One of the least known groups of basket-makers in Scotland are the Travelling people. We know from historical accounts by authors such as Timothy Neat and from the School of Scottish Studies Archives that, alongside working as tinsmiths and making horn-ware, until recently Travellers made and mended baskets in the Highlands and the west of Scotland. They also made besoms and brushes from heather. There are few in depths accounts by people who have witnessed this.
During this project we have met many people from Highland areas such as Kingussie, Dunkeld and even Skye, who recall seeing Travellers selling baskets 20 or 30 years ago. I, myself, (Steph) remember meeting (quite by accident in the early 1990s) Duncan Williamson near Dunkeld who showed me and my friends a cleave for splitting willow into three strands for basket-making. Rachel Chisholme, curator at the Highland Folk Museum, told us a childhood memory on a family trip to Skye of passing a group of Travellers camped in a lay-by selling baskets, very reminiscent of a photograph in this post, and several people have told us of Travellers coming door to door selling baskets in the past.
We do have some illustrations from the School of Scottish Studies, and the Scottish Life Archive which show Travellers making baskets and even give some of the common names they used in basket-making. From the examples we have seen, frame baskets look to have been very commonly made by Travellers. The willow they used is often quite uneven or rough, suggesting that they used what was available in the region. Stories abound of Travellers planting willow whips in hedgerows and by burns during their journeys, and returning each year to harvest these. Such stands of willow, growing wild now rather than annually managed, can be seen, for example, by the road-side in Skye, and in many country areas.
The Scottish Life Archive has some excellent photos of a Traveller making baskets at Oathlaw in Finavon (near Forfar), Angus. He is producing scores of what look to be tattie sculls, frame baskets from spale or laths, made for gathering potatoes. Such baskets did not last long, which is probably why they were produced in such numbers. The archive also provides a list of terms used by John White, ‘a basket-maker and vagrant’, recorded in the Grassmarket in Edinburgh. Most of the terms are in Scots rather than Gaelic, the language spoken by many Highland Travellers. They include ‘Hawkin’ rushie’ for a long basket, ‘Gani- rushie’ for a ‘clockin’ hen basket’, and ‘ferrantin’ for round weaving.
The School of Scottish Studies has some of the best photo and audio documentation of Travellers. These include photographs of the above-mentioned John White making a stake and strand basket and an ‘Ose’ or ‘hen’ basket in the garden at the School. SCRAN duplicates some of these images, here describing John as a ‘Traveller’. The School also features images from the Kissling archive of a frame basket-maker from the Borders.
The Scottish Life Archive: Baskets and creels section.
Timothy Neat: The Summer Walkers. 1996, Birlinn, Edinburgh
The School of Scottish Studies: photo-archive
See also SCRAN and Am Baile websites