Pauline Cairns Speitel

A story of persecution

Gypsies − not at that time distinguished from other travelling folk − first appear in the written record in Scotland in 1505 as ‘tinkers, peddlers, dancers, raconteurs, guisers, and mountebanks’, and from an early date they attracted hostility. During the 1570s the Scottish authorities ordered them to quit the Gypsy life or risk deportation. Acts passed in 1579, ‘For punishment of the strong and idle beggars and relief of the poor and impotent’, mark ‘Egyptians’ out for special mention: ‘the idle peopil calling themselves Egyptians’. These Acts decreed that any person found to be a Gypsy ‘… and for those that have not whereupon to live of their own, that their ears be nailed to the tron [public weighing-machine] or to any other tree and their ears cut off and banished from the country; and if thereafter that they be found again, that they be hanged. In 1609, the Vagabonds Act was aimed at Gypsies, and four male members of the Faw family were hanged in 1611 for not maintaining a permanent address. Eight more men, six of them with the last name of Faa − a name whose history can be traced back 500 years − were hanged in 1624 for being ‘Egyptians’. In that year a new decree was issued that travelling Gypsy men would be arrested and hanged, Gypsy women without children would be drowned, and Gypsy women with children would be whipped and branded on the cheek. 

Such hostility was common throughout Europe. In England, for instance, the Egyptian Act of 1530 was passed to expel Gypsies from the realm, for being ‘lewd vagabonds’, conning the good citizens out of their money, and committing a rash of robberies. In 1562, Queen Elizabeth signed an order designed to force Gypsies to settle into permanent dwellings, or face death. Several were hanged in 1577, nine more in 1596, and 13 in the 1650s. And under King James VI and I (as he became), England began to deport Gypsies to the American colonies, as well as Jamaica and Barbados. Dumping undesirables such as ‘thieves, beggars, and whores’ in the colonies rapidly became a widespread practice, and Gypsies were clearly classified with such. This pattern has sadly continued across Europe to the present day, most notoriously when Roma, like Jews, were victims of Nazi industrialised murder.

Such attitudes have a sadly long history. An example appears in Grellmann’s 1787 Dissertation on the Gipsies (trans. Raper, London, 1811, p 89): 

“Imagine a people of a childish way of thinking; their minds filled with raw, undigested conceptions; guided more by sense than reason; using understanding and reflection so far only as they promote the gratification of any particular appetite; and you have a perfect sketch of the Gipsies character.”

And John Hoyland (Survey of the Customs, Habits Present State of the Gypsies: Secion VIThe Present Start of the Gypsies in Scotland, 1816, p 93) records the views of Sir Walter Scott, an otherwise famously sympathetic individual who modelled Meg Merrilees, one of his most colourful and memorable characters, on the well-known Borders Gypsy Jean Gordon:

“The distinguished northern Poet, Walter Scott, who is Sheriff of Selkirkshire, has in a very obliging manner communicated the following statement: ‘A set of people possessing the same erratic habits, and practising the trade of tinkers, are well known in the Borders; and have often fallen under the cognisance of the law. They are often called Gypsies, and pass through the county annually in small bands, with their carts and asses. The men are tinkers, poachers, and thieves upon a small scale. They also sell crockery, deal in old rags, in eggs, in salt, in tobacco and such trifles; and manufacture horn into spoons. I believe most of those who come through Selkirkshire, reside during winter, in the villages of Sterncliff and Spittal, in Northumberland, and in that of Kirk Yetholm, Roxburghshire … Mr. Reddel, Justice of Peace for Roxburghshire, with my assistance and concurrence, cleared this country of the last of them, about eight or nine years ago. They were thorough desperadoes, of the worst class of vagabonds. Those who now travel through this country, give offence chiefly by poaching, and small thefts. They are divided into clans, the principal names be Faa, Baillie, Young, Ruthven, and Gordon….’”

Such views certainly shaped the opinion of the authorities towards Scotland’s travelling peoples as late as the twentieth century.

