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As all that is solid melts to air and everything holy is profaned...

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Galloway Levellers Talk 22 October

Some of you may remember that two years ago Peter Aitchison and Andrew Cassell gave talk here in the Catstrand  about their radio series and book on the Lowland Clearances. I was interviewed for the radio series and the Galloway Levellers are featured in the book.

I can still vividly remember standing on the Old Military Road near Castle Douglas on a  rather dreich January day in 2003 with Peter and Andrew talking about the Levellers.

Andrew asked me “Was what happened here in Galloway clearance?” I replied- “Yes, it was. People were being cleared from the land  they had lived on for generations.”

If asked the same question today my answer would have to be ‘No, it was not clearance ’. This afternoon I will try to show why I have changed my mind. But first we need to go back to 2003.

For the radio broadcast, an incident  which took place at Furbar just outside Castle Douglas was dramatised.  Here in June 1724 , Robert Johnston , the laird of Kelton and William Falconer the minister of Kelton managed to persuade a group of Levellers not to level Johnston’s  march dyke through a combination of fine words and a bribe  of bread, cheese and beer.

It is a good story, but was it a piece of history or a piece of folklore?

I wasn’t sure, but then I found in William McKenzie’s History of Galloway a reference to Captain Robert Johnston of Kelton. In early October 1715 he had been appointed deputy-lieutenant of the Stewartry, tasked with raising a force of anti- Jacobite volunteers.

Next I found that William Falconer had been  minister of Kelton from 1695 to 1727  and that there is a Latin memorial to him in Kelton kirk yard. In 1724 Falconer was accused of being a Leveller sympathiser.

3. Image- Falconer  memorial stone.

I tried to find Robert Johnston’s grave in Kelton. but failed. With the help of historian Chris Whatley, I discovered that Robert Johnston  was actually buried in St Michael’s Kirk yard in Dumfries.

4. Image Johnston’s grave

It turned out that  Johnston had been a Dumfries merchant, several times provost and representative of  Dumfries burgh in the Scottish parliament of 1702 to 1707. A Latin inscription on his grave says that he ’strongly asserted Scotland’s liberty by opposing the Union’. He did vote against some but not all the articles of Union.

This was very encouraging -I was uncovering some fascinating history -but could I track down any of the Levellers themselves? From a court case in 1725 I had a list of 23 named Levellers. The farms and crofts they came from were also  listed. I was able to locate most of the farms and crofts , but I was stumped by John McNaught in Meadow Isle - until I found that  a John McNaught had been  living in Meadow Isle croft on Airieland farm in 1672.

I finally tracked Meadow Isle down as a blob on Roy’s 1755 Military Survey.

5. Image Meadow Isle.

The Wright family of Airieland  were able to provide some more information. Meadow Isle is still the name of a field, but the croft had last been occupied by a group of dykers in about 1800. Before they moved on, they used the stones from the croft to build a dyke around the field…

This brought home to me just how comprehensively the improvements of the later eighteenth century had erased all traces of the landscape the Levellers would have known. Although  the farm names are the same, the farm houses and  buildings had all been demolished and rebuilt.

I then made a bit of a breakthrough thanks to my  brothers Ian and Kenneth who were doing some restoration work for the National Trust in the Hornel Library at Broughton House. The librarian Jim Allen told them the Library held some material on the Levellers.  I went through to Kirkcudbright  and found a notebook compiled by John Nicholson, who was a printer and publisher in Kirkcudbright- McKenzie’s History of Galloway was one of the books Nicholson  published.

In the notebook I found that Nicholson had interviewed one of the Galloway Levellers- John Martin born 1710, died 1801. John Martin was one of the Levellers sued for damages in 1725. He had later become a respectable member of society as clock and watch maker in Kirkcudbright.

And here is John Martin’s gravestone.

6. Image John Martin


Up to this point  my Levellers research was more or less a hobby. I was picking up bits and pieces of Leveller material here and there, but not thinking seriously about them. Then eminent Scottish historian Professor Ted Cowan was appointed Director of Glasgow University’s Crichton Campus. I got in touch with Ted and had a meeting with him. The end result was that with Ted’s help and a grant from the Crichton Foundation I was able to start researching the Galloway Levellers for a Masters degree.

I now knew that  the most detailed account of the Levellers, written  in 1935 was based on John Nicholson’s notebook in the Hornel Library. Unfortunately the article by Alexander Morton  is a bit of a jumble, but in 1967 a series of letters written in 1724 by James Clerk to his brother, Sir John Clerk of Pennicuik, had been published. James Clerk was a customs officer based in Kirkcudbright and was an eye-witness to several Levelling incidents. The Reverend Robert Wodrow, who had local contacts in 1724, was another contemporary source.

By cross-referencing the various accounts I was able to work out a Levellers Timeline.

The timeline begins at Whitsun in 1723 when many families were evicted. At Kelton Hill fair on 17 June, much outrage ensued. However, the anger did not lead immediately to levelling.

What was to become the Levellers uprising began in January  1724  when one of Lady Kenmure’s tenants and a man called Robertson agreed to resist any further evictions.

The first outbreak of levelling took place in March when  cattle parks at Netherlaw and Barcheskie between Dundrennan and Kirkcudbright were levelled.

In April levelling took place in Tongland parish. This was reported by the Caledonian Mercury newspaper on 21 April.

7. Image Caledonian Mercury

We are credibly informed from Galloway and other places in the West, That a  certain Mountain preacher in a discourse he had in that district not many days ago, among other things, so bitterly inveighed against the Heritors and others of that Country, for their laudable Frugality in Inclosures etc and (as he termed it) making Commonty Property, that next Morning several Hundred armed Devotees, big with that ancient Levelling Tenet, in a few hours rid themselves of that Grievance, to the great Detriment of the Gentlemen in the Neighbourhood. Had our Religio been as solicitous in enforcing the Doctrines of Love and peace, and of suffering (even Injuries) rather than sin, ‘tis a question if his Rhetoric had so readily obtained.

In early May negotiations took place with the Levellers who agreed to halt their actions. The agreement broke down leading to a in an upsurge in levelling throughout the month. A request for troops was made and  the Earl of Stair’s Regiment began arriving in Kirkcudbright. A t the end  May the Levellers published An Account of the Reasons of Some People in Galloway, their meetings anent Public Grievances through Enclosure.

In June  a few more outbreaks of levelling occurred  but the presence of troops brought the main phase of levelling to an end. News from Galloway, or the Poor Man’s Plea against his Landlord in a Letter to a Friend  was published by the Levellers. Some Levellers were  sued for damages to the dykes at Airds of Kells by Thomas Murdoch of Cumloden. At the end of the month the Levellers wrote a lengthy justification of their actions to Major Ducary, the commander of Stair’s regiment.

In  July  a twenty page pamphlet Opinion of Sir Thomas More, Lord High Chancellor of England concerning enclosures, in an answer to a letter from Galloway  was published in Edinburgh. Lord Advocate Robert Dundas personally visited the bookseller to demand the name of author and attempted to suppress the pamphlet.

On 2 July John Ker, Secretary of State for Scotland, was in London where he discussed events with King George I. The king asked what legal right those concerned had to ‘eject so many Tenants at once as to render them, and the Country desolate’ and ‘what provision the law has to make for the Tenants so ejected'.

