,’know your place, you’ll not get into university so stop dreaming, they won’t accept you’ and so on..the same old down trodden negativity that has stood on the heels of what is as close to an indigenous culture as is accepted in all other parts of the world. That is why this petition for historic Scotland to schedule our ‘Heart’ is of paramount importance.
Signed your petition Jess. Well done with your determination, Ancient routes, cairns and locations like this are often older and of more significance and value (in my opinion) than our built or written heritage, Historic Scotland can be hell to deal with and would be one of the organisations I would kick out of Edinburgh post independence.
right there Alex,hard nut indeed. They have already made up their minds. I feel they are ignorant to the history of Scotland, never mind the Travellers. When I embarked o this I took more flack than the dam busters. Every turn threw more problems and no doubt lots more to come. However is does help when people like Andy allow his blog to highlight our plight x
Good for you to highlight the Tinkers Heart problem.
Too much heritage, Tinkers or otherwise, gets swept under the carpet and just disappears in history.
I have signed the petition.
Good luck, Sandy
I’ve signed your petition and will fwd on to friends and family. It’s great that you’ve brought attention to the plight of this ancient site – just in time by the look of it. Maybe another book will come of this?
Good luck with everything.
Generations of the Cairndow community as well as the land owner, Mrs Howe, have revered the heart as a special site. Local people, not just tinkers, were married there in living memory.
As far as I am aware, in my life-long knowledge of Cairndow, tinkers have never been disrespected here.
To put on record one or two points –
· £34,500 was never allocated by A and B Council to “upgrade and make the place attractive”. There was a newspaper reference to a proposed car park and visitor centre a few years ago but it was never considered a realistic proposal. Jess Smith’s implication that the money went instead to Here We Are is utterly wrong.
· The local community and the land owner are adamant that the site should be preserved as it is.
· Subsequent to the Community Council view, there were discussions (minuted) at Here We Are committee meetings, as to how to construct a design that would be cattle – proof, taking into account Highland cattle horns, and not interfere with the view of Loch Fyne. The approved design was installed in 2013 (not in April this year after press coverage as Jess Smith has suggested) , the cost incurred was covered by Here We Are with a contribution from the Clachan Wind Farm Trust.
· As stated on the board on the gate at the site, at the Here We Are centre there is a folder of information about the Heart, publically available 7 days a week.
Here We Are is a community run charity with its centre at Clachan at the head of Loch Fyne. http://www.hereweare-uk.com/ It has won considerable acclaim, among others by the Scottish Government. Prof Jim Hunter’s comment on a recent initiative was – “Communities that undertake ventures of this sort are much more likely than communities that don’t, to embark on further initiatives intended to enhance their social and economic prospects in other ways.”
On behalf of Here We Are
John MacDonald, Chair.