Check all the Clans that have DNA Projects. If your Clan is not in the list there's a way for it to be listed.
Glenora Single Malt Whisky

Electric Scotland's Classified Directory An amazing collection of unique holiday cottages, castles and apartments, all over Scotland in truly amazing locations.
Scottish Review

Click here to get a Printer Friendly Page

History of the Gipsies

THE new era which the series of splendid works, called the Waverly Novels, created in literature, produced, among other effects, that of directing attention to that singular anomaly in civilization—the existence of a race of men scattered over the world, and known, wherever the English language is spoken, as Gipsies; a class as distinct, in some respects, from the people among whom they live, as the Jews at the present (lay. The first of the series in which their singular character?, habits, and modes of life were illustrated, was that of Guy Mannering; proving one of the few happy instances in which a work of fiction has been found to serve the end of specially stirring up the feelings of the human mind, in its various phases, toward a subject with which it has a common sympathy. The peasant and the farmer at once felt attracted by it, from the dread of personal danger which they had always entertained for the race, and the uncertainty under which they had lived, for the safety of their property from. fire and robbery, and the desire which they had invariably shown to propitiate them by the payment of a species of blackmail, under the form of kind treatment, and a manner of hospitality when occasion called for it. The work at the same time struck a chord in the religious and humane sentiments of others, and the result, but a very tardily manifested one, was the springing up of associations for their reformation; with comparatively little success, however, for it was found, as a general thing, that while some of time race allowed their children, very indifferently, even precariously, to attend school, yet to cure them of their naturally wandering and other peculiar dispositions, was nearly as hopeless as the converting of the American Indians to some of the ways of civilized life. That general class was, also interested, which consist of the; more or less educated, moral, or refined, to whom anything exciting comes with relish. To the historical student, the subject was fraught with matter for curious investigation, owing to the race having been ignored, for a length of time, as being in no respect different from a class to be found in all countries; and, whatever their origin, as having had their nationality extinguished in that general process which has been found to level every distinction of race in our country. The antiquary and philologist, in their respective pursuits, found also a sphere which they were unlikely to leave unexplored, considering that they are often so untiring in their researches in such matters as sometimes to draw upon themselves a smile from the rest of mankind: and while the latter was thinking that he had exhausted the languages of his native land, and was contemplating others elsewhere, he struck accidentally upon a mine under his feet, and at once turned up a specimen of virgin ore; coming all the more acceptably to him, from those in possession of it keeping it as secret as if their existence depended on its being concealed from others around them. All, indeed, but especially those brought up in rural places, knew from childhood more or less of the Gipsies, and dreaded them by day or night, in frequented or in lonely places, knowing well that, if insulted, they would threaten vengeance, if they could not execute it then; which they in no way doubted, with the terror of doomed men.

Among others, I felt interested in the subject, from having been brought up in the pastoral district of Tweed-dale, the resort of many Gipsies, who were treated with great favour by the inhabitants, for many reasons, the most important of which were the desire of securing their good-will, for their own benefit, and the use which they were to them in selling them articles in request, and the various mechanical turns which they possessed; and often from the natural generosity of people so circumstanced. My curiosity was excited, and having various sources of information at command, I proceeded to write a few short articles for Blackwood's Magazine, which were well received, as the following letters from Mr. William Blackwood will show:

"I now send a proof of No. 2 Gipsy article. I hope you are pleased, and will return it with your corrections on Monday or Tuesday. We shall be glad to hear you are going on with the continuation, for I assure you your former article has been as popular as anything almost we ever had in the magazine."


"Your magazine was sent this morning by the coach, but I had not time to write you last night. Mr. Walter Scott is quite delighted with the Gipsies."


"I am this moment favoured with your interesting packet. Your Gipsies, from the slight glance I have given them, seem to be as amusing as ever."

And again,

"It was not in my power to get your number sent off. It is a very interesting one. You will be much pleased with Mr. Scott's little article on Buckhaven, in which he pays you some very just compliments."

