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A GYPSY TRIAL OF 1714., David MacRitchie (Jan., 1895), pp.30-35

“THE trial of “Will Baillie’s Gang” in the summer of 1714 forms one of the most notable episodes in the eventful history of the Scottish gypsies. The charges against them were many. The most important accusation was that in the preceding January they had, “under cloud of night,” broken into three mansion-houses in East Lothian (those of Colonel Murray of Pilmour, Patrick Hepburn of Smeaton, and Sir Francis Kinloch of Gilmerton), and had carried off from each a considerable quantity of plunder, including silver plate and “gold pendants.” The names of the prisoners, who were all accused of participation in these acts, were William Baillie, James Watson, Adam Yorkstoun, Barbara Martine his spouse, Elspeth Yorkstoun, Jannet Johnstoun, Agnes Brown, Agnes McDonald, Jean Baillie, John Kerr, and Helen Yorkstoun. The two last were tried separately, for a reason which will presently appear.

In addition to these charges, William Baillie was accused of housebreaking and robbery at “the walk milne of Whythaugh in the Shyre of Roxburgh,” on the first Sunday of June, 1709. It was further alleged that he and James Watson “Did upon one or other of the dayes of January or February Last, under cloud of night, break in upon the dwelling house of Robert Grant in Askirkmilne in the Shyre of Roxburgh, and did Steall and away take furth thereof an Mettal drinking Tumbler, and one hundred and four pound Scots in Current Gold & money. As also two little Silver boxes or hearts, As likewise an knife and fork, and they left behind them a hand saw for cutting timber barrs, and a Steell Instrument for drawing Nailes and turning off Locks,” which “said two Thievish Instruments” had been hidden in a stack. The silver boxes and the knife and fork were found in their possession on the Monday following the burglary, “when they were taken up an Incarcerat by the Magistrats of Peebles as Theives and Egyptians*.” James Watson was futher accused of having, in December, 1709, or January, 1710, “broken in upon the house of George Chrystie, Vintiner in Edinburgh,” and of having carried off therefrom “an considerable quantity of pewther vessell.” “As also the said William Baillie, James Watson and haill other persons above Complained upon are Egyptians, going by the name of Will Baillies gang, and Sorners**, Masterful beggars and Oppressors of her Majesties Leidges, by extorting meat drink or lodging from them without payment, and are Vagabounds, having no settled residence nor visible way of gaining their Livelyhood in an honest manner.”

But, before the trial of the main portion of the gang, two young gypsies, John Kerr and Helen Yorkstoun, aged respectively nineteen and twenty, were tried “for the crimes of theft, housebreaking, sorning, and of being gypsies,” and especially “of being guilty actors art and part” in the [burglaries] at Pilmour, Smeaton, and Gilmerton. When arrested in a house at the Abbey of Haddington, and brought before the local justices, they had confessed their guilt. Yet, curiously enough, the five witnesses for the prosecution in their trial at Edinburgh (on 19th July) professed absolute ignorance of anything against them, and the jury having returned a verdict of “not proven,” the prisoners were “assoilized” and dismissed from the bar. Immediately thereafter, however, the Queen’s Advocate presented a petition for their detention in prison until the trial of the rest of the gang, “having shrewd suspicion of their withdrawing of themselves and so disappoint the said tryal, they being material witnesses”; which petition was duly granted. From this and subsequent events, it seems clear that these two young gypsies had been promised an acquittal if they would give evidence tending to incriminate their leaders; and that they had yielded to the temptation.

