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Information on the village of Yetholm, near Kelso in Scotland.
As a result of a meeting in London in 1815, the Quaker's Society started a movement aimed at improving the religious and social condition of the gypsy community in Great Britain. As we have already seen, the relationship between most gypsies and the formal church was haphazard to say the least, and it was of concern to the Quaker Society that the children of the gypsy population were being deprived of links with religion because of their parents' way of life. Travelling made a structured life very difficult, with education irregular, church attendance spasmodic and, in general, it made life harder for gypsy children than for those with fixed abodes.
John Baird, who was a son of the Manse, had been born in Eccles Manse in 1799. Educated at Whitsome and at Kelso Grammar School, before moving to Edinburgh on the death of his father in 1814. In Edinburgh he, along with his brother, Andrew, studied Arts and Divinity. He was introduced to the parish of Yetholm by Wauchope of Niddrie in March 1829. At Yetholm, he inherited the literary tradition of his predecessor, William Blackie, and indeed married his neice, Margaret Oliver of Blakelaw. He had been a founder member and first President of the Plinian Society of Edinburgh during his days in the city, and so it was perfectly natural that he should also be a founding member of the Berwickshire Naturalists Club when it was formed, at Grantshouse (then called Bankhouse) in 1831.
'In his own neighbourhood, and much farther afield, Baird was known for his interest in the historic colony of Scottish gypsies settled for centuries at Kirk Yetholm'
Because of this interest, and the concerns raised by the Quaker Society, Baird, in 1838, was asked to try out the plans which he had previously put forward to The Society for the Reformation of Gypsies, in Edinburgh. The plan was as follows:
1. Keep the children at home throughout the whole year.
There were a great number of discouragements:
1. The dislike of the race.
In February 1839, it was agreed that the committee would provide funding for supporting the children in lodgings while their parents were travelling, for the education of the children, and for the cost of apprenticeship fees for those boys wishing to enter a trade on leaving school. The first family to come forward, and agree to leave their two daughters in the village while they went off on their travels, ran immediately into what was a major stumbling block - no-one would accommodate them under any circumstances. This problem was only solved by Baird and his family taking the girls in themselves. His family's preparedness to take the girls and the fact that the girls went off happily to school each day, made the locals realise that there was nothing to be afraid of, and he soon had offers of accommodation for all other children whose parents wished them to stay. Accommodation was never again a problem. By 1841 there were 49 children attending school.
His report of 1841 adds:
'Fewer complaints have been brought this year against the children, for riotous behaviour and improper language, from either the teachers or the villagers, so that we are entitled to believe that their general behaviour is gradually improving.'
The schools and schoolhouses in both Town and Kirk Yetholm were in a state of severe disrepair, and Baird campaigned to get a new school built.
A new Kirk Yetholm school was opened in 1843 and soon 35-40 children were attending each day. Evidence of the improvement in the children soon encouraged others to take an interest in what Baird was trying to do.
His desire to have the gypsies give up their travelling way of life had, however, less success.
He writes, in 1842,
'It was a complete failure. Several families tried but returned to their wanderings. However, one man, wife and family have stayed at home for three years now and he continues to conduct himself modestly, soberly and most industriously.'
By 1846, the number of families staying at home had only risen to four. Baird also tried to have them stopped from camping at the roadside, and to have the enforcement of the payment of the hawker's licence carried out, both to encourage staying at home; but with little obvious recorded success.
His financial support from Edinburgh waned, but despite this he managed to open a new school which has been referred to as 'The First Ragged School' in Scotland. Many more ragged schools were created all over the country, perhaps not as a direct result of Baird's work, but as a response to the same need - stability and education leading to employment - which Baird had identified.
The Society for the Reformation of Gypsies was wound up in 1859
By the time of his death in 1861, a large increase in the numbers of families staying at home was reported. Many were attending church, with their children attending Sunday School. As Vic Tokely says in his article:
'It could now be said that they were now following the pattern of life of the local inhabitants, and in the course of another 50 years or so the last of the gypsies would be adopting fully the village way of life.'
Rev Leishman, writing in Berwickshire Naturalists states:
'Like many other reformers, however, he met with a half-hearted response from from those he sought to benefit. The Gitanos did not always desist from pillaging the manse garden, nor cease to turn their horses and asses to graze, under cloak of night, on the glebe; unless tradition lies, they even fired his stackyard, yet the old man's interest in his recalcitrant parishioners never flagged. In the autumn of 1861, just before his death, a clerical neighbour called to see him. Disturbed at their devotions by the sound of loud cheering, the dying man inquired the cause. His friend stepping to the window, which overlooked the village roadway, described a crowd passing, some waving branches and in the centre a figure riding upon an ass, a scene almost suggestive of the triumphal entry. The dying man sank back on his pillows:- 'Ah! I remember. It is the gypsies. They are getting a new queen today. Aye! and they will soon be getting a new minister.' A characteristic touch of that mingled humour and pathos which lent a charm to his conversation.'
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