Meeting Report: Billy Marshall: Galloway Gypsy and Leveller — Myth and Reality

26 March 2016
Ivor Waddell

At its Galloway meeting in Castle Douglas Parish Church Hall on Saturday, 26 March 2016, around 50 members and guests of the Society gathered to hear a lecture by Ivor Waddell, retired Principal Teacher of History at Kirkcudbright Academy, entitled Billy Marshall: Galloway Gypsy and Leveller — Myth and Reality.

Many stories surround the life and career of Billy Marshall, the so-called ‘Gypsy King’, who reputedly lived to the remarkable age of 120! Ivor Waddell described his interest in this well-known figure of Galloway history and his determination to interrogate the available historical sources about his subject to separate myth from reality. He paid tribute to Andrew McCormick, the Newton Stewart lawyer, who in the early twentieth century, gathered and recorded information on Galloway’s gypsy community at that time, including tales of Billy Marshall.
Whereas the date of Billy’s death in 1792 is established beyond doubt and recorded on his headstone in Kirkcudbright Kirkyard, there is no evidence for his birth date, which, were it available, would confirm his age. However, his longevity was never challenged by those who knew him in his later days. His claim to have fought for William of Orange at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690 would be credible if he was born in 1671 or 1672. He claimed to have served in the British Army and to have deserted seven times, often to attend the Kelton Hill Fair near Castle Douglas — a major annual event in Scotland at the time, which the speaker compared to today’s Royal Highland Show.
He became a leader of the Levellers — a movement in Galloway of small tenant farmers and cottars disadvantaged and threatened by eviction by the building of dykes to enclose land for livestock. Co-ordinating their actions, they demolished the landowners’ new dykes, creating such a degree of civil unrest that the government was obliged to send mounted dragoons to re-impose order. The speaker expanded on this episode of Galloway’s history, citing the research of Castle Douglas historian, Alistair Livingston. The speaker noted the historical connection between the Levellers and locally organised resistance to the 1715 Jacobite rebellion, and the view that the success of the movement was partly due to the military training that their leaders had received in response to that earlier crisis.
A letter of 1817 written by James McCulloch of Ardwall near Gatehouse to The Gentleman’s Magazine seems to confirm indisputably Billy Marshall’s criminal proclivities — murder, robbery, bigamy smuggling etc. — but he was regarded in his lifetime as a ‘Robin Hood’ figure and enjoyed the patronage of many of the local landed families, including the McCullochs of Ardwall, and towards the end of his life he even received a pension from the Earl of Selkirk.
He was clearly an ‘honest rogue’ and a paradox — a criminal, but one respected by all classes in his time. Although Ivor Waddell concluded that, given the limited nature of the historical sources available, it was difficult to separate myth from reality in Billy Marshall’s life, members nevertheless appreciated the speaker’s comprehensive review of his topic and its presentation in a thoroughly lucid and engaging way.