WHEN Shamus McPhee’s mother gave birth to him on the toilet of the disused RAF Nissen hut they called home in April 1971, his older sisters retched out the window of the single adjoining bedroom.

There was nowhere else to go – it was very cramped. Shamus was the youngest of nine children to Scottish Gypsy Travellers Agnes Johnstone and Charles McPhee.

The tiny curved steel hut, situated in Bobbin Mill in Pitlochry, also had no electricity, a coal fire for heating, candles for lighting and asbestos in the walls.

His upbringing was tough. As a child, Shamus (below) would saw wood with a bow saw for two hours every day, At school, he was mercilessly bullied. He’d also drag tractor batteries to a local garage on a trolley for power.

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“It was just brutal and you were wondering why life was so hard for you,” he told The Sunday National.

Shamus’s parents had given up their traditional nomadic lifestyle to relocate to this circle of huts (below) in a Perthshire wood, although not by choice.

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His family is one of many who were part of what has become known as the "Tinker experiment" – a programme supported by the UK Government, the Church of Scotland and Scottish councils from 1940 to 1980 that looked to “integrate” Gypsy Travellers into so-called mainstream society by threatening to remove their children into care.

Exact figures are hard to come by due to the secretive nature of the plans, but it is believed that thousands of individuals were forced to exist in sub-standard properties across Scotland – in at least 10 different locations, from Muir of Ord on the edge of the Black Isle and Bught near Inverness to Bobbin Mill in Perthshire, where McPhee grew up.

Many, although the exact numbers are difficult to estimate, were also removed from their parents – and even sent abroad into "indentured labour" – during and before the scheme.

Campaigners have called for an apology from the Scottish Government for what they call a “cultural genocide” – a co-ordinated and racist attempt to eradicate the Gypsy Traveller way of life.

It would be similar to those given to other groups who suffered injustice in the pre-devolution era, including victims of the contaminated blood scandal and gay men convicted of sexual offences.

Historical discrimination

The Gypsy Traveller community has been discriminated against in Scotland for centuries.

The first official record of "Egyptians" – which they were often called at the time – was first noted in Scotland in 1505. The first anti-Gypsy Traveller law then didn’t take long to be enacted.

In 1541, the group was ordered to leave Scotland within 30 days “under the pain of death”. And in 1571, the Act of Stringency heightened the punishment for anyone convicted of being a Gypsy Traveller – legalising their hanging and drowning.

While executions stopped by 1714, authorities then started switching their attention to clamping down on the community’s nomadic culture.

In 1895, George Otto Trevelyan, then secretary of state for Scotland, laid before Parliament a report detailing how best to deal with Scotland’s "tinker" community – a term now seen as offensive – including a “drastic proposal" that living in tents “should be made illegal” and that children should “where necessary” be forcibly removed from their parents and placed into industrial schools.

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The above recommendations became the blueprint for the practice that came to be known as the Tinker experiment. And it wasn’t only the authorities who appeared to back this move.

An article from the John O’Groats Journal in 1911 asking “What shall we do with our tinkers?” said that people in their district would not allow Gypsy Traveller children to be educated in public schools as they are “filthy alike in their habits and in their talk”.

The article went on: “The only solution of the problem seems to lie in sending all tinker children to industrial schools until they reach the age of about 15, then to ship them to the colonies. The older generation would, in course of time, die off, and eventually the tribe would become extinct.”

A Scotsman article as late as 1958 called for more “integration” and said that “tinkerdom” was a “very real social disease”. It went on to say that the “generally accepted belief” was that Gypsy Travellers are an “immigrant race representing a stage of human development different from that current in the society in which they intruded”.

It is within that social context viewing Gyspy Travellers as inferior and their way-of-life as a threat that the chair of the Department of Tinkers in Scotland, the Duchess of Atholl, asked for a Scotland-wide census in 1917 on the numbers of Gypsy Travellers in Scotland.

By then mandating that Gypsy Travellers send their children to school for the set 200 days, the thinking with the Tinker experiment was that families would have to settle in permanent accommodation as local authorities recognised that the community had a close bond with their children. Those who refused had their children forcibly removed and taken into care.

'Trafficking by no other name'

While the Tinker experiment started in the 1940s, Gypsy Traveller children being removed from their parents appears to have happened for decades beforehand.

