On 1 October, 1677, a ‘battle’ between gypsies took place near Romanno Bridge in Peeblesshire. Five men were later hanged in Edinburgh’s Grassmarket in connection with the battle. Their story then takes a bizarre turn that could almost come straight out of a story by Robert Louis Stevenson.
In the seventeenth century, the Scottish authorities had a hostile attitude towards gypsies. The reign of James VI (1567-1625) was a turning point in what, today, we would call “community relations”. From that time, there were numerous acts of parliament levelled against Gypsies and banishments to the American plantations. The extremely draconian 1609 Act ‘regarding the Egyptians’ is a particularly sobering read. As a result of that long history, discriminatory attitudes about Gypsies/Travellers are ‘fairly widespread’.
In 1677, a dispute between two Gypsy kin groups, the Faws and the Shaws, ended in the killing of ‘Old Sandie Faw, a bold and proper fellow,’ and his pregnant wife at Romanno, and Sandie’s brother being ‘very dangerously wounded’. The Faws, or Faas, Falls etc, were an important gypsy kin group in the eastern Lowlands.
According to the OS name book, under ‘Romanno’:
‘About ½ Mile E.N.E. from Romannobridge A large rectangular building three Storeys high with vegetable garden and offices attached, and surrounded by a small well wooded Demesne … At the S.W. Corner of the garden is a large Elm tree, around which a battle was fought between two tribes of Gipsies Called The Fawes and the Shaws in the year 1683. in which a good many on both sides were Killed.’
The OS name book also records the ‘Site of AFFRAY between two Parties of Gypsies 1677’ (See map above):
‘Adjoining Dovecot about ¼ of a Mile E. [East] from Romanno Bridge This is where the contest took place between the two clans of Gipsies, the Fawes and the Shawes; It happened on the first of October 1677, and to commemorate the event Doctor Pennicuik erected a Dovecot on the spot where the fight took place, no remains of this Dovecot are to be seen now but the stone bearing the inscription (viz The field of Gipsie blood which here you see. A shelter for the harmless dove shall be) 1683 is still to be seen, it is placed above the Garden door at Romano.’
The historical sources confirm that the ‘battle’ took place in 1677 and that the Doocot was probably erected in 1683.
In the 1680s, the estate at Romanno was owned by Alexander Pennecuik, who wrote about the ‘battle’ in his description of Tweeddale that was probably composed in the 1690s:
‘Upon the first of October 1677, there happened at Romanno, on the very spot where now the Dove-cot is built a memorable Polymachy betwixt two Clans of Gipsies, the Fawes and Shawes; who had Come from Haddington fair, and were going to Harestanes to meet two other Clans of those rogues, the Baillies and Browns, with a resolution to fight them. They fell out at Romanno amongst themselves, about dividing the spoil they had got at Haddington And fought it manfully. Of the Fawes there were four brethren And a brothers son; of the Shawes, the father with three Sons; And Several women on both sides. Old Sandie Faw a bold and proper fellow, with his wife, then with Child, were both Killed dead upon the place; And his brother George, very dangerously wounded. In February 1678 old Robin Shaw, the gipsie, And his three sons, were hanged at the Grass Mercat for the above mentioned murder Committed at Romanno; And John Faw was hanged the Wednesday following for another murder – Sir Archibald Primrose was Justice General at the time; And Sir George McKenzie King’s Advocate.’ (Pennecuik, Works, 179-81.)
In the nineteenth century, Robert Chambers told the following version of the story in his Domestic Annals, which were based on earlier historical sources:
‘Oct. 1.  The Egyptians or gipsies still roamed in a lawless manner over the country, without attracting much notice from the authorities, their conduct being now probably less troublesome than it had been in the reign of King James [VI (d.1625)]. Two bands of these people, the Faws and the Shaws, on their way from Haddington fair to Harestanes, in Peeblesshire, where they expected to meet and fight two other tribes, the Bailies and Browns, fell out among themselves at Romanno about the spoil they had lately acquired, and immediately engaged in battle. ‘Old Sandie Faw, a bold and proper fellow,’ and his wife, then pregnant, were killed on the spot, while his brother George was very dangerously wounded.
[John Murray] The Laird of Romanno apprehended ‘Robert Shaw; Margaret Faw, his spouse; James, Patrick, Alexander, and Thomas Shaws, their sons; and Helen Shaw, their daughter; Robert and John Paws; John Paw younger; Agnes and Isobel Shaws; Isobel Shaw younger; and George Faw, and did commit them prisoners within the Tolbooth of Peebles;’ whence they were speedily removed to Edinburgh to be tried.’
