KIRK YETHOLM GYPSIES*, DOGS AND BORDER FOLK

Oral history from the early 1700s tells us that there had evolved in the Scottish Borderlands a particular type of rough coated, long backed, short legged terrier with a light, distinctive topknot. Valued by the Borders farming and gypsy communities alike, these dogs were known as mustards (gingery in colour) and peppers (dark grey) before they adopted the name of Dandie Dinmont Terriers following the publication of Sir Walter Scott’s novel Guy Mannering in 1815.

Due to being extremely ‘game’ and faithful little characters, these dogs had become highly prized by the late 18th century. They were widely used for hunting ‘large vermin’; otters, foxes (reynards) and badgers (brocks) within the Scottish Borders. In fox and otter hunts the terriers were used in tandem with the pack hounds – the terriers were used not for the chase but were released when the hunted creatures went to earth, to either finish them off in their holts, dens or setts, or to bolt them so the hounds could resume the chase. The terriers were also used on the farm for ratting.

Mustards and peppers were very popular with gamekeepers, sporting farmers and the landowners themselves, with many members of the local aristocracy and the Borders’ squirearchy claiming ownership. (In later times they also became popular as companion dogs and even Queen Victoria kept some.) Kennels of mustards and peppers were kept on the various estates, and individual farmers and keen terrier men often kept maybe a brace of dandies at their homes which they either used for the own sport or took along to join hunts when invited.

The gypsies always kept dogs, when they were travelling on the road they trotted alongside the carts and the caravans. Sometimes they would sit alongside family members on the front board of the wagon. The gypsies’ most recognisable breed was the lurcher (travellers are still famous for lurchers today). These were used to catch rabbits and hares for the pot. A pot was always sat alongside the fire burning in front of every tent or van. In the Borders gypsies were also highly regarded for their mustard and pepper terriers. Gypsies used their terriers for all the various types of hunting mentioned above. Sometimes the gypsies were paid to bring their mustards and peppers to assist in otter and badger hunts, or were paid to use them to clear vermin on private land, but they also used them when out poaching.

Much breeding between the different strains of mustards and peppers occurred across the estates and farms in the Borders. Gypsies were part of this picture, their itinerant summer lifestyle, wandering around from place to place in the Borderlands, assisted in the spread of the terriers throughout the lowlands of South-East Scotland and into the wilds of Northumberland – the ancient reiver country.

Gypsies were part of rural life. The Kirk Yetholm gypsies would travel in family groups during the summer months living off the land and staying in barns or under canvas. They scratched a living as best they could, offering their services to local communities whilst discreetly poaching wherever they went, to add food to their stew pots. Their plunder included game and salmon, the gypsies were skilled fishermen. Gamekeepers were vigilant against the risk of poaching and checked their game and fish stocks constantly. Let’s not forget that in 1839 that famous dandie, Old Pepper, was found by Bowhill’s gamekeeper James Kerss while he was out checking traps on the estate! We can assume, with the dog remaining unclaimed, that he belonged

to a gypsy who did not want to risk identification for fear of prosecution for poaching on the Duke’s estate.

KIRK YETHOLM’S GYPSIES

Scottish gypsies are believed to have hailed from a displaced people from India who were popularly known as ‘Egyptians’, this is where the word ‘gypsy’ comes from. They first arrived in Scotland around 1505. They were initially welcomed and enjoyed royal protection under James V in 1540, but from 1571 they were persecuted under an Act of Stringency. This led to them adopting Scottish mores so they could blend into society more easily.

Various gypsy clans settled at Kirk Yetholm in Roxburghshire. Some of the facts are lost in history, but it is known that the gypsies settled permanently at Kirk Yetholm after the Laird, Sir William Bennett of Grubett, rewarded a local gypsy lad for his bravery in saving Bennet’s life at the Siege of Namur (in present day Belgium) in 1695 during the Nine Years’ War. The reward was the provision of homes in Kirk Yetholm for the brave gypsy lad and his friends.

