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Jessie's Journey

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Jessie's Journey



  was raised in a large family of Scottish travellers. She is married with three children and six grandchildren. As a traditional storyteller, she is in great demand for live performances throughout Scotland. This is the first book in her autobiographical trilogy, which continues with Tales from the Tent and concludes with Tears for a Tinker. She has also written a novel, Bruar’s Rest, and a collection of stories for young readers, Sookin’ Berries.

  First published in 2002 by Mercat Press Ltd

  Reprinted 2002, 2003 (three times), 2004, 2005, 2006

  New edition published 2008 by Birlinn Limited

  Birlinn Limited

  West Newington House

  10 Newington Road


  EH9 1QS

  Copyright © Jess Smith 2002, 2008

  The story ‘A Natural Love’ was first published in The Scots Magazine, September 2000.

  The moral right of Jess Smith to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by her in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988

  All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored or transmitted in any form without the express written permission of the publisher.

  ISBN-13: 978 1 84158 702 8

  eBook ISBN: 978 0 85790 178 1

  Version 1.0








  4 I CAN FLY!











  15 TINY




















  Jessie’s mother’s birth certificate

  Four generations of the Power family

  Granny Riley

  Granny Power

  Granny Riley and Auntie Maggie

  Jessie’s father aged 15

  A gathering of relatives at ‘The Berries’

  Jessie’s mother and father in 1940

  Jessie’s mother and Uncle Charlie

  Jessie’s father

  Jessie’s mother with her older sisters

  The bus and the ‘wee Fordy van’

  Jessie’s mother and father with three of her older sisters

  Jessie, eight months old

  Jessie’s mother and Uncle Wullie

  Mona, Chrissy, Shirley and Janey

  Jess in her school uniform

  Jess with her mother, Jeannie

  Jess with her father, Charlie

  To the bus driver Charles Riley (Daddy), I dedicate this book.


  I would like to thank my husband Dave for his love and constant support.

  Also my precious children and grandchildren.

  My beloved mother, Jeannie. Always with me.

  Shirley, Dave and family for believing in me.

  My dear friends Maimie, Sonja, Mona, Alison, Kay, Donald, Malcolm, Harry and the Writers Group.

  Maurice Fleming and John Beaton, who set the word in motion.

  Tom, Catherine and Seán.

  And to those too numerous to mention—thank you all, from my heart.


  The ways of my people, their language, culture and livelihoods, are with each passing moment vanishing off the face of the earth. I am not learned enough to give you a history of the travelling life in its entirety. Nor do I wish to burden you with the ‘ethnic cleansing’ story others have written so passionately. ‘But’ I hear you ask, ‘just what is a traveller?’

  Well, my friend, in complete honesty, I do not know. Ask me further, ‘Where do you belong?’ I say to you, ‘Wherever the feather falls or the seed is blown.’

  Without feathers, there is no nest, and without seeds, there are no flowers.

  We are the storytellers. Wandering minstrels, respecters of the soil, lovers of family and friends. Once we were your heritage, now we blot your landscape. Soon we will be gone and you will have no culture. I will be a ghost of Scotland’s colourful past, but before I fade, let me tell you about my life on the road with my seven beautiful sisters, protective parents and the mongrel dog called Tiny.

  I have stories to tell—sad, humorous, outrageous, aye, even unbelievable, but tell them I must. Why? Because with our leaving we take with us to the grave our greatest gift—‘the spoken word’.

  The art of storytelling, with which so many travelling folks are gifted, seldom finds its way through the pen. I am grateful to my parents for giving me the ability to do this, and to the many hardy souls we met on the road, for without their taking time for tales I would find it impossible to write this book.

  Every person born is a story; from womb to grave we live a tale. Parents tell stories of the time we were babies, then how we grew into teenagers, and so it goes on, a rich tapestry of life.

  Although regarded by many as Scotland’s outcasts, travelling people are as true to her soil as the roots of the heather. I proudly cleave to these roots, and preserve her culture and traditions.

  And through these pages I claim my rightful place as one of Scotia’s Bairns.

  Come with me, reader, and share a traveller’s campfire. I promise we won’t steal your children or fleece your pocket. You might even get a wee bit closer to understanding us.



  I start my life story at the age of five, in the year of 1953, and I will finish it in the spring of 1963, when I was fifteen. The reason for such a short span, I hope, will become clear in the telling of my tale.

  Both my parents were from travelling backgrounds. Charlie Riley, my father, was the eldest son of Wullie Riley and Margaret Burns, who had eleven of a family (nine survived to adulthood). Grandad’s mother’s name was O’Connor, and I believe she came from Ireland. Although they travelled extensively through the north and west of Scotland, they chose Perthshire as the favoured place to settle down. When all but four of their family had left them, they put down roots in Pitlochry, north of Moulin, in a bonny wee cottage called Lettoch Beag. All of the Riley clan (except Daddy) eventually integrated into the settled community and gave up the travelling life for good.

