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From The Tinker’s Cross

Most people know about The Tinker’s Cross, beside the main road at Carraig, near Lochgair, but few people know,
perhaps even remember, why it is there. It is in memory of 15-year old Charles Townsley who died on October 28,
1914.

It is said that he had lain down in the ditch to sleep and was drowned by a sudden flood of water from a rain-storm and
a month later, on November 28, 1914, a wooden cross with a metal plate, bearing Charles Townsley’s name.
Charles father, also Charles, was married to Betsy, a MacKenzie.

The foot of the little cross is surrounded with white quartz pebbles and from time to time people have wedged coins in
to the arms and post of the cross. Every November too, a red poppy is inserted behind the name-plate, three
Townsley’s from Furnace joined The Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders in ‘The Kaiser’s War’ and forfeited their lives.

There is a similar, less well-known cross beside the Burn of Ariskeodnish at Kilmartin, also in memory of a woman
tinker who drowned in similar circumstances, this time one of the Stewart clan.

The religion of the tinkers may be easy-going like their manner of life but most are God-fearing and loosely adhere to
the Protestant or Catholic churches - it depends which produces the better results !

They are quite happy to talk to clergymen of either persuasion, agree with what is said and give the answers which they
think might be wanted ! They appreciate regular visits from the clery and are in favour of their children being properly
baptised, properly married and properly buried and tinker funerals are largely attended by relatives and friends from
across the counties - The customs may be more of social than religious significance but they are widely followed.

After World War II, the traditional camping places were often being ploughed up, planted or fenced in and, though
Argyll police did not harass the tinkers about their camps, other forces would. Tinkers are reluctant to give up
traditional ways and few relish the idea of settling in Council Houses. The majority refuse to give up their itinerant
mode of life travelling not for economic reasons but from a deep-rooted habit of nomadism.

The tinkers go back to remote antiquity but they are not Gypsies though there may be gypsy blood in some families
through inter-marriage.

The first mention of tinkers appears during the reign of William ‘The Lion’ (1165-1214) when there is a note of one
James, tinkler, who held land near Perth.

A more probable clue to their origin may be found in the descriptions of tinker, tinkler, caird or kaird which have
been employed for centuries but terms which too often cause offence as they are all too often used as terms of
contempt.

Tinker, Scoticé Tinkler, means a worker in tin and some of the Argyll tinkers may be traced back as the descendants of
the migrant artificers who worked in The Crinan Basin and Mid-Argyll generally.

Tinsmiths were often to be found at Allt na Ceardaich ‘The Burn of The Smithy’ on Lochfyneside, a favourite place
for adders. Two tents would be pitched at an angle to each other, a fire kindled between them and the smiths, sitting
cross-legged in the firelight, their clinking tools echoing in the night, were often to be seen and heard from the far side
of Loch Fyne.

Before tin became too expensive, the tinkers would used brand new tin from the factory and only later resorted to old
used cans for their wares. Holes in kettles and pans were repaired by screwing two metal discs, known as ‘dams’,
together and leaks soldered there and then. The expression ‘not worth a tinker’s dam’ refers not to any form of
profanity but to these small and important metal discs.

The traditional tinkers’ tents, known as ‘Bow Tents’, were built with bent willow or ash branches some 12-feet long
and 1 or 2-inches thick. Many of the canvas tent covers were specially-made by “Blacks of Greenock”, the well-known
tent-makers who even had one of their camping tent designs called ‘The Tinker’. Blacks’ tinker customers, unlike
others ( ! ), paid cash up front too and were always put first in line for orders !

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Even today, beside the lorries, pick-ups, buses and caravans, the tinkers still have their tents - by “Blacks of
Greenock” !

The Children Act, 1908 (followed by The Children and Young Persons (Scotland) Act, 1937) required that children
over the age of five had to make two hundred attendances at school between October and March - there was,
thankfully for the tinkers, no obligation for the children to attend between April and September and thus they were
‘theoretically’ free for the harvests.

It is wrong to think that tinker children are retarded and backward and tinker children are in many ways often more
mature for their years, able to look after themselves, count and handle money carefully and source food from the
natural world on their ‘doorstep’.

Tinkers’ children are spotlessly clean, even if sometimes a little oddly dressed. Many of the girls are good at fine
sewing, the boys good with mechanics and electricity and many are very musical and have good artistic sense and have
a particularly perceptive sense of colour. Few, either boys or girls, have much interest in ball-games in which they see
little value and they will slip quietly away to find something more productive to do.