The cottages had large gardens together with individual parcels of land on the loaning and grazing rights on the 200 acres of common land. They were rented to the gypsies at a rate of one shilling per year, on generous leases for the duration of 19 times 19 years, ie 361 years. By our reckoning that means the leases will be up in 2056! This must have been a wonderful opportunity for the gypsies, and Kirk Yetholm duly became known as the home of the Scottish Gypsy Kings.

Kirk Yetholm’s gypsies took any opportunity they could find to make money, be it through dealing in crockery, selling pots and pans and repairing china (a trade known as mugging, and hence their name of muggers), or exchanging their goods for rags or whatever else they could get. They sold clothes pegs, paper flowers and haberdashery, much of which they had made themselves during the long winter evenings when they were back at their home base in Kirk Yetholm.

The women focused on the door to door selling (hawking) whilst the men concentrated on horse dealing, which must have also led to opportunities for dog trading. Playing instruments was also a source of income for the gypsies, usually the fiddle or the border pipes. Many of them achieved local fame and were much sought after at fairs and weddings. Some of the songs and tunes written by the gypsies have been handed down through generations and survive to the present day.

The gypsies of Kirk Yetholm were also heavily involved in the illicit trade of smuggling goods over the English/Scottish border. This involved everything from salt, whisky and gin (landed at Boulmer in Northumberland) to fruit, livestock and horses.

In the early 1800s there were around 100 gypsies in Kirk Yetholm and in 1836 it is known there were 80, as by now families had already started drifting away and moving into surrounding areas like Jedburgh, Hawick and Wooler. This was probably due to the shortage of food in winter around the Yetholm area. The Kirk Yetholm gypsies were known to be travelling to the Staffordshire potteries on a regular basis by 1830 to buy china cheaply from the manufacturers, plus other goods they could sell. They sold these items mainly in Northumberland, so it made sense

that once they started moving away from Kirk Yetholm, it was towards the larger centres of population to the south.

From earliest times to the last coronation in 1898, the Kirk Yetholm gypsies’ Royal Family has been related to or connected with the surname of Faa and Faa-Blyth.

The Yetholm gypsies have made the village famous throughout the world. The Faa and Blyth groupings were the dominant families in British gypsy culture in the last three hundred years. The last Gypsy King of Kirk Yetholm died in 1902 and there have been no claimants since.

ST BOSWELLS FAIR

In summer, one of the great gathering places for gypsies was at the annual Fair on the green at St Boswells, not far from Melrose. The Fair (which exists to the present day and is held annually around the 18th July), can be traced back to the 1600s and was originally a sheep fair. It became established on the village green from 1743 and became well known as a cattle and horse fair where up to 1,000 horses were traded by the turn of the 20th century. In the 18th century the Fair also served as a wool market during which the price was fixed for the year’s ‘clip’. The Fair attracted gypsies from all over Southern Scotland and as far afield as Yorkshire. Interestingly, the gypsies did not mix, the English, Irish and Scots all settled on different parts of the green. It was a seven day event and offered lots of attractions including stalls and entertainments such as coconut shies, swings, boxing rings, palmists, fortune tellers and exotic animals like bears and monkeys. Residents from the local towns and villages all flocked to the fair too. It is easy to imagine that in amongst all this activity and the horse trading, a good deal of dog bartering would have also taken place.

The fair at St Boswells was the high point of the year and the local southern lowlands gypsies were lucky to have this huge event on their doorstep (the other great gypsy gathering being the annual Appleby Horse Fair in Westmorland which also exists to this day). The tribal home of the southern lowland gypsies was near at hand at Kirk Yetholm, 8 miles from Kelso and 1 mile west of the English border, (very handy for people who needed to lie low for a while or who were looking for somewhere to stash contraband and smuggled goods from England!).

