In Scotland, old-time gypsy caravans make for surprisingly cozy overnight digs


Restored traditional gympsy caravans dubbed Holly, left, and Rowan offer an escape in bucolic Bramble Bield, near Stirling, Scotland. (Cat Kilgour)
May 29

It wasn’t the farmyard cockerel that finally woke us from our slumbers. Nor was it the sheep, baa-ing contentedly as they munched grass just 20 yards from our beds. It was a strange dry coughing, half bark and half hack, which we later found out came from the roe deer that had taken up an early-morning vigil in the apple orchard.

Nature’s soundtrack certainly beats the car alarms, slamming doors and student parties that disturb our sleep at home in central Edinburgh.

Welcome to Bramble Bield, a peaceful haven just three miles from the historic Scottish city of Stirling, where visitors bed down in traditional gypsy caravans cutely dubbed Holly and Rowan.

Our home for a recent weekend was Holly, a beautiful, bottle-green bow-top caravan, built in the 1940s as a home on wheels and hand-painted with prancing horses, gold scrollwork and the obligatory lucky horseshoe.

Holly and Rowan stand in a secluded glade of beech, ash and hawthorn trees, a bucolic spot at the foot of the Ochil Hills and a short drive from the Victorian spa town of Bridge of Allan. When my 6-foot-4 husband, our 3-year-old son, Bram, and I finally emerged from beneath our duvets, it was just in time to see the resident sheep being served their breakfast.

“This is Stumpy,” said Colin Kilgour, the owner of Bramble Bield and a hobby farmer, pointing to a particularly docile-looking sheep. He tipped a bucket of feed into the trough and, proving that appearances can be deceiving, Stumpy shoved his way to the front. “There was a roe deer in the field earlier this morning,” said Colin, identifying the cougher. Pheasants, squirrels and rabbits are also regular guests.

Over at the chicken coop, a magnificent ginger rooster with emerald-green tail feathers was strutting around as if he owned the place, surrounded by a dozen clucking hens. Colin handed us a half-dozen freshly laid eggs to cook for our breakfast. They were still warm.

Several years ago, Colin and Jane, his wife, bought the caravans, which stand on the grounds of their 18th-century mansion, Powis House, and have lovingly restored them to their former glory, when they were used as traveling homes. They got one directly from the owner, who had become crippled with arthritis and had moved into a house; the other they found on eBay. In addition to re-covering the roofs with canvas to keep the worst of the Scottish weather out, they freshened up the paint, enlisting the help of their daughter, Cat, who consulted books on traditional Romany caravan design.

Though undeniably compact, Holly is ingeniously designed, with cupboards and drawers tucked into every nook and cranny. The original shelf bed is raised several feet off the floor; Bram was thrilled to be sleeping underneath us in a traditional gypsy “cupboard bed.”

Colin pointed out a small wooden box on the back — a feature of all caravans — which most people assume held pots and pans. Actually, it housed the family rooster, or cockerel; Romany were traditionally keen on cockfighting as a sport. Above the box is a wooden shelf used to store hay for the horse.

These ornate caravans have been a feature of the British countryside for 200 years. They were first used by gypsy showmen traveling between fairs and circuses in the 1820s. Highly cherished and expensive to produce, the wagons were made using the finest oak, ash, pine, elm and walnut. Families and newly married couples commissioned craftsmen and coach-builders to make the caravans. It was a highly skilled job, and each caravan took up to a year to build.

Holly boasts her original cast-iron stove (and chimney), which still works, though Colin advised us that we’d be better off (and safer) cooking in the stables that he has converted into a kitchen, with all the mod-cons. There’s an adjoining shower room and a separate chemical toilet.

In their heyday, caravans like Holly and Rowan typically traveled up to 15 miles a day, pulled by one horse (or two when traveling over hilly ground). We, however, relied on our car to take us into the surrounding area, which teems with fascinating historical sites, including Stirling Castle, the Wallace Monument (named after the 13th-century Scottish freedom fighter William Wallace), the grave of folk hero Rob Roy and the site of the Battle of Bannockburn. It was there, 700 years ago, that the Scottish army of Robert the Bruce defeated the army of the English king, even though the Scots were outnumbered three to one.

We returned from a cold, wet day of sightseeing to find Holly surprisingly snug, thanks to the electric heater. Mugs of hot chocolate made with our electric kettle added to our contentment.

By our second night, we’d gotten used to the way the caravan gently rocked whenever the wind got up or one of us turned over. As I lay listening to the noises of the night, I couldn’t help thinking what a pity it was that these lovely old vehicles fell out of favor as travelers took to living in large modern caravans pulled by cars. Another factor was the arrival of television and cinema, which led to the demise of fairs and circuses, for so long a source of seasonal work for the nomadic traveler community. The only time you see these caravans on Britain’s roads today is en route to horse fairs such as the one at Appleby, in Cumbria, a high point in the travelers’ social calendar.

Interestingly, though, the caravans are making a comeback outside their traditional community, as quirky holiday homes, garden offices and children’s playhouses.

As we packed up, I was dreaming of buying a caravan like Holly. I even found one advertised online for $3,000 — a steal. If only our city center apartment had a garden to put it in, a world of relaxed, free-spirited living could be mine.

Prentice is a journalist based in Edinburgh. Her first book, “The Lost Tribe of Coney Island,” will be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in October.

DETAILS

Bramble Bield

Powis House

Stirling, Scotland

011-44-1786-460231

www.bramblebield.com

From $230 for two nights to $675 for seven nights in low season (March through October) and from $265 for two nights to $775 for seven nights in high (July and August). Closed November through February. Rates include bedding, towels, toiletries and continental breakfast.

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