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Scottish Travellers Days

"I've spent my life in rioting,
Debauch'd my health and strength,
I squander'd fast, as pillage came,
And fell to shame at length.

Sae rantingly, sae wantonly, Sae dauntingly gaed he;
He play'd a tune, and danc'd it roon'
Below the gallows-tree.
My father was a gentleman, Of fame and honour high,
Oh mother, would you ne'er had borne
The son so doom'd to die."

~ MacPherson's Lament, 1700

The Romani people (also known as the Roma) are traditionally nomadic itinerants living mostly in Europe, as well as diaspora populations in the Americas. Historically, the Romani are widely known in English as Gypsies or Gipsies, a word that has fallen into disuse due to connotations of illegality and irregularity. Scottish Travellers, also historically termed gypsies, consist of a number of diverse, unrelated communities that speak a variety of different languages and dialects that pertain to distinct customs, histories, and traditions. Scotland has had a Romani population for at least 500 years, distinct from the native Highland traveller, and shares a common language and heritage with the English Gypsies and Welsh Kale. They enjoyed a privileged place in Scottish society until the Reformation, when their wandering lifestyle and exotic culture brought severe persecution upon them. James MacPherson (1675–1700) was a Scottish outlaw, famed for his Lament or Rant, a version of which was rewritten by Scottish poet, Robert Burns. The original version of the lament is alleged to have been written by Macpherson himself in prison on the eve of his execution, November 16th, 1700, for the charge of being a robber and an "Egyptian" (from which the term "gypsy" originates). MacPherson was said to be the illegitimate son of a Highland laird, MacPherson of Invereshie, and a beautiful Tinker or gypsy girl that the laird met at a wedding!

Jun 10

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James MacPherson
The Outlaw Jamie MacPherson by Glenfiddich Artist in Residence Qi Xing
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The Scottish outlaw, James Macpherson (1675–1700), sometimes referred to as the Scottish "Robin Hood" was hanged this day in 1700.  He is famed for his Lament or Rant, a version of which was rewritten by Scottish poet, Robert Burns. The original version of the lament is alleged to have been written by MacPherson himself in prison on the eve of his execution.

Allegedly, While under sentence of death in the jail, during the week between his trial and his execution, Macpherson is said to have composed the tune and the song now known as Macpherson's Lament or Macpherson's Rant. Sir Walter Scott says that Macpherson played it under the gallows, and, after playing the tune, he then offered his fiddle to anyone in his clan who would play it at his wake. When no one came forward to take the fiddle, he broke it – either across his knee or over the executioner's head – and then threw it into the crowd with the remark, "No one else shall play Jamie Macpherson's fiddle". The broken fiddle now lies in the Macpherson Clan museum near Newtonmore, Inverness-shire.


MacPherson had been arrested and captured several times for cattle rustling, but had previously managed to escape.

At the time of MacPherson's capture, it was a criminal offense to be an 'Egyptian' (or gypsy), the offense of which he was accused (as well as the bearing of arms in a marketplace), because his mother's family were travellers and he retained his traveller roots. MacPherson and three of his men were accused by Sheriff Nicholas Dunbar and sentenced with the following prologue:


"For as meikle as you James McPherson, pannal (the accused) are found guilty by ane verdict of ane assyse, to be knoun, holden, and repute to be Egiptian (Gypsy) and a wagabond, and oppressor of his Magesties free lieges in ane bangstrie manner, and going up and down the country armed, and keeping mercats in ane hostile manner, and that you are a thief, and that you are of pessimae famae (worst repute)."


From the official register: In the book 'Tartan: The Highland Textile' it is suggested that this is a derivative of the Hunting MacPherson tartan and probably alludes to the fact that James MacPherson - a well-known freebooter and reputed composer of 'MacPherson's Rant' was the natural son of a MacPherson of Invereshie by a gipsy woman.

For more on outlaw and freebooter Jamie MacPherson, click his portrait by artist Qi Xing.