The Gypsy King of Kirkcudbright

‘It seems that he had both the good and bad qualities of man about him in a very large degree. He was kind, yet he was a murderer—an honest soul, yet a thief—at times a generous savage—at other times a wild Pagan. He knew both civil and uncivilized life—the dark and fair side of human nature. In short, he understood much of the world—had no fear—a happy constitution—was seldom sick—could sleep on a moor as soundly as in a feather bed—took whisky to excess—died in Kirkcudbright at the age of 120 years- Such was the end of Billy Marshall, a brother of Meg Merriless.’

From The Scottish Gallovidian Encyclopaedia  (John Mactaggart  1824)

It’s a beautiful day today. You can never tell what the Scottish weather will decide to fling at you in the Easter period on the coast of South West Scotland. Today it has decided that you will surprisingly and unexpectedly burn. 

The churchyard of St Cuthberts lies away from the church in town, you follow a winding path through woods and across streams. So many resting places, the shiny modern ones where the names are so clear, the dates so close so terrifyingly modern it seems like they must surely be alive, not here underneath this old sodd, the flowers adorning their grave so obscenely fresh against their clustering  obscure and ancient sandstone neighbours, like they accidentally wandered in here and it all went a bit wrong.

So many graves stretching into the distance, the sun, the sea and the mountains behind.  I leave the place of fresh marble, a fresh white floral tribute still spelling ‘DAD’ – the modern day graves are too much for me, I feel a voyeur in grief, a hypocrite I know as the older graves came with tragedy and mourning, even more so when you tick off the  outrageous numbers of  dead on a single tombstone, more of a broadsheet in its size and length text of the dead and so many so pitifully young, just a name. Some have been feverishly written on the back of the tombstone, like an old scholar who has run out of paper but still needed to keep keep  writing, can’t miss anything out, so so important.

Here now  lie the old graves, the slanted ones, the sunken, cracked, split and smited. I am looking for one in  particular but in these surprising God’s acres of crosses, slabs, tributes and tombs from centuries ago, I know I will never find it.

Then suddenly it is so obvious. The surrounding graves and slabs blackened, their epigraphs obscured by time, lichen and weathering but then one grave so much newer looking than the rest of  its haphazard lichen blanked co-patriots and it is shining like a beacon. 

 People come here to look after this stone, his stone, despite the fact he has been dead for centuries, money is placed upon the top of his spotless white grave, a tradition apparently utilised to give money to hungry gypsies. Upon the  small neatly piled copper collection,  I place an extravagant 20p, remembering the old folklore of crossing gypsies palms with silver, enough for a packet of roast beef Space Raiders and wonder if the money is left sacrocent or naughty teenagers will pillage it to put towards naughty purchases. I somehow suspect the Gypsy King would well approve of such audacious acts.

‘The remains Of William Marshall, Tinker who died 28th November 1792 at the advanced age of 120 years’

On the spotless white back of this ancient grave is a carving of two rams horns and crossed tablespoons, the sign of skilled tinkers who worked spoons out of rams horns although other sources make links to the zodiac symbol of Aries, the symbolism of the ram as a strong creature and the crossed spoons a sign of wishing people would never go hungry. Billy Marshall’s clever whittlings can still be seen in the nearby Stewartry Museum. This outsider does not die easily forgotten.

 Clean as a whistle this grave, a loyal Gypsy community have been coming here to pay pilgrimage and respect for centuries, carefully cleaning away the decades and centuries and looking after this grave as the others slowly moulder, crack and decay apart from the occasional fresh floral  tribute left on the bottom of an old old gravestone, so suddenly bright and fresh in this place of old old graves, it seems out of place, garish, misremembered,looks like it belongs in the new cemetery, looks like somebody died yesterday. 

The old graves have their own tributes growing, small pastel coloured flowers, so many types and fronds of leaves, inching gently from the cracked disturbed soil, ivy creeping relentlessly up, nature encompassing the dead, the  vital unknowing uncaring show of rebirth no matter what religion you lived and died in, your wealth, your piety; all becomes food for green fronds in the future. 

Billy Marshall- Soldier

 Not enough to be a gypsy. Not enough to be a Leveller, to fight against the rich and the powerful and to bring down with force the newly erected barriers across what was meant to be common land for the people to be self sufficient on, to raise a pig or two, to have a cow and thus some dignity and independence. 

He had served in the army of William of Orange and the Duke of Marlborough, allegedly been married seventeen times, and fathered  many illegitimate children, four of them when he was over a hundred years old, so it is said. So it is said. Or maybe a subtle ‘othering’ of  someone different, who ploughs his seed more than most respectable citizens, stories growing in the re-telling. 

