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Itinerant groups in Europe

A Showman’s wagon, used for accommodation and transportation.

There are a number of traditionally itinerant or travelling groups in Europe who are known as "travellers" or "gypsies".

The origins of the indigenous itinerant groups are unclear. They have been assumed to have taken up the travelling lifestyle out of necessity at some point during the Early Modern period but to not be ethnically distinct from their source population. However, recent DNA testing has shown that the Irish Travellers are genetically distinct from their settled counterparts, and more groups are being studied.

Many groups speak their own language or dialect (distinct from the settled population); it's often a blend of the local settled language and Romani language, even in non-Romani groups.

The largest of these groups are the Romani people, who have Indian roots and heritage, who left India around 1,500 years ago entering Europe around 1,000 years ago; this includes the Sinti people, who are themselves the second largest group. The third largest group in Europe is the Yenish, an indigenous Germanic group.

As opposed to nomads who travel with and subsist on herds of livestock, itinerant groups traditionally travel for trade or other work for the sedentary populations amongst which they live.

Indigenous Dutch Travellers

Indigenous Travellers in the Netherlands ("caravan dwellers" or "Woonwagenbewoners") are first mentioned in the 1879 census, although boat dwellers who practised the same professions (chair bottomers, traders, peddlers, artisans, etc.) were common before then.[1]

Indigenous Norwegian Travellers

A group who call themselves Reisende. Confusingly, this term is also used by the Romanisæl (Tater) people[citation needed], the Romani group of Norway and Sweden. Unlike the Tater people, the indigenous Norwegian Travellers are non-Romani by culture and origins, and they do not speak any form of Romani language. Instead, their language is ‘Rodi’ which is a Norwegian dialect.

Irish Travellers (Pavee)

By blood, the Pavees are Irish, but have a separate language and culture than the settled Irish.[2] They live predominantly in Ireland, the United Kingdom and the United States.[3] Travellers refer to themselves as Minceir or Pavees in their own language or in Irish as an Lucht Siúil, meaning literally "the walking people". The term Pikey is a pejorative slang term used mainly in the United Kingdom to refer to Irish Travellers. The language of the Irish Travellers, Shelta, is mainly based on an Irish Gaelic lexicon and an English grammar. There are two dialects of this language: Gammon (or Gamin) and Cant. It has been dated back to the eighteenth century but may be older.[4] The vast majority of Irish Travellers are Roman Catholics who maintain their traditions and culture in a close knit community of families.

In 2011 an analysis of DNA from 40 Travellers showed that Irish Travellers are a distinct Indigenous Irish ethnic minority who separated from the settled Irish community at least 1000 years ago; the claim was made that they are as distinct from the settled community as Icelanders are from Norwegians.[5]

Like other itinerant groups they have often been racially discriminated against in the past and still are today. They were only recognised as an official ethnic group in the Republic of Ireland on March 1, 2017.


The Quinqui or mercheros of Spain are a minority group, formerly nomadic, who share a similar way of life with the Spanish Roma. There are a few theories about their origin: they may be peasants who lost their land in the 16th century, descendants of Muslims who took to nomadism to avoid persecution, or marginalised people who have mixed with Roma. Most likely they are a mixture of all of the above. In spite of sharing persecution and mores with the Roma, the Quinqui have often set themselves apart from them.


Sinti Romanies in the Rhineland, 1935.

The best known of these communities are the Romani people (also Romany, Romanies Tzigani, Rromani, and variants). The Romani have Indo-Aryan roots and heritage and first entered Europe via the Middle East around a thousand years ago. They spread further through Europe during the 15th and 16th centuries, separating into various subgroups in the process.

Scottish Gypsy and Traveller groups

There are multiple Gypsy and Traveller groups in Scotland.

Scottish Lowland Romani Gypsies/Travellers

The Lowland Scottish Travellers, whose origins are unclear. Their ethnic origins can be categorised into two main theories:

1.) They are Romani in origin and have a common ancestry with the English Romanichal, and their language and culture simply diverged from the language and culture of the Romanichal like what happened with the Welsh Kale.

2.) They are a fusion or mix of Romani and an indigenous Lowland Scottish Traveller group, and their roots are just as Romani as they are Scottish.