[The following is the article alluded to: "The following enquiries are addressed to the author of the Gipsies in Fife, being suggested by the research and industry which he has displayed in collecting memorials of that vagrant race. They relate to a class of persons who, distinguished for honest industry in a laborious and dangerous calling, have only this in common with the Egyptian tribes, that they are not originally native of the country which they inhabit, and are supposed still to exhibit traces of a foreign origin. . . . . I mean the colony of fishermen in the village of Buckhaven, in Fife. . .. .

"I make no apology to your respectable correspondent for engaging him in so troublesome a research. The local antiquary, of all others, ought, in the zeal of his calling, to feel the force of what Spencer wrote and Burke quoted: 'Love esteems no office mean.'—'Entire affections corneth nicer hands.' The curious collector who seeks for ancient reliques among the ruins of ancient Rome, often pays for permission to trench or did over some particular piece of ground, in hopes to discover some remnant of antiquity. Sometimes he gets only his labour, and the ridicule of having wasted it, to pay for his pains; sometimes he finds but old bricks and shattered potsherds; but sometimes also his toil is rewarded by a valuable medal, cameo, bronze, or statue. And upon the same principle it is, by investigating and comparing popular customs, often trivial and foolish in themselves, that we often arrive at the means of establishing curious and material facts in history."

This extract is given for the benefit of the latter part of it, which applies admirably to the present subject; yet falls as much short of it as the interest in the history of an Egyptian mummy falls short of that of a living and universally scattered race, that appears a riddle to our comprehension.]

At the same time I was much encouraged, by the author of Guy Mannering, to prosecute my enquiries, by receiving several communications from him, and conversing With him at Abbotsford, on the subject.

I received a letter from Sir Walter, in which he says:

"This letter has been by me many weeks, waiting for a frank, and besides, our mutual friend, Mr. Laidlaw, under whose charge my agricultural operations are now proceeding in great style, gave inc some hope of seeing you in this part of the country. I should like much to have asked you some questions about the Gipsies, and particularly that great mystery—their language. I cannot determine, in my own mind, whether it is likely to prove really a corrupt eastern dialect, or whether it has degenerated into mere jargon."

About the same time I received the following Ietter from Mr. William Laidlaw, the particular friend of Sir Walter Scott, and manager of his estate at Abbotsford, as mentioned in the foregoing letter; the author of "Lucy's Flittin," and a contributor to Blackwood:

"I was very seriously disappointed at not seeing you when you were in this (part of the) country, and so was no less a person than the mighty minstrel himself. He charged me to let him know whenever you arrived, for he was very anxious to see you. What would it be to you to take the coach, and three days before you, and again see your father and mother, come here on an evening, and call on Mr. Scott next day? We would then get you full information upon the science of defence in all its departments. Quarterstaff is now little practised; but it was a sort of Iegerdemain way of fighting that I never had muckle broo of, although I know somewhat of the method. It was a most unfortunate and stupid trick of the man to blow you up with your kittle acquaintances. I hope they will forgive and forget. I ain -very much interested about the language (Gipsy). Mr. Scott has repeatedly said, that whatever you hear or see, you should never let on to naebody, no doubt excepting himself. Be sure and come well provided with specimens of the vocables, as lie says he might perhaps have it in his power to assist you in your enquiries."

Shortly after this, Sir Walter wrote me as follows:

"The inclosed letter has long been written. I only now send it to show that I have not been ungrateful, though late in expressing my thanks. The progress you have been able to make in the Gipsy language is most extremely interesting. My acquaintance with most European languages, and with slang words and expressions, enables me to say positively, that the Gipsy words you have collected have no reference to either, with the exception of three or four. [I sent him a specimen of forty-six words. [Many words used in Scotland, in every-day life, are evidently derived from the Gipsy, owing, doubtless, to the singularity of the people who have used them, or the happy peculiarity of circumstances under which they have been uttered; the original cause of such passing current in a language, no less than that degree of personal authority which sometimes occasions them to be adopted. Randy, a disreputable word for a bold, scolding, and not over nicely worded woman, is evidently derived from the Gipsy reunic, the chief of a tribe of viragos; so that the exceptions spoken of are as likely to have been derived from the Gipsy as vice versa.—Ea.]

