James Lloyd recalls the tale of the siege of Herdmanston Castle, when two beautiful young damsels were rescued from their wicked uncle by their own dashing young lovers and a band of Gypsies.
When Sir John Sinclair, Laird of Herdmanston in East Lothian, died in 1470, he bequeathed his estates of Polwarth and Kimmerghame to his granddaughters, Marion and Margaret. His castle and chief seat of Herdmanston, meanwhile, went to his brother, Sir William. It was, of course, unusual in this period for women to own land in their own right, and their uncle selflessly offered to assume custody of their estates, relieving his nieces of the burden of their management.
His offer was rebuffed, for the sisters had other plans. Marion had fallen in love with the young and dashing Baron of Wedderburn, George Home, while her younger sister Margaret was similarly enamoured of George’s brother Patrick. Wicked Uncle William knew that he had to act fast. Once the girls had married, their estates would belong to the Home brothers in right of their wives, while the sisters would gain the protection of the Homes, one of the most powerful families in the Borders, to maintain their interests. To avert this, Sinclair invited his nieces to Herdmanston, more than ten miles north-west of Polwarth, on the other side of the Lammermuir Hills. He promised that he had assembled a bevy of suitors who might tempt them away from the Home brothers to make more beneficial alliances. The sisters were unconvinced but decided to humour their uncle nevertheless.
When they arrived, however, they found no band of boisterous boys to pay them court but only Sir William Sinclair, who ordered them to hand over their estates to him. They refused, so he locked them in a cell in the bowels of the castle and gave them eight days to re-consider. From between the bars of their window, Marion looked across the Lammermuir Hills and thought of George. Would she ever see him again? Would he ever hold her in his arms? Would they ever hear the ringing of wedding bells? It seemed not and yet she could hear bells now, ringing across the hills. She peered and saw a colourful and eccentric cavalcade jangling towards the castle.
Scotland was not and never has been a country of lords and lovers only. New arrivals had come to the kingdom, dark-haired and swarthy travellers who had crossed the sea from the continent, only the latest leg in their journey of hundreds of years. They wore gaily coloured clothes, wrapped with patterned scarves and with bells jingling around their ankles and they travelled in convoys of covered wagons. One such convoy hove towards Herdmanston now and at its head rode a man on a piebald pony, wearing a broad-brimmed hat, a loose white shirt and baggy golden breeches. Around his waist was a scarf woven with doubloons and the device of the three snakes glinted on the buttons of his open waistcoat.
These travellers had begun their journey in the Indus Valley more than five hundred years earlier but by this point that history was but obscurely remembered, while the understanding of Asian geography in medieval Britain was vague. So to the pasty-faced inhabitants of the British Isles these dusky sojourners were Egyptians. Wherever they had gone in the world, people had been suspicious of them and they had learnt that the wisest course for survival was to make rich and powerful friends. They would find the local lord, offer him their services in tinkering and knackering and in exchange be allowed to camp on his land and be protected by his hand from those who would molest them. It was perfectly natural, therefore, for Johnny Faa, leader of this particular band of Egyptians, to lead his caravan across the Lammermuirs to Herdmanston Castle, to propose an alliance with Sinclair.
As he approached, however, he heard a shrill cry for help. He halted his wagon train, peered about the country and saw a fair hand waving from a grille low in the castle wall. He alighted from his horse and strode to speak to the hand. When he saw that it was a lady who addressed him, he removed his hat and Marion told him the story of her confinement and of her hope that the Baron of Wedderburn might yet rescue her. Johnny was moved with pity by the gorjer’s plight and vowed to her that he would see her saved from her uncle’s clutches.
He returned to his horse and ordered the caravan about. The convoy made its way back over the hills towards Wedderburn Castle. Patrick was the first to see them and initially dismissed them at the gate with contempt but, as he turned his back, Faa shouted his message about the plight of the Sinclair sisters. Patrick roused his brother and they gathered a hundred men. Before the day was out, their force had arrived at Herdmanston but Sir William Sinclair sent his own men-at-arms out to fight them. The battle raged until dusk but, with the help of Faa and his Egyptians, the Homes finally overwhelmed their enemies and Sinclair submitted.
George and Patrick, with Marion and Margaret beside them, rode in triumph back to Wedderburn under the starlight. After a seemly lapse of time, the brothers married the sisters and they danced together around the old thorn tree at Polwarth, to the strains of exotic Egyptian music.
This entertaining legend is first recorded in 1835, so, quite apart from its fanciful events, it immediately attracts suspicion for lateness. Nevertheless, in many of its essentials, this romantic story is in fact true. Marion, Margaret, George, Patrick and William all existed and the uncle and his nieces did dispute the ownership of Polwarth and Kimmerghame, though in reality the dispute was settled using prosaically legal means.
What seems to modern eyes to be the most fantastic element of the story is the role of the King of the Gypsies Johnnie Faa but even he existed, though he has been displaced in time. The real Johnnie Faw (sic) was given a licence by King James V in 1540, referring to him as “lord and erle of Litill Egipt”, recognizing his authority over all the Gypsies in the kingdom and ordering royal officials to assist him in the exercise of the same. His name was also used for the protagonist of an Ayrshire ballad, in which he eloped adulterously with the Countess of Cassillis, whose cuckolded husband hanged him and all his band while his faithless wife was forced to watch.
The real problem with Faa’s part in the Sinclair story is that Gypsies are not reliably attested in Scotland until 1505. Since this is the earliest record of their appearance anywhere in Britain, it is quite likely that they had in fact arrived earlier but so impeccably Scottish a name as Johnnie Faa seems unlikely in a recent arrival, whereas his real-life counterpart was probably a second or third-generation immigrant. As it happens, the Sinclair family did have a historic association with Gypsies, dating back to the 1560s, when another Sir William Sinclair is said to have saved a Gypsy from being hanged and for the next hundred years grateful Gypsies camped in the grounds of Rosslyn Castle every May and June to perform plays.
Perhaps this connection is the final piece in the puzzle that, after the lapse of nearly four centuries and with a certain amount of fantasising, transformed the memory of a mundane family dispute over inheritance into a rambunctious thigh-slapper of dashing young swains, damsels in the dungeon, a moustache-twirling uncle and a heroic Gypsy king. Tally-ho!