Only archaeological remains of Peebles Tolboorh exist, but it lay on the Brodgegate in Peebles.
‘We soon after find the Council despatching a warrant to [Murray] the Laird of Romanno and Mr Patrick Purdie, to send to Edinburgh ‘the money, gold, gold rings, and other things which were upon these persons;’ likewise the weapons with which they had fought. An account of expenses sent by the magistrates of Peebles was disallowed, excepting only £15 Scots (£l, 6s. 8d. sterling) for the sustenance of the company while in jail.—[P[rivy]. C[ouncil]. R[egisters].’
‘In February [6th] next year , ‘Old Robin Shaw’ and his three sons were hanged in the Grassmarket for this murder, and John Faw was executed in the following week [13 February] for another murder. Two or three years after [i.e., probably in 1683], the [new?] Laird of Romanno— a quaint physician named [Doctor Alexander] Pennecuik [of Romanno (d.1722)], who wrote verses—erected a pigeon-house on the scene of the conflict, with this inscription over the door:
The field of gipsy blood which here you see,
A shelter for the harmless dove shall be.
(Chambers, Domestic Annals, II, 388-9.)
Alexander Pennecuik M. D. married Margaret Murray, the heir to the estate of Romanno, in 1676. The full inscription records their marriage by their initials. Pennecuik was a poet and wrote a description of Tweeddale.
When the enclosed garden at Romanno was revisited by the OS in 1964, both the elm and the doocot had vanished. Nearby Romanno House had been demolished in the 1930s:
‘There is no elm tree at the SW corner of the garden nor any remains of a dovecot in the vicinity, but the stone bearing the inscription given by Name Book is now built into the end of the garden wall at NT 1660 4820. Above the inscription are the letters APMD MM. The Name Book entries differ as to the date of this conflict. It is more likely that the battle took place on the 1st October 1677 and the dovecot was erected later in 1683 but nothing could be found to confirm this.’
Is the inscribed stone still in situ? Can it be photographed? Please get in touch.
A Curious Tale
Lord Fountainhall also recorded their execution:
‘6th February 1678.–Four Ægyptians, of the name of Shaw, ware this day hanged, (the father and three sones,) for a slaughter committed by them of one of the Faws, (another tribe of thesse vagabonds, worse than the mendicantes validi mentioned in the Code,) in a drunken squabble made by them in a randevouz they had at Romanno, with a designe to unite their forces against the clans of the Brouns and Bailzies, that ware come over from Ireland, to chasse them back again, that they might not share in their labors; but in their ramble they discorded, and committed the forsaid murder, and sundry of them of both sydes ware apprehended.’
Fountainhall then records a strange twist in the story, the body of the youngest of the Shaws disappeared:
‘Thir four, being throwen all unto one hole digged for them in the Grayfrier churchyard, with their cloaths on, the nixt morning the youngest of the 3 sones, (who was scarce 16,) his body was missed and found to be away.
Some thought, he being last throwen over the ladder [when hanged], and first cut doune, and in full vigor, and no great heap of earth, and lying uppermost, and so not so ready to smother; the fermentation of the blood, and heat of the bodies under him, might cause him rebound and throw of the earth, and recover ere the morning, and steal away; which, if true, he deserved his life, tho the Magistrats or their bourreau deserved a reprimand.
But others, more probably, thought his body was stollen away by some chirurgian or his servant, to make ane anatomicall dissection on, which was criminall to take at their own hand, (vide titulum de sepulchra violato,) since the Magistrates would not have refused it; and I hear the chirurgians affirme the toun of Edinburgh is oblidged to give them a malefactor’s body once a-year for that effect; and it’s usuall in Paris, Leyden, and other places, to give them also some of them that dyes in hospitalls.’ (Lauder, Historical Notices, I, 187-8.)
Had the body snatchers struck? Or had young Shaw survived hanging? We do not know.
Fountainhall also captured the conviction and execution of old Robin Faw a few days later. His conviction was not, in Fountainhall’s opinion, sound, and probably indicates how the prejudice against Gypsies at that time led to careless presumptions of guilt, collective punishment and injustice:
‘On the 13 of Februar 1678, one of the Faws, called Robert Faw, being convict of having killed one Young, a caird or tinker in Aberdene, was also hang’d tho the probation was very slender, the witnesses not deponing positively he was the very man; yet it was thought sufficient against such cattle, for the being a knowen Ægyptian is death by our Acts of Parliament. He dyed affirming he was not in the country the tyme of that murder; for they had been tane two years ago peiking, and sent away with the French officers, but returned. The rest of this tribe and band the Justices banished the kingdom, never to returne under the paine of death.’ (Lauder, Historical Notices, I, 188.)
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