Roddy Revisits The Yellow on the Broom

I've recently been re-reading one of my favourite Scottish books The Yellow On The Broom by Betsy Whyte and had forgotten just how good it is. First published in 1979, and kept in print by the Edinburgh publisher Birlinn, it is an account of the early years of a member of a family of Scottish travellers, circa 1930. A second book (Red Rowans and Wild Honey) continues the story up to the mid 1940s, and later editions include autobiographical material from Whyte's later life when she settled in Montrose.

The group of travellers to which Betsy Whyte belonged were nawkens, as they called themselves, though Whyte, who is sparing with cant, doesn't use this term. In a frustrated note which goes with the book's glossary, she talks about how younger people were giving up all but a few of these old words, many of them dating back to Romani languages. "The cant was very useful to travelling people," she says, "but only to them." The inflections, nuances of the words and a tendency to utter the very opposite of what you meant, and still be understood, meant that the 'language' was impossible to learn.

Whyte was fortunate to come to the attention of the young ethnomusicologist Peter Cooke, who encouraged her to send him episodic chunks of her story. Whyte was a gifted storyteller in the traveller tradition (as a student at the School of Scottish Studies in the 1980s, I was privileged to see her talk and tell tales once or twice). Each of the 50-odd short chapters of The Yellow On The Broom displays Whyte's dazzling way with storytelling – crisp beginnings, a touch of confession or scandal, some interesting background knowledge, threaded through with a neat story. A literary editor might have scomfished this approach, while Cooke merely added some punctuation here and there.

The book (which has been popularised by Adam McNaughtan's song of that name, based on the stories here) is vivid in its depiction of a group of people following work round the landscapes of Perthshire and Angus – tattie howking, berry picking, pearl fishing, along with the traditional crafts of pot and basket-making and the door-to-door selling of items like stationery and small household goods. Where welcome, traveller women were often called upon to offer advice, given their reputation for second sight. Though Whyte inevitably remembers her childhood with a touch of fond sentiment, she is unsparing on thorny issues – drink was a curse among travellers, women were treated shabbily, and there was a wariness of non-travellers which could be disdainful.

To some extent warranted, fear of the 'outside world' was still rife – doctors in particular were feared as they were connected with 'burkers', those who had murdered to provide corpses to the medical profession. Travellers believed (wrongly for the most part) that this practice was still common and that they were prime targets.

The authorities were more of a real threat – enforcing education and housing on a people who had happily done without these things for centuries and who felt genuinely sorry for those who were cooped up in one spot all year round. That said, Betsy was a voracious reader (Gulliver's Travels was a great favourite, and to the travellers, it wasn't far removed from their own long tales), and as such she valued her education, though she was teased and abused by town children throughout.

The Yellow On The Broom opened up a seam of Scottish experience which was all but unknown until Betsy, and other former travellers such as Duncan Williamson and Stanley Robertson, told their stories – their own histories, that is, as well as their store of wonderful tales and songs which came close to being lost until the Folk Revival of the 1950s lead to a culture of recording and archiving. Although it contains fascinating information on a dwindling way of life, the book's lasting appeal is in Betsy's own personal charm and her natural storytelling gifts.

  • Cover scan of The Yellow On The Broom
    The Yellow On The Broom: The Early Days Of A Traveller Woman - Betsy Whyte - Paperback
    Betsy Whyte was born into a family of travellers who roamed the Scottish countryside between the wars. This vivid description of a childhood on the road amidst a misunderstood people is a rich evocation of a vanishing world.

Monday 3rd July 2006

The Yellow on the Broom

The Yellow on the Broom
Betsy Whyte

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