Read Raw Ltd
Promoting Creative Writing in Scotland
What first inspired you to write?
I made a silent promise at my father’s deathbed to find the story of the Travelling people of Scotland, to discover the seedbed and write a book, one free of academia and repetitive negativity. However that was a promise made while my heart cracked open at the loss of a precious father, my mentor, and a proud Traveller man.
From five to fifteen I lived in a Bedford bus, travelling the country. Idyllic summers filled me with an immense pride and joy. Watching from the many windows of our mobile home I would feel sorry for settled kids. In those days I was in union with wild flowers, migrating birds, red deer, and leaping salmon; a next to nature existence.
I didn’t realize how different my life was in comparison to the ordered life of a house in a street and seeing the same things on a daily basis.
Marriage brought me into this world. I hated it; culture shock, would best describe how I felt. My poor husband was demented.
Children and responsibility tamed my wandering spirit. I reluctantly put memories of a life overflowing with freedom to roam, into a mind box and chained it up.
One day while descending off a Glen Coe mountain I failed to hear the Piper at the Pass. Seemed that health and safety issues forbade the brooding pibroch melodies which roched through the chanter of Traveller Pipers.
Perhaps it was this that stirred my Pandora’s box to crack open those chains and guide my eagerly held pen to write an entire childhood of wild camping, berry picking, tattie howking, various schools and a happy life shared with Mammy, Daddy, seven sisters and the occasional Juggel; that’s cant for dug.
Or might it be that I made a solemn deathbed promise to a good man, the driver of the bus, the protector of my early years.
What inspires you now?
I had penned an autobiographical trilogy, a storybook and a novel before I found enough information to write that promised factual book on Scottish Travellers.
Research has unearthed a massive history; it has so much interesting facts interwoven with ballads stories and myths. It also runs parallel throw the story of auld Scotia herself.
If I uncover a tale of witchcraft, spiritual happenings or anything of the supernatural I feel this tale should be written down. I fear it may well be lost if the teller should pass on or simply refuse to share.
So to answer this question I could say- a waterfall of some old person’s memories needing to be logged forever.
What advice would you give to a new writer?
It is very simple- write with your heart not your head. Get the emotions down first, then do a spell check.
What am I writing now?
This is a giant of a book. I plan to weave a history from the bible lands, into Scotland and follow the same bloodline through history. I wanted to make good use of the wealth of footsteps that have carried a secret from those early days and what is kept hidden from the eyes of the world.
I must apply myself (a saying solely for the writer in us all).
What am I reading now?
The Ragman’s son by Kirk Douglas.
My book list is regrettably small. However I still find time to wrap myself inside the pages of someone’s autobiography. I love reading about other’s lives. Fascinated with the diversity out there.
Who is your favourite literary character?
Walter Scott. I love the way he uses Tinkers and Gypsies to give his works a certain power. Meg Merrilees was fashioned on Madge Gordon; a staunch Jacobite who stood over six feet and claimed to have been a soldier for the cause. When the sorryful soul was being drowned she punched the air and shouted, “And yet for Charlie!” I’m a softy for all that historical out-pouring.
What future products do you have?
I’m planning to do an Open University degree in Ethnology. I keep telling myself to go do this but not got it off the ground. Watch this space.
What interests do I have outside of writing?
There’s a monument in Argyll of a heart shaped ring of white quartz stones where Travellers used to marry, christen babes and bless their dead.
It used to sit at a road junction on the old A815 to Struchar. I began a petition in parliament to have the site scheduled by Historic Scotland. It has taken five years and I feel it will soon be given a form of protection. I then have to work extremely hard to convince landowner that Travellers will be forever grateful if she allows the area to be preserved and protected.
Article 12 are a group of Traveller girls making quite a difference by educating young people about the culture. They won the prestigious Glasgow Herald equality award recently. I am their patron, so this keeps me on the toes.
Active syllabus lists of many organizations such as WRI’s, church guilds and Book festivals keep me busy. Also prison talks and school lectures.
Hill walking has been the love of my life and as long as the legs remain fairly active, I’ll trek to high places where peace reigns and I can claim my inner thoughts.
Any last words of wisdom?
Nothing in excess and know yourself.
First book ‘Jessie’s Journey’ tells the early story of when we acquired the bus, how my Mam refused at first to live in it and how Dad turned it into a state of the art 1948 mobile home. My mother and older sisters couldn’t resist the fold up beds, Queenie stove and Axminster carpet running the length of the vehicle.
Old age Travellers giving birth to a New Age form of travelling.
Life was fun but at times nightmarish. Bullies dominated school days and angry landowners could make us move in the dead of night causing untold nervous problems within our close-knit circle all girl family.
My debut book went all the way to the dizzy heights of Number 1 in Scottish biographies. I was overfilled with joy and the desire to keep sharing. Publishers asked for tales, I had a kist full, handed down through the generations. Editor suggested I weave them into my next installment of the bus life. ‘Tales from the tent’ followed, also a best seller.
There was enough room for a third book. Write off the bus of many summers, get married and take that mighty leap into the culture shock of settled life. Editor invited me to journey there. ‘Tears for a Tinker’ finalized travelling days, blessed with three children a job and living without the sound of the birds and the rush of water.
Having gathered dozens of stories I was happy to throw them all into ‘Sookin’ Berries’ a collection of tales for the young to enjoy.
Travelling women lost loved ones to war as others had done. They were no different apart from their lifestyle, which meant ‘no husband’ no travelling. Such a lot of sorrow and homeless waifs wandering along the byways stirred a tale in my head of a woman who had suffered the ultimate sacrifice. This meant a novel. Could I keep the flame burning to find a couple, separate them and give her a task of searching for him? This was asking much of my storytelling skills. However when I began the seed far up the west coast of Scotland at Durness and tasted the rush of sea salt, created the one eyed seer who sent her on the search of her life I knew I could give the heroine her story. Everything fell into place. ‘Bruar’s Rest’ is my crème da la crème.’
I loved working on this.
Then came that promise to my father!
In depth research of the education system unearthed a plan to have Traveller children educated in ‘separate schools’, young lassies held in industrial homes, lads trained as soldiers in Marr training ships and church control. In 1895 the Scottish Office planned an eradication of the culture. The plans were critically savage. All this resulted in last book ‘Way of the Wanderers.’ Although it contains seriously unsavoury chapters there’s a lot of journeying and laughter throughout. Promise kept.
Visit Jess's website http://www.jesssmith.co.uk/