About the Perth and Kinross Lieutenancy

Jess Smith – British Empire Medal

The storytelling of Perthshire woman Jess Smith, whose tales of her early travelling life have been appreciated far and wide, earned her an honour in the first New Year of King Charles III’s reign. Stephen Leckie, Lord-Lieutenant of Perth and Kinross, had the honour to present the author with a British Empire Medal (BEM) in recognition of her life’s work and for advancing justice for the Scottish Traveller community.

Jess was born in Aberfeldy to a traveller family and from the age of five she lived in a converted Bedford bus, beginning a decade of journeying in it from Dunfallandy. A traditional traveller’s life followed the seasons and harvests, usually remaining within their closed community. With 8 young children, her mother wanted to settle but her father wanted to travel so he bought a bus – with fitted carpets, beds and a stove. The family headed to Manchester but returned after the winter. The bus was home for 10 years and the family travelled from area to area with the children attending different schools. Jess absorbed the songs and stories of travellers. Life was happy and she had fun outside in the summer, watched deer, bathed in the river, took in the wild. The world she knew provided the material for 6 published books which have helped towards an understanding of the culture of Scotland’s travellers.

The first book The Way of the Wanderers came about after a death-bed promise she made as her father, Charlie Riley passed: “It was early 1982 and there we were: him at death’s door and me crying my eyes out, watching his life ebbing away. Gripped by the sheer helplessness of knowing that at any moment his sun would dip for the final time, I made a silent promise; to discover as much information about Scottish Travellers as it was possible to find, and write a book, a simple, easy to read book.”

Settled society has always discriminated against travellers and Jess went on to tell shocking stories of bullying, violence, the enforced break-up of families and separate schooling. Drawing on her own and her family’s experiences, she also captured the magic and drama of days wandering the roads and working the land, bringing to life the travellers’ rich and vibrant traditions. After The Way of the Wanderers, Jess penned an autobiographical trilogy, a story book and a novel. News of her writing –Jessie’s Journey, Bruar’s Rest, Way of the Wanderers, Sookin’ Berries, Tales from the Tent and Tears for a Tinker – has spread far and wide, despite not having an agent.

Jess was “overjoyed” by the recognition but could not accept her BEM medal for just herself, only “for the travelling people”.

Jess has been an active advocate for her community. In 2014 she began a Scottish Parliament petition which successfully won the right to have Tinker’s Heart of Argyll, the old wedding place of travellers, recognised as a scheduled monument by Historic Environment Scotland. It was a form of church where they took their young to be baptized and their deceased to be blessed before being laid to rest in the ancient nearby Hell’s glen. She has been committed to promoting a closer understanding of minorities in schools and in society as a whole.

The writer and activist has visited prisons, schools and groups across the country to share stories, “leading to dialogue of the culture that I am so proud to belong to.” The story-telling mission has taken her to Canada, New Zealand, Australia, other parts of the UK and Ireland.

Jess is proud to have created the charity HOTT (Heart Of The Travellers) “with several others”, to help give travellers of all ages a voice, through conversational film recordings. A recording, Sense of Identity went on to win a British Folklore Award.

Her activities have led Jess to be named by the Scottish Parliament as one of Scotland’s 100 women of Note. Jess was honoured to be “made” into a work of art, last year, chosen as one of Perthshire’s 20 wee Wire Women.

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