I have little doubt, from the sound and appearance, that they are Oriental, probably Hindostanee. When I go to Edinburgh, I shall endeavour to find a copy of Grellmann, to compare the language of the German Gipsies with that of the Scottish tribes. As you have already done so much, I pray you to proceed in your enquiries, but by no means to make anything public, as it might spread a premature alarm, and obstruct your future enquiries. It would be important to get the same words from different individuals ; and in order to verify the collection, I would recommend you to set down the names of the persons by whom they were communicated. It would be important to know whether they have a real language, with the usual parts of speech, or whether they have a collection of nouns, combined by our own language. I suspect the former to be the case, from the specimens I have had. I should like much to see the article you proposed for the magazine. I am not squeamish about delicacies, where knowledge is to be sifted out and acquired. I like Ebony's [[The name by which Mr. Blackwood was known in the celebrated Cbaldee manuscript, published in his magazine.] idea of a history of the Gipsies very much, and I wish you would undertake it. I gave all my scraps to the magazine at its commencement, but I think myself entitled to say that you are welcome to the use of them, should you choose to incorporate them into such a work. Do not be in too great a hurry, but get as many materials as you can." [Previous to this, Mr. Blackwood wrote me as follows: "I received your packet some days ago, and immediately gave it to the editor. He desires me to say that your No. 6, though very curious, would not answer, from the nature of the details, to be printed in the magazine. In a regular history of the Gipsies, they would, of course, find a place." This was what suggested the idea of the present work.]

And again as follows:

"An authentic list of Gipsy words, as used in Scotland, especially if in such numbers as may afford any reasonable or probable conjecture as to the structure of the Ianguage, is a desideratum in Scottish literature which would be very acceptable to the philologist, as well as an addition to general history. I am not aware that any such exists, though there is a German publication on the subject, which it would be very necessary to consult. [Grellmann. I am not aware that lie ever compared the words I sent him with those in this publication, as he wrote he would do, in the previous letter quoted.] That the language exists, I have no doubt, though I should rather think the number to which it is known is somewhat exaggerated. I need not point out to you the difference between the cant language, or slang, used by thieves or flash men in general, and the peculiar dialect said to be spoken by the Gipsies. [Throughout the whole of his works there does not appear, I believe, a single word of the proper Scottish Gipsy; although slang and cant expressions are to be found in considerable numbers. (Some of these are of Gipsy extraction.—En.)] The difference ought to be very carefully noticed, to ascertain what sort of language they exactly talk; whether it is an original tongue, having its own mode of construction, or a speech made up of cant expressions, having an English or Scotch ground-work, and only patched up so as to be unintelligible to the common hearer. There is nothing else occurs to me by which I. can be of service to your enquiry. My own opinion leads me to think that the Gipsies have a distinct and proper language, but I do not consider it is extensive enough to form any settled conclusion. If there occur any facts which I can be supposed to know, on which you desire information, I will be willing to give them, in illustration of so curious an enquiry. I have found them, in general, civil and amenable to reason; I must, nevertheless, add that they are vindictive, and that, as the knowledge of their language is the secret which their habits and ignorance make them tenacious of, I think your researches, unless conducted with great prudence, may possibly expose you to personal danger. For the same reason, you ought to complete all the information you can collect, before alarming them by a premature publication,. as, after you have published, there will be great obstructions to future communications on the subject."

