End of Road for Travellers’ Experiment

From The Herald, Friday April 2 2010



THE end of a 64-year social experiment to “normalise” gypsies, is to be marked by an hour long documentary on BBC Alba on Monday. It shows the demolition of a tin-roofed Nissan hut which housed decorated war veteran Charles McPhee for 60 years until his death last year despite the building being condemned in 1962.

McPhee, a wartime gunner who won the Burma Star for exploits including hurling another man aside in order to take out a Japanese kamikaze pilot on a collision course with his ship, was given the hut on his return in 1946 and told it would be upgraded in three years. It later emerged that the site had been set up as part of an attempt to “normalise” gypsies. It never was upgraded and had no running water or electricity.

Several of McPhee’s children still live at the woodland site at Bobbin Mill nearPitlochry in Perthshire and in 2008, the Herald Society ran a feature about their poor living conditions. Now, some refurbished chalets have been erected by Perth and Kinross council.

But the BBC Alba documen-tary, in a mixture of Gaelic and English with English subtitles throughout, records McPhee’s son and daughter, Shamus (left) and Roseanna, arguing that they have lived a life of poverty and social exclusion and have been constantly let down by the authorities.”I didn’t ask to be born into a racial experiment. I would rather have been adopted by Madonna but that wasn’t to be. My life has been lived out like a scene in a science lab,” says Mr McPhee. He says the main purpose of the experiment “was to make us acceptable to society”. Over time, it was hoped they would “lose their culture and become normal”.

Author Jess Smith, the grand-daughter of another Bobbin Millresident, who has written several books including Tales from the Tent about her gyspy childhood, tells the cameras that she has witnessed in her lifetime the virtual extinction of the traditional traveller way of life.”The auld ways, they were satisfying but when they were gone we were strangers in our own land,” she says.

Bobbin Mill – Sgeulachd Luchd-Siubhail The Travellers’ Tale, BBC Alba, 9pm, Monday, April 5.