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Stories from the Scotsman
Village to mark historic link to Borders gypsies

FOR centuries they were reviled or feared, often persecuted and considered by many to be a menace to society as they roamed the Scottish countryside, telling fortunes and selling contraband.

The wandering tribes of gypsies making their way from one encampment to another were a common sight in many areas of Scotland. They were seldom made welcome, and the words "tinker" and "mugger" are among the few surviving reminders of their role in Scottish history.

But now, 100 years after the death of Charles Faa Blythe, Scotland’s last gypsy king, the Romanies are to be honoured with a monument in the village which claims to be the country’s gypsy capital.

The twin villages of Yetholm and Kirk Yetholm, near Kelso, were home to a large community of gypsies for more than 200 years. A so-called gypsy palace - in reality a modest sized cottage - still stands, but otherwise there are no tangible signs that generations of the Romany race settled there.

According to Tom Tokely, who is heading efforts to fund and erect the memorial: "At one time there would be a gypsy community of 250 here. My brother, Vic, who died just a fortnight ago, had written two books about the Yetholm gypsies and the plan is to use any profits from the publication of his second book to help pay for the memorial. It will be about four-feet high with a plaque to let people know the tribe lived here from the 17th century onwards."

It is believed the first gypsies settled in Scotland more than 500 years ago. At first they enjoyed Royal protection under King James V, and the head of the gypsy tribes at that time was acclaimed as "our lovit Johnne Faa, lord and earle of Little Egipt".

But from 1571 onwards, the Scottish strain of Romanies were persecuted by an Act of Stringency, aimed principally at bards, minstrels and vagabonds, and it was not until 1695 that their reputation and profile improved.

Then a gypsy named Young saved the life of Captain David Bennet at the Siege of Namur. In an unexpected gesture of generosity, the grateful officer gave cottages to the gypsies in Yetholm.

They wintered in the Borders village and took to the roads in the spring to sell their wares and their horses. Smuggling tea, salt, and liquor from across the Border in England is said to have provided a valuable source of income.

The romantic but harsh lifestyle changed radically in 1839, when the Rev John Baird became minister at Yetholm. He persuaded the elders of the tribe to board out their children with local families so that they could become pupils at Scotland’s first ragged school.

Descendants of Johnne Faa continued to be crowned kings and queens of the gypsies, the last queen being Esther Faa Blythe. She succeeded to the title in 1861, at the age of 65.

When Queen Esther died in 1875, it appeared she would be the last of the gypsy monarchs. But 23 years later, another Yetholm minister, the Rev Carrick Miller, organised a coronation for her son, Charles, then 70 years old

Charles Faa Blythe’s passing in 1902 marked the end of an era, although descendants of true gypsies still live locally. An Edinburgh housewife has been heir to the "throne" since 1945, but has shown no interest in claiming the title.

Community councillors are backing plans for the monument, which will be at the foot of the original Muggers’ Row beside the village green.

Friday, 14th February 2003

The Scotsman

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