It’s rumoured that Bill Clinton is one of their descendents, but the gypsies of Yetholm on the Scottish and Northumberland border have more than an American president to their name. We look back on the lineage of one of Britain’s less known royal families.
You may be an American searching for your roots, or just a local, enjoying the country air, but if, like many ramblers walking the Cheviots you stop off to have a pint at Town Yetholm’s only watering hole, you will notice a photo gallery of some of the Border town’s more colourful historic residents. These are the Gypsies of Yetholm.
Picture courtesy of Yetholm Historical Society
The Clinton Connection
The Travellers, or Gypsies as they used to be called, have a long association with this region and once had a ‘royal family’ enthroned at Kirk Yetholm, just over the border from Wooler. There is some evidence to suggest that the former American President Bill Clinton is a descendent of the royal family of Yetholm.
Clinton was born William Blyth IV and only adopted his stepfather’s name ‘Clinton’ when he was at college. Genealogists have traced the president’s lineage back to an uncle of Queen Esther Faa Blyth, one Andrew Blyth, who moved to America in 1801– whether forced or not is unclear. But whatever the case, he chose to remain, unlike his fellow gypsy Jemmy Allan (b1802), famous as a Piper to the Duke of Northumberland, who was transported to America numerous times but always returned within a few months.
The first written record of gypsies in Kirk Yetholm dates back to 1695. It seems that many of them fled there to escape persecution, and, in some cases, to hide from the constabulary on both sides of the Border, It is believed that in that year a gypsy saved the life of a local laird who, as a thank you, built some houses in the village. They were to be leased to the gypsies in perpetuity. The main families were the Youngs, the Taits, the Gordons, the Fleckies, the Douglas’, the Blyths and the Faas (or Faws).
For the next 200 years or so, they wintered in Yetholm and every summer packed up their wagons to sell wares in the surrounding towns. They criss-crossed Northumberland and Cumbria, regularly stopping in at Wooler, Boulmer, Berwick, Appleby and Carlisle. At Boulmer they were renowned for their trade in smuggled whisky and gin from Holland, which one estimate in 1885 valued at £20,000 per annum!
The Royal Line
The first recorded ‘King’ in Yetholm, was one Patrick Faa in the 1730s and ‘40s. His queen was a formidable six-foot-tall woman called Jean Gordon, whom, it was believed, was the inspiration for the character of Meg Merrilees in Sir Walter Scott’s novel Guy Mannering. But royal blood was no protection for this family: 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 Faas were unashamed supporters of the Scottish Royal House, as it was thanks to the Stewarts that they owed their own royal status. It was widely believed that James V had granted their ancestor, John or George Faa, the right to call himself the 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’. It seems that James was hoping to encourage a degree of self-regulation to a group who were increasingly troublesome. He apparently revoked it a year later, but the gypsy royals conveniently ignored this.
The Egyptian Connection
‘Litill Egypt’ referred to the fact that it was believed that the gypsies, who first came to the British Isles in the 1500s, hailed from an island off the coast of Egypt – hence the nickname ‘gypties’ or ‘gypsies’. More recent research, particularly into linguistic links, has revealed that while some gypsies may have sojourned in Egypt, their most likely ethnic origin is North West India. In the 1540s and 50s there were a number of ‘documents’ floating around gypsy circles claiming royal approval – each of them referring to a king, earl, knight or rajah of ‘Litill Egypt’.
In Durham in 1549, Amy and George Fawe laid a charge against a John Rowland, for counterfeiting the king’s Great Seal and falsely claiming to be ‘King of the Gypsies’. The Faas claimed this right exclusively as their own. The royal lineage continued through the Faa family and later, by marriage, the Blyths, until 1898, when the last king, Charles Faa Blyth, was crowned. The most famous of the royals was Esther Faa Blyth, or Ettie, as she was known to family and friends. Ettie claimed the crown in 1861 by literally fighting off rival claims from her sisters after the death of her father Charles.
Queen Esther’s Coronation
Picture courtesy of Yetholm Historical SocietyKirk Yetholm’s village green was the site of this catfight and also the victorious queen’s coronation. This eyewitness account appeared in the Kelso Chronicle in 1861:
The Queen, mounted on her palfrey, proceeded to the Cross, where the ceremony of coronation was to be performed – the crown-bearer and the crowner following behind … he now placed the crown – a tinsel one, alas! – upon the head of Esther … and proclaimed her Queen Esther Faa Blyth, challenge who dare.
And no one dared – not even on her royal demise in 1883, and it seemed for a while that she would be the last gypsy monarch. Queen Esther became something of a celebrity with Victorian gentry who travelled from all over the country to visit her in her ‘palace’ – which is now a B&B called the Gypsy Palace. Despite receiving gifts from many of her admirers, Esther died in poverty, and with her the lively tourist trade that made Kirk Yetholm a ‘must-stop’ on the route to Scotland.
The Last of the Line
In an attempt to revive the flagging economy, a relative of Esther’s was crowned Charles II in 1898 in a farcical ‘coronation’ that brought a great crowd but was considered demeaning by the locals. On Charles’ death a few years later, none of his descendents were prepared to take up the crown. By the turn of the 20th century, the gypsies of Yetholm had either moved away or become assimilated into the local population, and no longer saw themselves as a separate race.
Now all that is left are a few photos on a pub wall, a small cottage called the Gypsy Palace and some fabulous stories.
Picture courtesy of Yetholm Historical Society
For more on Yetholm and its colourful heritage, including original photos of the Gypsy Royals, visit
This article first appeared in the Northumbrian in August 2003 as ‘King’s, Queens and Presidents’