From what has been said, it will be seen that the following investigation has had quite a different object than a description of the manners and habits of the common vagrants of the country; for no possible entertainment could have been derived from such an undignified undertaking. And yet many of our youth, although otherwise well informed, have never made this distinction; owing, no doubt, to the encreased attention which those in power have, in late years, bestowed on the internal affairs of the country, and the unseen, but no less surely felt, pressure of the advancement of the general mass, and especially of the lower classes of the community, forcing many of these people into positions beyond the observation of those unacquainted with their Ianguage and traits of character. When it is, therefore, considered, that the body treated of, is originally an exotic. comprising, I am satisfied, no less than five thousand souls in Scotland, [There cannot be less than 100,000 Gipsies in Scotland. See Disquisition on the Gipsies.—En.] speaking an original and peculiar language, which is mysteriously used among themselves with great secrecy, and differing so widely from the ordinary natives of the soil, it may well claim some little portion of public attention. A further importance attaches to the subject, when it is considered that a proportionate number is to be found in the other divisions of the British Isles, and large hordes in all parts of Europe, and more or less in every other part of the world; in all places speaking the same language, with only a slight difference in dialect, and manifesting the same peculiarities. In using the language of Dr. Bright, it may be said, that the circumstance is the most singular phenomenon in the history of man; much more striking, indeed, than that of the Jews. For the Jews have been favoured with the most splendid antecedents; a common parentage; a common history; a special and exclusive revelation; a deeply rooted religious prejudice, and antipathy; a common persecution; and whatever might appear necessary to preserve their identity in the world, excepting an isolated territorial and political existence. [The following is a description of the Jews, throughout the world, as given by them, in their letters to, Voltaire: "A Jew. in London bears as little resemblance to a Jew at Constantinople, as this last resembles a Chinese Mandarin I A Portuguese Jew, of Bordeaux, and a German Jew, of Metz, appear two beings of a different natureI It is, therefore, impossible to speak of the manners of the Jews in general, without entering into a very long detail, and into particular distinctions. The Jew is a chamelion, that assumes all the colours of .the different climates he inhabits, of the different people he frequents, and of the different governments under which he lives." These words are much more applicable to the Gipsy tribe, in consequence of their drawing into their body the blood of other people.—Ed.] The Gipsies, on the other hand, have had none of these advantages. But it is certain that the leaders of their bands, in addition to their piteous representations, must have had something striking about them, to recommend them to the favourable notice which they seem to have met with, at the hands of some of the sovereigns of Europe, when they made their appearance there, and spread over its surface. Still, their assumptions might, and in all probability did, rest merely upon an amount of general superiority of character, of a particular kind, without even the first elements of education, which in that age would amount to something; a leading feature of character which their chiefs have ever since maintained ; and yet, although everything has been left by them to tradition, the Gipsies speak their language much better than the Jews.