Gypsies, along with other Travellers, have through the ages been made scapegoats for all sorts of crimes: stealing, murder and − distinctively − child stealing; we might recall the fears expressed when Harriet Smith encounters the Gypsies in Jane Austen’s Emma (1815). But, as Betsy Whyte, a twentieth-century Traveller, once remarked to me, “We have enough bother feeding oor ain bairns withoot getting mair that dinnae belang tae us.” And indeed, the reverse seems to have been the case, for the children of Gypsy and Travelling communities were often taken into care on the flimsiest of pretexts. Betsy, in her memoir The Yellow on the Broom (1979), recalls her father telling of a man called Hendry whose errant ways were explained thus: 

“[He] was brought up in a home you know. Any bairn that is taken away to they Homes is never right. When he was about nine he was gotten standing at the door of an inn. His mother and father were in the inn. The woman wasn’t drunk, but the authorities took the bairn anyway. She prigged [argued] with them, but it was no use. The woman broke her heart over her bairn and she died not long after that.”

As a result of such practices what we would now call social workers were known to Gypsies and Travellers as ‘the Cruelty’. The following account comes from Jess Smith’s memoir, Way of the Wanderers (2012): 

“It was snowing when Bridget heard the crunching of footsteps outside her tent Gerald was there piling sticks on the fire and she could hear him talking to some strangers. As she peered from the tent to see who it was, two shovel-shaped hands grabbed her by the shoulders and hauled her from the tent. She landed on some logs and felt a sharp pain in her back. Gerald was lashing out with his fists all over the place and that was the last she saw before her body crumpled over and she lost consciousness.

Some minutes later, still in agony, Bridget opened her eyes to see people crowding round her with blankets. An elderly woman was washing blood from her face, but it was not her own blood. 

‘Gerald was fighting with the hornies [policemen] and the cruelty man, lassie. They’ve taken him off with them.’

Bridget was filled with terror, and asked where were her two children, three-year-old Rachel and nine-month-old Johnnie. 

‘Oh, my puir soul, they’ve taken the bairns awa tae,’ said the old woman, trying to wrap the blanket round Bridget’s shaking shoulders.

The young mother was unable to control her grief; and with dead eyes staring cold white sockets, she limped away from the bystanders and threw herself into the freezing waters of the River Tummel. No one was able to save her.

Locals burned the family’s tent and warned other Tinkers who were in the area about what had happened. The next day they were nowhere to be seen.”

The above is only one of various reports of similar tales of travelling folks’ lost children, including one where a mother is locked up in a hospital for the criminally insane.

Gypsy and Traveller children in Scotland were required by the 1872 Education (Scotland) Act to have a quota of attendances at school − one half-day counted as one attendance. This requirement gave the authorities − including, crucially, the Church of Scotland − carte blanche to intervene in their lives. And children suffered greatly from bullying in mainstream schools. Children can be cruel ordinarily, but in the case of cruelty to the children of Gypsies and Travellers it almost seemed to be sanctioned by the ‘othering’ visited upon them by adults. Jess Smith − who was later to become a successful writer and a powerful ambassador for her community − coolly describes her contact with school bullies thus (Sookin Berries, 2008): 

“Bullies were everywhere when I was a child. Sometimes they waited for me outside school, sometimes inside. I was terrified. However, as I grew older I began to look upon them not so much as something to be frightened of but as a pesky problem. If approached properly such problems can be defeated, it’s just a matter of how much you want rid of them.”

And such bullying continued into adulthood. Jess’s father, Charlie Riley, who had unwittingly bought some stolen paint-spraying equipment, received a short prison sentence, and found that even among prisoners there was prejudice against Gypsies and Travellers. As he told Jess (Jessie’s Journey, 2002): 

“Travellers were, and still are, looked upon as vermin. I was a travelling man who suffered regular beatings, both by fellow prisoners and guards alike. I was given the vilest chores to do. The tiny cell I shared with a mindless thug made me suffer constant attacks of breathlessness.”

Nowadays there are many fewer Gypsies and Travellers on the road, and the tent and ghallie [bow tent] of yesteryear have been replaced by larger caravans. Children’s education is generally treated more sympathetically, taking account of families’ lifestyles. The seasonal and casual work they engaged in is no longer available to them, and many of their traditional trades have been overtaken by technology, for example knife grinding. At the time of writing, labour imported from the continent of Europe has taken over berry-picking, and tattie howking is mechanised. The travelling life as it was known to Betsy Whyte, Sheila Stewart, Jess Smith, and their ancestors has vanished, like the ‘Mist Folk’ themselves. 