THE REAL SOURCE OF THE DANDIE DINMONT

One of the earliest dandie dinmont breeders, James Davidson (1764-1820) stated in a letter quoted in Charles Cook’s book ‘The Dandie Dinmont Terrier’ that the Border ‘muggers’ ’ terriers were the real source from which sprang the Dandie Dinmont. “The Border ‘muggers’ were great breeders of terriers – the Andersons on the English side, and the Faas and Camells on the Scotch side.” He goes on to relate how once a year the families met at one or other Border village where they tried their terriers against bait such as a badger, polecat, wild cat or hedgehog, the whole event usually ending in a general dog fight. On this particular occasion they met at Alwinton in Northumberland. Jock Anderson, head of the English tribe had a red bitch which was known to beat all the dogs coming over the Border. Geordy Faa, of Yetholm, had a wire haired dog terrier that was the terror or all the other terriers in the district but also good at badger, fox and foumart (polecat). Noted terrier breeders Willy and Adam Bell had brought along a badger. Both dogs drew the badger every time they were put in. “Jock Anderson”, says Geordy, “the dogs should be mated; let us have a grand drink, the man first doon to lose his dog.” “Done,” says Jock. “Down they sat on the green, fair drinking”. Eighteen hours later Jock tumbled off the cart-

shafts, and Geordy started off with the dogs. “They were mated, and produced the first Pepper and Mustards, which were presented by Geordy to Mr Davidson”. Thus it is claimed that the first mustards and terriers came from Yetholm. Cook suggests that it’s probably unlikely that this story is true in all its elements, but it’s certainly the fact the Kirk Yetholm gypsies and local terrier breeders from the Borders were fundamental in producing the Dandie Dinmont terrier.

An alternative theory about the origins of the breed is that it is the result of cross breeding (a theory that has never been considered as the most likely possibility). It is speculated that when the gypsies first arrived from the continent, it was with terriers of the Dachshund type, and that when they settled in their Kirk Yetholm stronghold it was there that these dogs were crossed with the local terriers of the district, resulting in the Pepper and Mustard race.

Charles Cook says: “Those who uphold the purity of the Dandie as a distinct breed, deny all cross theories, and maintain that the race is simply the product of long years of careful breeding, or selection (the native rough terrier being along employed), the requirements of the Border Country ultimately producing a terrier adapted for its special work; and to this latter theory I am disposed to incline”.

REAL AND FICTIONAL CHARACTERS WITH CONNECTIONS TO KIRK YETHOLM GYPSIES

JEAN GORDON, GYPSY OF KIRK YETHOLM 1670-1746 A striking, commanding six foot tall woman of great repute, Jean Gordon was the powerful Gypsy Queen, married to Patrick Faa, the first gypsy king of Kirk Yetholm.

She had 10 or 12 children and endured the violent life of the times, three of her sons and two of their wives were hanged for sheep stealing. In 1714, following a period of lawlessness and increasing criminality in and around Kirk Yetholm that alarmed the authorities, Jean, along with others was arrested and taken to Jedburgh gaol to await trial. Patrick was flogged and his ears nailed to the mercat cross. He had both ears cut off and was then banished to the Carolinas and never heard from again. The women were freed. At a later date, the desperate Jean was caught thieving and banished to England. By 1747 she had found her way to Carlisle. One day, on a fair or market day she publicly proclaimed her support for Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Jacobites. Carlisle was a staunchly royalist town and she was dragged to the River Eden by a baying crowd where she was ducked to death. Apparently, she put up a brave fight, each time she rose to the surface she cried ‘Charlie yet, Charlie yet!’.

She is known to be the inspiration for the famous gypsy character Meg Merrilies in Guy Mannering.

MADGE GORDON GRAND-DAUGHTER of JEAN GORDON

“Yet Madge Gordon her grand-daughter, was said to have had the same resemblance. She was descended from the Faas by the mother’s side, and was married to a Young. She was rather a remarkable personage – of a very commanding presence, and high stature, being nearly six feet high. She had a large aquiline nose, penetrating eyes, and even in her old age bushy hair, that hung around her shoulders from beneath a gypsey bonnet of straw – a short cloak of a peculiar fashion, and a long staff nearly as tall as herself. When she spoke vehemently (for she had mainly complaints) she used to strike her staff upon the floor, and throw herself into an attitude which it was impossible to regard with indifference. From these traits of the manners of Jean and Madge Gordon, it may be

perceived that it would be difficult to determine which of the two, Meg Merrilies was intended for; it may therefore without injustice be divided between both. So that if Jean was the prototype of her character, it must be very probable that Madge must have sat to the anonymous author of ‘Guy Mannering’ as the representative of her person.” **

MEG MERRILIES, GUY MANNERING 1815 (FICTIONAL)

Meg Merrilies, the character who is tough matriarch of a family of thieves and smugglers in Guy Mannering, was popularly known to have been inspired by the real life gypsy Queen, Jean Gordon (1670-1746). Jean Gordon wore a dramatic red cloak and had long black hair which is also how Scott portrayed Meg Merrilies. Sir Walter is quoted as saying: ” My father remembered Jean Gordon of Yetholm, who had a great sway among her tribe. She was quite a Meg Merrilies, and possessed the savage virtue of fidelity in the same perfection.”

