Forgotten Kings and Queens: The Lost Gypsy Dynasty of Scotland
We have all heard of Scotland’s legendary 14th century King Robert the Bruce and the powerful Stewart dynasty of the 16th and 17th centuries; these two families dominate Scottish history. But did you know there was another monarchy in Scotland, a lost lineage so noble that its kings and queens rival both the prestige and respect held by the Bruces and the Stewarts? It was a Gypsy Dynasty.
Anthropologists have traced Gypsies back to three migrations from the Sindh region in India, which was southern and central Pakistan, about 1700 years ago; They are; Romani (the western gypsy) from Pakistan and northern India, Lomavren or simply Lom (central gypsy) from eastern Turkey and Armenia, and the Domari (eastern gypsy) from the Middle East and Egypt.
“The first arrival of the Romanies outside Bern in the 15th century,” described by the chronicler as getoufte heiden ("baptized heathens") and drawn with dark skin and wearing Saracen-style clothing and weapons. ( Public Domain )
Regarding the Gypsy Dynasty in Scotland, it is worth mentioning the title ‘King of the Gypsies’ has been associated with many different people over the last five centuries. It was sometimes inherited and other times acquired or claimed. The range of the title’s power was often limited to a small group in a specific place, but sometimes it was recognized internationally.
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A coronation photograph of Charles Faa Blyth King of Yetholm Gypsies. The King was crowned in May 1898. ( Public Domain )
In the early 1970s at the First Annual Romani Meeting it was decided that the term ‘Gypsy’ would no-longer be used to describe Romani people and they voted for the term ‘Roma’ to be used instead.
The Kings and Queen of the Gypsies
However, historically, the leaders of the Gypsies in Scotland certainly did use the term ‘King of the Gypsies’, and the story of this monarchy begins in February 1540 AD, when a letter under the Privy Seal from King James IV was granted to "oure louit Johnne Faw, lord and erle of Litill Egipt.” This translates to “ Johnnie Faa of Dunbar, Lord and Earl of the Egyptians in Scotland .” This letter granted Johnnie authority over all Gypsies in Scotland and it called upon on all Scottish sheriffs to assist him "in executione of justice upoun his company and folkis", who were to "conforme to the lawis of Egipt.”
The word “gypsy" was a slang medieval term for Egyptian, but not all gypsies were Egyptian. Some historians believe there may be a connection to the annexation of Egypt in 1517 AD by the Ottoman Empire, when many of the aristocratic Egyptians fled enslavement. Records prove that one hundred years later, by 1612 AD, the Faa family had traveled as far as Shetland and in 1623 AD “eight leaders of the Gypsies were hanged on the Burgh Muir, six of whom were of the Faa line.” And soon after, in the 1650s, the Faas were amongst those families transported to Virginia.
Deportation of Roma and Sinti from Asperg, Germany, 1940. (Bundesarchiv, R 165 Bild-244-48/ CC BY SA 3.0 )
Six generations later the son of William Faa I, William Faa II, was still recognized by his hereditary title ”King of the Gypsies.” When he died aged 96 on October 9, 1847 in Kirk Yetholm the Kelso Mail carried his obituary entitled "Death of a Gypsy King", which said he was "always accounted a more respectable character than any of his tribe, and could boast of never having been in gaol during his life.”
Because William Faa II had no children the Gypsy Crown passed to his sister Esther's husband, Charles Blythe (1775-1861). Charles was an educated man and was respected for having lived up to his title. When he died in 1861 his children fought for the crown. Eventually, his daughter Esther Faa Blythe was coronated and she reigned until 1883, when the gypsy culture began to decline. In 1898, her son Charles Rutherford was coronated King of the Gypsies. He died in 1902 and the title has not been re-established.
Esther Faa Blythe was Queen of the of Yetholm Gypsies following her father Charles Faa Blyth’s death in 1861. ( The Scottish Gypsies of Scotland )
A Second Gypsy Dynasty
A second Gypsy royal lineage existed in Scotland, although this one was not acknowledged by the King. Billy Marshall is said to have lived for 120 years and had always claimed to be the "King of the Gypsies.” He was known by several names, such as the "Caird of Barullion”; Caird meant skilled gypsy and Barullion is the name of a hill range in Wigtonshire in Dummfries-Galloway in southern Scotland. He was also "King of the Randies” - Randies referring to macho, virile, men that despised authority.
Marshall was a gypsy descendant of Roma people and a bare knuckled boxer before classic boxing rules were laid out in the mid 1700's. Head butting, eye gouging, chin kicks, and wrestling were all permitted and each of three bouts saw various weapons being used including swords, knives and cudgels or quarterstaffs (long sticks).
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He was also a failed soldier who had deserted the Army and Navy several times and had resorted to organizing peasant gangs in the Barullion Hills called "the levellers", who would destroy dykes and tear down the King's fences.
Secret Symbolism on Marshal’s Tombstone
When Marshall died, he left behind a very mysterious grave stone displaying a pair of horns, which are believed to represent the zodiac sign of Aries , the ram, symbolizing strength and warrior-like energy, and the reason for it being on the stone might be a wink to the Tinker's Toast: "May war never be among us”.
Billy Marshall’s grave stone at the Saint Cuthbert Churchyard in Kirkcudbright, Dumfries and Galloway, Scotland. (Helen Bowick/ CC BY SA 2.0 )
Gypsy historians believe the crossed spoons represent a wish that his people never go hungry, but horn spoons were also extremely popular in Europe and Scandinavia as far back as medieval times, and horn spoon making has always been taken care of by gypsies since the 1600’s.
According to historians, the current Queen of the Gypsies is a “housewife in Edinburgh” but the linage has surfaced in the USA. In 1953, Anaïs Nin had surgery for ovarian cancer in a hospital in Los Angeles. In her diary she said, "the King of the Gypsies was having surgery at the same time" and that approximately six hundred members of his tribe were camped in or near the hospital in accordance with their law: "no amount of hospital discipline would drive them away". Having spoken with several members of the group, they had identified them as Romani people.
Top Image: Charles Faa Blyth King of Yetholm Gypsies. He was one of the royals in the oft-overlooked Gypsy Dynasty in Scotland. Source: Robert Dawson/ National Library of Scotland
By Ashley Cowie
Schimmel, A. 1986. Pearls from Indus Jamshoro, Sindh, Pakistan: Sindhi Adabi Board.
"Gypsy Folk Tales Index". Sacred-texts.com.
Wagner A. R. "The Scottish Gypsies of Scotland". Scottishgypsies.co.uk. Journal Gypsy Lore Soc.’’ 3rd ser.ii 370-1 quoted in ‘’English Genealogy’’
BBC. 2004. Billy Marshall - the Scottish King of the Gypsies".
Nin, A. 1947-1955. Diary Of Anaïs Nin Volume 5 1947-1955, p. 106-107.