  My mother was Jeannie Power; she was the daughter of Nicholas Power, whose people came from Kilkenny in Ireland’s south. Her mother was Margaret Macarthur from Kintyre. They had a large family of ten. Grandad’s mother’s surname was McManus.

  Like my father’s family, they settled in the Bobbin mill at Pitlochry, eventually spreading throughout Perthshire, Fife, Angus, Argyll and England. They too went into the ‘scaldy’ (settled folks’) life, all except Jeannie, my wee Mammy.

  Not many folks can say this, but I have all thro
ugh my life found my relations to be honest decent people, rich in kindness to everybody, never judgmental and always a smile to the stranger. And fair enjoying o’ the ‘crack’. They will pop in and out of my tales as I go along.

  My parents between them gave the world eight girls. The four eldest were born before the Second World War, the four youngest, after the War; Mona, Chrissie, Charlotte (Shirley), Janey, Jessie (me), Mary, Renie and Barbara (Babsy).

  Our mother had a difficult childhood. Every day from birth until she married was on the road; horse, cart, a father seldom sober and too fond of his fists. Although proud of her roots, she had foreseen that the ways of the traveller were changing, and not, sadly to say, for the better. She told our Daddy many times that the summer was the time to go back on the road.

  ‘The lassies must have a decent education,’ she reminded him often. Therefore a house for the winter was paramount. He verbally agreed, but his heart was yearning for the open road with the old ways.

  The family settled in a fine house in Aberdeen—it went on fire; then to a large spacious dwelling house in Aberfeldy—it was flooded. Daddy even bought a plot to build his own house at Finab, Pitlochry, but was refused planning permission.

  ‘Sorry, Jeannie, my bonny lamb,’ he finally told my mother, ‘but it looks awfy like us travelling folks are just what the label says—“born to the ways of the road”.’

  People said it must have been the shell-shock he suffered during the War that unsettled him—rubbish! He was a ‘thoroughbred’, my father. Born to travel.

  So after a brief spell living in an articulated wagon, Daddy purchased our new home—a 1948 Bedford bus! My bus was created in the same year as myself.

  Mammy was far from happy at the thought of her proud lassies crammed like sardines in a bus. The older girls were horrified, and the wee ones were neither here nor there. Except me!

  There was Baby Babsy newborn, two-year-old Renie, three-year-old Mary, then me. I was five years old, and even as I write I remember well my feelings of excitement at living in a BUS.

  A forever holiday. I was going home, something way deep in my young soul knew; here was my destiny, the road ahead had already been made for me by generations of travelling folks. I was about to be reborn into the old ways.

  To me, my Daddy was the inventor of do-it-yourself. No matter what—building, electrics, plumbing, you name it—he could do it. Cleverest pair of hands in the whole of Scotland, I kid you not. We were living temporarily in a converted wagon at Walkers field outside Pitlochry. It was September 1953, and Mammy had just that very month given birth to my youngest sister—Barbara, her eighth child, and all girls.

  I remember that day so well, the day he drove off Finab road end and onto the field with the bus, he looked so small inside it. My first memory of the inside of the bus was neat rows of seats covered with Paisley-patterned material. I watched as my Dad unbolted every seat and piled them outside, leaving an empty shell. What fun I had jumping up and down on those springy benches with the flowery purple covers.

  ‘Mammy, it’s going to look terrible, living in that thing, Daddy’s lost his senses.’ My oldest sister Mona had been used to living in houses; she thought of the travelling life as a way of the past, and a touch below her! ‘And you can just tell him I’ll be biding with Granny Riley from now on.’ Our Mona, nineteen at the time, was as refined as gentry.

  ‘Give me over another nappy, this wind will have all the washing dry in no time,’ said Mammy, ignoring her daughter’s haughty remarks and reminding her at the same time that Granny had had her full share of teenagers in her life and needed a bit of peace.

  Her turning to see me leaping high in the air on her future furniture brought a volley of curses.

  ‘Jessie, get you off those bloody seats, your father’s putting some of them back into the bus, and look at the state you’ve got them in with your guttery shoes! Now do something useful and play with your wee sisters.’

  Mona stormed away in the huff, as I took Mary and Renie by the hands over to the bus door and said, ‘this is our new home, braw isn’t it?’ My two wee sisters looked at me in total bewilderment. What did a three- and two-years-old know about anything, I ask you?

  The long seat at the back of the bus was left in place, with bolts and brackets added, allowing it to be converted into a double bed. They christened it ‘the master bed’, and it was the courie doon of my parents. Next a sideboard was placed at the bottom right-hand-side of the bus. This took all dishes, pots, pans and cutlery. Our bed was placed lengthways on the left, and like the big one it had brackets fitted so it could be doubled up during the day into seating. But if ill health like measles or mumps visited then the big bed was left down. Of course in such times it became quite a squeeze to get past us. The two seats at the front were left in place, along with the one for the clippy, and as Mammy said jokingly she was the equivalent of a bus conductor she bagged this one. It was really so she could be navigator for Daddy, but we knew fine it was the seat with the best view. My father had other plans for our dear Mum though, she would have to learn to drive herself, and I’ll tell you why later.

