This item was a letter to the editor of Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine April - September 1817.


AMONG some instructive and many very entertaining articles in your Magazine, I have been a good deal amused in reading your account of the gypsies, and more particularly of the gypsies of our own country. The race has certainly degenerated (if I may be allowed to use the expression), and is in some risk of becoming extinct, whether to the advantage of society or not I will leave to the profound to determine. In the mean time, I am very well pleased that you have united with the anonymous author of Guy Mannering, in recording the existence, the manners, and the customs, of this wonderful people.

But, I have been, I assure you, in no small degree disappointed, when reading the names of the Faas, the Baileys, the Gordons, the Shaws, the Browns, the Keiths, the Kennedys, the Ruthvens, the Youngs, the Taits, the Douglasses, the Blythes, the Allans, and the Montgomeries, &c. — to observe so noted a family as the Marshals altogether omitted. I beg leave to add, that your author will be considered either a very ignorant, or a very partial historian, by all the readers and critics in the extensive districts of Galloway and Ayrshire, if he persists in passing over in silence the distinguished family of Billy Marshal, and its numerous cadets. I cannot say that I, as an individual, owe any obligations to the late Billy Marshal; but, sir, I am one of an old family in the Stewartry of Galloway, with whom Billy was intimate for nearly a whole century. He visited regularly, twice a year, my great-grandfather, grandfather, and father, and partook, I dare say, of their hospitality; but he made a grateful and ample return ; for during all the days of Billy's natural life, which the sequel will shew not to have been few, the washings could have been safely left out all night, without any thing, from a sheet or a tablecloth down to a dishclout, being in any danger. During that long period of time, there never was a goose, turkey, duck, or hen, taken away, but what could have been clearly traced to the fox, the brock, or the fumart; and I have heard an old female domestic of ours declare, that she had known Billy Marshal and his gang, again and again, mend all the "kettles, pans, and crackit pigs, in the house, and mak twa or three dozen o' horn spoons into the bargain, and never tak a farthing o' the laird's siller."

I am sorry that I cannot give you any very minute history of my hero: however, I think it a duty I owe on account of my family, not to allow, as far as I can hinder it, the memory, and name, of so old a friend and benefactor to fall into oblivion, when such people as the Faas and Baileys, &c. are spoken of.

Where he was born I cannot tell. Who were his descendants I cannot tell; I am sure he could not do it himself, if he were living. It is known that they were prodigiously numerous; I dare say, numberless. For a great part of his long life, he reigned with sovereign sway over a numerous and powerful gang of gypsey tinkers, who took their range over Carrick in Ayrshire, the Carrick mountains, and over the Stewartry and Shire of Galloway ; and now and then, by way of improving themselves, and seeing more of the world, they crossed at Donaghadee, and visited the counties of Down and Derry. I am not very sure about giving you up Meg Merrilies quite so easily; I have reason to think, she was a Marshal, and not a Gordon: and we folks in Galloway think this attempt of the Borderers, to rob us of Meg Merrilies, no proof that they have become quite so religious and pions, as your author would have us to believe, but rather that, with their religion and piety, they still retain some of their ancient habits. We think this attempt to deprive us of Meg Merrilies almost as bad as that of the descendants of the barbarous Picts, now inhabiting the banks of the Dee in Aberdeenshire, who some years ago attempted to run off with the beautiful lyric of Mary's Dream; and which we were under the necessity of proving, in one of the courts of Apollo, to be the effusion of Low's muse, on the classic and romantic spot, situated at the conflux of the Dee and the Ken, in the Stewartry of Galloway. But to return from this digression to Billy Marshal: - I will tell you everything more about him I know ; hoping this may catch the eye of someone who knew him better, and who will tell you more.

