HYDERABAD: My visit to Dundee (Scotland) turned out all the more memorable due to the wonderful theatre experience I had there: watching a play “The Yellow on the Broom”. It gave me a peep into the cultural landscape of Scotland, the past that created the present. Escaping from the cold wind outside I was ensconced in the warmth of the close, intimate auditorium, those few hours I became one of them, the cast, and the period it has taken the characters and me to. I shared the joys and the sorrows of the travelling communities and their hardships: empathising, feeling, laughing and crying.
I know the Scottish broom; a wildly grown shrub that comes in a lovely, vibrant yellow. Attractive flowers appear from March through June, featuring clusters of strongly scented, vibrant yellow blooms that give way to small, brownish-black pea pods in autumn. It is when the flowers start appearing, the travellers move to a new place. The yellow represents the joyous trait of the travellers while its hardiness and its tenacity to survive even in tough terrains reflect the hard life and the will to survive of the nomads. The lives of both depend on the changing seasons while they face fresh challenges. Well, this is totally my interpretation and this is what I felt as I was watching the play.
The play offers a historic glimpse into the lives of the Tayside Travelling community in the newest performance at Dundee Rep, a reputed theatre house based in Dundee. Adapted from Betsy Whyte’s beloved autobiography and presented by the Dundee Rep Ensemble, “The Yellow on the Broom” is a heartfelt, funny, and rich account of human endeavour. Filled with live music and song, Bessie’s story both passionately tells of her life and vividly portrays the prejudice faced by Travellers.
In 1930s Perthshire, Bessie Townsley is growing up in the Travelling community. Her mother and father teach her the ways of the land, but their lifestyle is under threat. With winter approaching, the family settle in Brechin for the season. There, Bessie must attend 100 days of compulsory schooling and although she shows promise in the classroom, those around her viciously attack the travelling life she adores. This is where some of the audience turn misty-eyed.
Here we can look into the autobiographical nature of the play. It is the true story of Betsy Whyte, who was born into a traveller family in 1919 and brought up in the age-old tradition of the ‘travellers’ – constantly moving around the country and settling down in one place only during the winter. It was while the family were ‘housed up’ at this time of year that she received her education, attending a number of village schools before winning a scholarship to Brechin High school, where she was the only traveller child. She gave up the traveller life when she married in 1939 and started writing about her childhood in the 1970s. The Yellow on the Broom is the first part of Betsy Whyte’s autobiography.
Not only is it a fascinating insight into the life and customs of traveller people in the 1920s and 1930s, but it is also a thought-provoking account of human strength and weakness, courage and cowardice, understanding and prejudice by a sensitive and entertaining writer.
The cultural ethos that comes across through in this play is that Travellers are people who are committed to a nomadic lifestyle and see travelling as an important part of their ethnic or cultural identity. Unfortunately, many people are prejudiced against travellers and their way of life, and as a result, travelling people faced a great deal of discrimination and harassment. As an indigenous group, Highland
Travellers have played an essential role in the preservation of traditional Gaelic culture.
Travellers’ outstanding contribution to Highland life has been as custodians of an ancient and vital singing, storytelling and folklore tradition of great importance. Scottish travelling folk have clan names and use ‘cant’, a Scottish traveller language. I could not understand most of the dialogues in the play. Never mind, emotions have no language. I can empathise with the travelling communities wherever they are: I see them here in India, and in many other parts of the world. They are all alike in spirit: to withstand what life throws at them and give a sunny smile like the Scottish broom swaying in the breeze.
(The author is a documentary filmmaker and travel writer; she blogs at ijayaprataptravelandbeyond.com)