8. Image John Ker

9. Image King George

On 24 August- following King George’s intervention, a public enquiry into the recent disturbances in Galloway began.

In September- landowner Basil Hamilton complained that the enquiry was biased in the Levellers favour and that tenants he had evicted for non-payment of rent had been interviewed.

In October- Stair’s Regiment confronted a large gathering of Levellers at Duchrae in Balmaghie. The troops were ordered to use minimum force. No-one was killed or seriously injured. 200 Levellers allowed themselves to be  captured, and  most were then  allowed to escape on the march  back to Kirkcudbright.

In November- an outbreak of levelling occurred in the Wigtownshire Machars but this ended quickly after one of the Levellers was shot and killed by a tenant farmer.

In  January 1725  A trial for damages caused to Basil Hamilton’s dykes the previous  May was begun.  Hamilton, acting for his mother Lady Mary,  claimed £620 sterling against 23 named Levellers. Presiding justice, Lieutenant Colonel William Maxwell appointed  four honest men to calculate the actual costs of the damage done.

Their  report was submitted to the court in March and the Levellers were collectively fined £777 Scots equivalent to £65 sterling.

In April James  Clerk wrote to Sir John Clerk reporting that Stair’s Dragoons had left and immediately another 360 metres of Hamilton’s dykes had been  levelled.

Finally, in August 1726   Daniel Murdoch  was jailed in Kirkcudbright for possessing a copy of The Lamentation of the People of Galloway by the Pairking Lairds, written by James Charters, Kirkland of Dalry

A not entirely accurate map of levelling activity

From the trial held in January 1725 it is possible to get an idea of the social status of the 23 named Levellers.  At this time  the owner of a farm would be described as OF that farm while  a tenant or  cottar would be described as IN the farm.  This is the list.

Thomas Moire of Beoch and Grisel Grierson his wife
John Walker in Cotland
Robert McMorran in Orroland
John Shennan and William Shennan in Kirkcarswell
John Cogan, John Bean, Thomas Millagane and Thomas Richardson in Gribdae
James Robeson in Marks
John Donaldson and John Cultane the younger in Bombie
John Cairns and John Martin in Lochfergus
Alexander McClune and James Shennan in Nethermiln
James Wilson in Greenlane croft
Robert Herries in Auchlean mill
John, George and Robert Hyslop in Mullock
John McKnaught in Meadow Isle

Apart from Thomas Moire and his wife who owned Beoch farm in Tongland parish  the rest of these Levellers were all tenants or cottars and 17 of them lived on farms owned by Basil Hamilton and his mother.

The ‘mountain preacher’ mentioned in the Caledonian Mercury article was Hugh Clanny, former minister of Kirkbean. He lived at Upper Barcaple in Tongland parish which was owned by his wife.

John Leopold who researched the Levellers in 1980,  found two other civil cases where Levellers were sued for damages but could not find any reports of criminal trials. This fits with  some pages in John Nicholson’s notebook which contain letters to and from Basil Hamilton where he was seeking legal advice on what action he could take against the Levellers if the authorities failed to do so.


This leads on to one of the puzzles thrown up by the Galloway  Levellers. In June 1607, near Kettering in Northamptonshire there was a  1000 strong protest by people who called themselves ‘Levellers’ and which involved the destruction of enclosures- in this case hedges and ditches.

They were confronted by soldiers who opened fire, killing 40 or 50 of these Northamptonshire Levellers. The ringleaders were then tried, hung and quartered. In Ireland in 1712 , protests against the expansion of cattle farming in Galway again led to the execution of the leaders.

In Scotland between 1740 and 1830  49 people were hung for the theft of livestock. The Galloway Levellers seized and slaughtered nearly 200  cattle which they claimed had been illegally imported from Ireland- but no Levellers were hung for cattle stealing.

Why were the authorities so unwilling to take firm action against Galloway’s Levellers? One reason could be that the Hanoverian establishment was swayed by the Levellers repeated protestations of loyalty to King George and  their claim  to have turned out for him in 1715, when the Jacobites threatened to capture Dumfries.

The threat to Dumfries in 1715 had been very real. In mid-October the local Jacobites supported by some Jacobite gentlemen from the north of England had been joined by about 2000 Highland Jacobites led by  General Mackintosh of Borlum.

 The main Jacobite threat came from the Earl of Mar in the north so no regular troops were available in the south. The defence of Dumfries therefore relied on 2000 civilian volunteers and six  half pay officers.  Fortunately, although the Jacobites twice advanced towards Dumfries, the local volunteers were very well organised and the Jacobites retreated rather than try to fight them.

10. Image Late Rebellion

According to Peter Rae in his account of ‘The Late Rebellion’  published in Dumfries in 1718, in the autumn of 1715 5000  anti-Jacobite volunteers assembled on Leathes Muir in Buittle parish.

5000 volunteers from the Stewartry seems a very high figure. With a total population of about 19 000 in 1715, most of the adult male population must have been present on Leathes Muir.  But even if there were only 2 or 3 thousand  there , it still shows that there was strong support for King George in the Stewartry. This is hardly surprising given the district’s opposition to the Stuarts for most of the previous century.

Lieutenant Colonel William Maxwell of Cardoness was part of this opposition. His father had been minister of Minnigaff parish in 1638 when he signed the National Covenant.  In 1662, Maxwell’s father was forced out of his church and died in 1663, a few months before William Maxwell was born.

In Edinburgh on 30 June 1685, Maxwell stood with the Earl of Argyll before his execution as  rebel against James VII and II. Maxwell was studying to become a doctor at the time, but after being imprisoned for attending a conventicle, in December 1687 he decided it would be safer to continue his training at Leiden in Holland.

Here he met James Dalrymple, Viscount Stair and the Reverend William Carstares, both closely linked to William of Orange. Probably as a result of their influence, the 25 year old Maxwell joined William of Orange’s army as a member of the Earl of Leven’s Regiment  and sailed to England with the Dutch armada in October 1688.

He fought for William at the battles of Killiecrankie and the Boyne where he was promoted to captain on the field by King William himself. In 1697 he married Nicola Stewart, who had  inherited Cardoness from her mother. He was a member of the 1702-1707 Scottish parliament and voted against the Union. After raising an anti- Jacobite volunteer force in early 1715, in October  he was made Governor of Glasgow and tasked with organising its defences in case of a Jacobite attack.

11. Image Colonel Maxwell

By May 1724, when he entered negotiations with the Levellers, William Maxwell was a retired colonel, a prosperous landowner with his own cattle parks and  a deeply religious Presbyterian. He was therefore a leading member of the local establishment- but this  was an establishment founded on a revolution.

In contrast, the Levellers main opponent was Basil Hamilton. They claimed he was part of a Jacobite conspiracy against them on account of their loyalty to King George.

 In 1715 Hamilton had joined the Galloway Jacobites. Only 19 at the time, he was given command of a troop of horse. After failing  to capture Dumfries, the Jacobites  marched south to be defeat at Preston where Hamilton fought bravely. Hamilton now faced execution as a traitor.

