Why Kirkcaldy holds special place in heart of traveller, storyteller and author Jess Smith

Jess aged 12 and her father at Lenny's Yard in the Gallatown, Kirkcaldy
Jess aged 12 and her father at Lenny's Yard in the Gallatown, Kirkcaldy

Kirkcaldy holds a special place in the heart of traveller, storyteller and author Jess Smith.

For it was here in the Victoria Hospital in the Langtoun early in 1982 that she made a silent promise to her dying father to keep alive the old ways of the travelling people by writing a book of memoirs about their lifestyle and dispelling some of the negativity around their culture.

Jess Smith with her family. Jess is front left with the child in her lap

Jess Smith with her family. Jess is front left with the child in her lap

As she says: “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.

“Yet as I walked away from the hospital as the lined sheet was being pulled across his face I knew there was no way I could write as much as a goodbye note, let alone a book in memory of that good man, my father, Charles Riley.”

However, more than 30 years later not only has she fulfilled her promise by writing his promised book ‘The Way of the Wanderers’ but she has also penned six books and helped share her unique experiences of the lifestyle of the travelling people with countless groups of children and adults by giving talks in schools and community groups around the country.

And she is preparing to give one of her popular talks to Fifers at the next meeting of the Markinch Heritage Group next Thursday, December 7, at 7pm in the Memorial Hall, Betson Street.

Jess Smith

Jess Smith

Entitled ‘A Travelling Woman’s Memories of the Kingdom’ Jess will entertain guests with old campfire stories, songs and legends passed down through her family, a long line of old-style travelling people.

And she took time from her busy schedule to tell the Press what she remembered of her time in Kirkcaldy.

“I have lots of relatives in Kirkcaldy and the town has hundreds of travellers who come from all over Scotland and England for the Links Market every year. Some of these have married and settled in the town and made their lives there.

“I remember Daddy drove us in our bus, an old single decker Bedford bus which was our home from when I was around six years old, to Lenny’s yard in Kirkcaldy.

Jess Smith (centre) with her mum and an old friend Mrs Reekie

Jess Smith (centre) with her mum and an old friend Mrs Reekie

“I think it was a brick storage yard or something like that and it was surrounded by a red brick wall.

“I was about 11 at the time and we spent about four winters there. I went to Sinclairtown Primary then Viewforth High School and I remember it being a very happy time of my life.

“Of course because we were ‘different’ from other children I was bullied by some of the other children, but I never really let it bother me, because it was their problem, not mine.

“I remember one occasion where I had just got a lovely leather satchel for school and a group of girls grabbed it off me and threw it on the railway line.

“I was angry and wanted to beat them up but a group of miners coming home from the pit had seen what happened and went and got my bag back for me.

‘‘I remember thinking I love this place and I could have settled here, but it wasn’t to be.”

While the family spent the winters in Kirkcaldy they travelled around the country in the summer and Jess recalls it was a great way of life for her and her seven siblings.

“My father used to do all sorts of jobs for farmers in Perthshire and my mum’s people were from Argyll, so we had connections there too, so we travelled all over the countryside and us children loved it.

“I had such a connection to nature and when I wrote my books I found myself once again chasing the red squirrel or running through the fields or paddling in the sea on the west coast of Scotland. It was a great life for a child.”

When she was around 15 Jess worked for a spell in the papermill in Leslie and recalls “the roller-heided women” who took her under their wing and showed her the ropes.

She lived with her sister in Glenrothes for a while before marrying a non-traveller and eventually settling in Crieff.

Her talk to the Markinch Heritage Group is open to members and non-members for whom the entrance fee is £2.

For more information visit: www.markinchheritage.org.uk.