His legend is told by Sir Walter Scott in Guy Mannering (1829) the self same author renowned for embellishing a story to make it more exotic, romantic and dare we say it, more publishable.  I was going to insert a few paragraphs of his book below but it was so appallingly dull despite the gypsy content, I deleted it and felt a lot better. I will kindly allow you the most exciting  paragraph I can find so you do not feel cheated. 

‘’for if that randy wife was coming to Charlies-hope, she should have a pint bottle o’ brandy and a pound o’ tobacco to wear her through the winter. They’re queer deevils, as my auld father used to say—they’re warstwhere they’re warst guided—there’s baith gude and ill about the gypsies.’’

There is a lot lot more in a similar style, like a bigoted old drunk in a corner of a pub who has something vaguely interesting to say but it is taking too many words in the saying of it (see also the comments section in the Daily Mail)

I could not find the name of Billy Marshall but he might have been referred to by another of his aliases, I did find a mention of his kin who were referred at in a similar way, a nervous respect to  people who were the same but different, not foreign enough to be foreign, but had their own way of life, off kilter with the rest, despised, envied, respected, feared or a queasy intermingling of them all, often leading to a wilfully blind hatred.  

Billy Marshall  was a man  of so much worth and strength that is said that he was determined to go every year to the annual Kelton Hill Fair, near Castle Douglas in Dumfries and Galloway, the place where so many tribes and families from all walks of life met up and told stories, connected again with far flung yet close family members. Over campfires they  retold old legends, met with old enemies again; it was a place where the gypsy community could meet, trade horses, stories and old knowledge, be understood again in a place filled with a sudden revelry and high spirit for but a few well remembered and much looked forward to the days of the year, a place where more than a few people coupled and more than a  few plots were hatched.

Scottish National Dictionary (1700–)

KELTON HILL FAIR, n.phr. Used metaph. to indicate a rumpus, a noisy uproar (Kcb., Dmf. 1959)

From England, Ireland, and the most distant parts of North Britain, horse-dealers, cattle- dealers, sellers of sweetmeats and of spirituous liquors, gypsies, pickpockets, and smugglers, are accustomed to resort to this fair. Every house in the adjoining villages is crowded ; and all become, on this occasion, houses of entertainment. The roads are, for a day or two before, crowded with visitors to this fair. On the hill or park where it is held, tents are erected in rows, so as to form a sort of street, for the accommodation of the multitude. – From The Siller Gun, a poem in five cantos- John Mayne (pub 1836) 

 Billy’s Company Commander knowing Billy was strong willed and would do whatever he pleased and not wanting to lose face or a good member of his regiment, knowing he would  desert from the army in a second  to attend the fair, cannily made him a Regimental Courier so he could travel to Edinburgh and thus coincidentally manage to go to the fair, the fair  Billy would have happily lost his position to attend. Well played there, well played. 

 Billy was a man who crossed all boundaries, he worked as a soldier whilst tearing down physical barriers between the haves and the have-nots and  yet whilst engaged in such sleight of hand activities, he apparently was also able to muster up the strength to be engaged in a little  whiskey smuggling and thievery. Who even knows if this was the case; many people are more than happy to blame a ‘tinker’ for any crime in the area, even now are cases of local people choosing the time of Appleby Fair to thieve from farm, house and field, safe in the knowledge that the eternally marginalised and eternally suspected  Gypsies or Travellers  will be blamed. 

God bless Billy Marshall, God bless the man who was able to stand up to the land grabs and to ‘level’ the illegal walls put up by the servants of the gentry or landed gentry, hence the name ‘Levellers’, a name more associated with white dreadlocks and a surprisingly long set at a festival.

But those with the grand estates that they often never even bothered to visit, those with the venison, those with so much food, so many estates, they decided they needed more, more, more, Maybe even seeing someone living simply was too much. So they put up the walls and annexed the land, the bridges and the Levellers including Billy with his mighty strength and his skills learnt from years of combat knocked them back down again. Then presumably went home and other homes to sire more children if the legend is true.

Billy was not a shining beacon of virtue but he used his military training against those in power to help to give land back to the people, the common people, not just Gypsies but all the poor people of the parish who just needed enough space for a cow to be self sufficient, enough space for a few chickens or sheep to keep them through the cold Scottish winters, to not rely on charity but be themselves, to have work, a small roof over their head and enough food to sustain themselves with.

 Surely this was the point of  the ancient common ground so long held by the People, not those who occasionally thundered up the small roads just to check yet another of their stolen little kingdoms were bereft of community and use, just some more annexed land to add to the countless acres of possessed land, owed land, unknown and uncared for but unquestionably THEIRS in the way a spoilt child will yearn after a strewn unloved chipped and battered toy car if another smaller child is happy with it. Shove on a few  more pheasants, ban the peasants and somehow you will feel as happy with your position as you really should be, feel a bigger man, shoot some more pheasants, be the big I AM, order more wine and try to ignore that nagging terrifying fear that the poor locals you have evicted, those idle stinking crew with nothing but a few sunken ribbed cows somehow lived better and more happily  than you.

