Pluralities and hegemonies: Four Nations History and its potential for Romany and Traveller history

Pluralities and hegemonies: Four Nations History and its potential for Romany and Traveller history

This week, PhD student Laura Newman (King’s College London) discusses the potential benefits of using a four nations discourse to broaden the study of Romany and Traveller history.

There are many reasons, when writing about Romany and Traveller history, to avoid using the term ‘Gypsy’. This point is particularly salient with regards to Four Nations history. Others have delved into this issue of nomenclature in more detail.[i] In the context of ‘Four Nations’ history, however, the term ‘Gypsy’ is particularly ill suited. In trying to reflect upon the potential relationship between Four Nations and Romany and Traveller history, I found J.G.A. Pocock’s assertion that “the fact of a hegemony does not alter the fact of a plurality” particularly relevant.[ii] The term ‘Gypsy’ flattens the complex, interconnecting histories of different groups of Romany and Travellers in the British Isles, just as the terms ‘Scottish’, ‘Irish’, ‘Welsh’ and ‘English’ can also be uncritically deployed. Here I outline some of the ways in which Romany and Traveller histories have already been tied in with these national histories, and the potential relationships between Four Nations history and Romany and Traveller history that have gone unexplored.

There is in general a strong tendency amongst many academics to view the Romany and Traveller experience through the lens of the diaspora.[iii] Whilst such an approach is undoubtedly valid, it is also worth recognising the relevance of Romany and Traveller history to histories of nations, and vice versa. One way in which this is shown through the different origin stories and myths of Traveller groups, stories that are intimately linked with wider constructions of national identity. These immediately disturb the idea of Travellers as essentially inward-looking groups who are impervious to such processes. Many of these myths cross over ethnic boundaries and into the popular sphere. Thus the claim that Irish Travellers only took to the road after Oliver Cromwell’s “To Hell or to Connaught” land policy of the 1640s is replicated by a number of groups, both Traveller and non-Traveller alike.[iv] For Scottish Travellers, too, the 1746 Act of Proscription, The Potato Famine (1846-1856), and the Highland Clearances have helped form an origin myth that, disparagingly or no, sees them as descendants of the “vagrants and victims” of such events.[v] Traveller groups in Ireland and Scotland, therefore, can and should be studied in relation to larger issues of colonial displacement and identity formation in the British Isles.

Historians of Romany and Traveller history have drawn upon a number of different source materials. Works focussing on the representation of Romany and Travellers in broader society have focussed on a variety of different genres and forms, from Romantic fiction to ‘scientific’ folklore. More recently, however, many academics have turned to the possibility of oral testimony in Romany and Traveller history, both as a means of recovering (supposedly) ‘lost’ histories while also serving “platform for […] empowerment” for Romany and Travellers.[vi]

One of the earliest attempts to record oral testimony from Travellers came with Hamish Henderson’s fieldwork from the 1950s, now housed in the School of Scottish Studies Sound Archive at Edinburgh University. More recent oral history projects on Romany and Travellers have moved beyond the realm of folklore collection, such as the Romany Cymru: Romany Wales project.[vii] Both academics and non-academics alike throughout the British Isles have fostered this association between Romany and Travellers and the national landscape. Further work would look at how this has operated within the framework of ‘Four Nations’.

Oral histories have also helped to offer perspectives on how the changing economic landscape of national, regional, and local communities have impacted upon Romany and Traveller livelihoods and identities.[viii] An example of this is shown with Timothy Neat’s The Summer Walkers: Travelling People and Pearl Fishers in the Highlands of Scotland (1996), a follow-on book from Hamish Henderson’s television documentary The Summer Walkers (1976). This book recounts the decline of pearl fishing in Scotland through the narrative of a number of Scottish Travellers, including Eddie Davies. Davies links the discovery of the Abernethy Pearl in the River Tay in 1967 to the downfall of his craft, leading to over-speculation and over-fishing in the rivers of the Highlands, a problem that persists to this day.[ix] Davies’s account is telling for its insight into the ways in which the typical landmarks of the industrial British landscape– in this case the motorway – made traditional pearl fishing obsolete:

