Stories of the Border
While Yetholm was the principal home of the
gipsy fraternity, groups of them lived scattered in the
neighbourhood. They were regarded with suspicion,and frequently
fear, by the indigenous population who often had the experience
of their livestock being pilfered and feared for the safety of
The gypsies usually took the name of their leader and the following story relates to the tribe known as the Faas who lived in north Northumberland, in the foothills of the Cheviots.
The events that unfolded during the December of 1628 began a long period of grief and misery to the Clennel family.
The story began one particularly cold December night. They laird himself had retired to bed and his servants, few in number, were attending to the last of their daily duties.
Andrew Smith, who was in charge of the domestics, had been alarmed to find that a Faa gang had ensconced themselves in the estates outbuildings.
Addressing the chief of the Faas, Andrew said,” I will trust you on your honour that you will not allow any of your folk to make free with any of the laird's livestock be it poultry, sheep or kye. Nor will they light any fires or cause any damage to the laird's property, for the laird is furious at the conduct of some of your people lately, they having helped themselves freely to the laird's grazing livestock and other effects. If anything is amiss in the morning, and he finds out that you have been here, his anger will be terrifying with serious consequences for us both.”
“Tush, man!” said Willie
Faa, “you worry yourself about nought. You have my word that
nothing will go amiss at this place and you will have no cause
for regret. But I see that the light in the laird's chamber,
high up there in yonder turret, is out, and, as you are all
about to retire for the night, it would be shameful to leave
behind that blazing fire. Give me and my friends here, a seat
in the warmth this chilly night and I promise you that you will
not be the loser. Come the morn. we'll be off with all our
picks and tackle and no one will ken the Faas have enjoyed your
“Never fear the laird, “said Elspeth, the wife of King Willie, “I will lay a spell on him that he will sleep until sunrise.”
Whereupon Elspeth raised her arm and uttered in a coarse shrill voice some mystic words known only to her, by way of incantation.
Andrew, somewhat reassured, allowed the Faas to enter the laird's Hall to bed down for the night.
No sooner, were they seated that the Faa king said, “We are grateful for your hospitality, good Sir, and the fire warms our bodies without but inside there are the grips of the winter chill. What is there in the cellar below that will bring us warmth within? Go now, Andrew man, and fetch us something that will bring fire to our stomachs. “
“Sir, that I cannot do, “said Andrew, in alarm,” It is not mine to give and, moreover, the laird is mindful of every drop and would miss even a thimbleful. Now what I can provide you with is some fine cold ham and pickled beef and some of the fine ale brewed for the servants use”
“ Andrew,” said the Faa king,” I may not live in a castle, nor have I flocks of livestock herded on my land, but the wild fowl and the deer and the boar serve mine needs well and cold meat from the pantry does not agree with my stomach nor is servants’ ale a suitable drink for a king. Do you understand me, Andrew? “
“That may be, Sir,” said
Andrew, “but you will recollect I told you it is not mine to
give. But if I should bring to you just one jugfull will that
be enough to quench your thirst?”
Andrew, with great trepidation and reluctance proceeded down to the cellar and brought back a very big jug of the laird's choicest ale. The Faa chief took hold of the vessel and took a mighty swig, and then it was passed around the group from the mouth to mouth.
While the company were so occupied, Elspeth made good use of the time by reading the palms of the laird's domestics. She had wonders to tell from the lines, personal facts, and a tempting insight into the future, just enough to keep up their interest and then further revelations would be revealed which would, of course, require her palm to be crossed again and again, until the money ran out.
When the supply of coins was exhausted Elspeth obliged the company by accepting trinkets which she scooped into her money bag until the supply of those too ran out.
Andrew, having quaffed a few mugs of ale, grew increasingly curious and pouring for himself another mugful, joined the throng encircling Elspeth. After a while, when his mug had been replenish yet again, Andrew extended his hand to the Faa Queen and choose to know what the future had in store for him.
“Yours is a very difficult hand to read, “muttered Elspeth,” there is darkness and light, danger and adventure, but there is wealth and love. All is dim. Cross my hand, good sir, there is more for the light to reveal.”