Who were the Gypsies and Travellers?

“In considering the Gypsies of Scotland, one is met at the outset by the difficulty of ascertaining the exact sense in which that word has been used. The genuine Gypsy, the swarthy, fortune-telling Romany of our fairs and race-courses is unmistakeable; but the term ‘Gypsy’ has been and still is loosely applied to many of fair complexion, who cannot speak a word of Romanes, and whose chief claim to be so designated is that they lead a wandering, unsettled life. These latter are also known by various other names; of which the most popular in Scotland are Tinkeror Tinkler, − and in earlier times, caird, − as also horner, mugger (i.e., potter), and faw, these last terms being more specially limited to the Border districts.”

(Scottish Gypsies under the Stewarts by David Macritchie, Edinburgh 1894, p. 1)

The Romani or Gypsy people are an ethnically distinct group, hailing originally from South India. Travellers are originally of Scottish descent, although sometimes in the modern period the two groups are regarded as a single entity. 

Gypsies and Travellers are, strictly speaking, two distinct communities. Gypsies in Britain and Ireland are originally immigrants from the continent of Europe, whose ultimate origins can be traced to South Asia. Heinrich Moritz Gottlieb Grellmann (Dissertation on the Gipsies, trans. Raper, London, 1787, p.83), noted that the first sightings on mainland Europe of peoples known as Egyptians had been as early as the fifteenth century: ‘they did not originate from our part of the world’. 

Gypsies brought with them, or developed, their own distinctive cultural practices, including the appointment of Kings of the Gypsies; Billy Marshall, perhaps the most famous of them all in Scotland, died in 1792 at the age of (allegedly) 120. He had fathered over 100 children, some (not all) by his 17 wives. And in the early years of their appearance in Scotland these practices seem to have been comparatively acknowledged. Thus, during the reign of James IV, an entry in the Accounts of the Treasurer of Scotland records a payment to Peter Ker of four shillings for the ‘King of Rowmanis’. The Dictionaries of the Scots Language ( records another entry in the Accounts in which James IV commended an ‘Egyptian’ by the name of Antonio Gagino to the King of Denmark, offering a payment to ‘the Egiptianis, be the Kingis command, x Franch crounis’. Gagino, following the tradition that had developed among Gypsies of adopting fanciful titles, styled himself ‘The Earl of Grece’. Gypsies were also known for their colourful dress.

Travellers − with whom Gypsies were traditionally confused − are people from the indigenous population who have taken up an itinerant lifestyle. As far as Scottish Travellers are concerned one possible explanation is that they were originally Highlanders displaced by the Highland Clearances, or inhabitants from Perthshire and Aberdeenshire who had lost their property and land during the 1745 uprising. Gypsies historically were differentiated from Travellers by their distinctive names, such as Faw. However, many subsequently adopted Scots names, to conceal their identities; Travellers were similarly fluid in their nomenclature. Names common in both communities include Gordon, McDonald, Robertson, Smith, Townsley, Whyte, Williamson and Blyth. Gypsies in Scotland tended to gather in particular areas in Dumfries and Galloway, in Argyll, and in Berwickshire; one of the strongest and best documented ‘stopping places’ was the Border village of Kirk Yetholm. There were also communities in Aberdeenshire and Perthshire, especially around Blairgowrie. In today’s world, the label ‘Gypsy’ is no longer regarded as an insult and bearers of the name regard it as an indicator of a proud heritage.

The Dictionary and its Languages

The original inspiration for this Dictionary came from a slim volume The Scottish Traveller Dialects compiled by Jess Smith and Robert Dawson (Blackwell, Derbyshire 2002). However, the distinctive language of Scotland’s Gypsies and Travellers has never, to my knowledge, been brought together in dictionary form before.

This Dictionary offers the first substantial collection of words used by Gypsies and Travellers in Scotland, building on but going well beyond such classic lists such as those by the antiquarian Francis Grose (1785, 1787), or the updating of Grose by Pierce Egan (1823).

