The Way of the Wanderers | Book Review

The Way of the Wanderers

Jess Smith

Birlinn Ltd


‘Every book about Gypsies that I have studied mentions the people described above, give or take a few other hardy stalwarts, but no one else. Writers stay in their comfort zone; when writing about a subject that they know little about, they keep to familiar ground. The reason for this, as I’ve mentioned before, is that few writers ventured into the caves, dark forests and far out-of-the-way places where the bulk of the Gypsies and Travellers existed. Instead of exploring the lives of these individuals they chose a few famous characters from the herd and ignored the rest. What a different story I could tell if more attention had been paid to the Gypsies of old as a community where strong baskets were woven, horn spoons carved from sturdy rams’ horns that would last a lifetime, earthenware, thick and watertight, was fired, ropes twisted that were strong enough to circle hay bales, brooms made to sweep a fine skelp of farmyard, and pot-scourers that could scrub a pot clean and would last for ages, with washing pegs able to prevent the wildest winds from roaring off with the weekly wash.’


During the course of writing my Professional Doctorate literature review over the past year, I have read no end of academic literature and governmental reports, all of which have contributed to what I hope is a decent summation of my research so far. It did, however, leave me looking for a more in-depth version of the lived experience of Travellers in Scotland. I could have done no better than Jess Smith, the author of six books based on her experiences. Jess was extraordinarily kind in replying to my first tentative emails and taught me a great deal in the space of a few lines. What I read in her book ‘The Way of the Wanderers’ taught me a great deal more.

With my research area being police service provision for Scottish Gypsy Travellers, I was particularly fascinated by the work Jess has done researching Gypsy Travellers’ relationships with individual officers. In particular, she includes some interviews which fed into the 1895 ‘Educating the Rural Poor and Dealing with Vagrants, Itinerants, Tramps and Tinkers’ inquiry. I say inquiry, but it is apparent from the questioning of a contemporary police inspector that those writing the report had already decided upon Travellers’ deviancy. Below is a selection from the line of questioning, which can at best be described as ‘leading’:

Do they [Travellers] annoy the inhabitants?

Do they steal?

How do they fight?

In your experience have there been any serious results from the quarrels?

You do not think anything can be done in reforming the adults?

Do you think the Gypsy is quite a different race from the vagrant?

Have you any complaints of their invading farms and smoking and that sort of thing?

Have they any other livelihood than begging?

Is he more violent when drunk than the ordinary labouring man?

With such obvious and insidious prejudice underpinning the inquiry, it is little wonder that a basis of opinion solidified that would contribute indirectly to legislation including the 1984 Roads (Scotland) Act and the 1994 Criminal Justice and Public Order Act, both of which seek to limit the mobility central to Gypsy Traveller culture.

Despite those wishing to curtail this mobility, Jess portrays a warm and complex culture. Her style of writing is suited to myriad vivid anecdotes of her early life on the road and the stories that she was brought up with. There were so many, and of such quality, that I struggle to pick my favourites. One that does stand out (and which I will be telling the kids every time we drive on it) is the legend surrounding the land on which is now Broxden Roundabout. I won’t spoil it here, but it is a fantastic tale and might well make one drive slightly more carefully across the tarmac.

With such culture, and such romanticism woven through this culture, there is a danger of the book being twee. Jess is too good a guide to fall into this trap, however. She tackles difficult subjects such as the building of Aldour School for Travellers in Pitlochry with poise, and I found her finding of her own relatives’ records in a Perth library very moving. Nor does Jess shy away from talking about the effect that modern technology and generational change is having upon Traveller culture. Relatively ignorant of such culture myself, I nevertheless found myself wanting to help preserve and celebrate such a way of life and I hope my subsequent work can illuminate how the criminal justice system can assist in doing so. This is a fantastically written, brilliantly researched book.

*Thanks for reading, folks. Find my other reviews below*

Zadie Smith – Feel Free

Max Hastings – Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy 1945-1975

Bernard MacLaverty – Grace Notes

Ernest Hemingway – In Our Time

Andrew Roberts – Napoleon the Great

Emily Bronte – Wuthering Heights

Margaret Atwood – The Handmaid’s Tale

Kamila Shamsi – Home Fire

Annie Proulx – Brokeback Mountain

Anthony Doerr – All the Light We Cannot See

Ellipsis: Three magazine

Harper Lee – To Kill a Mockingbird

Jon McGregor – Reservoir 13

Colson Whitehead – The Underground Railroad

Amor Towles – A Gentleman in Moscow

Matthew Richardson is a writer of short stories. His work has featured in Gold Dust magazine, Literally Stories, Near to the Knuckle, McStorytellers, Penny Shorts, Soft Cartel, Whatever Keeps the Lights On, and Shooter magazine. He is a PhD student at the University of Dundee, a lucky husband, and a proud father.

Not necessarily in that order

25 thoughts on “The Way of the Wanderers | Book Review

  1. Awesome review as always Matthew, mixing a bit of personal experience with sensitive analysis of the book itself.

    When I was visiting relatives in Holland during my youth, one summer, I read a copy of a book called “The Yellow on the Broom” by Betsy Whyte, that I found on the guest-room nightstand. Being from Canada, and not having much experience with travellers, I’d never heard of this group, back then, other than as so-called “gypsies” in folktales and so on; but feel lucky I’d gotten to understand more about it through that beautiful book, before being exposed to the sometimes deep and disturbing prejudice against this maligned group, which I occasionally encountered in random conversations, since moving to Europe.

    That line of questioning is indeed terribly mal-strung…

    I think I’ve said it before, but it’s wonderful that you do such meaningful work.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. I hope so too. If it is, it’s thanks in large part to people like you.

        The world also needs more poetry btw – looking forward to the next daiku. :))

        Liked by 1 person

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