Gypsies and Tinkers, Travellers and Itinerants

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The Stewarts  


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Scottish Travellers, or the people in Scotland loosely termed gypsies or travellers, consist of a number of diverse, unrelated communities that speak a variety of different languages and dialects that pertain to distinct customs, histories, and traditions.

There are three distinct communities that identify themselves as Gypsies/Travellers in Scotland: Indigenous Highland Travellers, Romani Lowland Gypsies and Showman (Funfair Travellers).

The lowland gypsies had a 'Royal' family, from an early date. The Faa family occupied this role until 1847 when it passed to the Blyths, commonly called Faa-Blyths. The last 'king' died in 1902 and there has been no more recent claimants (but see below). Besides the Faas and Blyths, common Border Gypsy surnames include Baillie, Tait, Douglas, Gordon, McDonald, Ruthven, Young and Fleckie.

In Scottish Gaelic they are known as the "Ceàrdannan" ("the Craftsmen"), or less controversially, "luchd siubhail" (people of travel) for travellers in general. Poetically known as the "Summer Walkers", Highland Travellers are a distinct ethnic group and may be referred to as "traivellers", "traivellin fowk'", in Scots, "tinkers", originating from the Gaelic "tinceard" or (tinsmith) or "Black Tinkers". Mistakenly the settled Scottish population may call all travelling and Romani groups tinkers, which is usually regarded as pejorative, and contemptuously as "tinks" or "tinkies". Highland Travellers are closely tied to the native Highlands, and many traveller families carry clan names like Macfie, Stewart, MacDonald, Cameron, Williamson and Macmillan.

Best known was Charlie Douglas (best known to me, anyway) who revelled in the title "King of the Gypsies", but there are other families.

The Stewarts were a well-known Traveller family with strong ties to Wigtownshire.
Shown, from left to right, are: Thomasina; Thomasina (wife of Jack Douglas from the Borders); Janey (daughter of Thomasina and Jack); Isabella; Maggy; unknown girl; Jack Stewart of Stranraer and his son John.

Jack Douglas would appear to be from Kirk Yetholm, conveniently less than 1 mile west of the border for folk who need to hide for a while.

The Yetholm Gypsies have made the village famous throughout the world. The Faa and Blythe groupings were the dominant families in British Gypsy culture throughout the past three hundred years. Although gypsy blood still courses through many local veins, the discreet family links have died out as the members have intermarried with the locals. The Baillie, Tait, Douglas, Young, Gordon and Blyth families all have blood links with the gypsy families of the past. The former 'Gypsy Palace' is just off Kirk Yetholm Green, on the road to Halterburn. Once the home of the King of the Gypsies, it is now a private house.

•  Thomas Douglas, Tinker, thief. Resident of. Bannockburn, Stirlingshire was transported to America in 1754.



Sources for this article include:

  • Further reading:

  • Last of the Tinkers, by Sheila Douglas, 2006 - A collection of stories, songs and anecdotes from Willie MacPhee providing a link between the ancient history of his people and their situation in present-day Scotland.

  • Any contributions will be gratefully accepted

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    Last modified: Sunday, 20 January 2019