One of the most coveted talents in The Book of Moons is storytelling and so I knew this had to be a feature in this blog series. I’m very pleased that I was able to sit down with storyteller and author, Jess Smith. A Scottish Traveller who grew up in Perthshire, Jess has penned six books, making it her personal mission to write down the true history and stories of her community.

Jess and I shared a wonderful conversation over Zoom where we talked about storytelling, stories and their importance to Scottish Travellers.

All my life living in a bus as a wee lassie, I was fascinated with every step I took. Every summer was another memory. And every mile was another breath that I took and I’d listen to the stories of Travelling people around the campfire when we went to the berries and the tatties lifting and there they just did it. It wasn’t prompted by anything. It was just: “Sit down there lassie and I’ll tell you this wee story.”

Kids went all round about the storyteller’s feet after they got their supper and then they listened to the stories and then we went to bed and then it was adult time.

So as each year, you know, passed me by I began to feel grown up and I shouldn’t be getting the kid stories around the ankles. I should be listening to the adult stories. So I would lie and listen to the craic of the adults and I found it wasn’t so much a particular story of the oral tradition. It was like they were on a daily basis sharing the whole kin. And if a mother had a baby, you know, what was it? If someone died, who was it? Who was related? You know, bringing the blood lines together. The conversations around the fire was the life of the Travellers. It was their way of spreading what really had passed, which was history past. And it was crucial that they kept all these details in everybody’s head. And it fascinated me that as I laid there and listened.

Jess with her family in 1956

Jess explained that her motivation to write her first book started after the passing of her father. He had written a book about his childhood and the discrimination he faced as a Scottish Traveller. Sadly the manuscript was rejected by publishers and Jess never had the opportunity to read it before he died. 

That’s when I started to write. But I needed to learn to spell. I didn’t go to school all that much. You know, school annoyed me. I ignored the teachers. So I had very little education but I had this part, you know this part that was beating like a drum to get me to share my story. Not to say, “look at me. I’m all alright.” I was nothing. Somewhere along the line, fate, call it what you will, I don’t know, was opening up this journey path for me.

But finding sources for the stories that would later become Jessie’s Journey became a harder task than she anticipated. Jess explained that many Travellers were weary to share their stories with her at first.

I think what they were waiting to see, you know, when they read the stories that I’d already discovered, that these stories were written properly, respectfully. And I think that’s all that most of them wanted. They didn’t want me to put in, you know, if it was a witch story, they didn’t want me putting in a wizard, you know. You’ve got the ability to tell a story, that doesn’t mean you’ve got the ability to steal from a tale that’s not yours.

After the success of Jessie’s Journey, Jess started to put together a collection of oral tales in Sookin’ Berries. Remembered from her childhood, she wanted this collection to be known as traditional Traveller stories, free for everyone to read and use.

Because it’s a little life, a story is. It’s a little life and it must live beyond me. It has to live beyond me because it’s a little life without a life span. It has to just have its freedom. And when we do that, we’re actually saying to the authorities ‘Look you’re not going to control us because we’re individuals.’ And that’s how we should all be, all of us.

I hope you all feel inspired to learn more about the storytelling culture in the Traveller community. 

Thank you to Jess Smith for taking the time to speak with me about her journey as a storyteller in the Scottish Traveller community. To learn more about Jess and her beautiful books visit her website here

Photos courtesy of Jess Smith.