Just as the last of Andrew's money disappeared into Elspeth’s bulging bag, he heard a noise which sent icy tingles down his spine.
In another moment, the laird, consumed with anger, burst into the room.
“Can I believe my eyes?” the laird had difficulty in mouthing his words,” What goes on here? Andrew Smith, speak out! I swear you will die for this!”
Andrew fell to his knees. “Spare me, my Lord! Have mercy! Have mercy!”
Clennel turned on the gipsies.
“Out! Get out of my house, ye thieves- born to be hanged!” fumed the laird,” If I find you on my grounds agin, you’ll be hanging from the nearest tree!”
Willie Faa signalled to
his followers, and without a word they filed out of the Hall,
but as he reached the door Faa turned and exclaimed:
And then was heard the hoarse voice of Elspeth,” He shall rue it! He shall rue this day!”
All this time Andrew Smith had been groaning on the floor. The laird dragged him to his feet, feeling pity for him rather than rage.
The laird had every reason to be angry at the Faa gang. They had made off with some of his choicest cattle. They had plundered his poultry and devastated his deer. Willie considered every landowner fair game and what he took he considered his due.
Many weeks passed by and Clennel found that the Faa’s threat was not just idle words. His cattle fell sick, his favourite horse was found maimed and even his grain was filched.
Steadily his anger rose until at last he determined that the Faas must be taught a lesson they would remember for all time.
After due preparations he rode out with thirty armed men following the trail of the Faas, mile after weary mile, by treacherous moss and over coarse heather hills, until they came to a clearing in the wilderness and there, below them, lay the primitive village of the Faas, scores of turf hovels scattered over a valley floor.
“Now for vengeance!” exclaimed Clennel, and he ordered dry whins and heather to be brought and piled around the huts. There emerged from the doorways a few older men and some women with their children howling with terror but Clennel ignored their misery and, when they had cleared the huts, he ordered the shacks to be set to the torch.
The following day the main body of the tribe returned to be greeted with a sight of utter devastation. Fury swept over the Faa chief and he was about to prepare to ride out in anger when Elspeth stayed his hand:
“Stay you madcap. There are better ways of righting this wrong. There is a way that the Clennel will suffer slowly for the rest of his life, with pain and grief, until his agony will destroy him as he has destroyed our village.”
Quietly, in a hushed voice, Elspeth spoke to her husband who listened attentively with growing interest and satisfaction and then they set about bringing some order to their village.
About this time Clennel was thirty years of age, and married to a distinguished and beautiful lady named Eleanor de Veer. They had an infant son who they both idolised.
It was two years, since his clash with the Faas and there had been peace throughout his estate. No longer were cattle going to missing, no longer were his poultry being plundered, no longer was his corn being filched. Clennel felt that the Faas had learned from the experience and were pursuing their thieving lives elsewhere.
But the Faa king was nursing his anger for the appropriate time for them to strike.
One day in April lady and Clennel took her young son. to enjoy the beauty of the woodland that surrounded. their mansion. They were some distance from the house when suddenly a man leapt out from the bushes, seized the child in his arms, and ran back into cover. Lady Clennel screamed aloud and rushed to follow. Andrew Smith, who had been some distance behind caught a glimpse of the man and recognized him as Willie Faa, the gypsy king.
Andrew showed surprising
courage and sprang into action by rushing in pursuit drawing his
sword as he ran. The chase lasted four hours and Andrew
unencumbered was gaining ground upon the gipsy until,
eventually, they came to the Coquet river at a point known as
the Thrum where the river narrows and passes with flying spray
through a dark cleft of rock. The fearful chasm was some yards
wide but with a mighty effort, the Faa chief, with the child in
his arms, leapt across the gulf and safely gained the other
side. He stopped and faced Andrew.
Andrew, who had been seeking frantically a place to cross, was preparing to make the leap when the Faas threat brought him to a halt.
“Ye monster! Ye
barbarian! Have ye no heart? Have ye no mercy/”
Andrew, realising that he could do no more, turned for home with a heavy heart.