The preliminary “informations,” on the part of the Queen’s Advocate and the two “advocates for the poor” who defended William Baillie and his followers, were lodged on 27th and 31st July. With regard to the charge of robbery at Whitehaugh in June, 1709, William Baillie objected that he had been already tried and sentenced at the Circuit Court held at Jedburgh in the October of the same year. And as for the burglary at the Edinburgh vintner’s in December, 1709, or January, 1710, Watson “offered to prove, That in both these moneths and long before, and after, he was abroad in Tourney [Tournay in Flanders] as a Souldier, in Strathnavers Regiment of foot, which lay then in Garison at that place.” In their defence against the charge of breaking into the three mansion-houses in East Lothian, the gypsies “offered to prove That at the time when these Thefts had been committed, they were upon these very nights lodged in the house of Robert Whyte in the toun of Blyth in Tweed Shyre1 which is about Thirtty Scots myles distant, and that they were seen then at that place late in the Evening, and Early in the morning, by persons of good Credite residing in the house with them, Or by the persons belonging to the family, Or by the neighbours, persons of good Credit.”

In this preliminary skirmish before the trial there was much hair-splitting between the opposing sides. In rebutting the charge “that the haill pannels are Sorners and Egyptians,” it was argued “that the exacting of Quarters is not sorning,” – a very daring assertion. Moreover, the indictment was said to be too loosely framed, and ought to have specified certain acts of sorning. Further, the gypsies’ counsel contended that they ought not to be found guilty as Egyptians in the terms of the Act of 1609, because that was “but a temporary Law” and “extended only to the Egyptians then in being.” The correctness of this objection was utterly denied by the Advocate for the Crown. And, in reply to the argument that the Act of 1609 “was a Law so extreamly severe that it was never observed save once… and is since in desuetude,” it was answered that “desperate diseases require severe remedies, and its nottour how honest men are not only cheated by tricks and Shifts committed on them by Egyptians at mercats and otherwayes; But Likewise what a terrour they are in the Cuntries where they resort, what housebreaking, Thifts, Robberies, Murders and other insufferable Insolencies these men are guilty of, and with what obstinate Courage and Contempt of fear they have defended themselves against Lawful authority; – yea, even against parties of the regular Troops commanded out to apprehend them.”

After a good deal of such fencing, the trial was fixed for August 3rd, but then came the news of Queen Anne’s death, and it had to be postponed to the 7th. On the previous day, however, one of the gypsy women, Agnes Brown, endeavoured to show “that she was wrong named in the Inditement, her true name being Margaret.” But it appeared that when she had been arrested at Blyth, in February, by a party of General Carpenter’s dragoons, she had given her name as Agnes Brown, and had “owned Agnes Brown to be her name all the way from Blyth to Haddingtoun,” whither they had carried her. This being sworn to by the corporal and one of his men, her objection was over-ruled.

The actual trial, then, took place on the 7th of August, the prisoners being all in court. Of the twenty-seven witnesses who gave evidence on the various points, the most important were the two young renegade gypsies, and their testimony proved most damaging to their kinsfolk. The young woman stated that on the night of the burglary at Gilmerton, she and her parents and Janet Johnston (one of the accused) were in a house in that neighbourhood when Baillie, Watson, Jean Baillie , the woman Brown, and Agnes McDonald entered, and the two men, drawing their swords, intimidated her and Johnston into accompanying them to Gilmerton House, which they declared they were going to break into. And she added a circumstantial account of the whole proceedings. The youth Kerr, who also professed to have been brought there against his will, testified further to William Baillie opening the outer gate of Gilmerton with false keys; and described the robbery in much the same terms as Yorkstoun. He deponed also “That the sd William Baillie and James Watson and one James Brown2 had each of them a good horse, The one black, the Second Brown and the other Gray, and rode on horseback to the house of Gilmertoun,3 and caried away the Stollen goods after they were putt on horseback with great Speed, and the women followed on foot.” That they rode in a south-westerly direction (the direction of Blyth) is indicated in Helen Yorkstoun’s statement “That Watson & Baillie promised to give the Deponent a Share of the Stollen goods at Eddlestoun Kirk or Stobo, whither they were to go to divide the same.”