The History of Galloway by William Mackenzie (1841) does not treat Billy with romanticised whimsy but grandly pronounces  him as a thief and murderer.  A letter to Blackwood’s Magazine of Edinburgh  in 1817 has a particularly long-winded narrative regarding him. Every form of lettering seems over prone to embellishment in the Scottish past, even the graves can’t keep to a few solemn ambiguous phrases of Biblical verse. 

This is why I am here. 

‘I cannot say that I, as an individual, owe any obligations to the late Billy Marshal; but, sir, I am one of an old family in the Stewartry of Galloway, with whom Billy was intimate for nearly a whole century. He visited regularly, twice a year, my great-grandfather, grandfather, and father, and partook, I dare say, of their hospitality; but he made a grateful and ample return ; for during all the days of Billy’s natural life, which the sequel will shew not to have been few, the washings could have been safely left out all night, without any thing, from a sheet or a tablecloth down to a dishclout, being in any danger. During that long period of time, there never was a goose, turkey, duck, or hen, taken away, but what could have been clearly traced to the fox, the brock, or the fumart; and I have heard an old female domestic of ours declare, that she had known Billy Marshal and his gang, again and again, mend all the “kettles, pans, and crackit pigs, in the house, and mak twa or three dozen o’ horn spoons into the bargain, and never tak a farthing o’ the laird’s siller.’

The letter casts verity upon Billy’s age and is a fascinating insight into an ignored and forgotten time and place, wild Kirkcudbrightshire in the 1800’s, a place where the feudal lords were the enemy and the Gypsies were still the outsiders but could be trusted to not only refrain from petty pilfering but instead  utilise their skills to help another isolated community under the thumbs of the powerful and the rich. Also a fumart? It is, it transpires, another old Scottish word for ferret. Crackit Pigs will however remain eternally elusive as can find no other reference apart from crackit meaning cracked and no gypsy king or indeed anyone else can fix a cracked pig and pigs were certainly not a household pet. An old reference to pig iron? Be a good name for a band though. 

And thus we also go back in time to the mention of the horn spoons, the spoons carved into the back of Billy’s neat grave, the spoons I am looking at now, so many hundreds of years forward. The money, the pilgrimage, the neatness of the grave, this is a rare grave, so old yet so remembered and well kept, a grave where the man within might have only died yesterday. 

We need more Billy Marshalls.

‘Old Meg she was a Gipsy,

And liv’d upon the Moors:

Her bed it was the brown heath turf,

And her house was out of doors.

Her apples were swart blackberries,

Her currants pods o’ broom;

Her wine was dew of the wild white rose,

Her book a churchyard tomb.

 The bold italics on the last line of the stanza are completely mine, such is the delight of finding old dead company who learnt from graves. I can almost imagine her tracing out the lichen filled lines of the inscriptions and murmuring the inscriptions out loud. Very unlikely it ever happened, very unlikely she was even able to read at all considering not only her lowly status as a Gypsy  but also the time she resided in. It’s a pretty little poem though and with pleasing element  of both the romantic and macabre so we won’t argue, just continue to imagine a dishevelled gypsy girl, no doubt utterly beautiful, it would spoil the romance if she had bad teeth and crossed eyes, tracing her finger over old old graves and speaking out loud old old forgotten names in an old old windswept graveyard. 

John Keats (1775-1821)  was said to have written the above poem inspired by Walter Scott’s Guy Mannering where Meg appears and the more eagle eyed reader will have noticed that the name of Meg or Meg Merrilies cropped up in the quote at  the beginning of this chapter.  She was said to be Billy Marshall’s sister and like him, did not live a quiet life. She happily now still exists in the form of a country dance tune,a particularly jolly strain of immortality. 

‘I would be glad if I could, with impartiality, close my account here; but it becomes my duty to add, that, (from expediency, it is believed, not from choice) with the exception of intemperate drinking, treachery and ingratitude, he practised every crime which is incident to human nature,—those of the deepest dye, I am afraid, cannot with truth be included in the exception: In short, his people met with an irreparable loss in the death of their king and leader; but it never was alleged, that the moral world sustained any loss by the death of the man.’

The closing of the letter to the Blackwood’s Magazine, Edinburgh, May 26, 1817.

We need more Billy Marshalls. We need more bravery. We need more people who carefully wipe clean the stone on an ancient grave to keep a memory alive.

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