Clennel and his servants searched the countryside but in vain. The found again the Faa village but it was deserted. The Faa tribe had gone and no one had any knowledge of their whereabouts.
The weeks went by, and then the months, but there was no sign of the gipsies. They had disappeared as if they had never been.
The Clennels had another child, a daughter, whose smile reminded her mother of her missing son. She placed the child in the care of a young maidservant, Susan, who had recently joined the household. Susan and the child became inseparable and Lady Clennel was very happy with the love and care Susan showed for her daughter.
Life went on at Clennel. The immediate shock of events concerning the Faas and the kidnapping of their son, Harry, receded, but an underlying sadness ever prevailed.
One evening when Lady Clennel sent for her child to introduce her to some friends there was no response. She sent a servant to fetch Susan and her child but the servant presently reported back that she could not find them. Alarmed, Lady Clennel had the house searched but neither woman or child could be found. They had disappeared.
The castle was thoroughly searched and then the estate grounds and surrounding woodland without success and Clennel and his wife both suspected the hand of Faa in the disappearance.
A deep gloom descended on the castle. Fifteen years passed by without news of either child yet almost every day Clennel had continued the search, sometimes alone, sometimes accompanied by his men.
One day Clennel had taken out a large group of his men and dogs. Their explorations led them to a remote and distant part of the forest, and there, secreted in a well hidden valley they came upon the Faas.
Clennel sent his dogs on ahead and the horsemen followed with all speed down the hillside, through the trees, to the gipsy village. Some of the gipsies were being attacked by the dogs, but they fought back with their knives but when they saw the horsemen approaching they bolted into the woods.
A young girl had been badly mauled by one of the dogs and a gipsy woman standing by was crying out, “For mercy's sake. save my child."
Clennel drove off the hounds and dropped to the ground to attend to the injured girl. She was a beautiful child with white skin unlike the tawny hue of the gipsies. The woman, who knelt at the side of the injured girl, mourned pitifully, “Oh! My lovely bairn, they have murdered you. And all for the sake of vengeance.”
“Susan!” Clennel recognize the woman.” Where is my child? What have you done with her? And then the truth dawned on him He looked down at the injured girl “My child, my child. My lost little girl!”
Tenderly he bound up her wounds as best he could and together they tenderly lifted the girl on to a horse and all three made their way, unhindered, back to the castle.
Lady Clennel was there to meet them and her joy knew no bounds. The girl’s wounds were carefully dressed and there were great celebrations throughout the household.
Susan confessed a wrongdoing. She had been planted in the Clennel household by the gipsies in pursuit of their fortune telling activities. Apparently, that was quite common practice.
Susan was asked about their son Harry, but knew nothing about his whereabouts. That was a secret shared only by the Faa king and his wife Elspeth. Elspeth had been discarded by her husband, because of her age and may be persuaded to reveal the secret surrounding their son Harry.
Some time later, while riding homewards, he was commanded to stop by an old man and a youth.
“If I halt, he said,” it will not be on the orders of a boy.”
“A boy!” cried out the youth as he drew his sword and challenged Clennel. Then swords clashed and flashed and Clennel was astonished to find that he had met his match. Then deftly, the young man broke the blade of Clennel’s sword and he stood helpless with the other’s weapon pointed at his throat.
Clennel was blindfolded and taken to the gipsy’s camp where he was confronted by Willie Faa himself.
Clennel was tried by the tribe and sentenced to be shot at sunset by the youth who had captured him.
At sunset, the gipsies assembled and preparations were made for the execution. The young man was told to make ready with his musket and as he raised the gun to his shoulder, an old woman moved out of the crowd and yelled out, “Stop! Will you murder or your own father, Harry Clennel?”
The woman was Elspeth, who was more feared among Faas than the king himself. Fearing the reputation of Elspeth feared for her spells, none of the tribe dared interfere as the laird and his son, accompanied by Elspeth, made their way back to the castle.
There is little more to tell. The Clennel family were reunited at last and had no more trouble with the Faas. Andrew Smith, married Susan and Elspeth lived at the castle until she died at the age of 97.