“It was Abernethy found the Big Pearl, down in the Tay. After that – goldrush. Murder. They were coming up in droves […] They slaughtered the rivers. They’d work the river like a factory – big gangs of them […] It was greed – it was the new A9, it was the motorcar, you see, in the old days it was all walk, camp out, walk on […] Like farmers, here and there we’d pause and leave a bed undisturbed for future years. But these were cowboys! By nineteen eighty, the old-time pearl fishers up here in Sutherland, we were picking at a carcass. It was the Buffalo all over again!”[x]

Further work needs to be done that shows how Romany and Travellers have often succeeded in adapting to these kinds of structural changes. Such an approach will go some way towards seeing Romany and Travellers less as inevitable victims to industrialisation – a trope that was widely disseminated by an older generation of historians and researchers – but rather as dynamic economic actors. To do this, however, it might be necessary to move beyond a reliance on oral testimony. As Jodie Matthews points out, the ‘illiteracy myth’ that accompanies Romany and Traveller history can often mean “researchers stop looking for new sources”. This means that “the countless transactions (financial, legal, and social) between and within communities left traces that are yet to be interpreted as part of Romani/ Gypsy, Roma and Scottish and Irish Traveller histories”.[xi]

This new iteration of ‘Four Nations’ history takes place at a time where, much like the first wave of such histories, “the uncertainties attaching to its [Britain’s] future […] make[s] us more aware of its contingent character in the past”.[xii] Historians can help make sense of these issues, utilising the histories of Romany and Traveller people to locate certainties in uncertain pasts, presents, and futures.

[i]‘Roma, Sinti, Gypsies, Travellers: The Correct Terminology about Roma’ at the InOther WORDS Project at The Web Observatory and Review for Discrimination Alerts and Stereotypes (2002); (accessed 21st May, 2012); Janaki Challa, “Why Being ‘Gypped’ Hurts the Roma More Than It Hurts You” at National Public Radio, 27th October, 2015)

[ii]J.G.A. Pocock, “British History: A Plea For A New Subject”, The Journal of Modern History, Vol. 47, No. 4 (Dec., 1975), 605

[iii]See for example Paola Toninato, “The Making of Gypsy Diasporas”, Translocations: Migration and Social Change”, Vol. 5, No. 1 (2009)

[iv]Jeffrey Sluka, “Irish Travellers” in Jeffrey Cole (ed.), Ethnic Groups of Europe: An Encyclopedia (2011), 202; Jane Helleiner, Irish Travellers: Racism and the Politics of Culture (2001), 49

[v]Quoted from Aidan McGarry, Who Speaks For Roma? Political Representations of a Transnational Minority Community (2010), 14

[vi]John Hartnett, Historical Representation and the Postcolonial Imaginary: Constructing Travellers and Aborigines (2014), 13

[vii]“Romani Cymru: Romani Wales Project” at 3rd September, 2015)

[viii]For an example of work already on this subject, see Becky Taylor A Minority and the State: Travellers in Britain in the Twentieth Century (2013), ch4

[ix]Julia Horton, “End of the Line for Scotland’s Native Pearl Mussel”, The Scotsman (25th November, 2012) at (accessed 30th October, 2015)

[x]Eddie Davis in Timothy Neat, The Summer-Walkers: Travelling People and Pearl-Fishers in the Highland of Scotland (2002 ed.), 108

[xi]Jodie Matthews, “Romanies/Gypsies, Roma & Irish and Scottish Travellers” (2011), at 25th October, 2015), 4.

[xii]Raphael Samuel, “British Dimensions: ‘Four Nations History’” in History Workshop Journal, No. 40 (Autumn, 1995), iv

Laura Newman is a third year PhD student. She is the current holder of an AHRC collaborative doctoral award between The Science Museum and King’s College London. Her PhD research looks at the history of germ theories of disease in relation to the British workplace from c.1880-1930. Her Masters research, however, focussed on Romany and Travellers in the British Isles and their construction as colonial subjects in the late Victorian state. She would like to thank Qristina Zavačková Cummings ( for her helpful remarks on an earlier draft of this blog. You can find her on twitter and


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s