Posted by: Lizzie Ross | May 9, 2010

Newsing and cracking

Scotch Broom

The Yellow on the Broom, Betsy Whyte (1979), Futura, 177 pp.

It takes a great writer to make the lives of travelers in the 1930s seem romantic, idyllic, carefree, and just plain perfect, despite the frequent hunger, poverty, and constant uprooting. But it’s difficult to not be seduced by this memoir about a family of travelers (called “tinkers” by those who don’t like them) in Scotland, during the Great Depression.

You can’t help rooting for young Bessie (the author) and her family, who only want to live their lives on the road and hate being grouped with the few travelers who steal or beg. Her parents, Maggie and Sandy, work hard to raise their children and adjust to the modernizing world, one in which it grows more and more difficult for them to keep their familiar ways.

The government requires a certain number of school attendance days for all children, so each winter Sandy settles them in an uncomfortable house, and the girls attend schools where they’re teased and made to feel inferior. Public lands and byways are more often closed to travelers, with police arriving to hurry them away, even if all they’re doing is stopping to boil water for their tea. In the Depression, fewer people have any spare food to trade for the baskets and clothes pegs that Sandy makes. And over all hangs the threat of officialdom (the “Cruelty”), who for years have been taking travelers’ children and placing them in orphanages to “save” them from their lives of “squalor”.

But Sandy’s and Maggie’s good humor and ingenuity never wane. They also have a tremendous amount of luck, generally finding farmers willing to trade a place to camp for labor in the fields. The travelers plant and dig potatoes, harvest flax and wheat, pick berries, and even milk a few cows, moving across the land as crops ripen with the seasons, just as itinerant farm laborers do today. They meet and set up camp with other travelers, friends and relatives, for a few days, then part, perhaps not to see one another again for months or years.

The allure of this life is the freedom to come and go, to hit the road when the mood strikes and then stop when they come to a likely place. The travelers are most comfortable outdoors (any house feels like a jail to them), sleeping on the ground, under canvas tents if bad weather threatens, gossiping (newsing and cracking), and smoking (even the children are allowed a few puffs on the pipe).

Their material desires are minimal. They spend money as fast as they get it, never thinking that tomorrow they may need it to buy food. Travelers are attached only to people, and at someone’s death never hesitate to burn the person’s belongings, even valuable jewelry, as part of the mourning process.

But it’s very clearly a hard life, and few outsiders willingly join it. Those who do must adjust more than their expectations of comfort, but if they’re willing, then the travelers welcome them.

Travelers have their own vocabulary, not just as a Gaelic dialect, but also as a useful code when outsiders are present (using English words like slang to signal they don’t want the policeman questioning them to find out about the salmon hidden under the wheat piled in the cart). Whyte’s writing carries the flavor of Gaelic. Here, Sandy is negotiating work with a farmer:

‘No, mair the pity,’ Father answered him, ‘but maybe Bessie here could piet. My wife and Katie can do the lousin’ and Jimmie’s lassie Annie will dae the chaff.’

You learn words like glaggen (the sheen over a field or moor), puddock (frog), hippen (diaper), gurly (grumpy) and plouter (to potter about). I can’t wait for an opportunity to call someone a daft puddock, and to tell my boss that I spent the weekend ploutering.

Whyte wrote a sequel, Red Rowans and Wild Honey, and about 7000 words of a third volume in her memoirs before she died. Both are lovely, lively books, where euphemisms like besom, sporran, dander, and caber allow her to include the spiciest language.

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