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Byways of the Scottish Border
The Gypsy Capital

A QUAINT interest peculiar to itself hangs about this old-world village on the northern slope of the Cheviot Hills. The home of that mysterious nomad race who came in the Middle Ages no man knows whence, Yetholm possesses an attraction of its own for the Bohemian instincts of the wanderer. The road to it out of the west, too, lies through a lovely country, whose every nook and spot has some historic memory. From the valley of the Jed, south-eastwards among quiet pastoral hills, the wanderer may linger upon the ancient Roman road, forsaken by its builders fifteen centuries ago; and, if his senses be keen enough, he may hear there still, far off as an echo through the ages, the tramp of the departing legions. Weed and brier have made the, "Watling Street" a wilderness, and for miles at places it is trodden now only by the straying feet of rustic lovers. Then there are paths to be followed down secluded lanes, where yellow straw from passing harvest carts has caught in the high hedges among the crimson haws; and where wild raspberries grow thickly under the woods amid dark-green broom and tangles of the scarlet-hipped dog-rose.

In the little village of Crailing the pedestrian, meeting cherry-cheeked children in pinafores and satchels coming in twos and threes from school, may recall, as a contrast to the place’s present state of peace, a dark day’s work that happened there in 1570. On the night of Regent Murray’s assassination, Ker of Fernihirst and Scott of Buccleugh had made a raid into the Border counties of England; whereupon Lord Sussex, with the troops of Elizabeth, marched, burning and slaying, into the lands of these barons; and, coming upon the tower of Lord Ker’s mother, in the village there, committed it to the flames, and its inhabitants to the last indignities at the hands of the rude soldiery. The place was the chief seat of the ancient Border family of Cranstoun.

Close by Crailing lies the little hamlet of Eckford. It is musical now with village sounds—the tinkle of the smithy, the hammering of the cartwright, and the low of kine; but there, too, nevertheless, in bygone days, has passed the trail of fire and blood. It was one of the places burnt by Ralph Evers under the filibustering commission of Henry VIII. in 1544, when the English king was seeking by such gentle means to induce the Scots lords to wed their infant Queen Mary to his son.

Several legends of the village, of another but not less typical character, are recounted by Sir George Douglas in his New Border Tales. One of these, like so many village traditions in Scotland, refers to Sabbath - breaking and the fate of the Sabbath - breakers. Many years ago, it appears, there dwelt at Eckford a certain sceptical and independent blacksmith. In every way but one he is said to have been an exemplary workman. The single exception arose from his conduct on the Sabbath. Sunday after Sunday, as the country folk passed to church, they saw the smith at work, his bellows blowing and his hammer ringing on the anvil as on any other day of the week. These proceedings were not only shocking to his church - going neighbours, and felt by his competitors in the countryside as the taking of a mean advantage over them, but were looked upon as likely to draw upon the perpetrator the actual wrath of Heaven. The smith meanwhile paid as little attention to the indignation of the passers-by as to the possibility of supernatural interference. A day of reckoning, however, came at last. One Sunday morning, as the country-folk passed to church, they saw the smith in his leathern apron, busy as usual over the glowing metal; the sparks, if anything, flying faster from his stroke, and the anvil ringing more defiantly than ever. But a few hours later, when the sermon was over and the villagers came out of kirk, neither smith nor smithy, nor a vestige of their belongings, was anywhere to be seen. The spot where the smithy had stood—near the south-west corner of the field to the west of the manse—had become a bog. Nothing was ever again seen of the smith, his wife, and family, who had all disappeared; but many years afterwards, when the bog was at last drained, the fate of the sceptical and self-sufficient workman was put beyond all doubt by the discovery of a smith’s anvil.