Gipsies and Jews have many things in common. They are both strangers and sojourners, in a sense, wherever they are to be found; "dwelling in tents," the one literally, the other figuratively. They have each undergone many bloody persecutions; the one for his stubborn blindness to the advent of the Messiah, the other for being a heathen, and worse than a heathen—for being nothing at all, but linked with the evil one, in all manner of witchcraft and sin. Such race has had many crimes brought against it; the Gipsy, those of a positive, and the Jew, those of a constructive and arbitrary nature. But in these respects they differ: the Jew has been known and famed for doing; almost anything for money; and the Gipsy for the mere gratification of his most innate nature—that of appropriating to himself, when he needs it, that which is claimed by any out of the circle of his consanguinity. The one's soul is given to accumulating, and, if it is in his power, he becomes rich the other more commonly aims at securing what meets his ordinary wants, and, perhaps, some little thing additional; or, if he prove otherwise, he liberally spends what he acquires. The Gipsy is humane to a stranger, when lie has been rightly appealed to; but when that circumstance is wanting, lie will never hesitate to rob him, unless when lie stands indebted to him, or, it may be, his immediate relations, for previous acts of kindness. To indulge his hatred towards an enemy, a Jew will oppress him, if he is his debtor, exacting his bond;" or if he is not his debtor, lie will often endeavour to get him to become such, with the same motive or it may be, if his enemy stands in need of accommodation, lie will not supply his wants; at other times, if he is poor, he will ostentatiously make a display of his wealth, to spite him; and, in carrying out his vengeance, will sometimes display the malignity, barring, perhaps, the shedding of blood, of almost every other race combined. In such a case, a Gipsy will rob, burn, maltreat, main, carry off a child, and sometimes murder, but not often the two last at the present day. [This, I need hardly say, is a description of what may be called a wild Gipsy.—Ed.] The two races are to be found side by side, in countries characterized by almost every degree of climate and stage of civilization, each displaying its peculiar type of feature, but differing in this respect, that the Gipsies readily adopt others into their tribe, at such a tender age as to secure an infallible attachment to their race and habits. This circumstance has produced, in many instances, a change in the colour of the hair and eyes of the descendants of those adopted. In some such cases, it requires an intimate knowledge of the body, to detect the peculiarity common to all, and especially in those who have conformed to the ways of the other inhabitants. In this they agree—that they despise and hate, and are despised and hated by, those among whom they live. But in this they differ—that the Jew entered Europe, as it were, singly and by stealth, pursuing pretty much the avocations he yet follows ; but the Gipsies, in bands, and openly, although they were forced to betake themselves to places of retreat, and break up into smaller bands. It is true that the Jew was driven from his home eighteen centuries ago, and that it is not yet five since the Gipsy appeared in Europe. We know who the Jew is, and something of the providence and circumstances under which he suffers, and what future awaits him; but who is this singular and unfortunate exile, whose origin and cause of banishment none can comprehend—who is this wandering Gipsy?

After the receipt of the second of Sir Walter Scott's letters, already alluded to, I discontinued the few short articles I had written for Blackwood, on the Fifeshire Gipsies ; but I have incorporated the most interesting part of them into the work, forming, however, only a small part of the whole. Since it was written, I have seen Mr. Borrow on the Gipsies in Spain, and the short report of the Rev. Mr. Baird, to the Scottish Church Society ; the latter printed in 1840, and the former in 1841. The Gitanos in Spain and the Tinklers in Scotland are, in almost every particular, the same people, while the Yetholm Gipsy words in Mr. Baird's report and those collected by me, for the most part, between the years 1817 and 1831, are word for word the same.

In submitting this work to the public, I deem it necessary to say a word or two as to the authorities upon which the facts contained in it rest. My authorities for those under the heads of Fife and Linlithgowshire Gipsies, were aged and creditable persons, who had been eye-witnesses to the greater part of the transactions; in some cases, the particulars were quite current in their time. The details under the head of Gipsies who frequented Tweed-dale, Ettrick Forest, Annandale, and the upper ward of Lanarkshire, were chiefly derived from the memories of some of my relatives, and other individuals of credit, who had many opportunities of observing the manners of these wanderers, in the South of Scotland, the greater number being confirmed by the Gipsies, on being interrogated. The particulars under the head of the ceremonies of marriage and divorce, and the sacrifice of horses, were related by Gipsies, and confirmed by other undoubted testimony, as will appear in detail. Almost every recent occurrence and matter relative to the present condition, employment, and number of the body, is the result of my own personal enquiries and observations, while the whole specimens of the language, and the facts immediately connected therewith, were written down, with my own hand, from the mouths of the Gipsies themselves, and confirmed, at intervals, by others. Indeed, my chief object has been to produce facts from an original source, in Scotland, as far as respects manners, customs, and language, for the purpose of ascertaining the origin of this mysterious race, and the country from which they have migrated; and the result, to my mind, is a complete confirmation of Grellmann, Hoy land, and Bright, that they are from Hindostan.