Billy Marshal's account of himself was this: he was born in or about the year 1666; but he might have been mistaken as to the exact year of his birth; however, the fact never was doubted, of his having been a private soldier in the army of King William, at the battle of the Boyne. It was also well known, that he was a private in some of the British regiments, which served under the great Duke of Marlborough in Germany, about the year 1705. But at this period, Billy's military career in the service of his country ended. About this time he went to his commanding officer, one of the McGuffogs of Ruscoe, a very old family in Galloway, and asked him if he had any commands for his native country: being asked if there was any opportunity, he replied, yes; he was going to Keltonhill fair, having for some years made it a rule never to be absent. His officer knowing his man, thought it needless to take any very strong measure to hinder him; and Billy was at Keltonhill accordingly.

Now Billy's destinies placed him in a high sphere; it was about this period, that, either electively, or by usurpation, he was placed at the head of that mighty people in the south west, whom he governed with equal prudence and talent for the long space of eighty or ninety years. Some of his admirers assert, that he was of royal ancestry, and that he succeeded by the laws of hereditary succession ; but no regular annals of Billy's house were kept, and oral tradition and testimony weigh heavily against this assertion. From any research I have been able to make, I am strongly disposed to think, that, in this crisis of his life, Billy Marshal had been no better than Julius Caesar, Richard III., Oliver Cromwell, Hyder Ally, or Napoleon Bonaparte: I do not mean to say, that he waded through as much blood as some of those, to seat himself on a throne, or to grasp at the diadem and sceptre; but it was shrewdly suspected, that Billy Marshal had stained his character and his hands with human blood. His predecessor died very suddenly, it never was supposed by his own hand, and he was buried as privately about the foot of Cairnsmuir, Craig Nelder, or the Corse of Slakes, without the ceremony, or, perhaps more properly speaking, the benefit of a precognition being taken, or an inquest held by a coroner's jury. During this long reign, he and his followers were not outdone in their exploits, by any of the colonies of Kirk-Yetholm, Horncliff, Spital, or Lochmaben. The following anecdote will convey a pretty correct notion, of what kind of personage Billy was, in the evening of his life; as for his early days, I really know nothing more of them than what I have already told.

The writer of this, in the month of May 1789, hail returned to Galloway after a long absence: he soon learned that Billy Marshal, of whom he had heard so many tales in his childhood, was still in existence. Upon one occasion he went to Newton-Stewart, with the late Mr M'Culloch of Barholm and the late Mr Hannay of Bargaly, to dine with Mr Samuel M'Caul. Billy Marshal then lived at the hamlet or clachan of Polnure, a spot beautifully situated on the burn or stream of that name; we called on our old hero, - he was at home, — he never denied himself, — and soon appeared; — he walked slowly, but firmly towards the carriage, and asked Mr Hannay, who was a warm friend of his, how he was? — Mr Hannay asked if he knew who was in the carriage? he answered, that his eyes " had failed him a gude dale;" but, added, that he saw his friend Barholm, and that he could see a youth sitting betwixt them, whom he did not know. I was introduced, and had a gracious shake of his hand. He told me I was setting out in life, and admonished me to "tak care o my han’, and do naething to dishonor the gude stock o’ folk that I was come o';" he added, that I was the fourth generation of us he had been acquaint wi’. Each of us paid a small pecuniary tribute of respect, — I attempted to add to mine, but Barholm told me, he had fully as much as would be put to a good use.