Another incident, somewhat less mysterious, of the punishment of sacrilegious transgression, is chronicled of the same neighbourhood. It was in the year 1829, when, after the revelation of the Burke and Hare murders, whispers of the doings of the "resurrectionists," or stealers of the dead, were exciting horror and fear in the country. On a night of late autumn a young packman, known, on account of his smart and well-to-do personal appearance, by the soubriquet of Dandy Jim, was passing Eckford churchyard. He had been visiting a sweetheart in the neighbourhood, and, as frequently happens upon such tender occasions, had been detained somewhat late. The moon, however, had not yet risen, and the night was dark. The packman was not much given to superstitious fears, but as he passed the churchyard his attention was arrested by a mysterious light which appeared and disappeared among the graves. He stood still to make out what the appearance might mean; and presently he saw the light again, and heard a curse and certain other sounds, which led him to believe that a body which had been buried there on the day before was in process of being exhumed. Stealing along the churchyard wall, in order to arrive nearer the scene of operations, he suddenly came in contact with a horse and gig. Upon this discovery a happy idea occurred to him. He untied the horse from the fence, and with a kick in the ribs sent it galloping off across country; then, while the terrified "resurrectionists" were ‘hastening to secure their steed again, he leapt the wall, removed the corpse from the black wrapping in which it had been rolled for removal, and substituted himself in its place. His subsequent adventure in the hands of the body-stealers culminated at a lonely part of the road near the village of Maxwellheugh. By the time they had proceeded so far, the packman had discovered his carriers to be a couple of dissolute tailors from Greenlaw, nicknamed respectively "the Rabbit" and the "Hare." Moreover, as they proceeded with their burden between them in the gig, he had become aware, from various symptoms, that the courage of the two thieves was ebbing rapidly.

"At last," says the recorder of the incident, "the Rabbit, whose condition for some reason or other, had for some time past been growing more and more acutely distressing, could bear it in silence no longer, but broke out wildly— "‘Hare! I’ll take an oath before a Justice of the Peace I felt the body stir!’

"But the Hare’s distress was even more extreme than that of his associate.

"Rabbit, man! Rabbit, man!’ murmured he, in the hushed and solemn tones of dire mental tribulation, ‘my mind misgives me, my mind misgives me, but we ha’e mista’en our man. They must ha buried this one alive, I’m thinking; for, as I’m a living sinner, the Corp is warm!’

"This was the moment for which Jim had patiently waited. He now slowly lifted the cloth which was about his face, and spoke in such sepulchral tones as he was able to command—

"Warm, do you say? And pray, what would you be if ye came frae where I ha’e been?"

"The Hare saw the supposed dead body move. To his heated imagination its action, as it uncovered its face, bore a hideous resemblance to that of a dead man rising from the grave at the last day. He heard the sepulchral tones which addressed to him by name a pertinent and suggestive query; and he waited for no more. With a bound, like jack-in-the-box, he leapt from the gig, cleared the fence which bounded the road upon his side, and in a moment afterwards was racing for his life across the open ground of Spylaw. At the same instant ‘the Rabbit’ on his side slid to the ground, scrambled through the hedge, and made for the covert of the High Wood of Springwood Park as fast as his short legs would carry him."

Meanwhile the packman, after a hearty laugh, put the horse’s head about and drove merrily home, having by his strategy at once become possessor of the unclaimed horse and gig, and discovered enough to frustrate a widely organised conspiracy of body-snatching.

Such is the story of the "resurrectionists" connected with Eckford churchyard, and it is here given at some length, as affording a typical example of the kind of local tradition of more modern times current in village and hamlet everywhere throughout the country.

Hanging by the kirk door at Eckford, as by the gate at Abbotsford, may still be seen the "jougs," or iron collar, used here in former days, chiefly as a punishment for those who came under church discipline. The last person upon whom they were used, being short of stature, it appears, slipped from the stone upon which he was mounted; and when, at the usual point of the service, the beadle came to conduct him before the congregation for ministerial admonition, was found hanged. After that tragic occurrence the punishment of the "jougs" was given up.

Beyond Eckford the road winds up by the Kale Water, one of the districts laid waste by Sussex in 1570, and by Ralph Evers in 1544, upon which latter occasion it is recorded that thirty Scots were slain, and the Moss Tower smoked very sore. The water is famous at the present day among anglers.