Captain Francis Grose, whose father was a jeweller of Swiss origin, was born about 1731 in Greenford, Middlesex. Grose had two careers, one military – he was adjutant and paymaster in the Surrey militia – and the other artistic. And although referred to by his military title his artistic career was by far the more successful. It was Grose’s interest in antiquities – he had been a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries – that led him to make trips to the slums of St Giles where he collected much of the material which encouraged him to compile a Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue which was originally published in 1785. Many of the words recorded by Grose were also in use by Scottish Gypsies and Travellers and can be seen to have a common root.

Incidentally, when travelling Scotland to research his Antiquities of Scotland Grose met with Robert Burns. When Burns asked him to include Alloway in his book Grose replied that Alloway was of no consequence and too small but if Burns could write a poem that would merit Alloway’s inclusion it would be added. The result was Tam o Shanter which made its first appearance in The Antiquities of Scotland (1797). 

Pierce Egan’s date of birth is uncertain, but he is first recorded as a printer’s apprentice in London in 1786. He then went on to become a sports writer but came to wider attention with the publication of his novel Life in London which documents the adventures of Corinthian Tom and his country cousin Jerry Hawthorn published in 1828. 

During his research for this book Egan became aware of the Flash Language (defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as “Connected with or pertaining to the class of thieves, tramps, and prostitutes” and in subsequent editions of Life in London he supplied a glossary. In 1823 he then ‘updated’ Grose’s work although it can be argued this was more to publicize his own works rather than improve Grose’s dictionary. Egan’s version was titled Grose’s Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue REVISED AND CORRECTED With the Addition of Numerous Slang Phrases Collected from Tried Authorities by Pierce Egan this is then followed by a list of other works by Egan.

What Egan does not say is that he edited out some of Grose’s material thought by him too “coarse” or “broad”. (Perhaps this is an early development of Victorian mores.) However, because of his background as a sporting journalist he does include more definitions from the world of boxing, for example: “chancery getting your head ‘in chancery’, among pugilists, is when your nob [head] is completely at the mercy of your opponent.”

The Dictionary also draws on other classic accounts, e.g. George Borrow’s Romano-lil a Word Book of the Romany (John Murray, London 1874) which deals with the language of the English Gypsies. George Borrow (1803-1881) who was partly educated at the Royal High School in Edinburgh and then at Norwich Grammar School initially studied law but then discovered his main interests were languages and literature. Borrow travelled extensively in Europe and North Africa and as a result of these travels, developed a lifelong empathy with nomadic people such as Gypsies and Travellers. In the 1860s he visited Gypsy encampments in Wandsworth and Battersea after which he wrote his final book the above-mentioned Romano-lil, where between pages 17 and 101 he lists Romany words along with a detailed description of their grammatical categories. Borrow is still regarded as an authority in the field. 

Another source noted is a New and Comprehensive Vocabulary of the Flash Language by James Hardy Vaux (John Murray, London, 1819). This work is distinctive because it is accredited with being the first dictionary written and published in Australia. Vaux (b.1783) was a convict who had the distinction of being transported to Australia three times. After his eventual release in 1841 at the age of 59 he simply vanishes. Nothing is known of his life after this or the details of his death. Some of the language recorded here was also included by Vaux, which is a measure of the volume of Scottish Travellers and Gypsies sentenced to transportation.

Other later studies were also consulted. One such was H E Wedeck’s A Dictionary of Gipsy Life and Lore(Philosophical Library, New York 1973). Wedeck, a scholar of the classics, was originally a native of Sheffield in England but made his career in America teaching classical languages in Brooklyn until he retired in 1968. His obituary in the New York Times of 14 July 1996 noted that “[he was] an observer of spheres beyond the norm” and “some of his excursions into the unusual … include a Dictionary of Astrology and a Dictionary of Aphrodisiacs”. He died at the age of 102. His dictionary, although slight in terms of content and lacking in discussion of sources, nevertheless paints a vivid picture of Gypsy life throughout the world.

