About The Author
Jess Smith lives in Invergeldie, Glen Lednock. Her inspiration flows from the ghostly waterfalls, hills and mountains surrounding her countryside home. She comes from a long line of Travelling people and writes exclusively about her early years as a misty wanderer. Jess is also heavily involved in researching the ancestral roots of the Travelling people. She regularlyappears at literary and storytelling festivals throughout Britain and across the word.
Her books include Bruar's Rest, an epic tale of love and loyalty set against the backdrop of World War I, Sookin' Berries, a collection of stories for younger readers, three volumes of autobiography Jessie's Journey, Tales from the Tent and Tears from a Tinker, and Way of the Wanderers, a very personal take on the history of Travellers in Scotland.
Below we present two extracts from Jessie's Journey in which she recalls the years between the ages of five and fifteen that she spent with her parents, sisters and a mongrel dog in an old, blue Bedford bus. Travelling throughout Scotland and England, the family frequently encountered abuse and hostility, but driven by the need to travel, they found new places to set up camp, where, under the unchanging stars they brewed up tea, telling stories and singing songs late into the night.
You can find out more about Jess on her official website.
As we drove along the coast road, more and more delightful camping spots came into view. 'Oh Daddy, look at the waves coming onto the beach, this will do.' Then another just as appealing inlet brought forth more ooohs and aaaahs. Then we saw it: our heavenly campsite, big enough to take vans, tents and washing lines. It was off the road in a sparsely-wooded area, with plenty of unspoilt grass to soften our sleep. A few flat rocks provided fine seating, with a place to put a safe fire for cooking. Most important of all, there was our very own swimming pool: the blue-green waters of God's own Atlantic Ocean. Heady scents from azalea and rhododendron shrubs growing wild in the wood would lull our slumber, while a fresh salty sea spray would awaken the senses come morning light. Could anyone ask for better?
After helping pitch tents, Anna and I squeezed into the year before's cossies and joined the jellyfish, which looked for all the world like rolled-up chiffon scarves floating on the sea's surface. Bobbing in the lukewarm water within the rock pools and kicking aside stringy threads of green seaweed, my cousin and I hugged each other. We were thirteen, almost grown-up. Life felt terrific, we would never forget Arran.
The next morning we were welcomed by a warm sun which seemed to shine just for us. 'I'm going dooking, anybody joining me?' I called, pushing a leg into a sandy, damp swimming costume.
'Hey, ma lady, you're going for milk and rolls, that's where you're going,' called my Mother. 'So get the legs into a pair of dry shorts - dooking, indeed.'
Anna laughed, saying, 'See ya later'. Auntie Jessie grabbed her mermaid daughter before she plunged into the waves, saying, 'And you can go with Jessie. Bring back the day's papers to see if the world is still turning.'
We both reluctantly slipped from our cossies, donned vests and shorts, then made our way into the town. En route we left the road to skip along an ancient harbour-wall, long since deserted for a new one. The crystal-clear water was filled with many kinds of sea life. Silkies (seals) and various colours of jellyfish shared the harbour with four giant basking sharks. 'Look at the fatness of yon brutes,' said Anna, adding, 'I've heard tell they are gentle creatures and couldn't hurt a fly.'
I peered down at the great beasts. 'They look as if they're dead. Are they real?'
Anna, having lived most of her life on the East Coast, Aberdeen to be exact, knew a lot about marine life. 'Yon brutes live their whole lives appearing dead-like. I've a pal who told me when she goes on holiday to Nairn she swims under them!'
'Don't believe that,' I said, unconvinced that anyone with tuppence-worth of sense could be so stupid or brave.
'Polly McPherson is her name, and next time you visit I'll take you to see her yourself. I'd seldom seen our Anna get rused, but the more I pooh-poohed the more she was determined to prove me wrong.
'Right,' she said, 'let's get in.'
'In where?' I asked, confused.
'In the water and swim under yon bellies. I know Polly would never lie, her being a minister's daughter, so let's see if it can be done!'
Without another word, my cousin stripped naked and dived in! I stiffened like a poker watching the water engulf her thin frame. As quickly as the ripples formed they just as instantly scattered, leaving Anna's head inches from the shiny black sea monster. 'Watch this,' she gurgled, then before I could find one word of protest, she was gone beneath her water companion's underside. Emerging at its other side and pushing her dripping hair from half-shut eyes, she called out to me, still open-mouthed, 'Come on, scaredy breeks, get yourself in. Polly was right, they're so big they don't even know I'm here.'