The valley of the stream further on, the Bowmont Water, which comes down among the hills to the right of the road, is the scene of another characteristic tradition — one of those strange Border legends which in other days would have been woven by some wandering minstrel into a ballad. It is the story of a shepherd’s daughter, the beauty of the district, who, after slighting the love of all the lads of the neighbourhood, gave her heart to a somewhat forbidding and mysterious stranger. The tradition runs that on keeping tryst with this lover one night in a lonely glen, she arrived before the appointed hour; and, having climbed for caprice into a tree to see how he would bear her delay, she beheld him deliberately dig her grave. The wood—some say the actual tree—at which the incident occurred is still pointed out; and the truth of the story is vouched for by the fact that a lady, a member of one of the noble families of the district, personally knew a daughter or grand-daughter of the girl.

At this point last night, as the Cheviots rose in front—grey, rounded hills and far-lying valleys— the sun went down in the yellow autumn sky behind; and presently could be felt the cool air of night, champagny and full of strong life, blowing bold and free out of the mountains. The keeps of old Border barons were to be seen from the road— Corbet Tower and the fortalice of the Kers of Cessford—grim memorials of the feudal past, and of the strong hands that were needed once to hold their own among these hills. After passing the village of Morebattle—itself mentioned more than once in the records of Border warfare—the way ran under trees, and the road became higher and more lonely in the darkness, under the dim and distant sparkle of the stars. At last a light here and there began to gleam in the valley to the right, and presently, far in front, appeared the shining inn lantern of the Gypsy village.

Kirk Yetholm

It was too dark and late then for seeing anything of Yetholm, and under the shadows of night there was room for all sorts of imaginings as to the life that might be found in so romantic a spot. Here, if anywhere on the Borders, something ought to remain of the free, rough existence of long ago, with perhaps a touch added of Eastern picturesqueness. Might there not be the ruddy gleam of camp fires at the doors of turfy huts, the savoury smell of unpaid-for supper in the air, and dusky featured men and women moving among the lights and shadows? Might there not be laughter and merriment, the accents of a strange tongue, the glimpse of some Gypsy beauty? All these possibilities were dispelled, however, when mine host of the Swan explained that, owing to the recent laws against vagrancy, the Gypsies have all but disappeared even from their own village of KirkYetholm; while as for Town-Yetholm here, divided from the other by the Bowmont Water, it never was a Gypsy village at all.

And as the mountain mists begin to rise, and the sun every moment shines more brightly in a sky of deepening blue, the details of the spot can be made out. A gunshot up the mountain side opposite clusters the Gypsy "town," the more ancient and interesting of the two villages. Its low mossy-roofed "biggins" are scattered picturesquely about the irregular village green—the thatched inn, with swinging sign, standing a little out from the rest; and altogether, with the mountain ascending still dark and dewy above, it is probably, as it stands at the present day, a fair example of the ancient Border hamlet.

The nearness of the dividing line between England and Scotland was doubtless in bygone days deemed a great advantage by the dwellers here. By the road up the hillside at hand, any one who might be "wanted" could escape the arm of Scots justice in less than half an hour; and the spot would form a convenient retreat for refugees from the English side. For here dwelt Ishmael.

A nomad race like the Arabs, these wanderers journeyed hither as to a Mecca. For at Yetholm they had a sovereign—a potentate who ruled by the divine right of the quick brain and the strong arm.

