Agnes McDonald – her fate sealed for being born a Gypsy/Traveller

31 May 2023
Agnes McDonald

Davie Donaldson explores the life and fate of Agnes McDonald, executed in 1714 along with her friend Jean Baillie, for falling foul of the notorious Scottish state’s ‘anti-Gypsy’ laws.

The moment I was asked – ‘who is the most notable person in Scottish Traveller history?’, thoughts of folk heroes, warriors and rogues came into my mind. But there was one massive, glaring issue – they were all men.

I’m the brother to three gorgeously strong and resourceful women and many of the incredible changemakers I look up to are women – so where are these women in our history books? In this the year of Scotland’s stories, I wanted to ensure the story of a historical Traveller woman was told.

Agnes’ story represents the unrecognised contributions of Gypsy/Traveller women throughout Scottish history. Whilst the specific details of Agnes’ life were never recorded, we know that as a Gypsy/Traveller woman she would have played many important roles in our society.

Davie Donaldson
Davie Donaldson with Agnes Macdonald’s story at the Historic Environment Scotland exhibition at Blackness Castle; picture courtesy of Davie Donaldson

One of these was selling or ‘hawking’ crucial supplies across the country. Scottish communities, particularly rural ones, relied on Gypsy/Travellers such as Agnes to bring them everyday items like cleaning brushes, cutlery and tinware, often hand-crafted by the women themselves. Agnes may have also been a ‘herb-wifie’, offering her services to those who couldn’t afford a doctor: using herbal remedies to ease the pain of labour, treat injuries and relieve sickness. Maybe she was a fortune-teller, a trusted stranger who could act as an early counsellor for emotional heartache, bereavement, and anxiety.

Tragically we will never know Agnes’ full story as the first ‘anti-Gypsy’ legislation was enacted in Scotland around 1541 and Agnes sadly fell victim to these laws. On the 24th of November 1714, Agnes was executed alongside her friend Jean Baillie at the Grassmarket in Edinburgh. Their fate sealed for no other reason than that they had been born a Gypsy/Traveller.

Sadly, her death did not mark the end of the persecution of her people. Throughout the next century, Gypsy/Travellers were shipped to the Caribbean as slaves, children were forcibly removed from their families and many were made to give up their nomadic way of life.

Let’s all celebrate and platform the strong, resourceful and incredible Gypsy/Traveller women playing a multitude of important roles in our society. Never again will their voices be written out.

By Davie Donaldson

(Lead artwork: Agnes McDonald © Leanne McDonagh)

Agnes McDonald