Fortunately for Hamilton, his uncle was General later Field Marshall George Hamilton, earl of Orkney  who was also one of King George’s Gentlemen of the Bedchamber. Through his uncle’s influence, Basil Hamilton avoided execution. Hamilton’s extensive lands were still liable to forfeiture, but his mother Lady Mary Hamilton argued that she rather than her underage son was their owner.

Lady Mary, born in 1677, was the daughter of David Dunbar, younger, of Baldoon in Wigtownshire.

In 1669, two years after both England and Scotland had banned the import of Irish cattle, Mary’s grandfather, David Dunbar the elder,  was fined  for importing 1200 Irish cattle and reselling some to England. The cattle would have been kept in the huge, 3 and ¾ square mile cattle park at Baldoon mentioned by Andrew Symson  in his Large Description of Galloway, written in 1682.

Symson also explained that Dunbar exported abut 400 cattle per year to England. The profit from this trade allowed Dunbar to buy up land. By his death in 1686 David Dunbar the elder,  owned 95 farms, 21 in Wigtownshire and 74 in the Stewartry.  This made him the largest landowner in Galloway.

David Dunbar, younger, had died in 1682 and his wife in 1687. Ten year old Mary Dunbar became heiress to the Dunbar lands. The Duke and Duchess of Hamilton were appointed Mary’s guardians and she was brought up at Hamilton Palace with the Duke and Duchess‘s 13 children.  In 1697 Mary Dunbar married Lord Basil Hamilton, but he died in 1702. Lady Mary became Duchess Anne’s companion and her son Basil grew  up in Hamilton Palace not Galloway.

In 1716, a commission calculated the value of the estates of 38 Scottish Jacobites. At £1225  annual rent, Basil Hamilton was the 7th wealthiest of these  Jacobites.

What happened next was a political deal. In 1720, the Lord Advocate Robert Dundas of Arniston decided  to stand for election in Edinburghshire. George Lockhart of Carnwath had previously been the MP for Edinburghshire until exposed as a Jacobite. As Lockhart explained in a letter to King James VIII and III written in 1722  after Dundas had been elected, a deal was done which involved Basil Hamilton.

About two years ago I gave the advocate [Robert Dundas] something like an assurance that if he would preserve Mr. Basil  Hamilton and some other honest mens estates from being forfaulted, I would take care so to manage matters that he should  be elected for this shyre  and as the advocate did from thence forward act a friendly part to them, and that therto in a great measure the preservation of these familys is owing, I thought my self obliged in justice and honour to support him. I am hopfull you'l approve of my  conduct, when you know it proceeded from so good a design and  had so good effects. 

As a result of this political deal, Basil Hamilton was able to take a direct role in managing his estates. As well as building new dykes and reviving the family tradition of cattle trading, Hamilton took vigorous steps to increase his cash flow from rents. When accused of clearing his land to make way for cattle parks, Hamilton replied that the only tenants he had evicted were those who had failed to pay their rent.

William Gordon of Kenmure was executed as a traitor in 1716. Lady Kenmure was able to keep her late husband’s estates because they were so encumbered with debt they were effectively worthless. She then managed them so efficiently that by the time her son was old enough to inherit in 1735, the estates were debt free. This suggests that Lady Kenmure also pursued a vigorous policy of  raising rents and evicting tenants who fell into arrears as a result.

Significantly,  there are no mentions of  Jacobites in the Levellers first manifestos. While these included declarations of loyalty to King George, responsibility for the construction of depopulating enclosures was blamed on ‘several gentlemen’ rather than ‘certain Jacobites’. The Jacobite conspiracy theory only surfaces at the end of May.

In early May  Colonel Maxwell of Cardoness and Patrick Heron of Kirroughtrie began negotiating with the  levellers. An agreement was reached that if  the landowners promised  that there would be no further evictions and no new cattle parks built, the Levellers would halt their operations.  However some landowners refused to  sign the agreement.  The Levellers wrote to Colonel Maxwell expressing their indignation and he replied the he was ‘very sorrowful’ on their account.

 The likely source of the problem was Basil Hamilton since the next thing to happen was a gathering of several hundred Levellers near Kirkcudbright who then proceeded to demolish two miles of  Hamilton’s dykes between the 12th and 17th of  May.

While the Levellers protestations of loyalty to King George  no doubt  favourably influenced Colonel Maxwell’s  opinion of them, what persuaded  Patrick Heron to join in the negotiations?

For Heron, it is likely that  the Levellers’ actions against Irish cattle made him sympathetic towards them. In the early 1680s, Heron’s father had managed David Dunbar’s cattle park at Baldoon in partnership with Hugh Blair-McGuffog. By 1689, Heron’s father had built up his own business, sending 1000 cattle to England every year.

Like David Dunbar, Heron’s father used the profits from  the cattle trade to acquire land, but he did so in a more focussed way. The farms he first rented and then bought, ran from Lamachan  and Curlywee overlooking Loch Dee across to the Palnure Burn and then down to the Cree, covering an area of about 130 square kilometres. The upland farms provided summer pasture for cattle which were over wintered on the lowland farms.

12. Image Heron Lands

It was a system geared up to producing cattle for export and as such it was probably the first example of large scale capitalist farming in Scotland. By capitalist I mean that profits were re-invested in expanding the business rather than diverted into increasing the Herons’ social status as landowners.

 Unlike the Heron system, the Dunbar system relied on buying in cattle from other landowners to make up the numbers for a drove. Although extensive, the Dunbar lands were not geared up to cattle production. After his marriage to Mary Dunbar in 1697, Lord Basil Hamilton had  to get permission from the Scottish Privy Council to import 120 Irish cattle to restock the Baldoon park.

Twenty seven years later, Lord Basil’s son had Irish cattle grazing in his park near Kirkcudbright. Hugh Blair-McGuffog ’s son had Irish cattle  in his park near Brighouse Bay while  Robert Maxwell of Orchardton had some in Netherlaw park and Alexander Murray  in his park at Cally.

The Levellers broke into all these parks,  seized the Irish cattle they found and slaughtered them. Some were killed in the grounds of Dundrenan Abbey by Francis McMinn, a blacksmith who lived near by. This gave rise to a local saying that ‘McMinn’s fore-hammer was more deadly than a butcher’s knife’.

While Patrick Heron was no doubt shocked by the Levellers decision to take the law into their own hands, his family’s  business had been built up on the legitimate cattle trade. If rivals could undercut the Heron system by passing off cheaper Irish cattle as Scottish, this would have a negative impact on his bottom line.

There is also evidence that some of the dykes levelled in 1724 had been built long before then.  In 1688, Robert Maxwell of Orchardton wrote to his nephew from Ireland.

Maxwell had been living in Ireland (County Down) since 1668 when he married a wealthy widow - Countess Anne Hamilton of Clanbrassil. The painting by Van Dyck shows Countess Anne just  before her first marriage in 1636.

Countess Anne 

Maxwell' s letter mentions William Johnston  as ‘herd in the park of Netherlaw’.

13. Image Netherlaw factory

From other sources it can be established that William Johnston had been the herd in Netherlaw park since 1684 so when the dykes of Netherlaw,  now belonging to Robert Maxwell’s nephew. were levelled in 1724, they were at least 40 years old.

