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A History of the Gipsies by Walter Simson

Was keeper for the counties of Peebles


Before

going into details to show the condition in which the Gipsies are at the present day, I will consider, shortly, the causes which have contributed to the change that has come over their outward circumstances, and driven so many of them, as it were, "to cover," in consequence of the unfortunate times on which they had fallen; a state of things which, however unfortunate to them, in their peculiar way of thinking, has been of so much benefit to civilization, and society at large.

About the commencement of the American war of independence, in 1775, the Gipsies, in Scotland, occupied a very singular position in society. Instead of being the proscribed, and, as they thought, persecuted, members of the community, many of them then became the _preservers_ of the peace and good order of the country. The country, as appears by the periodical publications of the day, was, about this time, greatly pestered by rogues and vagabonds. The Gipsies had art enough to get a number of their chiefs appointed constables, peace-officers, and _country-keepers_, in several counties in Scotland. These public officers were to clear the country of all idle vagrants, vagabonds, and disturbers of the peace. This was, sure enough, a very extraordinary employment for the Gipsies. The situation of country-keeper was, of all others, the office in society the most completely to their liking. It gave them authority over every rogue in the country, and they certainly followed out

their instructions to the very letter. They hunted down, with the utmost vigilance, every delinquent who was not of their tribe; but, on the other hand, they took especial care to protect every individual of their own fraternity, excepting those that were obnoxious to themselves. When it agreed with their inclinations, these Gipsy country-keepers sometimes caused stolen property to be returned to the owners, as if it had been done by magic. It is needless to observe that they were themselves the very chiefs of the depredators, but had generally the dexterity never to be seen in the transactions.[226]

[226] The following extract from the Fife Herald, for the 18th June, 1829, will give the reader an idea of a Scotch "country-keeper," at the time alluded to: "A Gipsy chief, of the name of Pat Gillespie, was keeper for the county of Fife. He rode on horse-back, armed with a sword and pistols attended by four men, on foot, carrying staves and batons. He appears to have been a sort of travelling justice of the peace. The practice seems to have been general. About the commencement of the late French war, a man, of the name of Robert Scott, (Rob the Laird,) was keeper for the counties of Peebles, Selkirk, and Roxburgh."

A Gipsy country-keeper was at the height of his vanity and glory, when he got an unfortunate individual of the community into his clutches. In the presence of his captive, he would draw his sword, flourish it in the air, and swear a terrible oath, that he would, at a blow, cut the head from his body, if he made the least attempt at escape.

The public services of the Gipsies were in a short time discontinued, as their conduct only made matters a great deal worse. A friend of mine[227] saw those Gipsy constables, for Peebles-shire, sworn into office, at the town of Peebles, when they were first appointed. He said he never saw such a set of gloomy, strange-looking fellows, in his life; and expressed his surprise at the conduct of the county magistrates, for employing such banditti as conservators of the public peace. The most extraordinary circumstance attending their appointment, he said, was, that not one of them had a permanent residence within the county.


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