It is thought that Gypsy Traveller children – potentially in excess of 2000, according to campaigners – were among the tens of thousands of poor and orphaned "Home Children" who were sent from the UK to Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa as part of a child migration scheme founded by Scot Annie MacPherson in 1869. It was only fully discontinued in the 1970s.

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Lynne Tammi shared documents (below) with The Sunday National showing that her grandfather’s three sisters – Gracie, Margaret and Mary (latter two above) – were taken into care in 1906.

The researcher says someone from the local authority came to their camp while the children’s father was at work.

“They were taken by what became known as the ‘cruelty man’,” she said.

“He took the mother (below) and the three girls – who were 6, 9 and 11 at the time – to Perth Poorhouse where he had the mother sign over the three girls to a home for orphans.

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“The mother was illiterate. She was Irish, so I think they probably would have had a problem understanding what she was saying. I know she didn't fully understand what had happened because she thought she could get the children back.”

They mounted a campaign to secure their return for three years – even signed by the family priest – but the charity who owned the care home then sent all three sisters to Canada.

Margaret, the oldest at 14 when she left Scotland, was sold into indentured service and died in her twenties of a brain haemorrhage.

“It was allegedly payable. They were to be paid something like $4 a month. But the person that had them had the right to keep that money until they'd reached adulthood,” Tammi said.

“It was child trafficking by no other name. It was state sanctioned, churches were involved and charities were involved – an unholy trinity.”

The two younger sisters fared better. Her grandfather’s brother, John, never forgot and traced a trail of paperwork, reuniting decades later. Gracie (below) died in 2003, at 99 years old.

“I’m confident in saying that every single Gypsy Traveller family in Scotland has at least one story from their own family of someone being forcibly removed and being placed in an institution or being forcibly migrated abroad,” says Travellers' rights activist Davie Donaldson.

“We don't understand statistically speaking how many bairns were targeted. But we know at least 2000 children were sent abroad.”

In the early 1890s, one of Donaldson’s ancestors had a baby who died – an unfortunately common occurrence at the time. The state accused the family of child abuse as they were living a Traveller lifestyle. All nine children were taken away and never seen again.

Donaldson says a huge amount of “trauma” is still felt in the community – owing not only to this past abuse but also current reality and struggles.

The experiment's legacy

McPhee still lives with three of his sisters at Bobbin Mill – the only Tinker experiment site still in operation. He has since moved out of the hut and lived in a succession of dilapidated caravans (latest below), which has been vandalised four times.

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Gypsy Travellers are still the most disadvantaged ethnic group in the UK. They are severely discriminated against, with some saying Gypsy Traveller hate is the "last acceptable form of racism". On average, they also have a shorter life expectancy than the rest of the population – with very poor health outcomes. 

Despite his upbringing and the disadvantages that came with it, Shamus excelled at the local school – Pitlochry High School – even picking up the subject prize for art (below, of Bobbin Mill).

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He also has a degree in Celtic-Hispanic studies from Aberdeen University and a postgraduate diploma in translation from the University of Warwick.

But Shamus (below) says he remains at Bobbin Mill due to a mixture of racism and the site being a “poverty trap”.

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“You don't have the means to relocate because you're totally impoverished in third-world conditions,” he said. “And then nobody wants you in wider society.”

He added: “Lives have been totally ruined by a catastrophic state-wide policy which has written off life chances effectively.

“The legacy effect of the experiment is that I live in a caravan where four of the windows have been vandalised or taped up. It doesn't have any electricity, it doesn't have any water other than wastewater. I don't have any career prospects now.

“We don't have any pension plans. We don't have any holidays. We can't afford to drive. And that's the same for everybody I know who was involved in the Tinker experiment."

Shamus demands an apology from the Scottish Government, whose response he says has been “abject”.

“We expect better as people who support independence,” he said.

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “The Scottish Government recognises that the lives of many Gypsy/Travellers have been blighted by historical policies and practices of local and national governments and charities from the 1940s until the 1980s and we know that this has had a devastating and lasting impact on individuals and families.

“The Scottish Government is focused on working together across political, organisational and geographical boundaries to deliver the actions that are so desperately needed to address the inequality and injustice that this community continues to face.

“We have commissioned independent research into the Tinker Experiment to help us understand who was responsible and the impact of these decisions. We are expecting a report in the middle of 2024 from the initial independent research that has been commissioned.”