Interview with Jess Smith

Why did you decide to write the three autobiographical books, Jessie's Journey, "Tales from the Tent" and "Tears for a Tinker". Did you plan them to be a trilogy?

Jessie's Journey, like most first books, was not planned in any detail. Circumstance is full of colourful threads and the book with its own pattern was there before I recognised it. Growing up in a bus with parents and seven sisters; following field work within Perthshire's agricultural belt; meeting all sorts of characters; tales and events were stored in my head. Being steeped in the traditions of my people (Scotland's Travelling folk) marriage and children never erased those wonderful times; indeed, I blanketed my children with the same cultural tales I'd been reared on. When grandchildren came visiting with their friends I was struck by the little knowledge those friends possessed in stories.
It all began in earnest when I was at a concert to celebrate the life of the Stewarts of Blair. Maurice Fleming, an ex editor of Scots Magazine, was there. We got talking and he advised me to send a story to the magazine. This was something I never thought I could achieve. Suddenly my background and how difficult it was to mix with scaldies (non Travellers) filled me with dread. How could I: a person who went to school for only half the usual school year write anything? No confidence was an understatement, but my family assured me the stories were entertaining and 'nothing ventured', they said.

The magazine snapped my piece up and asked for more. I was on 'the writers path' and biting at the bit to share my stuff. I took lessons in computers, joined a writers group and flew. Jessie's Journey was written in my cant language and broad Scots. Maurice introduced me to John Beaton who was searching for Scots stuff and thought it passionate. He sent it to a popular publisher in London but they couldn't understand it! I rewrote it in English with atmospheric Scots - John sent it to Mercat Press, the rest is, as they say, is 'history'.

Tales from the Tent was stories abounding among old Travellers, so with a small grant from Arts Council I gathered them up. Publishers thought it was a good idea to intersperse them with my life story. They said, "you've found your voice so why not use it". Both books were well received and soon I was attending more events than I could pack on my diary. Scotland loved me; I was on my way to being what I'd always dreamed - a writer. My travelling days, however were not over, so Tears for a Tinker hung from the tips of my eager fingers.

The young Jessie Riley was adamant that she was a "Traveller", not a "Tinker", and yet you called the third book "Tears for a Tinker" - why was that?

As a young girl an incident changed my mind on the word Tinker. I wrote in Jessie's Journey about letting out a shepherd's sheep. I remember screaming at the man that I was not a Tinker! It was him who taught me that at one time a Tinker was a VIP in the countryside. Sharpened tools, fixed handles to pots and pans and farming implements were the better of his nimble fingers. This was the reason I chose the title. I wanted to put the respect back into the trade - simple as that!

I noticed that while you do talk about the difficulties and prejudices you faced as a Traveller, "Jessie's Journey" isn't a political book - it's about the stories. Was this deliberate?

Yes - humour is the beginning and end to me. If, in a day I can't get a laugh then I haven't lived - only existed. It's common knowledge that Travellers suffered in the past and to the same extent today - from prejudice and racism. People are afraid of what they don't understand. No one hears of nice, clean, decent, honest Travellers. They are force fed on snippets from grumpy media about the dirty, un-educated, pesty lay-by dwellers who are blighting society. This is not so much a human trait but more a failing. If I had my way those two words 'racism' and 'prejudice' would be erased from the dictionary - if we didn't have them we wouldn't use them. But people are aware of all this and don't need force fed with it. I'll leave that to political writers with a deeper sense of worth than I have. We're all heading into dust so what the hell!

Travellers have been around Scotland for over two thousands years. Metal workers brought to this country by Romans from Egypt. Much needed north of Hadrian's boundary to keep back the warring Picts. Several historians have touched on this - Andrew Sinclair in his book The True Story of Rosslyn being one of them. So if we've been around this long I suspect there's a blood line running through all of Scotland with connections to those early Tinkers.

Not surprising that my culture is steeped in stories - I chose to write the ones that would entertain all ages. I have been mentoring budding story tellers and have already heard how well my tales are enjoyed. That makes me happy. When I'm dead and gone I want my tales to live on - in schools, or where ever there are a bunch of folk sitting together doing what their ancestors did before TV or any other kind of technological boxes.

As I child you loved combing beaches and middens for valuable scraps of metal, and I have this image of you doing the same thing with stories - listening in on adults' conversations, wandering in woods and farmers' fields; that getting into a bit of trouble was worth it if there was a good story at the end of it. Is that fair to say?

Simple answer is: yes! I seemed to have an ear for a good 'un. And that doesn't leave me. To date I have spoken to over two hundred events, from SWRI's to nurseries. Seldom do I leave without a tale tucked under my belt. One lady approached me to say her mother was a midwife who in her time delivered dozens of Travelling babies. She would drive onto a site in a Baby Austin car, call out in the night, 'who's huvin the wean?'. A shy husband to-be would then throw back the canvas flap and with headlights blaring into the tent, she'd deliver the baby.

Can you tell us about your first novel, Braur's Rest?

Bruar's Rest was in my head before Jessie's Journey. It was my dream story - the one I'd write about if I was clever and educated. An elderly relative told me the story, or at least the skeleton of the tale. I worked my ability as a storyteller around the characters and events.
Rory Stewart hailed from Durness in Sutherland - a wild untamed drunkard who made a pittance cutting peat. Without parents, he was his sister's constant worry. One day a small, insignifcant tinker girl came along; they met and she tamed the tiger. His new-found love was short lived, because, as was quite common in the early part of the twentieth century, she died in childbirth. Rory couldn't cope and run off, but not before he injured the local Seer who had predicted his young wife's demise.
Sister Helen takes care of the children - Bruar and Jamie. Rory comes back to take charge of his boys. His love of alcohol is prevalent within the Angus glens they winter settle. It's here Megan, a Tinker girl from Glen Coe, meets her future husband: young Bruar. Parted by World War 1, she takes on the responsibility of the camp site. News is bad - her man is missing presumed dead.
Her wild father-in-law Rory is murdered by a jealous husband and while she attends his Sutherland funeral she is approached by the Seer who tell her that her young husband sleeps not below the earth but above it - in other words he is in a home in south London suffering severe shell shock. Megan sets off to find him and bring him home. Her journey is fraught with twists and many dangers.

According to my fan base I have a particular voice; it's this they like. Most writers are not aware of this; it has to come from the reader. I think initially Bruar's Rest didn't have my voice, so I rewrote it, sent it to Mercat and they gave the thumbs up. I have already started on the sequel - Mary's Rain.

  • Cover scan of Tales From The Tent
    Tales From The Tent: Jessie's Journey Continues - Jess Smith - Paperback
    In 'Tales From the Tent' Jess Smith - Scottish traveller, hawker, gypsy, 'gan-about' and storyteller - continues the unforgettable story of her life on the road.