Charles Faa Blythe was crowned King of the Scottish Gypsies, at Kirk Yetholm, near Kelso, on Whit Monday, the 30th of May, 1898.
By virtue of his coronation, Charles Faa Blythe, rather than Idi Amin, was arguably the last King of Scotland. As equally despised from time to time, the Gypsies were first recorded in Scotland in 1492, the same year Columbus landed in the West Indies, and in the reign of James IV. This first record identifies the Gypsies as the ‘Egyptians’, referring to the belief that the gypsies came from an island off the coast of Egypt; hence the nickname ‘gypties’ or ‘gypsies’. Their origins have been the subject of controversy throughout the centuries, but from recent linguistic research, it appears that their most likely ethnic origin is North West India.
The Gypsies were originally a nomadic race, never putting much stock in possessions, apart from a fierce loyalty to their horses. Their society was hugely reliant on family, and one such was the Faa family that centred around Kirk Yetholm, in the Borders. The Faa family’s first official involvement in the area was reported in ‘Chambers’ Journal’, of the 18th of August, 1883; “the land [where the Faa ‘palace’ stands], was given to the gypsies by Bennet of Grubbit and Marlefield, Laird of Kirk Yetholm, after a brave gypsy named Young saved his life during the Battle of Namur, in 1695.”
The Royal line of the Gypsies owes its status to another Royal line; that of the Stewarts and James V in particular, who granted John Faa the right to call himself ‘King of the Gypsies’, in 1539. Historical records show that there was indeed a writ of the Privy Council recognising the right of a John Faw, the ‘Lord of Litill Egypt’ to rule and enforce laws over his ‘people’. There was another writ, dated February, 1540, also signed by King James V, which records the granting of protection to “our lovit Johnnie Faa, Lord and Erle of Littil Egipt.”
The first recorded Gypsy King in Yetholm, was Patrick Faa, whose ‘rule’ spanned the 1730s and ’40s. His Queen was a formidable six foot tall woman called Jean Gordon and it’s believed that she was the inspiration for Sir Walter Scott’s character of Meg Merrilees in the novel ‘Guy Mannering’. Poor Patrick was deported to the Americas for theft, three of his sons were hanged for sheep stealing and Jean was drowned by an angry mob in Carlisle for voicing her sympathy for Bonnie Prince Charlie.
The coronation of King Charles II came about because, after the death of his mother, Queen Esther, in 1883, the tourist trade was in need of a bit of a boost. That ‘tourism’ derived from the curious fact that Esther had become a bit of a celebrity to the Victorian gentry and her ‘palace’ in Kirk Yetholm a ‘must-stop’ on the route to Scotland. In an attempt to revive the flagging trade, her son Charles Rutherford, then aged seventy-three, was persuaded by locals to take the Crown.
In 1935, the photographer, Alasdair Alpin MacGregor, recorded a conversation with a resident of Yetholm, called Robert Christie, who vividly remembered the coronation of Charles Faa Blyth. He recollected that there were ten thousand folk there, the day Charlie Blythe was crowned, and two hundred cuddies (horses). Blythe was crowned on the Green of Kirk Yetholm after the gypsies wended their way up the Loanings, towards the tract of land known as the Common. There, they put a tin crown on him and broke a bottle of whisky over his head, then bound a hare round his neck. Christie went on to suggest that the hare was indicative of the ancient art of poaching, which the gypsies regarded as their birthright, so to speak.
The coronation ceremony was really a pageant, with all the locals dressing up for the benefit of the photographs, many of which still exist. The spectacle was even reported in the ‘Hawick News’ – “The ceremony took place in an enclosure set up in front of Renalson’s Inn and a rich harvest of shillings was gathered in for admission to it. A throne was improvised and eight or ten armchairs arranged in a row, with a small round table as a centre-piece, on which lay a faded cushion. …[there were] various other participants, who had been outfitted by a Glasgow theatrical costumier in fancy costumes remarkable for their inappropriateness. Several prominent families were present, including Lady Stratheden and Campbell, and Sir George Douglas.”
According to the 2nd of July, 1936 edition of the ‘Berwick Journal’, there had been two claimants to the ‘throne’ in 1898. One of these was Charles Rutherford of Coldstream, who had to be persuaded to take the ‘crown’, and the other was David Blythe of Kirk Yetholm (or Chirnside). An additional claimant, Peter Rutherford, announced in the ‘Journal’ of the 9th of July, that he was the rightful King.
Whatever the rights or wrongs of these claims, and despite a letter being read out in favour of David Blythe’s claim, no personal challenge was made on the day and Charles was duly crowned by the blacksmith, in his role as ‘Hereditary Archbishop of Yetholm’. Mr Watt, the grocer, dressed in a spectacular costume, then read out a speech on the new King’s behalf; “I am commanded by His Majesty, the King of the Yetholm Gypsies, to thank his loyal subjects for the honour conferred on him this day and to say that it will be his honest endeavour to rule his people wisely and well, and he trusts that his subjects in the villages of Town and Kirk Yetholm will live in peace and prosperity under his sway.”
Charles Faa Blythe reigned until the 21st of April, 1902, when he died suddenly, while sitting in his chair, bringing an end to the Yetholm Gypsy Royal Family. Many of the obituaries then written were critical of the ‘sham coronation on Yetholm Green’ and when it was suggested that Charles’ brother, Robert, succeed him, someone wrote in the ‘Edinburgh Evening Dispatch’; “Surely the ancient house of Faa can bring someone more worthy to the throne of Charles than this person, whose acts have ever been enough to put the Romany race to the blush.” Today, the title is vacant, although there is, apparently, a hereditary claimant, a great granddaughter of Charles, who lives near Edinburgh.