Despite there large lack of conventional schooling, many have an insatiable thirst for books and most have very
retentive memories, a gift from their story-telling forebears.

The tinkers have a distinctive inherited way of life with deep-rooted traditions, standards of value and behaviour and
they are suspicious of outsiders.

Little importance is placed on appearance, clothes are not a symbol of status. They may wear cast-off clothes but, they
will not wear the clothes of the dead, a dangerous persuasion. They are apprehensive of disease and will leave a house
immediately if told of any infection.

Tinkers are polite and expect politeness in return and they regard it as the height of bad manners to ask questions of
persons whom one does not know intimately.

If they ask at the door for some cooking salt, they insist on paying at least a penny in exchange for it is otherwise
unlucky for both parties. Too it would be shameful if they failed to offer food or drink to a visitor to their tent.

Strangers too entered the tinkers’ ranks at the time of the Highland Clearances and The Famines when former house-
holders were forced out and too there was the effect of The Industrial Revolution which created a nomadic and casual
agricultural labour force.

At the same time, particularly in the agricultural communities, inter-marriage between tinkers and non-tinkers - often
resulting in a family of red-haired offspring - was not uncommon.

Though the tinkers and their tents may not now be as visible as they once were, the tinker family names live on.

The MacAlastairs, in Tobermory till 1920 and in Islay till 1925, were well-known for their skills with tin. There were
also itinerant knife-sharpeners travelling the country and the last only disappeared, in Ayrshire and Renfrewshire, in
the mid-1970’s.

The MacPhees of St. Catherines were of course well known for their basket-work and the Williamsons at Furnace, one
known as “Heather Jock”, used to make birch-handled heather ‘besoms’ and pot brushes. The Stewarts were well-
known horse-dealers and the Johnstones in Oban, formerly from Strachur, reared Cairn Terriers for sale.

The Hays, Bones and Newtons from Lochgilphead were all dealers in pottery and others carved spoons and cups from
horn, a trade which died out with the death of the last horn-spoon maker in 1889.

The tinkers were good construction workers but hated settling in any one place for long. When a blasting accident
injured the foreman at Kilmichael Glassary on September 25, 1951, it was one of the Williamsons who leapt to his
assistance and quickly rendered the proper first aid, using a scarf as a tourniquet, an act for which the foreman was
ever grateful.

Some tinkers were scrap-merchants and no tinker would think of lifting a piece of scrap metal from the grass near a
church without first drawing the attention of the minister to it and then making him a formal offer !
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Some families were ‘hawkers’, a term they do not mind, selling round the houses. The Jamesons from Strachur selling
haberdashery; the Morrens from Islay, household linen and the MacPhees selling carpets and linoleum too and then
there are the “long” travellers, from Ireland, still appear each year looking for ‘antiques’ to take home and sell-on to
American tourists.

The Morrens or Morans came from both Islay and Kintyre; the Kellys from Rannoch now in Ballachulish; the
Johnstones from Strachur and now too in Oban and Lochgilphead; the Camerons from Oban; the Stewarts from
Dumbarton and Auchterarder; MacDonalds from Crieff and from Skye; Jamesons from Strachur and, of course, the
MacPhees from St. Catherines.

Some tinkers are descended from the defeated clans, especially after the ’45 and Culloden and some names, once listed
as “lurking”, have now totally disappeared.

Those with names of Stewart, MacPhee, MacDonald and MacGregor belonged to the ‘Broken Clans’ and other names
such as Campbell may have sought shelter under the protection of the stronger clans.

Then there are the Burkes, many now settled in Greenock, who came from Ettrick Bay in Bute and who had interests
in Islay and had the ‘puffers’, “Cloch Lass”, “Cumbrae Lass” and “Toward Lass”, which used to take away all the
scrap and rubbish from the American submarine base at The Holy Loch.

Therein too lies a modern mystery, the secret of the ‘missing puffer’ - Willie Burke bought the “Mellite” from Ross &
Marshall, the only puffer without a ‘-light’ suffix to her name. She was old, built of iron (not steel), in 1878, as the
engineless barge “Salisbury”. In 1888, she was given a boiler and one of a pair of steam engines which had been
rescued from an old steam yacht built itself around 1840. The “Mellite” disappeared, “broken-up at Dalmuir”, would
mutter old Willie. Strange thing is, nobody ever saw her at Dalmuir and the suspicion is that she was quietly scuppered
and sunk somewhere quiet in the upper river, a real piece of Scotland’s maritime heritage as Willie well knew !

Thus the tale(s) of the travelling folk, The Tinkers.