The Levellers also seized and slaughtered cattle belonging to Hugh Blair of Dunrod in Borgue. In 1698, his father Hugh Blair McGuffog  drew up a contract with William Kingan for the herding of his cattle park at Dunrod which was to be done ‘faithfully according to the custom of the herds formerly employed’ and included a requirement that the herd should ’uphold the park dykes’.

14. Image - Dunrod tack

Quite when the cattle parks in Borgue were built is uncertain, but Dunrod  had previously been owned by David Dunbar of Baldoon. After his first marriage to Elizabeth McGuffog, heiress of Rusko,  in 1688 Hugh Blair-McGuffog  re-married, this time  to Margaret, daughter of David Dunbar the elder. Hugh Blair was their second  son  by this marriage.

According to John Macky’s Journey Through Scotland, published in 1723, Alexander Murray’s cattle park at Cally ‘feeds one thousand bullocks that he sends every year to England’. This suggests that Murray had a cattle park similar in size to David Dunbar’s park at Baldoon, but Dunbar only sent 400 cattle per year to England. The Herons were able to send 1000 cattle per year to England, but needed a  third of Minnigaff parish’s 360 square kilometre area to do so.

15. Image Cally

Alexander Murray owned Broughton farm in Wigtown parish  and the lands of Cally in Girthon parish, amounting to only a fraction of the Herons’ land holdings. However, he also owned 263 square kilometres of land in Donegal, acquired by the Murray family as part of the Plantation of Ulster in 1609. Alexander Murray could therefore have sourced some  or even most of the 1000 cattle he sent every year to England from his Irish lands and provided cheap Irish cattle for other local landowners.

16. Image Donegal


What I hope is starting to emerge is that there was more going on in 1724 than the peasantry of Galloway throwing down newly built enclosures.

The Levellers did not try to demolish every enclosure, but used dyke-breaking as a tactic against  landowners they had a grievance with. Demolishing dykes around cattle parks created maximum annoyance. Basil Hamilton complained that after his dykes had been levelled, he had to pay the extra costs of keeping his cattle from straying and, when they did stray, to pay compensation to his neighbours for crops the cattle had eaten.

At the same time, landowners believed to be sympathetic to the Levellers, like Robert Johnston of Kelton, did not have their dykes levelled and Colonel Maxwell’s cattle park at Cardoness  was left untouched.

But if the recent introduction of cattle parks and enclosures was not the spark which triggered the events of 1724 what was?

17. Image- Murdoch tack

 There were certainly recent and ongoing evictions, but these did not lead to permanent clearance of the farms affected. The Levellers alleged that Thomas Murdoch had  cleared several families from Airds of Kells -which was why they levelled his dykes.

Murdoch had a 25 year lease on Airds from the Gordons of Earlston which expired in 1743. The Gordon’s then sold Airds and we have a list of the farms and crofts which were  included in the estate - Upper and Nether Airds, Bennan Hill, Ringour, Mossdale, Quarterland, Park, Nook, Boatcroft and Bridgecroft.

The first bridge over the Dee at Airds was built in 1737, so the croft there must have been created  after that date. If Murdoch did clear Airds of Kells between 1718 and 1724, this  created only a temporary rather than a permanent dispossession of the people from the land.

18. Image  Airds of Kells

The evictions carried out by Lady Kenmure, Basil Hamilton, Thomas Murdoch and other landowners created much popular anger. Why then was the first levelling incident directed against the forty year old cattle park at Netherlaw and the herd of Irish cattle pasturing there?

In his History of the Burgh of Dumfries, William McDowall mentioned in passing that in 1724, customs officers in Dumfries were  ‘scandalized by a daring innovation which had sprung up, especially at Kirkcudbright, of importing Irish cattle, and they sorely bewailed the connivance given to it by the County gentlemen and their tenants’.

The customs officer in Kirkcudbright was James Clerk. In early May, Clerk wrote to his brother saying that the Levellers had asked him to go with them to seize a herd of Irish cattle, but he had  refused to do so. In his next letter, Clerk reported  that

Upon Wednesday last a party of 100, all armed, came into town driving before them about 53 Black Cattle which they had, after throwing down the dykes, brought in the name of Irish cattle. They demanded us to assist them in retaining said cattle but we  refused to meddle in the affair…upon which they drove them out of town and slaughtered each one [of] them in a barbarous manner. 

From a footnote to James Clerk’s letters about the Levellers it appears the other letters he wrote to his brother were mainly begging letters and that by 1724 he had managed to spend all of  a £5000 inheritance left to him by his father in 1722.

As an impecunious customs officer in Kirkcudbright, James Clerk could easily have been bribed to turn a deaf ear to reports of cattle smuggling. If so, this would explain why the ‘daring innovation’ of importing Irish cattle, probably from Alexander Murray’s farms in Donegal,  had recently sprung up around Kirkcudbright.

What this means is that  in 1723 there were two groups of local people with grievances. The first was a group of tenants and cottars who were angered by a combination of rent rises and evictions for arrears. The  second was a group of landowners and tenants who were infuriated by an outbreak of cattle smuggling. In the background there was a belief that the influence of Jacobite landowners had increased, was increasing and ought to be diminished.

Somehow, in early 1724 these different concerns were brought together in a very well organised and co-ordinated campaign in which landowners involved in cattle smuggling and some of those accused of mass evictions were targeted throughout March and April.

If the agreement reached with the Levellers by Colonel Maxwell and Patrick Heron in early May had prevailed, the Levellers actions would have been confined to the area around Kirkcudbright. It was only after Basil Hamilton threw a spanner in the works that levelling spread into the parishes of Kells, Kirkpatrick Durham and Buittle.

The upsurge in levelling brought Stair’s regiment to Kirkcudbright and the Levellers responded by producing several lengthy justifications  for their actions -claiming they had been  provoked  by wicked Jacobites who were responsible for the construction of depopulating enclosures . These publications created a stir in Edinburgh and even in London, where King George became concerned on the Levellers behalf.

The Levellers  highly effective public relations campaign led to a public enquiry in August and  September. It is likely that further negotiations then led to what can only described as the carefully stage managed decommissioning of their movement  at Duchrae in October.

This peaceful end to what had been, apart from the fate of the Irish cattle, a mainly peaceful protest in the Stewartry contrasts with what happened in Wigtownshire. The Stewartry dykes were over turned by large groups of levellers, but in Wigtownshire a much smaller group of levellers had to use a battering ram against the dykes. Tenant farmers helped the landowners to defend the enclosures and the outbreak ended rapidly after one of the tenant farmers shot and killed a leveller.

Before moving on to my conclusion here are two quotes from the Levellers  themselves. The first is from their call to arms which was fixed to the door of Borgue kirk in mid April. The second is from their Letter to Major Ducary  written in June.

Therefore in order to prevent such a chain of miseries as are likely to be the consequences of this unhappy parking, we earnestly entreat the assistance and aid of you the loyal parish of Borgue in order to suppress these calamities, and that we may either live or die in this land of our nativity. We beg your assistance which will tend to your own advantage,  in order to which we desire you to meet at David Low’s in Woodhead of Tongland where we expect the concurrence of Tongland and Twynholm upon Tuesday morning an hour after the sun rise which will gratify us and oblige yourselves.