We were returning the same way, betwixt ten and eleven at night, after spending a pleasant day, and taking a cheerful glass with our friend Mr M'Caul; we were descending the beautifully wooded hills, above the picturesque glen of Polnure, — my two companions were napping, — the moon shone clear, — and all nature was quiet, excepting Polnure burn, and the dwelling of Billy Marshal, — the postilion stopt (in these parts the well-known, and well-liked Johnny Whurk), and turning round with a voice which indicated terror he said, "Gude guide us, there's folk singing psalms in the wud.'" My companions awoke and listened, — Barholm said, "psalms, sure enough;” but Bargaly said, " the deil a-bit o' them are psalms." We went on, and stopt again at the door of the old king: we then heard Billy go through a great many stanzas of a song, in such a way that convinced us that his memory and voice, had, at any rate, not failed him; he was joined by a numerous and powerful chorus. It is quite needless to be so minute as to give any account of the song which Billy sung; it will be enough to say that my friend Barholm was completely wrong, in supposing it to be a psalm; it resembled in no particular, psalm, paraphrase, or hymn. We called him out again, — he appeared much brisker than he was in the morning: we advised him to go to bed; but he replied, that "he didna think he wad be muckle in his bed that night, — they had to tak the country in the morning (meaning, that they were to begin a ramble over the country), and that they "were just takin a wee drap drink to the health of our honours, wi' the lock siller we had gi'en them." I shook hands with him for the last time, — he then called himself above one hundred and twenty years of age: he died about 1790.

His great age never was disputed to the extent of more than three or four years. The oldest people in the country allowed the account to be correct - The great-grandmother of the writer of this article died at the advanced age of one hundred and four; her age was correctly known. She said, that Wull Marshal was a man when she was a bitt callant, (provincially, in Galloway, a very young girl.) She had no doubt as to his being fifteen or sixteen years older than herself, and he survived her several years. His long reign, if not glorious, was in the main fortunate for himself and his people. Only one great calamity befel him and them, during that long space of time in which he held the reins of government. It may have been already suspected, that with Billy Marshal ambition was a ruling passion; and this bane of human fortune had stimulated in him a desire to extend his dominions from the Brigg end of Dumfries to the Newton of Ayr, at a time when he well knew the braes of Glen-Nap, and the Water of Doon, to be his western precinct. He reached the Newton of Ayr, which I believe is in Kyle; but there he was opposed, and compelled to re-cross the river, by a powerful body of tinkers from Argyle or Dumbarton. He said, in his bulletins, that they were supported by strong bodies of Irish sailors, and Kyle colliers. Billy had no artillery, but his cavalry and infantry suffered very severely. He was obliged to leave a great part of his baggage provisions, and camp equipage, behind him ; consisting of kettles, pots, pans, blankets, crockery, horns, pigs, poultry, &c. A large proportion of shelties, asses, and mules, were driven into the water and drowned, which occasioned a heavy loss, in creels, panniers, hampers, tinkers' tools, and cooking utensils; and although he was as well appointed, as to a medical staff, as such expeditions usually were, in addition to those who were missing, many died of their wounds. However, on reaching Maybole with his broken and dispirited troops, he was joined by a faithful ally from the county of Down; who, unlike other allies on such occasions, did not forsake him in his adversity. This junction enabled our hero to rally, and pursue in his turn: a pitched battle was again fought, somewhere about the Brigg of Doon or Alloway Kirk; when both sides, as is usual, claimed a victory; but, however this may have been, it is believed that this disaster, which happened A. D. 1712, had slaked the thirst of Billy's ambition: He was many years in recovering from the effects of this great political error; indeed, it had nearly proved as fatal to the fortunes of Billy Marshal, as the ever memorable Russian campaign did to Napoleon Bonaparte, about the same year in the succeeding century.

It is usual for writers, to give the character along with the death of their prince or hero: I would like to be excused from the performance of any such task, as drawing the character of Billy Marshall; but it may be done in a few words, by saying, that he had from nature a strong mind, with a vigorous and active person; and that, either naturally or by acquirement, he possessed every mental and personal quality, which was requisite for one who was placed in his high station, and who held sovereign power over his fellow-creatures for so great a length of time: I would be glad if I could, with impartiality, close my account here; but it becomes my duty to add, that, (from expediency, it is believed, not from choice) with the exception of intemperate drinking, treachery and ingratitude, he practised every crime which is incident to human nature,—those of the deepest dye, I am afraid, cannot with truth be included in the exception: In short, his people met with an irreparable loss in the death of their king and leader; but it never was alleged, that the moral world sustained any loss by the death of the man.
Edinburgh, May 26, 1817.