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

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.

A fascinating insight into the life of the gypsy is given in Rowena Farre's 'A Time from the World' in which she describes the time she spent with the gypsies and her relationship with them. From her name, it seems likely that she, herself, was originally from the Faa tribe. She is most famous, of course, for 'Seal Morning'.

In her book Rowena Farre describes in detail the use of the stew pot, into which whatever game or fowl 'came to hand' disappeared, along with 'self-harvesting' root vegetables, to become the evening meal.

Many family names are associated with the Yetholm Gypsy families, but it would seem that the earliest were the Youngs, followed by the Taits, Gordons, Fleckie, Blyth, Baillie and Douglas. Because so many bore the same family name, the use of nicknames to differentiate those with a similar Christian name was common,

By about 1830, the families had begun to split, with groups moving into the surrounding areas to live. The main reason was probably the shortage of food in winter in the Yetholm area. So we find Douglasses and Youngs appearing in numbers in the Bongate in Jedburgh, with others in Hawick and Redpath. Some went over the border into the Wooler area.

Gypsies have always been thought of as being dark-skinned, with dark eyes and white gleaming teeth, but this is only true of some of the Yetholm gypsy families. It is generally held to be true of the Young, Faa and Douglas families, but the Blythes and Baillies, mostly, were fair haired and had a rather ruddy complexion.

As with all gypsies their dress tended to be of two extremes. When out and about in what could be called day-to-day clothes, they were scruffy and appeared to be needing a good scrub. Partly, this might have been part of the image, as if they appeared poor and needy, the local population might be more willing to buy from them. All the stories written by those who have lived with the gypsies refer to the ablutions being carried out daily, usually, admittedly, in cold water. When dressed in their finery they radiated colour and joi-de-vivre. They loved the bright colours, particularly red and green, and the contrast with the gleaming white of the ladies' aprons was a sight to see. They were fond of jewellery which they wore on every possible occasion. It is rare to see a photograph of them without their gold and silver ear-rings, bangles etc.

Each of the gypsy families would have at least one donkey or pony, and most had a cart to carry their wordly goods. These animals were grazed on the Kirk Yetholm Common Land which lay between the village and the English Border.

When Jeffrey was writing in 1836, the strength of the gypsies in Kirk Yetholm was about 80, consisting of the Blythes, Ruthvens, Taits and Douglases. The Faa family had died out in name, with the death of Will Faa. The kings brother-in-law, Charles Blythe, who was married to Etty Faa seized the throne. So poor had the Faas become, that, for a time, Will had been forced to take a 'real' job. He worked as a gamekeeper for the Marquis of Tweeddale, and is described as 'an excellent fisher, well acquainted with every pool and stream in the Beaumont, Cayle and Colledge waters'

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



Sources for this article include:
  • The Scottish Gypsies of Scotland

  • 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.

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    Last modified: Monday, 06 July 2020