Town Yetholm is a small village in the Scottish Borders to the south east of Edinburgh (map) and has a fairly long history as a ceremonial location for the Scottish Roma people, or “Gypsies”. In fact, Kirk Yetholm has long been known as the the largest Roma colony in Scotland. Some claim it goes back as far as the 15th or 16th centuries when the Roma people first started arriving in Scotland. The area was a convenient location, as during times of trouble the Roma could slip over the border in one direction, or the other, hunting deer and other animals to survive until the problems had calmed. Perhaps more reliable dates go back to at least the 17th or 18th century, but it seems they did not establish permanent homes in Yetholm until the 1700’s.
Although the actual date is unclear, the first reliably recorded person to wear the tin crown of the Gypsy King of Yetholm, was a Faa member, “Wull” Faa -William I in the eighteenth century. He was known as ‘Gleed Nickit Wull’ because of a twist in the shape of his throat. The origin of the idea of the “Gypsy King” is also unclear, but there is some reason to believe it pre-dates the settlement in Yetholm. As early as the 1500’s the Scottish king recognized an “Earl of Little Egypt” (One of the early claims was that “Gypsies” were Christians who were forced out of Egypt) one of whom was also a Faa. As Earl of Little Egypt “Johnnie Faa”/Fall was also granted powers by the King James V to administer justice upon his people and ‘conforme to the laws of Egypt‘. In fact, in May 1540, a precept was granted in favor of John Wanne, son and heir of John Faa, to hang and otherwise punish all his “Egyptian” subjects within the kingdom of Scotland. However it seems Johnnie and his heir may have been unable to sufficiently control their people. Through the mid to late late 1500’s the attitudes toward ‘the idle peopil calling themselves Egyptians’ became increasingly harsh. In 1541 they were ordered to leave the Scotland within thirty days on pain of death. By 1571, an “Act of stringency” was passed and during the next 33 years laws against the Roma increased and hanging, drowning and deportation were the orders of the day for those convicted of being Gypsies.
There are a couple of stories as to why they were allowed to finally settle in the Yetholm. The first comes as a result of the Nine Years War, at the siege of Namur, 1695. A Roma soldier is said to have saved the life of a British Officer, Captain David Bennet, who owned land in the Yetholm area. In gratitude, the Captain built cottages at Yetholm and leased them to the Roma. The “feu”, or lease consisted of a cottage, a garden and about a quarter of an acre. Included, was the right to cut turf and peat, and grazing for a cow and a horse on Yetholm Common. The other version of the story dates from 1715, but also involves the Bennet family. Supposedly, a valuable horse owned by Sir William Bennet of Marlfield was ‘borrowed’ by a group of Jacobites who were passing south along the valley. Sir William gave the task of recovering the horse to the local Faa family and he gave the Faas permission to settle in Kirk Yetholm when they were successful. The Faa (or Fall, and, perhaps, Farr) family seem to first appear in Scots history about 1500. On Bennet’s death in 1755, his successor, not only built additional cottages for the Roma but was so impressed by them that he named them his bodyguard. When the Marquis of Tweeddale acquired the Grubbet estates, he continued to allow them these same privileges of residence. This is not to say they did not also have enemies. The owner of the adjacent barony of Town Yetholm, banned them from even walking on his grounds. But in the legal records of the time they are not singled out as “Gypsies”, but merely as “feuars” (renters) suggesting they were at least legally ranked as equals to other villagers.
It was through his claimed decent from the “Earl of Little Egypt” that William I that seems to have earned the title of king. The Faas seem to have become the hereditary family as the “royal” family in Yetholm, but like the kings of full countries they had their own succession issues at times. William I was succeeded by his son, William II (Wull Faa) in 1784, who held office until 1847. Wull Fa had no sons and so after a conflict with a “pretender” Wull’s son-in-law Charles I inherited the traditional Tin Crown. Charles I’s two daughters next fought over the succession in 1883 until “Queen” Esther Faa Blythe) won and her son Charles II served as the last King of the Yetholm Roma until 1902 when the tradition of the king died out.
The “royalty” -may- have been slightly much better off than their neighbors, but their doings seem to be a mix of legitimate and not so legitimate work. William I is said to have married three times and to have fathered 24 children without ever having “lawful work”. There is a story that the Minister of Kirk Yetholm was once set upon by robbers when returning from Northumberland. But recognizing their leader -and the leader, William I, recognizing the minister, Will apologized for the misunderstanding, and escorted the minister home. They agreed never to bring up the incident, and as far as we know it never was. In fact it’s suggested that Faa acted as ‘country keeper’ – clearing the local countryside of rogues and vagabonds – or a least clear of rogues and vagabonds not of the local variety… King William II is known to have labored carting coals, done a bit of smuggling and finally became a publican. Queen Esther is know to have periodically survived on poor relief, while her son Charles II and his wife eventually ran a lodging house.