As for the attempted alibi, all that “James Whyte in Blyth” could say was that he had seen the five “twice in the Toun of Blyth, Sometime in January or February Last,” and that “the said persons and some others of their Company, Lodged in a waste house near the Deponents,” but that he could not “be positive that the said five persons or any of them did stay there the said whole two weeks, But were coming and going.”

Of the robbery at Whitehaugh, charged against Baillie, it is needless to say much, as the jury found it “not proven,” although the evidence of his guilt seems perfectly clear. On the other hand, they decided “by plurality of voices” that James Watson had been proved guilty of the theft at the Edinburgh vintner’s; in spite of the fact that five of his former comrades in the army testified on oath that he had been with them in Flanders from the summer of 1709 until July 1710, “at which time he Deserted the Regiment which then lay at Ghent.” The robbery itself was of course beyond question; and the struggle with and pursuit of the robber, who was armed with a pistol loaded with slugs, was graphically described. But only two of these witnesses swore to the identity of the robber with James Watson.

That the prisoners were “called known habite & repute to be Egyptians” was proved by unanimous testimony; the aim of the prosecution, however, being rather to fasten this charge upon the five whom they regarded as guilty upon other grounds. It is only of these five that “John Murray in Blyth,” for example, speaks when he depones that he has known them “Coming about the toun of Blyth, and that they used to lodge there in an old ruinous waste house, and that they used to be well cloathed, and [he] never knew them work, nor exercise any Occupation, & Depons that the people in the Toun of Blyth and those in the Country about that mett them on the road, alwayes called the said pannels Gypsies.” Of like tenor is the evidence of “William Wardlaw, Servant to the former Deponent,” who “Depons… that he has seen the said Baillie and Watson wear Swords, But never saw them follow any Imployment, nor any handy Craft.”

The result of the trial was as follows. On 11th August, “The Lords Justice Clerk and Commissioners of Justiciary… having considered the verdict of assyse returned… Against the forenamed Adam Yorstoun, Barbara Martine, Elspeth Yorstoun and Jannet Johnstoun… Assoilzie the said pannels, & dismiss them from the Barr.” But they “Decern & Adjudge the said William Baillie, James Watson and Agnes Brown, To be taken to the Gallowlee, betwixt Leith and Edinburgh, upon Wednesday the Twenty fifth day of August Instant, and there betwixt two and four a Clock in the afternoon, To be hanged by the neck upon a Gibbet until they be dead. And Thereafter Ordain the bodies of the said William Baillie and James Watson to hang in Chains upon the said Gibbet.”

The Verdict had found the two other women, Jean Baillie and Agnes McDonald, equally guilty with these three. But it being pled for them, “for delaying the pronouncing of Sentence against them, That they are at present with Child,” the Court appointed a jury of matrons to establish the truth or falsity of the plea. These having certified, on the following day, that the plea was in both cases just, the Lords of Justiciary postponed consideration of the verdict, as affecting them, until “the second Monday of November next to come”; the two women being carried back to prison.

On the 15th of November, “The Lords Justice Clerk and Commissioners of Justiciary, having considered the verdict of assyse returned” in the previous August, and there being now no innocent lives at stake, they, with relentless logic, condemned “the said Agnes McDonald and Jean Baillie to be taken to the Grass-mercat of Edinburgh, upon Wednesday the Twenty fourth day of November Instant, And there, betwixt the hours of two & four in the Afternoon, To be hanged by the necks upon a Gibbet until they be dead.”


[By the favour of G. L. Crole, Esq., Clerk of Justiciary, I have been enabled to obtain the foregoing information from the Justiciary Records.]”

1 The village of Blyth, in the southern extremity of Linton parish, Peeblesshire.
2 This James Brown had evidently quite succeeded in eluding capture, for he was not one of the prisoners.
3 Helen Yorkstoun had deponed that she and Janet Johnston were made to hold the horses “at the end of Gilmertoun park” while the robbery was going on.
* The term “gypsy”, or “gypsies”, is just an abbreviation of the original term “Egyptians”.
** A “Sorner” is someone who lives off others.
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