In writing the history of any barbarous race, if history it can be called, the field for our observation must necessarily be very limited. This may especially be said of a people like the Gipsies ; for, having, as a people, neither literature, records, nor education, [There are, comparatively speaking, few Gipsies in Scotland that have not some education, in common with the ordinary natives of the soil; but the same cannot be said of England. Ed] all that can be drawn together of their history, from themselves, must be confined to that of the present, or of such time as the freshness of their tradition may suffice to illustrate; unless it he a few precarious notices of them, that may have been elicited from their having come, it may be, in violent contact with their civilized neighbours around them. In attempting such a work, in connection with so singular a people, the difficulties in the way of succeeding in it are extraordinarily great, as the reader may have perceived, from what has already been written, and as the "blowing up," alluded to in Mr. Laidlaw's letter, will illustrate, and which was as follows:

I had obtained some of the Gipsy language from a principal family of the tribe, on condition of not publishing names, or place of residence; and, at many miles distance, I had also obtained some particulars relative to the customs and manners of the race, from a highly respectable farmer, in the south of Scotland. At his farm, the family alluded to always took up their quarters, in their periodical journeys through the country. The farmer, -without ever thinking of the consequences, told them that I was collecting materials for a publication on the Tinklers, in Scotland, and that everything relative to their tribe would he given to the world. The aged chief of the family was thrown into the greatest distress, at the idea of the name and residence of himself and family being made public. I received a letter from the family, deeply lamenting that they had ever communicated a word to me relative to their language, and stating that the old man was like to break his heart, at his own imprudence, being in agony at the thought of his language being published to the world. I assured them, however, that they had no cause for fear, as I had never so much as mentioned their names to their friend, the farmer, and that I would strictly adhere to the promise I had given them. This was one of the many instances in which I was obstructed in my labours, for, however cautious I might personally be others, who became in some way or other acquainted with my object, were, from inconsiderate meddling, the cause of many difficulties being thrown in my way, and the consequent loss of much interestinb information. But for this unfortunate circumstance, I am sanguine, from the method I took in managing the Gipsies, I would have been able to collect songs, and sentences of their language, and much more information than what has been procured, at whatever -value the reader may estimate that; for the Gipsies are always more or less in communication with each other, in their various divisions of the country, especially when threatened with anything deemed dangerous, which they circulate among themselves with astonishing celerity.

Professor Wilson, in a poetical notice of Blackwood's Magazine, writes

"Few things more sweetly vary civil life
Than a barbarian, savage Tickler tale;
Our friend, who on the Gipsies writes in Fife,
We verily believe promotes our sale."

And, in revising his works, in 1831, Sir Walter Scott, in a note to Quentin Durward, says, relative to the present work:

"It is natural to suppose, the band, (Gipsy), as it now exists, is much mingled with Europeans; but most of these have been brought up from childhood among them, and learned all their practices. . . . When they are in closest contact with the ordinary peasants around them, they still keep their language a mystery. There is little doubt, however, that it is a dialect of the Hindostanee, from the specimens produced by GrelImann, Hoyland, and others who have written on the subject. But the author, (continues Sir Walter,) has, besides their authority, personal occasion to know, that an individual, out of mere curiosity, and availing himself, with patience and assiduity, of such opportunities as offered, has made himself capable of conversing with any Gipsy whom he meets, or can, like the royal Hal, drink with any tinker, in his own language. [Allowance must be made for the enthusiasm of the novelist.- Ed] The astonishment excited among these vagrants, on finding a stranger participant of their mystery, occasions very ludicrous scenes. It is to be hoped this gentleman will publish the knowledge he possesses on so singular a topic. There are prudential reasons for postponing this disclosure at present, for, although much more reconciled to society since they have been less the objects of legal persecution, the Gipsies are still a ferocious and vindictive people." [Abbotsford, 1st Dec., 1831.]

Return to Book Index Page


This comment system requires you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator has approved your comment.

comments powered by Disqus