In the novel, Meg is a prominent character in the plot. Meg is Bertram’s childhood nurse, while spinning she predicts Bertram’s future. Towards end of the novel she helps Bertram discover his true identity at the cost of her own life.

DANDIE DINMONT, GUY MANNERING 185 (FICTIONAL)

The key rural protagonist in Guy Mannering is the large, good hearted yeoman farmer Dandie Dinmont who invites Brown to stay at his farm Charlies-hope to enjoy some sport and hunting during his travels across the Border country. Brown and Dandie cross paths with a gypsy. Brown meets Dandie’s three generations of Mustards and Peppers and comments on how curious it is that they all have the same name. During Brown’s stay they enjoy an otter hunt and Brown leaves his own terrier Wasp boarding at Charlies-hope while he continues on his way. Dandie goes to Edinburgh on his own business and there helps Captain Mannering and becomes concerned about Brown. After a lot of twists and turns and more encounters with the gypsy Meg Merrilies, Brown is revealed as the true heir to Ellangowan, real name Bertram. Mannering and Brown/Bertram are reconciled and the evil Hatteraick dies, along with the gypsy.

The novel was a roaring success and led to the mustard and pepper dogs becoming known as Dandie Dinmont terriers. The book caused a huge surge in popularly of the breed and to this day dandies are the only dog breed named after a fictitious character. The character Meg Merrilies was based on the real gypsy queen at Kirk Yetholm and Dandie’s sympathy towards her was a reflection of Walter Scott’s own conflicted yet empathetic feelings towards the lot of the gypsies. James Davidson, a real life farmer, became known as ‘Mr Dandie Dinmont’ following the success of the novel, due to his well known pack of mustards and peppers.

SIR WALTER SCOTT (1771-1832)

The Kirk Yetholm gypsies held a fascination for Sir Walter Scott. He was a great observer of people and he met with different gypsies many times, his impressions of them were incorporated into his works. He was empathetic towards the gypsies’ poverty and the hard lives they led, which was unusual for his day, given how marginalised gypsies were in Scottish society. He was writing at the time of the Highland clearances when educated people like himself were becoming aware of the

great cruelties being inflicted upon displaced peoples. Scott could see the parallels with the history of the ‘egyptians’ at Kirk Yetholm.

Scott makes the character of Meg Merrilies one of the key players in Guy Mannering. Meg Merrilies has a disreputable family and is a rough, half wild woman, but she has a good heart and sense of right and wrong, and at the end of the novel, she dies in the struggle to thwart Hatteraick from killing Bertram and dies a heroine having revealed Bertram’s true identity.

Scott is recorded as having visited the original Gypsy King’s Palace in Kirk Yetholm on several occasions. King Charles I, who ascended the gypsy throne in 1847 used to boast proudly how, prior to his royal ascent he had been acquainted with Sir Walter, he would sometimes call on him at Abbotsford House, ‘just doon the valley on the other bank’. In return, Scott had visited Charles where he had set up his tent on the river bank.

‘PIPER’ WILL (WILLIE) ALLAN 1704-1779

Born in Bellingham, Northumberland, Will Allan’s first wife was a gypsy from the Faas clan in Kirk Yetholm and of gypsy extraction himself. He retained close links with the Kirk Yetholm gypsies throughout his life. Will Allan variously mended pots and pans, made besom brooms and baskets, bone and horn spoons, but generally he was not fond of regular work and led an itinerant lifestyle, spending a lot of time in the company of gypsies. Such was his expertise at fishing that he became water-keeper of the River Coquet. He owned a famous pack of mustards and peppers trained for otter hunting and kept up to a dozen dogs at a time. He was an obsessive otter hunter.

