The Travellers’ BowcampSometimes, we have an unusual-looking green structure standing here. In the past, this would have been a familiar sight in the Scottish countryside. It is a bowcamp, a temporary shelter used by the Gypsy-Traveller families.
Farms depended on the extra labour offered by the Gypsy-Travellers. They lived in these shelters as they moved around for seasonal work like turnip thinning, berry picking or harvest. Similar shelters were also used by non-Travellers, who were working away from home on tasks such as tree-felling or land drainage. It is a sturdy, warm place, with plenty of room for cooking, eating, sleeping and storage.
The bowcamp (also known as a bowtent or gelly) has a frame made of thin and flexible branches, usually hazel or willow. These are pushed into the ground, bent over, and tied with thin rope or strips of torn cloth. Over the top of this goes a large sheet of heavy, waterproofed canvas. This falls down the sides and spreads out onto the ground, where it is held in place with heavy stones. If necessary, a shallow ditch is dug around the bowcamp, outside the line of the stones. This is to carry away rainwater, keeping the inside dry.
[caption id="attachment_22868" align="alignnone" width="800"] Inside a bow tent. The stove’s chimney funneled smoke out of the tent through a hole in the canvas.[/caption]
Inside, you can see two beds made from piled up straw, a few pieces of simple furniture, and the boxes used to carry everyday items from place to place. Beside the entrance is a small wood-burning stove for cooking and heat. This is called a ‘tank and lum’. Look carefully, and you will see it has been made from an old gas cylinder: the ‘lum’ is the chimney.
Now, large waterproof tents made from light, strong materials are cheap. This wasn’t always the case. Most of the materials to make a bowcamp were easily available and free. Often, only the canvas sheet had to be bought, and a good quality one would last two or three years. The branches that make the frame, known as ‘campsticks’, were renewed when they became dry and brittle. Usually, when the bowcamp came down they were bundled up and put on the cart to be carried to the next camp. The stones to weigh down the sheet would be taken from the nearest dyke, but then replaced when the camp moved on. Most Travellers were very careful to leave few traces of their stay, so they would be welcomed if they came back.
Kathy and her family harvesting potatoes at Auchindrain.
An advantage of the way in which a bowcamp is built was that they could be made larger or smaller, depending on how many people they had to accommodate. A small one like ours would have been used by one family in a ‘summer camp’, on a farm where there was work for a few days or a couple of weeks. In a winter camp where families would stay for several months, the structures were much larger. Boards would be laid to make a floor, old carpets would be fixed to the sticks as insulation, and the tank would come inside for cooking and heat – the lum went out through a sheet metal collar set into the canvas roof.
Our bowcamp stands in memory of Jimmy Townsley (1961-2015), who taught us how to build it.