Regardless of both theories, Lowland Gypsies are still viewed as a Romani group, with Romani culture clearly being a massive part of Scottish Lowland Traveller culture.

Scottish Romanichal Travellers (Border Gypsies)

It is also important to note that Romanichal Traveller communities exist in the Scottish Borders, they are linguistically and culturally identical to the Romanichal Traveller communities in England and South Wales, as well as the Romanichal diaspora communities around the world. They are known locally as Border Gypsies/Travellers. They live in separate and distinct communities from Scottish Lowland Travellers, although both are Romani.

Indigenous Scottish Highland Travellers

The indigenous Scottish Highland Travellers also known as Ceardannan (Scottish Gaelic which means "the craftsmen" or 'Black Tinkers') or more poetically as the "Summer Walkers".

The Scottish Highland Travellers have their own now nearly extinct language based on Scottish Gaelic called Beurla Reagaird (or English Backwards). Highland Travellers are closely tied to their native Highlands the native Gaelic speaking population; they may follow an itinerant or a settled lifestyle. They have played an essential role in the preservation of traditional Gaelic culture.[6] Travellers' outstanding contribution to Highland life has been as custodians of an ancient and vital Gaelic singing, storytelling and folklore tradition of great importance. It is estimated that only 2,000 Scottish Highland Travellers continue to lead their traditional lifestyle on the roads.

Scottish Showman

Travelling showmen are a community of itinerants officially called occupational Travellers, that can be categorised as a community of travelling funfairs, circuses and fairground families. Occupational travellers travel for work across Scotland, the rest of the UK and even into Europe in some cases. They are a distinct group from other types of travellers.


Two Jenische in Muotathal, Switzerland, ca. 1890

In German-speaking Europe, France and Wallonia, there are the Jenische or Yeniche (in German and French spelling, respectively). An early description of this group was published by Johann Ulrich Schöll in 1793.

Travelling Showpeople (Showmen)

Showmen, also known as show travelers or travelling showpeople, are the members of families who own travelling funfairs and circuses, and are referred to as occupational travelers, who move around as part of their work. These groups formed across Europe, and included the families of travelling funfairs and circuses that required frequent mobility. These groups usually follow a set pattern of yearly nomadism. Membership of these groups has, over the years, been drawn from other communities. For example, showmen in Great Britain and Ireland often had a mix of English, Scottish, Welsh, Irish, and/or Romani (typically Romanichal) Gypsy heritage.

As a result, show travelers are not defined as an ethnic group, even though they display certain common features. Show travelers often sport unique cultures and self-identity, and they tend to be insular, favoring intermarriage[7], which results in long lineages and a strong sense of cultural homogeneity. For example, the Showman's Guild of Great Britain and Ireland requires that applicants have a parent from the showman traveler community.[8]

Many show travelers in the fairground and circus business across Europe have partial Romani heritage, evidenced by significant traces of the Romani language and matriarchal forms of social organisation. Despite this, the roots, culture, traditions, and identity of showman groups have remained separate from Romani groups.

See also


  1. ^ Gypsies and Other Itinerant Groups: A Socio-Historical Approach by Leo Lucassen, Wim Willems, Anne-Marie Cottaar, the Centre for the History of Migrants, University of Amsterdam, the Netherlands, 1998 Macmillan Press Ltd, ISBN 978-1-349-26343-1
  2. ^ Ethnicity and the American cemetery by Richard E. Meyer. 1993. "... though many of them crossed the Atlantic in centuries past to play their trade".
  3. ^ Questioning Gypsy identity: ethnic narratives in Britain and America by Brian Belton
  4. ^ Sharon Gmlech, op. cit., p. 234
  5. ^ Hough, Jennifer (2011-05-31). "DNA study: Travellers a distinct ethnicity". Blackpool, IE: Irish Examiner. Retrieved 2016-05-17. separated from the settled community between 1,000 and 2,000 years ago.
  6. ^ Travelling People — Highland Travellers.
  7. ^ Dallas, Duncan, (1971) The Travelling People, ISBN 9780333002971
  8. ^ National Fairground Archive.