This is a very polite, even genteel call to arms. It was written by the former minister Hugh Clanny, but is hardly the fiery language of  a ‘mountain preacher’ as reported by the Caledonia Mercury.

With the next quotation we can see how the Levellers views on enclosure had changed.

The Gentlemen should enclose their grounds in such parcels that each may be sufficient for a good tenant and that the Heritors lay as much rent on each of these enclosures as will give him double the interest of the money laid out on the enclosures. If he cannot get this enclosure set to a tenant whom he may judge sufficient, he may then lawfully keep that ground in his own hand till he finds a sufficient tenant, taking care that the tenant’s house be kept up and that it may be let with the first opportunity and that a lease of twenty-one years be offered. This will considerably augment the yearly rent of the lands and the tenant will hereby be capable and encouraged to improve the breed of sheep and black cattle and the ground, which without enclosures is impossible.

What is very interesting is that between  April and   June  the Levellers appear to have shifted their stance towards ‘parking’ - that is that is the construction of enclosures. The ‘chain of miseries’ and ‘calamities’ which they had associated with enclosures in April have given way  by to an acceptance by June that without enclosures the improvement of land and livestock is impossible.

In 1723, the Honourable Society of Improvers  in the  Knowledge of Agriculture was founded in Edinburgh. The Society’s secretary was Robert Maxwell of Arkland in Kirkpatrick Durham and its patron was John Dalrymple, the second Earl of Stair. Patrick Heron of Kirroughtrie was one of its members.

19. Image Society Improvers

The Levellers’ advice to ‘the Gentlemen’ on how best to proceed with a more  sensible approach to enclosure could easily have fitted into one of the Society’s publications. Perhaps the Levellers had taken advice from Patrick Heron on the subject.

The formation of the Society of Improvers in 1723 was one of the first stirrings  of what was to become the Scottish Enlightenment. Even if the Levellers’ advocacy of reasonable enclosure as the most profitable path to improvement was part of their public relations campaign, it is still a significant statement. It also makes it more difficult to understand what the Levellers were trying to achieve.


One way to look at the events of 1724 is to take several steps backwards and  see how they fit into a bigger picture. In his study of the medieval Lordship of Galloway, Richard Oram described agriculture in twelfth and thirteenth century Galloway as

a complex pattern, where systems of transhumance that supported a pastoral economy geared in some areas principally towards dairying were juxtaposed with zones of intensive arable cultivation. This was a pattern that survived down to the early nineteenth century, but has since been lost in the successive programmes of progressive enclosure of the Galloway landscape and commercial re-afforestation of the uplands.

But  the pattern of medieval farming was disrupted by a new factor in the later seventeenth century- the cattle trade with England. The cattle trade connected Galloway directly with England’s capitalist market economy. The connection was established during a period when, to quote Oram again  as a centre of Covenanting radicalism  Galloway ‘ was governed by the Edinburgh based regime as a rebellious subject territory rather than as a stable province of the kingdom’.

Another significant feature of post-medieval Galloway was the fragmentation of landownership. The surrender of Threave Castle to King James II in the summer of 1455 led to the Crown acquiring all the lands previously held by the Douglas lords of Galloway. Most of these - more than 100 farms - were in the Stewartry and they were gradually sold off by the Crown to their tenants. Even more farms in the parishes of Crossmichael, Rerrick, Tongland, New Abbey and Kirkpatrick Durham were owned by the Church. With the Reformation, all these farms were disposed of.

The end result  was that between 1660 and 1700 there were 1000 owners of land in the Stewartry. Even as late as 1867, there were  still  450 ‘landed proprietors’ here compared with only 72 in Wigtownshire. The fragmentation of land ownership created a complicated pattern, with farms frequently changing  hands as the fortunes of their owners ebbed and flowed.

In the Highlands, the process of clearance led Gaelic poets to fear for the survival of a Gaelic culture which was rooted in an intimate  connection between land and people. The only poetry inspired by the Levellers uprising  was  the Lamentation of the People of Galloway by the Parking Lairds, written by James Charters of Dalry. In this, the lords and lairds are described as driving the poor people out from ‘the maillings where we dwell’.

Maillings were the rented farms between which tenant farmers and their cottar subtenants regularly  moved. Only a  few of the Galloway Levellers would have lived in the same maillings as their  grandparents.

In Galloway then, unlike the Highlands, the strong connections which had once existed between land and language, people and place had been lost long before 1724.

The subtitle of the Lowland Clearances book is ‘Scotland’s silent revolution 1760 to 1830’  Right on cue, in 1760 Basil Hamilton’s son Dunbar Hamilton,  the 4th earl of Selkirk, began levelling operations at Baldoon. What the earl, or rather his tenant a Mr Jeffray, began levelling were not the dykes of David Dunbar‘s great cattle park, but 300 acres of ‘old crooked rigs’. The crooked rigs were the large broad ridges built up by ploughing with  heavy oxen drawn ploughs. It took 3 years to level the ridges and improve the soil by adding sea shells from  the sea shore of Wigtown Bay.

Dunbar Hamilton had been taught by Francis Hutcheson at Glasgow University where Adam Smith was a fellow student. Unlike his father he was an enlightened improver and was a definitely not a Jacobite.

Patrick Heron the 4th,  the grandson of the Levellers Patrick Heron was another enlightened improver. In 1761 he married Jean, daughter of Henry Home, Lord Kames - a leading member of the Scottish Enlightenment. Kames drew up a plan for the improvement of Ingleston in Irongray parish which Heron owned.

Heron’s tenant was James Rome and the improvements started at Whitsun 1763. Rome provided an account of the immense effort required to improve the 144 acres of Ingleston Hill where 90 horses and 24 workers laboured for 32 days to carry and spread 48 346 bags of shell-marl. The hill was then ploughed, first with a team of 6 oxen led by 3 men followed by a team of 4 horses. The improved land was then planted with turnips and Lord Kames was highly impressed.

In 1765, Alexander Gordon of Greenlaw had a short canal cut which carried  barge loads of shell marl from Carlingwark Loch to  his lands- which included Threave castle.

21. Image Threave castle from Greenlaw

 Within a few years the barges were travelling  upstream as far as New Galloway, bringing the age of improvement to the Glenkens.

It was the  improvement of arable farms which imposed  the  grid like pattern of rectangular enclosures on the landscape which we can still see today.  Swept away by this rationalisation of the farmed landscape was a whole class of rural workers- the cottars, along with their untidy cots and crofts.

From these later events it could and has been argued that the Levellers uprising was a failure. But when interviewed  in 2003 Chris Whatley pointed out  that the Levellers actions had a strong restraining influence on the Lowland Clearances. As he put it

A lot of the activities of the landowners in the second half of the eighteenth century are designed to preclude, to pre-empt a repeat of what happened in Galloway. That is one reason why people were re-housed and not just thrown off the land. An alternative was created to pacify people.

The 85 new towns and villages built in Galloway and Dumfries shire between 1730 and 1830 were part of this alternative. Other new towns and villages were built across the rest of the Lowlands, linked together by a whole new infrastructure of roads and bridges, canals and ports. It was a revolutionary transformation.

