Amid the douce, stone-built houses of Pitlochry in Perthshire, a muddy track leads up a hill to a copse of oak trees. Amid them stand clusters of antiquated caravans, racks of gas bottles and, at the far end, an former army Nissen hut with a tin roof.
This is Bobbin Mill, home to the McPhee family, Scottish gypsies who regard themselves as part of a distinct ethnic group, who speak the remnant of a language called Cant, containing Sanskrit and Hindu words. The clan settled here after the first world war when local landowners granted them a site in recognition of service at the Somme .
Family tradition has it that the site was granted “in perpetuity” but that the all-important letter was burnt. In 1946 when Charles McPhee returned from Burma , a decorated Royal Navy veteran, a 99-year lease was granted with the council paying a nominal rent and managing it.
The Nissen hut, complete with asbestos partitions, was put up to house several branches of the family temporarily. It was the beginning of a social experiment that, in keeping with the ideas of the time sought to “assimilate” the gypsies, by getting the children into school and their parents into council houses.
Though many have taken this path, the councillors might have been surprised to find, 60 years on, Charles McPhee still stubbornly in the Nissen hut (with the asbestos removed) and many of his children camped around in ancient caravans.
Visiting the site today is a bit of a shock. There is no running water, sewerage or electricity. For Shamus McPhee, Charles’s 36-year-old son, this “racial experiment” amounted to “ethnic cleansing without the killing”.
Living without modern amenities is hard. His caravan is mouldy with damp and the gas bottle heating leads to condensation. He has a persistent cough and suffers from chronic fatigue syndrome.
“Sometimes it is below freezing here for days. The gas bottles freeze and we have no heating and no way of cooking. The only thing we can do is to carry the bottles over to my father’s hut and put them in front of the wood fire. When we get them back they usually only work for about half an hour. You just have to lie in bed. Your body just shuts down. You can’t move. It is like hibernation.”
McPhee, unlike many of the site’s residents, refuses to pay council tax believing the council should use its discretion to waive the requirement as he is virtually homeless. He does not sign on, keeping himself alive with agricultural work, planting trees and mending dykes.
As a result, the council cannot retrieve its arrears by stopping his dole and sends him sheaves of letters demanding the money. “The sheriff officers came up and valued my caravan at £36. They said they wouldn’t pay it either if they were in my situation.” He also says he is denied the right to vote. After filling in the correct forms, when he and his sister Rosanna went to vote, he claims: “We were laughed out of the polling station.”
McPhee, like four of his nine siblings, is a graduate. Though he says he was bullied at school, he worked hard. “We wanted to show the other kids that we were as good as they were.” But despite a good degree in Gaelic and Spanish and a post-graduate degree in translation, he has not managed to get a professional job.
Without electricity he cannot work from home. “I have sent off about 2,000 applications. I started to lose hope when I applied for a Gaelic translation job and I didn’t even get an interview. I knew at that time I was about the only person in Scotland with my qualifications.”
He tries to explain the barriers that prevent him turning his education to account. “When you don’t have any money, no savings, not a penny, and the rest of your family don’t have any, it is hard.”
His sister Rosanna, the family’s other activist, is a qualified Gaelic medium teacher but despite being on the supply list for 13 years has had no work. Two other sisters who have moved away are employed as teachers.
The Bobbin Mill McPhees don’t want to be moved to council houses, however. They are proud of their heritage and tradition and want to stay in the woods despite the fact that they feel it leads to discrimination. The camp has been stoned and they have suffered racial abuse, often sparked, Shamus believes, by negative coverage of stories about gypsies in the media.
Now, however, the council is poised to act. The trunks of many tall oak trees, just approaching their maturity, have been marked with green crosses. The council plans to fell them to put in six second-hand chalets. The family itself, after years of campaigning, found out that a budget for providing sites for travellers by the Scottish Executive had been underspent and managed to get an application through.
Money was allocated, but Perth and Kinross had to match-fund it before anything could be done. That was in 2006 and the family is impatient that their situation has not so far improved.
There are some concerns about the chalets, however. According to Shamus, all the consultation with them has amounted to is a choice between one new chalet or six second hand ones. But he says he and his family don’t want the council to reclassify Bobbin Mill as council housing stock which they can allocate to non-traveller families. They don’t really want the trees felled either, although they are prepared to accept some going.
Having acquired solar panels from a travellers’ aid organisation, Shamus says he would have preferred a housing solution that was more eco-friendly and more traditional, perhaps using rain water and geothermal electricity.
The McPhees have some support from the smaller political parties. A Green Party spokesman says: “This doesn’t seem like the best solution, either for the community or for the local environment. This is an opportunity to look at some imaginative alternatives.”
Colin Turbett, Scottish Socialist Party rural affairs spokesperson, says: “The council needs to provide an infrastructure that supports the McPhees in their way of life and doesn’t try to assimilate them. They have to come up with a solution soon. It is outrageous that these people have had to live like this for so long.”
Support from small parties is one thing. But the McPhees’s local authority are at least in agreement that their situation must be improved.
A spokesman for Perth and Kinross Council says: “The council has received funding from Communities Scotland to provide improved services at Bobbin Mill. Following discussion and agreement with residents, we have purchased a number of refurbished chalets for the site. We are in the process of applying for planning permission so that they can be installed.
“By law, all domestic properties are required to be assessed for Council Tax. Any caravan that is used as a sole or main residence is chargeable for Council Tax. The assessor has taken the physical state of the locality when assessing its market value into consideration by placing Bobbin Mill in Band A.
“The council is required by law to bill, collect and recover Council Tax at a property. Any unpaid Council Tax will be pursued in accordance with legislation.”
Regarding the McPhee’s concerns about registering to vote, he added: “The management of the Register of Electors is undertaken by the Electoral Registration Officer at Tayside Valuation Joint Board.”
Meanwhile, the council is happy to recruit supply teachers: “While the requirement for Gaelic medium supply teachers is generally limited in Perth and Kinross, the council would always actively seek to recruit suitably qualified teachers to the supply list.
“Supply teachers are contacted about supply requests in line with their particular qualifications, skills, experience and preferences, as they arise.”