It is believed that gypsies first appeared in Scotland in the late Middle Ages. The common belief for centuries was that they hailed from Egypt, hence the name; this appeared to be confirmed by leaders taking the title of “Lord and Erle of Littil Egypt”. They traversed the countryside in tribes or clans courting trouble by emptying burns of fish, stealing eggs, animals and clothing, and occasionally, children.
Gypsies came to be associated with vagabondage, and harsh and stringent laws were passed against them in Scotland. Any person proved to be a gypsy was nailed to a tree by the ears, and then afterwards had the said ears cut off. At the beginning of the seventeenth century an Act was passed by which they could be apprehended on sight and hanged. It behove them to maintain a low profile and so they began to adopt Christian fore-names and took the surname of important local families.
Each Gypsy clan claimed to have a territory in which it could ply the trades of horse dealing, making spoons and other implements (horning) and crude pots (mugging). Incursions by one tribe into the territory of another resulted in bloody skirmishes, sometimes to the death. Fights were usually about territory, but there could be other violent arguments.
One such clash took place at Romanno Bridge between the Fa’as and the Schaws, and two of the Fa’as were killed. Arrested by Dr Pennecuik, the Schaws were sent to Edinburgh, via Peebles Tolbooth for trial, and were hanged in the Grassmarket. Later Dr Pennecuik, on whose land the fight had taken place, erected a dovecote and inscribed it thus:
The field of gipsie blood which here you see
A shelter for the harmless dove shall be
It was the Baillie clan which laid claim to Tweeddale: by right, they said, as kindred in a bastard line from the noble family Bailiol who had estates there. They and the Fa’as were the aristocracy of the gypsies providing them with kings and queens until the end of the nineteenth century. One of their trysting places was in the hills behind Wandel farm, near Lamington, another at Herstane (now Harestane) near The Crook Inn. On the 1799 map of Broughton Place - see opposite - is a field entitled Baillies Park. Was this a field dedicated to gypsy use? For unlike any other gypsy clan the Baillies were accepted, even liked by the population. They provided popular entertainment at weddings, and one of their number Pete (Pate) was in great demand in Southern Scotland for his violin playing. In addition they were genial and courteous by nature, and full of humour and merriment. Generally Scottish male gypsies were dressed in green coats, black breeches, and leathern aprons. But the Baillies were different. When attending local fairs they donned their finery. Booted and spurred, accompanied by greyhounds, they were attired in long coats of scarlet and green with ruffles at their wrists and throat. They had pistols in their belt and at their side they carried broadswords.
There were two other reasons for the gypsies being generally accepted in Tweeddale. One is that they refrained from damaging property there. The second lay with one of their leaders at the end of the seventeenth century – William Baillie – who earned a fine reputation for gentlemanly behaviour. He claimed to be a bastard son of one of the Baillies of Lamington, and he was noted for his swordsmanship.
Various anecdotes are associated with his generosity: returning stolen goods; covering arrears of rent of a poor woman who had been kind to gypsies. On one occasion he held up a pedlar with pack horse between Hawkshaw and Menzion, selected some goods – and paid for them! It was he who issued a token as a guarantee of safe conduct to travellers passing through ‘his’ area. He escaped hanging ‘for being an Egyptian’ in 1699, but was murdered in 1724.
On the other hand, the reason for the intolerance most Scots showed to the gypsies lay in the behaviour of his relatives: Mary of Yorkston, who married Matthew, son of William Baillie, stripped a shepherd’s wife in the hills in Stobo parish. Around 1770, his grandsons ran amok at Biggar Fair screaming vengeance on a local who had insulted their mother. It terrified the crowds; it terrified the town. The incident is occasionally referred to as the Battle of Biggar, and although transposed in period, it is vividly described in John Buchan’s ‘John Burnet of Barns’, where there is a sympathetic portrayal of William Baillie too.
In the light of this and other violent incidents where the militia had to be called out, it is ironic that the Baillies, Ruthvens, and Carters took so badly to the incursion by Irish ‘tinkler’ gypsies during Ireland’s potato famine in the 1840s, on the ground that there was ‘no law among them’. The Irish gypsies, they claimed, had ‘fairly destroyed Scotland as a country to travel in’.
The result for Scottish gypsies was greater integration with the local community, with inter-marriage, and the baptism of children. Gypsies opened shops and pubs, and settled, so much that Simson, writing in 1865, was able to claim “they are not now to be distinguished from others of the community”.