But for Marxist historian Neil Davidson, what happened in the second half of the eighteenth century was not a revolution. The great wave of agricultural change, the Scottish Enlightenment and the first stirrings of an industrial revolution were  all fruits of changes which already taken place before 1750. Neil calls these changes Scotland’s bourgeois revolution.

In the Stewartry the hundreds of owner occupier farmers or yeoman farmers were part of  an emerging ‘middle class’ of ‘small commodity producers in the towns, yeoman farmers in the countryside, shopkeepers and tavern owners in both’.

Davidson described this group as the outer circle of the Scottish bourgeoisie. The Levellers, however,  were nearly all cottars and tenant farmers. For Christopher Smout this gave the Levellers uprising  its unique character as ‘the first instance in Scottish history of a popular rural movement with the character of class war… where the  combatants were clearly split along class lines.’

I am not so sure. It is also possible to place what happened here in 1724 within the context of Neil Davidson’s bourgeois revolution, as part of a class struggle being fought out not between peasants and landowners but between capitalist Whigs and their feudal superiors, the Jacobites.

However, when Neil himself discussed the events of 1724,  he described what happened as a conflict between ‘the moral economy of the Scottish peasantry’ and what they saw as the ‘unnatural’ behaviour of enclosing landowners.  But was there a great divide between the traditional moral economy of Galloway and the new market economy?

I am thinking here of German sociologist Max Weber’s theory that capitalism emerged out of Protestantism, and in particular, its Calvinist forms. Even if the story that Alexander Gordon of Airds embraced the Reformation in the  1520s is folklore rather than history, the  moral economy of the Stewartry had been shaped by Calvinism ever since John Knox preached to the common people  here in 1560.

 What this means is not that the Stewartry was a fully fledged capitalist economy in 1724, but that what Weber called the ‘spirit of capitalism’ was already present. If it was present in the wider community, then it was also present among the Levellers. Their moral economy was, in the ‘spirit of capitalism’ sense,  more modern than it was traditional.

Their ‘modernist tradition’ gave the Levellers the capacity, rarely found in ‘peasants’ to express themselves in the measured language of the Honourable Society of Improvers, of  Neil Davidson’s Scottish bourgeoisie. Putting their arguments in polite and respectable language, allowed the Levellers critique of depopulating enclosures to be absorbed rather than rejected by enlightened improvers. It became commonsense that the people dispossessed by improvement should be re-housed not just thrown off the land.

That the Lowland Clearances are not remembered with the bitterness of the Highland Clearances is therefore a testament to the Levellers’ actions. Ironically then, for a group of people still remembered for their opposition to enclosures, the Levellers legacy smoothed the way for the construction of even more.

The  Levellers were neither rebels nor early capitalists. They were not trying to over turn the existing order, but they did to quote Chris Whatley  ‘give  the authorities such a fright they took care to ensure that nothing like the events in Galloway ever happened again’.

Nothing like what took place here 293 years ago ever did happen again. It is this uniqueness which makes  the Galloway Levellers’ uprising so fascinating.

Stroan Image

But what I have found even more fascinating as I have tried to put the  Levellers into their local context, is the richness and complexity of our  history, of the history that lies all around us waiting to be uncovered.

Saturday, September 09, 2017

Talk Castle Douglas, Food and History

This is the text of a talk I gave for the Castle Douglas Harvest food festival 9 September 2017. I will add some images later

Castle Douglas  and Food

Castle Douglas is not quite 230 years old but people have been living here for about 10 000 years. For the first four or five thousand years it would be more accurate to say people visited the Castle Douglas area- they were gatherers, fishers and hunters not farmers. They arrived here after the  last ice age ended when, as the climate warmed up, Galloway was covered by a huge forest.

 They would have spent the winter on the  Solway coast and then moved up into the Galloway hills in the spring before moving back down to the coast in the autumn.  They gathered fruit, edible roots and hazel nuts and hunted for deer in the hills. They would have caught salmon in the Dee and wildfowl from the marshes on what is  now the National Trust’s Threave Estate.

About 6000 years ago a revolution reached Galloway. This was the beginning of farming here, when cereals and livestock were domesticated and the first settled communities began. Castle Douglas’ oldest residents date from this period- two small standing stones in a field below the Urr Valley hotel.

The problem the first farmers had was that to make room for their crops and livestock, they had to clear away a 5000 year old forest. With stone axes this was difficult. It was easier with the bronze axes which came in 3 and a half thousand years ago but what really made a difference were iron axes and saws. These would have been available 2700 years ago. With the new technology, even the thickest areas of forest growing on deep fertile soils could be cleared, opening up the flood plain of the river Dee and the area around Castle Douglas.

Once the land could be farmed more effectively, the population could begin to grow. With more people available, more land could be cultivated and more livestock herded. As a result, by the time the first Roman soldiers marched into Galloway, one historian has described the Castle Douglas area as a centre of paramount power and wealth.

He based that claim on what is now one of the treasures of the National Museum in Edinburgh - the Torrs Pony Cap. This stunning beautiful object was found in 1812 when a loch on Torrs farm was being drained. Found in Carlingwark Loch, the Carlingwark cauldron is also in the National Museum as is a beautiful bronze mirror found in Balmaclellan.

The pony cap would have been worn by a horse which puked a chariot.  Two ornamental harness fittings have also been found- one at Auchendolly and the other at Wheatcroft. On Meiklewood Hill which overlooks the Dee on one side and Castle Douglas on the other there was a large and impressive iron age roundhouse. There was also a hill fort at Torrs and another one on Dunmuir Hill.

The |Torrs hill fort was excavated by Dr Fraser Hunter of the National Museum last year. He found evidence that the walls of the hill fort had been rebuilt at least twice, but there was no sign of anyone actually living inside it.

Taken altogether, this evidence suggests that 2000 years ago, the Castle Douglas area was where a succession of  powerful  Celtic chieftains lived, controlling a territory that stretched up into the Glenkens.  An indication that the Castle Douglas area was important comes from the Roman forts and camps at Glenlochar. These represent the largest concentration of Roman power in Galloway and shows that it was the key area the Romans needed  to subdue.

If the Castle Douglas area was a centre of wealth and power 2000 years ago, where did that power and wealth come from? There were no gold mines or copper mines and it was too far inland to be a centre for sea trade. The only place the wealth and power could come from was the land itself, from the crops of barley and wheat the people grew and from the animals they farmed- cattle, sheep, pigs and goats - as well as horses.

On the other hand, everyone else in the region grew the same crops and had the same mix of livestock. There must have been something additional factor which help to concentrate the wealth of the land in the Castle Douglas area. I suspect it may have been the rivers Dee and Ken. The river system is navigable from Threave island upstream to the head of loch Ken. When Carlingwark loch was partially drained in the 18th century, as well as an Iron Age  crannog, several dug out canoes were found.

The rivers could have been used as a transport system, creating an extended community - a tribal territory- along their length. The Roman forts and camps at Glenlochar may have disrupted the  political and economic structures of this Iron Age community because we now have to jump forward a thousand years to the age of Archibald the Grim and Threave castle before the Castle Douglas area becomes important again.