Other modern works drawn upon include Timothy Neat’s The Summer Walkers (first published by Canongate Books in 1996 and republished by Birlinn 2002). Timothy Neat (b.1943−), although born in Cornwall, came to Scotland in the 1960s and immersed himself in all levels of Scottish culture. He has worked closely with many diverse Scottish luminaries, including Jean Redpath and Hamish Henderson. The Summer Walkers is the name given by Scottish Crofters to the Travelling People of the Highlands. Neat documents the lives of these itinerant people with sympathy and genuine respect for a way of life on the edge of extinction. Neat is also known for his work as an art historian, writer and film-maker.

Til Doomsday in the Afternoon − subtitled The folklore of a family of Scots Travellers, the Stewarts of Blairgowrie (Manchester University Press 1986) is Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seegar’s study of the Stewarts and their language. It gives a vibrant picture of how Travellers lived during the twentieth century and how they became successful entertainers. 

Ewan MacColl – born James Henry Miller (1915-1989) – and American Peggy Seeger (b.1935−) were and are both political activists, folksingers, writers and collectors of material relating to alternative cultures. MacColl’s background was extremely political, his father having fled Scotland to find work after having been blacklisted in every foundry in that country. Seeger’s parents were Charles Seeger a noted American musicologist and the composer Ruth Crawford Seeger. When they began their collaboration on the above title their original intention was to “compile a collection of traditional songs and ballads from the repertoire of a family of Scots Travellers − the Stewarts of Blairgowrie”. After two or three months of fieldwork they abandoned this idea as it was “swept away on a flood of recorded anecdotes, jokes, riddles, bawdy rhymes and traditional tales”.

MacColl and Seegar, as a result of their studies, were given a privileged insight into the lives of Travelling people seldom available to outsiders. The book was also completed in the late twentieth century and, at the time of writing this introduction, some of the contributors will still be alive. This gives the material documented here a real connection to language as it is currently spoken by Scottish Travellers.

Useful also was James Hayward’s A Gypsy Jib (Holm Oak Publishing 2003). (Jib is the Romany word for ‘tongue’, cf. Scots chib ‘razor’, presumably a metaphorically derived meaning.) Although Hayward is a descendent of the Scamp Gypsy clan and traces the Scamp family back to the early eighteenth century, his collection is no more than a list of Gypsy words found in England, albeit with reverse translation, i.e., Romany-English and English-Romany. Hayward does, however, through illustration and specialist notes, for example on names and his own Gypsy roots, paint a vivid picture of Gypsy life.

Other sources are derived from private correspondence. In 2013 I received an email from Paul Pope in Canada, a descendent of Scottish Travellers who had emigrated to there in the nineteenth century. Paul sent me a list of ‘Cant’ words still known to him and his extended family: an invaluable contribution. However, in Paul’s list were a few words that had clearly modified their meanings during the intervening years; some are compounds or phrases of other Traveller words, some I cannot trace. These forms may not be related to Travellers’ language, and I have therefore listed them in an Appendix.

This Dictionary includes terms traditionally referred to as Romany, i.e. the inherited Indo-European variety spoken by Roma Gypsies and related to ancient Indian languages such as Sanskrit, and also the rather vaguely-conceived Cant, i.e. vocabulary not found in standard British English that has historically been dismissed, generally contemptuously, as slang. Cant has itself several varieties associated with particular social groups, e.g. ‘thieves’ Cant; as this last example suggests, Cant can be deployed as a private or ‘hidden’ code, which is the feature about it which seems to have attracted antiquarians such as Grose or Egan. The term has generally been used with a pejorative connotation, but its neutral use in this Dictionary is an attempt at recuperating a handy term. Since varieties of Cant overlap, many of the words listed here as part of the language of Gypsies and Travellers will be found in other varieties as well.

There have been many lists made of Romany and Cant words but most have at best only sketchy etymological information. This Dictionary is intended to address this lack. The etymologies provided have been researched as far as possible but, given the age-old suspicions and prejudices against Gypsies and Travellers, sometimes the only information available is that a word is marked ‘(Cant)’ or ‘(Romany)’, and some words are completely untraceable. Informants are listed in the text by their initials; a list appears at the beginning of the Dictionary along with the abbreviations used for etymological sources. (For fuller definitions of the terms ‘Cant’ and ‘Romany’ see note below.)