  Luggage racks were left in place, and into these narrow shelves went all our worldly goods.

  What amazed experts who saw the finished product was ‘how did he manage to change the fixed windows so that they wound down?’ He never said. Like I told you earlier, cleverest pair of hands in the land. He laboured the best part of a week to get the bus liveable—not just that, but pleasing for his fine lassies. Well he knew, by the long faces, they would take a damn lot of coaxing.

  Most important of all to convince was Mammy. She had to feel comfy, clean and secure in her new home. So next day, leaving us wee ones in the care of the older lassies, he took her to the town of Pitlochry, where she chose curtain material and a good quality carpet.

  What a right bonny bus it was when Mammy finished hanging up those bright blue gingham curtains with matching tiebacks. Lastly, the Paisley-patterned Axminster runner, almost identical in colour to the seat-covers, was laid neatly on the floor. ‘To keep your wee feet warm in winter, bairns,’ she said.

  ‘One thing left to do, Jeannie,’ said Daddy, ‘I’ll be back later.’ He waved cheerio as he set off that warm September morning in his old lorry, accompanied by his younger brother Wullie.

  It was suppertime before he eventually came back, minus the lorry. In its place was a wee green Ford 10 van. I remember thinking it looked like a frog with a swelt head!

  Our father opened the van’s back door and revealed, sitting like old Queen Victoria when she was right fat, a wee three-legged Reekie stove! ‘Why mention that?’ I hear you ask. Well, through the coming years I hope to share with you the warmth from its coal-stapped body. Winters in the bus were to be a mite cold, I can tell you. Of course, the family pots of soup and the morning porridge were another blessing, thanks to our wee Reekie. Summertime cooking was done outside on the open campfire, but if the nights were damp and wet the wee stove couldn’t be beat.

  Daddy positioned the stove behind the driver’s seat. With him being the driver, that made sense; he was not so silly, my Dad liked his heat.

  Bolting the stove securely to the floor, he made a partition around the back, protecting the wall from the heat generated by the chimney that protruded out of the bus roof. I wouldn’t mind, but of all things that partition was made of dangerous asbestos! Thank God, none of us suffered any ill health as a result.

  ‘Now, Jeannie, can you ask for a better home than that?’ asked Daddy, admiring his handiwork.

  ‘Aye, lad, you’ve worked wonders, but something bothers me,’ answered Mammy.

  ‘What’s that, then, lass?’ A look of concern spread across his face.

  ‘Who do you have in mind to drive the van?’

  He laughed, then took the breath from her with his answer: ‘Jeannie, there is nothing easier.’

  ‘For God’s sake, man, I’ve just had a baby, I wouldn’t say I was fit.

  ‘Rubbish, you’re the picture of pure health, sure I don’t know a stronger lass than yourself!’

  So, several driving lessons from Daddy later, and a provisional driving licence, the necessary bit of paper needed, she became a rare sight for those days—a woman driver!

  Mona was still protesting at living in the bus. After a while Chrissie had joined in her disapproval. Daddy had his work cut out trying to convince them. So when supper was over he sat them down to talk it out.

  ‘Now, lassies, fine I know your lives are about to change. But travelling ways are not like they used to be; those days are well gone. You don’t have to see life from a tent mouth like your mother and I did. This braw bus with all its modern ways will make sure you want for nothing.’

  My big sisters hummed and hawed, but they knew Daddy was the boss and no amount of moaning faces would change his mind. Nevertheless, our Mona still had to get her tuppence worth: ‘Modern, huh! We still have to fetch water from the burn, hang kettles and pots from an iron chittie over an outside fire. Washing, now, it will still be hung from tree to tree. And worst of all, God help me, washing my tender face in a cold burn. Modern, what difference is that from your and Mammy’s days?’

  ‘Come now, lassie, a bit of country living did nobody any harm.’ He attempted to put an arm round her shoulder and she instantly brushed it away.

  ‘I’ll be old and wizent before my time!’ she shouted. ‘Long before it.’

  Daddy laughed at his oldest daughter’s remarks, then walked off, saying, ‘make sure you don’t keep that frown on your bonny face for much longer, the wind will change and you’ll stay that way!’

  We all laughed. She tutted, reached inside her skirt pocket and took out a nail-file. Storming outside she sat on the dyke by the side of the road, and the more she thought about the life ahead of her the harder she shaped her fingernails into talons.

  ‘You could do with a pair of wings now, seeing as you’ve the claws of a hawk on yourself Mona,’ mocked Shirley.

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