Archibald the Grim was an illegitimate son of James Douglas, Robert the Bruce’s most loyal  follower. The people of Galloway were not loyal to Robert the Bruce, they supported his rival John Balliol and then his son Edward. Even after Edward Balliol died in 1365, the Gaelic speaking kindreds or clans of Galloway- the McDowalls, the McCullochs and the McLellans - were still hostile to Bruce’s son King David II. The year after Edward Balliol died, King David proposed gifting the Lordship of Galloway to John of Gaunt, one of the English king Edward III’s sons, but was talked out of it.

What David did do was make Archibald the Grim warden of the West March of the Scottish border. In 1369, David is supposed to have gifted Archibald all the lands between the Nith and the Cree but I think Archibald grabbed the Stewartry first and then got David to make it legal. In 1372 Archibald bought Wigtownshire from the earl of Wigtown for £500 and re-established the Lordship of Galloway.

In 1325, Robert the Bruce had granted the castle and barony of Buittle to James Douglas and it was still owned by the Douglases of Morton. Archibald therefore decided to build a new castle on Threave island. It was a good defensible site surrounded by good farmland.

The river was also a source of food for the castle. In 1706, William Maxwell, earl of Nithsdale sold  the lands of Kelton, now Threave estate to a Dumfries merchant,  but although the castle was a ruin, he kept it because it gave him the valuable fishing rights for a large section of the Dee. Ownership of the castle also gave the earl the right every autumn to demand a nice fat cow or bull from each of the 28 parishes in the Stewartry.

From this period we also have rental rolls  and charters which give the names of individual farms and sometimes their tenants. In Buittle most of the farms have Gaelic names. There is a boundary between Kelton and Buittle parishes at the Cuckoo bridge on the Gelston road. The stream there is the parish boundary and on the Kelton side the farm is Whitepark and on the Buittle side it is Cuil. Cuil means corner in Gaelic and it is in the corner of Buittle parish.

Whitepark is Scots and, if we compare it with Blackpark on the other side of the town, which takes its name from the dark peaty soil which is turned over by ploughing,  its name would come from the thinner paler soil seen when the higher ground Whitepark sits on was ploughed. Whitepark was part of Kelton grange, now Kelton Mains along with Midkelton and Nether Kelton which is now Halmyre and Carlingwark. Carlin is a Scots word which can either mean an old woman or a witch. On the other side of the Dee was Threave grange, which is now called Threave Mains. From these  Scots farm names we can see that Archibald settled Scots speakers in the lands around his castle.

Blackpark is in Crossmichael parish and all the farms in Crossmichael belonged to Lincluden abbey- which was originally a nunnery founded  in about 1160.  In  1389, Archibald the Grim got rid of the nuns and turned Lincluden into a collegiate church - where the monks had to pray for the souls of Archibald and his family.

In 1455 King James II besieged Threave castle and after it surrendered to him, he took control of all the Douglas lands in Galloway. In 1456 James had a list of all his new lands drawn up which included useful details - for example that the king’s oxen had been set to plough the lands of Kelton and that when harvested, the king’s oats were to be ground at the mill of Kelton.

Between the Iron Age and the Middle Ages oats had replaced wheat as the staple crop alongside barley which continued to be grown. A big heavy wooden plough drawn by six or 8 oxen had also been introduced. We don’t know exactly when and how this change occurred, but it was probably around the time that Fergus of Galloway rose to power. Fergus introduced Cistercian monks to Dundrennan in 1142  and the Cistercians were renowned as agricultural improvers in the early Middle Ages.

If the heavy plough and the cultivation of oats were introduced to Galloway at the same time, food production in Galloway would have increased, generating wealth and power for Fergus and his descendants. Archibald the Grim and the Douglas lords of Galloway would also have benefited. Of the Douglas lands in Galloway taken over by James II in 1455, the densest cluster lies between the Urr and the Dee with another cluster around Wigtown in the Machars, several of which were also arable grange lands.

In the Castle Douglas area records from the 16th and 17th century show that the farms were arable farms, ploughed by teams of oxen and producing oats and barley. This medieval system survived well into the 18th century.

Then in 1765 it all starts to change.

After the Reformation, in  1587, the Gordons of Kenmure managed to get a hold of all the farms in Crossmichael parish which had belonged to Lincluden. These included Greenlaw where there was an old tower house on the banks of the Dee. In the 1680s the Gordons would live there in the summer, transporting their furniture by boat down from Kenmure castle.

By  1740s the lands of Greenlaw were still owned by a branch of the Gordon family and included the new but only partly built mansion house of Greenlaw. Alexander Gordon of Greenlaw was born in 1748 and lived to the ripe old age of 82.

 In 1765, when a canal was cut from Carlingwark Hill to the river Dee Alexander  would have been only 17, so it was probably not entirely his idea. In 1766 or 1767 a cut was made through Carlingwark Hill to increase the water supply to the canal and partly drain the loch. This made it easier to get at the beds of shell marl which lay beneath the loch.

Shell marl is a type of clay enriched with lime by several thousand years worth of fresh water snail shells- and no doubt fish bones.

Applied to the land, shell marl neutralises the acid in acid soils which improves fertility. Shell marl dug out of mosses and small lochs was already being used by improving landowners in the Stewartry. In other areas, like Nithsdale, lime was used but there is very little limestone in the Stewartry.  Along the coast, sea shells from the sea shore were used to improve the soil.

However, because there were only tracks rather than proper roads in the Stewartry -apart from the newly built Military Road, it was difficult and expensive to transport the shell marl. The canal solved this problem, making it easier to improve Alexander Gordon’s lands. Once a shallow section of the river below Glenlochar had been by-passed by another short section of canal, the marl could be carried on barges all the way up to New Galloway and the Boatpool of Dalry and sold to farmers in the Glenkens.

By the 1790s, travellers through Galloway were commenting on how the area around Castle Douglas stood out for the quality of its farms and the richness of its crops. Soon afterwards though, the canal and the marl workings in the loch fell out of use. By then, a whole network of new and improved roads had been built, linking Castle Douglas with the ports of Kirkcudbright and Palnackie and with Nithdsale. The new roads allowed fertiliser made directly from limestone to be brought in by the cart load making shell marl redundant.

Before the new roads were built, Alexander Gordon’s marl workings were kept very busy and a constant stream of barges were in use, some of which could carry 25 tons of marl.  To house his workers, Alexander Gordon had a village of about 100 houses built, strung out along the new Military Road. In 1786 Gordon decided to sell Carlingwark loch and its marl workings along with the village. He had a map drawn up, showing the loch and the village. The next year Gordon tried to sell Carlingwark to
William Cunningham, a wealth Glasgow tobacco lord who had just bought Duchrae- now Hensol- estate. Cunninghame was not interested, but in 1788 another wealth merchant, William Douglas- was. He bought Gordon’s village and the loch for £2000.

William Douglas, the founder of Castle Douglas, does not seem to have been very interested in agricultural improvement, but his new town benefited from the work of landowners who were. The Napoleonic Wars also helped by driving up the price of food. High food prices encouraged further improvement of the land, sweeping away the last vestiges of the medieval farmed landscape. Cast iron ploughs pulled by horses replaced the last teams of oxen and their old wooden ploughs. Tile drains were introduced to help drain the fields so the old raised rigs which had been built up to keep the crops dry could be levelled.