Will Allan was a highly talented player of the northumbrian small pipes, playing was his passion and he was much sought after at all kinds of entertainments; weddings, fairs, and kern suppers. His expertise at playing the pipes, his prowess at otter hunting, and his highly prized mustard and pepper dogs brought Allan into contact with the cream of society. Will Allan gave Sir Walter Scott a brace of mustard and pepper dogs called Ginger and Spice. These dogs are featured in a portrait of Scott by Sir William Allan (no relation!) which hangs in the Scottish National Gallery.

Once, when working his terriers at Lord Ravensworth’s Elsingham Park (in the Cheviot hills in Northumberland) to clear the lake of otters, the estate’s steward offered Will Allan 50 guineas for one of his terriers. This, Allan flatly refused. On another occasion, the Earl of Northumberland offered him a rent free farm in exchange for one of his dogs, another offer which was refused!

Allan’s dogs were of such pure breeding they were hailed as the true and original mustard and pepper terriers. In later years when breeding became a serious affair it was the descendants of Allan’s stock that were used by early eminent breeders like James Davidson (1764-1820) in Hindlee and Francis Somner (1803-1891) in West Morriston and Kelso. When the dandie Dinmont breed standard was established in 1876 following the founding of the Dandie Dinmont Terrier club in 1875, it was Davidson’s dogs, those direct descendants of ‘Piper’ Will Allan’s dogs, that were used as the basis for the breed standard.

Will Allan died aged 79 in 1779 and is buried in Rothbury churchyard near to his beloved River Coquet. Sadly, the stonemason died before completing Allan’s headstone and today his grave lies undiscovered.

JAMIE ALLAN (1734-1810)

Will Allan had 6 children, the most famous of whom was Jamie (Jemmy) Allan (1734-1810) who was an even more gifted piper than his father and became piper to the Duke of Northumberland and Elizabeth Percy, Countess of Northumberland. Jamie Allan was proud of his Kirk Yetholm ancestry from his mother’s side. He had roguish tendencies and a Don Juan reputation and always skirted very close to the law when not in breach of it, he had a bad habit of enlisting for the army then deserting with his bounty money and was often on the run. He was relieved of his duties as the piper to the Duke of Northumberland after committing various misdeeds. After evading the law and going on the run many times, seeking sanctuary with his gypsy friends over the border in Kirk Yetholm more than once, Jamie Allan died in Durham gaol in 1810 whilst facing a death sentence (handed down in 1803) for stealing a horse, before word of his royal pardon reached the gaol. So infamous was he that a best-selling biography was written, ‘The Life of James Allan’ by James Thompson in 1817. It was reprinted many times.

FROM THE RECOLLECTIONS OF MRS EMILY GREY THOMAS 1836-1922

‘I remember also a drive with George over the border and passing through Yetholm the then known village and gathering place of real gypsies – and his pointing out to me an old woman their ‘Queen’ who had been very lovely and whose husband would not allow her to wash her face lest her loveliness should attract others.’

End. KA 24/4/24

*Today the word ‘gypsy’ is often perceived as a derogative term but it has been used here as this is how the community in Kirk Yetholm referred to themselves.

Three books were published in Kelso in the 1880s that dealt with gypsies. These were:

The gypsies of Yetholm by William Brockie, 1884

The Yetholm History of the Gypsies, by Joseph Lucas, 1882

David Blythe, The Gypsy King, by Stuart Charles 1883.

Some of the sources for this article:

Kirk Yetholm gypsies https://blog.historicenvironment.scot/2022/10/the-gypsy-kings-and-queens-of-kirk-yetholm/ https://dspace.stir.ac.uk/retrieve/318c0dec-e688-423d-a831-74acad2dadc6/Calum%20Cunningham_%20Gypsy%20Monarchy%20Article_%20HS_%20pp.%2016-19.pdf https://www.douglashistory.co.uk/history/articles/gypsies.html https://scotlandstartshere.com/point-of-interest/gypsy-palace/

Meg Merrilies, Madge Gordon, Guy Mannering

Meg Merrilies features in Guy Mannering, by Sir Walter Scott, 1815.