A race without a literature and almost without a history, the Gypsies, notwithstanding the researches of science, and the sympathetic study of men like George Borrow, remain to the present hour something of a mystery in Europe. One thing ascertained about them is, that throughout the countries of western civilization their language, though divided into various dialects, is substantially one tongue, and has been proved to be a Hindoo dialect. When or from what part of India they came, however, remains unknown. One thing certain about them is, that they were not Egyptians, as they once professed, ‘and were wont to be believed. From the words embodied in their speech it is gathered that they made their way into Europe through Persia, Armenia, and Greece. Probably it was they who were known in Greece in the times of Homer and Strabo and it was probably they, descendants of the race of Simon Magus, who at Constantinople in the 11th century are reported to have slain wild beasts by their magic arts in the presence of Bagrat IV. In Austria in the 12th century they were recognised as the actual descendants of Hagar and Abraham. Professing to be pilgrims of the Christian faith thrust out of Egypt by the Saracens, they appeared during the 15th century in bands before the walls of one capital of Europe after another, generally headed by a chief, mounted and gorgeously dressed, who gave himself out to be Count, Earl, or Duke of Little Egypt. So high, indeed, was the estimation in which they were sometimes held, that one of their "kings" was interred with regal honour by the side of Athelstane, at Malmesbury Abbey, in 1657. In no country, however, were they better received than in Scotland. As early as the time of William the Lion (1165-1214) a Scottish charter has been found containing mention of Tinklers. In 1505 James IV. gave Antonius Gagino, Count of Little Egypt, a letter of commendation to the King of Denmark; and in 1540 James V. subscribed a writ in favour of "oure louit Johnne Faa, Lord and Earle of Littill Egipt," giving him jurisdiction of life and death over his own people. In the following year, however, their pilfering and turbulent disposition having become a trouble to the country, they were banished from the realm on pain of death; and several cases are on record in which, for contravening this law, members of the clan were sentenced, the men to be hanged, the women drowned, and such of the latter as had children to be scourged through the streets and burned in the cheek. Readers of Quentin Durward will remember the similar summary treatment of Gypsies in France in the time of Louis XI. Notwithstanding such fearful punishments, however, they appear to have remained in the country—a merry, careless, good-humoured, but passionate people—practising their arts of working in metal and horn, busying themselves with horse-dealing and horse-stealing, and equally famous for their proficiency in music and their profession of ability to read the past and future of men’s lives. In 1530 it is on record, among the court festivities of James V., that certain Gypsies "dansit before the King in Halyrudhous." The latter pursuits in particular were everywhere the profession of the women.

Here in Kirk-Yetholm, sometime towards the end of the 17th century, was born Jean Gordon, wife of the Gypsy chief Patrick Faa, who survives for the reading world in the person of Meg Merrilees in Guy Mannering. Her fate and the fate of her family afford an example of the treatment too often suffered as well as deserved. For burning the house of Greenhead, her husband, Patrick Faa, was whipped through Jedburgh, stood for half-an-hour at the cross with his ear nailed to a post, had both ears cut off, and was finally transported to the American plantations. In 1714 her son, Alexander Faa, was murdered by another Gypsy. The murderer escaped from prison, but was dogged from Scotland to Holland, and from Holland to Ireland, by the murdered man’s mother; and finally, at her instance, was brought to justice on Jedburgh Gallowhill. Jean’s other sons, after many depredations, were hanged at Jedburgh all on one day—their fate, it is said, being decided by the casting vote of a juryman who had slept throughout the discussion of the case, but who suddenly waked up with the words, "Hang them a’!" Jean was present at the trial, and upon hearing the verdict is said to have exclaimed "The Lord help the innocent on a day like this!" She herself was finally ducked to death for her Jacobite leanings by the cowardly rabble of Carlisle, continuing so long as she could get her head above water to cry out "Charlie yet! Charlie yet."

Jean and her granddaughter, Madge Gordon, were alike of imposing appearance, over six feet tall, with bushy eyebrows, aquiline nose, and piercing eyes, corresponding in all respects to what popular imagination pictures as the proper bearing of a Gypsy Queen.

In the end of last century the chief of the KirkYetholm gypsies was a later descendant of Jean Gordon, who rejoiced in the somewhat picturesque title of Earl of Hell. It was he who once very narrowly, by a mere lucky leniency of the jury, was acquitted in the High Court of Justiciary, and whom the judge in consequence informed significantly that he had that day "rubbit shouthers wi’ the gallows," and warned not to venture the experiment again.

The different tribes of gypsies, no less than the different clans among whom they dwelt, had feudal combats among themselves. One of these battles occurred on 1st October, 1677, near the house of Romanno in Tweeddale. There the Shaws and the Faas, on their way to fight the rival Baillies and Browns, themselves fell out, and fought to the death. Old Sandy Faa and his wife, then about to give birth to a child, were killed; and another brother, George Faa, desperately wounded; for which transaction old Robin Shaw and his three sons were hanged in the Grassmarket at Edinburgh in the February following.

Of Billy Marshall, afterwards the Gypsy king of Galloway, a well known story is told. He was serving in the ranks under Marlborough in Germany in 1705, when one day he went to his commanding officer, one of the M’Guffogs of Roscoe, an ancient Galloway family, and asked if he had any message for home. The officer inquired whether there was any messenger going, whereupon Marshall answered— Yes, he intended himself to be at Keltonhill Fair, at which it had always been his rule to be present. The officer, says Dr Chambers, who recounts the story, knew his man, and Billy appeared at Keltonhill Fair as usual.