Most of the vocabulary included in this Dictionary is common to all travelling folk in Scotland, but where there is a regional or other group restriction the relevant areas are indicated. Dates of attestation are given where known. It should be noted, however, that many entries are given the date ‘20-’or ‘21-’, since the only written records that can be found about a particular word are from the twentieth and twenty-first centuries respectively. 

A sample entry illustrates the procedure adopted. Thus yerra

m ‘milk’ appears in this Dictionary as follows (for a guide to the pattern of entries see the section ‘A Guide to Reading Entries in the Dictionary’ below):

yarum, yerrim, yerum, yoarum, yorum noun milk: “paplers and yerrim” [porridge and milk] la16-. Compare been yerum [origin obscure but perhaps a development of Scots yirn ‘of milk, to form curds with rennet and the application of heat’; also collected by EMcC/PS and RD; attested in Shelta; yerim attested by Galloway and Perthshire and Argyleshire Tinkler-Gypsies, SR, BS in TDITA and SS]

note: Lexicon Balatronicum (1811) and Grose and Egan (1823) attest the form yarum (milk) as ‘Cant’. Canadian Paul Pope (2013) also cites the form yerrum with the same meaning.

Many of the words described in the Dictionary share common ancestry (i.e. are cognate) with Scots, the language of many non-Gaelic speakers used in Scotland and parts of Ulster. However, it is often the case that, where a word or phrase is found in Scots, the meaning used by travelling folk is slightly different. Thus, Betsy Whyte in her autobiographical Yellow on the Broom refers to the River Tay as ‘the Burn’, using a word that in Scots means a smaller water-course, viz. a stream. Other examples include:

want, have a want of an otherwise normal person have an obsession or distorted view about a particular person or thing 20-. This usage derives from a Scots phrase which differs slightly in meaning, i.e.  have an intellectual disability, dating from the nineteenth century. The usage is attested by BW.

ba’ heid [‘baw ‘heed] noun a person with a bald head la20-baa-heided adjective silly, foolish: ‘The lassie’s better aff here. Four boys in that house, and each as baa-heided as the next.’ la20-. Scots baw heid ‘a fool; also a more general term of contempt’ is attested by JS; baa heided is attested by ET.

Other words in the Dictionary derive from Scots Gaelic, which is traditionally confined to the Scottish Highlands (although now undergoing something of a resurgence through Gaelic-medium education in the major Lowland cities). A variety of Scots Gaelic known as Beurla Reagaird ‘Richard’s Language’, the language of Gaelic-speaking Travellers, seems to be almost extinct. My main source of Richard’s Language or the language of the Highland Tinkers for this Dictionary was a website compiled by Jimmy Macdonald.

In addition, the lexicon of travelling folk includes words derived from Irish Gaelic, and its varieties of known as Shelta and Gammon; the latter two are − or were − spoken by Irish Travellers. (It should be noted that the term Gammon is regarded by these Travellers as extremely pejorative.) 


*Cant the following is the definition of Cant as it appears in the Oxford English Dictionary:

‘The peculiar language or jargon of a class: 

a. The secret language or jargon used by Gypsies, thieves, professional beggars, etc.; transf. any jargon used for the purpose of secrecy. 

b. The special phraseology of a particular class of persons, or belonging to a particular subject; professional or technical jargon. (Always depreciative or contemptuous.)’

**Romany the following is the definition of Romany as it appears in the Oxford English Dictionary:

‘1. A member of a widely dispersed ethnic group, found mainly in Europe and North and South America, tracing its origins to South Asia;

2. Now usu. in form Romani. The Indo-Aryan language of this people.

Romani is a member of the Central group of Indo-Aryan languages. Individual dialects of Romani manifest many regional variations reflecting contact with other languages.’

James Hayward’s Gipsy Jib A Romany Dictionary (Holm Oak Publishing,2003) defines Romany thus:

Romany 1 Descriptive of the Rom. This word is an adjective and equates to the word English. Originally there were two words depending on gender, i.e. Romano (masculine) and Romani (feminine). Of the two Romani has survived the better and is used almost exclusively and is mostly spelled Romany. Romano does still exist in occasional use such as Romano chiriclo for a wagtail.

‘Romany 2. the English Gypsy language. This is the name applied to the language nowadays [2003]. It is an Anglicised form of Romanes.’