I can only describe my next actions as madness. Purple shorts and grey vest lay discarded on the ancient harbour wall while I found myself diving to join our Anna in the soft green water to swim below the basking sharks! Holding my hand she guided me under, then up. Twice, three times we swam. The gentle beasts, obviously unaffected by our presence, did not move; we even went as far as tickling their bellies with our toes. I think that moment was one of the most marvellous of my entire life. I felt half-fish, half-girl as the water filled my ears and a shark rolled his lazy eye to glance briefly at my form passing through his domain. All thoughts of the family waiting hungrily back at the campsite for milk and rolls were gone from our minds as we hurriedly donned our clothes. 'That was immense, I shall never forget,' whispered Anna. She never did, but then, neither did I.
'In future, if a bully gets me beat, I will know I've done something greater than they shall ever do!' I threaded my arm through Anna's and added, 'Let's keep this as our forever secret.'
'To tell no one until we die, right Jess?'
And to my knowledge this has been our secret until now, the swim below the sharks.
The thought of going back to school bullies brought me out in a sweat, and I was relieved that I qualified for two weeks' exemption to go tattie lifting. Farmers in the area employed fourteen-year-olds because they were short of adult workers to gather in their crops. Two weeks, however, is hardly any time at all, and soon I was imprisoned within high walls surrounded by my cruel torturers.
Apart from running the gauntlet with these degenerates, I enjoyed some school subjects to an extent. Art was always my favourite. Cookery was another fun subject, and guess what, I passed my recipe (well, Edie Dalrymple's, to be honest) of butter tablet on to the cookery teacher, who said it tasted better than hers.
What impressed the headmaster, and he invited my parents in to tell them, was my flair for writing magical tales. I had written an essay about a dying princess and the heroic efforts of a gypsy lad to save her. Our English teacher gave us the assignment of no more than five hundred words on any subject we liked. I got totally lost in my tale, and before I knew it had notched up five thousand. When I presented my effort to the teacher she took one look and said 'Take it away, it's far too long.' I was shattered, given that I'd worked well into the night, and as I walked down the corridor my eyes welled with tears. Mr Rollo, the head, asked why the sad face. Taken aback by such concern, I dropped my satchel at his feet, my essay pages sprawling over his highly-polished shoes. While he helped gather them up, I told him in a whisper why the sad face.
'Leave the story with me for a day or two, I'd like to read it,' he said.
Next day his secretary gave me the letter inviting my folks to see him. He asked that I be there, and when I think back on how proud they were it makes me feel so warm inside to think their wee travelling lassie could please such a prominent person.
'This girl has great potential as a writer,' he told them. 'I don't usually do this, but if you want there are certain teachers who could help further and nurture her abilities.'
Daddy thanked him, saying if that was what I wanted then by all means please to go ahead.
As I looked at the three faces staring at me and waiting for a response, I went quite red and mumbled that I'd think about it.
'Come back and discuss it with me, lass,' Mr Rollo said, as he shook my parents' hands in parting.
Of course I'd no intention of going to college or taking extra lessons; all I wanted was to travel! So I never saw the inside of his office again, but I must admit he was a good man. One thing he, the cookery teacher and art teacher overlooked, though, was that their attention was turning the bullies into jealous fiends. Sleekit kicks beneath desks had my shins permanently black and blue. Wicked jibes, pulled hair and elbowed cheeks had become my daily dose, and with each day something deep within my weakened, terrified brain was stirring. How long would I be prepared to take this? When, if at all, would I snap? One day I'd show them, but not today.
Granny Power was into her eighty-fourth year, and everybody took turns sitting in the evenings with her. I remember one foggy night whilst I was there. She was in her chair by the fire and I was at her feet. Granny loved brushing my hair, and while I sat nestled against her legs I felt a shiver run through my spine. The brush fell from her hand. When I turned to see my dear old Granny, she was deathly pale. The rose had left her cheeks, and even I could see something was wrong. She gently stroked my hair, asking if I'd fetch her shawl from the bedroom, before saying she needed Mammy. I felt she shouldn't be alone and told her so. She took my hand, brushed it across her lips and repeated her request. Something inside said I had to obey. As I walked up the road to fetch my mother, I had a feeling I'd never see my beloved Granny again and I was right.
That night, circled by her family, she slipped peacefully away. (Love you.)
For the next few weeks relatives came and went, visiting us and talking over old times. Travelling people do this after a loved one goes; they try to keep the memory of the departed alive for as long as they can.
Thankfully, as a result of a fortnight of tonsillitis following Granny's death, I was freed once more from my school tormentors.