A Gypsy enterprise of the romantic sort which the popular mind attributes to that mysterious people, furnishes the subject of one of the best known ballads of Ayrshire. The scene of the ballad was Cassillis House, on the banks of the Doon, before whose door still stands the ancient Dule-Tree or Tree of Sorrow. The heroine was some fair and frail Countess of Cassillis, wife of a chief of the Kennedys, and tradition avers that Johnnie Faa, otherwise Sir John Fall, had been her lover before her marriage.


The gypsies cam’ to our good lord’s yett,
And O but they sang sweetly;
They sang sae sweet and sae very complete
That doun cam’ our fair lady.

And she cam’ tripping down the stair,
And all her maids before her;
As soon as they saw her weel-faured face
They cuist the glamourye’ o’er her.

O come with me," says Johnnie Faa,
"O come with me, my dearie;
For I vow and I swear, by the hilt of my sword,
That your lord shall nae mair come near ye."

Then she gi’ed them the red red wine,
And they gi’ed her the ginger;
But she gi’ed them a far better thing,
The gowd ring aff her finger.

"Gae tak’ frae me this gay mantle,
And bring to me a plaidie;
For if kith and kin and a’ had sworn,
I’ll follow the gypsy laddie.

"Yestreen I lay in a weel-made bed,
Wi’ my gude lord beside me;
This night I’ll lie in a tenant’s barn,
Whatever shall betide me!"

"O haud your tongue, my hinny and my heart!
O haud your tongue, my dearie!
For I vow and I swear, by the moon and the stars,
That your lord shall nae mair come near ye."

But when our lord cam’ hame at e’en,
And speired for his fair lady,
The ane she cried, and the other replied,
"She’s awa’ wi’ the gypsy laddie!"

"Gae saddle to me the black black steed,
Gae saddle and mak’ him ready;
Before that I either eat or sleep
I’ll gae seek my fair lady."

"O we were fifteen weel-made men,
Although we werena bonnie;
And we were a’ put down for ane,
A fair young wanton lady."

According to tradition the lady when brought back was first, by a refinement of cruelty, compelled to witness from a window the dying agonies of the gypsy party, including her disguised lover, on the Dule-Tree; she was then divorced by her lord a mensa et thoro, and was finally imprisoned for life in the castle of Maybole. There to this day, far overhead above the street, is pointed out the window of the room in which she was confined, and in which she occupied her leisure in working the story of her flight in tapestry. The Earl in the meanwhile, it is said, married another wife.

So late as the year 1878 Queen Victoria was welcomed at Dunbar by a gypsy queen. The latter is recorded to have been "dressed in a black robe with white silk trimmings, and over her shoulders a yellow handkerchief. Behind her stood two other women, one of them noticeable from her rich gown of purple velvet; and two stalwart men conspicuous by their scarlet coats."

But now the last of the Romany Queens is dead—a woman who, says the swarthy innkeeper of Kirk-Yetholm, could read a man’s soul at a glance; and there will probably never be another. [For an account of Queen Esther Faa-Blythe. her assumption of the regal state, &c., as. well as much else that is interesting on the subject of the Gypsy race, see The Yetholm History of the Gypsies, by Joseph Lucas, Kelso, 1882.] The "deep" Romany blood is being dulled by mixture with the Saxon strain, and the old instincts are dying out. The little slated cot of the queen, with its single window and door, stands empty now and forsaken in its own plot of ground at the head of the village— a humble home, surely, for royalty. From its door, nevertheless, as the morning mists slowly melt and disappear under the spell of the sun, there is a view discovered of rolling hill and valley, of stream and farm, that fills the eye with beauty and the heart with strong content. With this before her, and, closer by, the dew of the mountain glittering jewel-like on every grass blade—amid the solemn stillness, the large hill air, and the glad sunshine, it may be surmised that, perhaps, after all, the gypsy chose aright in loving and preferring for her palace roof the arch that had covered her race in all their wanderings—the blue dome of everlasting heaven.

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