Before Sir William Douglas died in 1809, a turnpike road had been built to replace the Military Road. This became the A 75 which until the 1980s twisted and turned across the countryside. The twists and turns were need to make the road as level as possible for horse drawn carts and coaches. Other new and improved  roads connected Castle Douglas to Ayr and Dalbeattie as well as Kirkcudbright and the surrounding countryside.

By the 1840s, Castle Douglas had weekly livestock sales on the Market Hill, an important post office several banks and many ‘remarkably elegant and well furnished shops’.  William Douglas had set up a cotton weaving factory in the town, but the weaving was all done by hand. By  1831, when power-loom weaving took over from hand-loom weaving, the factory had closed.  From then on the town would depend on farming and agriculture as the source of its prosperity.

The next big change to happen was the rise of dairy farming. In 1845, laws which had kept up the price of cereal crops since the end of the Napoleonic Wars were finally repealed. This encouraged a shift towards dairy farming. This had already begun before the a railway from Dumfries reached Castle Douglas in 1859. The railway was extended to Stranraer in 1861 and Kirkcudbright in 1864. Instead of having to be turned into cheese or butter, fresh milk from the farms around Castle Douglas could be sent by rail to large towns and cities.

For centuries, the farms in the Castle Douglas area had been more or less self-sufficient for most of their needs but as farms became more and more specialised the families of the farmers and their workers need to buy the clothes, tools, beer and food they had once produced for themselves. Farm buildings were no longer made of wood with turf or thatched roofs and home made furniture became a thing of the past.

The shops and businesses based in Castle Douglas grew and developed to meet these new needs. Although individual business have come and gone, there are still bankers, doctors, tailors, joiners, painters, cabinet makers, solicitors and innkeepers in the town as there were in 1840. One change which my mother has observed since she moved to Castle Douglas to teach domestic science in 1954 is the loss of the many grocers’ shops which have been replaced by supermarkets.

Altogether she and her friends have given me a list of ten grocers shops. They were busiest on Mondays when the farmers would come into the market  in their cars along with their wives. The wives  would then  place their orders for a week’s supplies at one of the grocers. When the market was over, supplies would be collected  and put the car for the journey home.

Forty years earlier there were no cars so similar shopping and market trips were made by horse and cart. Farmers from above the town would show of their best horses by parading down King Street to the stables at the back of the Douglas Arms, while farmers from below the town would parade up the street to the stables behind the Crown or the Imperial.

On Saturdays the shops would stay open until eleven o’clock so the farm workers and their wives could do their shopping. My great uncle Bob Livingston’s first job was working for one of the grocer’s shops. Once an order had been made up he would take the box of groceries round to one of the stables and put it in the  farm cart. The tradition of late night opening ended during the First War when, as a way to save oil and gas, shops were not allowed to be illuminated after five pm.

I have a list of the ten grocer’s shops.

Note: the modern locations are roughly where the grocer's shops were. For discussion of more precise locations see https://www.facebook.com/groups/196338190426226/permalink/1534985369894828/

1 Halls -this was above the Imperial on King Street, perhaps where G M Thompson is now.
2. Stevensons, which I can remember- that was where Sunsrise is now.
3. Coopers, previously called Hornels  was where one of the Gowans shops is now,.
4. There was a Co-op roughly where Stepping Out is now. About 1991 the Co-op  moved to Cotton Street, taking over the site of Wallace’s Foundry- then moving to the site of Derby’s Feedmill
and Wilko’s took over the Wallace’s site.
5. Lipton’s was where Designs is now.
6. Smith’s is where Coral is now, previously Victorian Wines.
7. Oliver’s was where the Jade Palace is now.
8. Across the road on the corner with St Andrew street and now part of the Douglas Arms was McMeekin’s
9. McKeand’s was on St Andrew Street where the cycle shop is  now.
10. Hays- this  was next to the Town Hall.

 I think by the late-1960s most of these grocers had gone, since I can only remember a few of them. On the other hand my strongest memory from the 1960s is being very angry with Dr Beeching for closing the railway.

18 years ago I  made a list of all the businesses trading in Castle Douglas. It came to over 200 of which I reckoned about 50 were ‘food related’ - including the Sulwath Brewery which had just opened for example. At that time the abattoir on Cotton Street had just closed. The next year there was a proposal to re-open it - I think by Buccleuch Scotch Beef. This was opposed by some of the residents of Cotton Street so I wrote a letter to the Galloway News suggesting that the abattoir could be moved out to the Abercromby Road Industrial Estate which could be promoted as a ‘Food Park’ where food was produced and processed.

Castle Douglas could then be promoted as a ‘Food Town’ selling and using locally produced food. The idea was that the traditional shops in Castle Douglas attract thousands of visitors every year. The same tourists would also visit Threave castle for its history and Threave estate for its wildlife. My idea was to find ways to make  links between the history and scenic attraction of the countryside around Castle Douglas with the food produced within that  landscape.

Back then I did not know as much about the history of the Castle Douglas area as I do now. Tonight I have skimmed through a lot of history but what I hope has come across is that  the Castle Douglas area has been shaped by ability of its inhabitants to harness the wealth and power which grows out of the land. That Castle Douglas is a town built on food.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

transition transmission

Clifford Harper's cover for Undercurrents 20, 1977

I am giving a talk about the Galloway Levellers in October. For most people who know about them, their uprising was against the enclosure of the land and the clearance of the people (sometimes called peasants)  who had lived on the land for generations.

Although Marx didn’t mention the Galloway Levellers  in ‘Capital’ he explains the emergence of capitalism through a discussion of clearance and enclosure in 16th century England. He then throws in the Highland Clearances as a more recent example of the process.

The argument is that the first capitalists were landowners who created their capital by modernising farming to increase output from the land. The extra food produced could then be sold in the market at a profit. But to do this they had to get rid of the  peasants who were farming for self-sufficiency (= subsistence) not to produce a surplus for the market.

The capital created was then used to build factories which employed the peasants driven off the land. This could be done  cheaply,  since without access to land the dispossessed peasants now had the choice between working in factories or starving. They now had to buy  food they had previously grown for themselves.

The peasants became the proletariat, generating huge profits for the new industrial capitalists who replaced the feudal landowning elite as the new ruling class.

But the new system was not stable. The logic of capitalism is competition which forces capitalists to keep finding ways to produce more commodities more cheaply. Over time this would drive down wages to the point where the proletariat would have to choose between starvation or revolution.

By ‘seizing the means of production’ -the factories- from the capitalists, the proletariat could liberate the immense productive power of industry for the benefit of the many not the few. The economic and social pyramid of power would be levelled and the wealth of society would be evenly distributed and humankind would finally be liberated from scarcity and oppression.

Some problems.
Firstly, the equation of enclosure with clearance only applies when arable land is converted to livestock pasture. This happened in 16th century England when the wool industry was profitable, in early 18th century  Galloway when the cattle trade was profitable and again late 18th/ early 19th century in the Highlands when the land was cleared to create sheep farms.

But the big change which happened in 17th and 18th century England and later 18th century Scotland was the improvement of arable farming. This was a major change and did involve enclosures, but arable farming  was labour intensive. It did not involve mass evictions and clearance from the land- it relied on farm workers staying on the land.

This agricultural revolution increased output of food crops crops. The increase in food production led to an increase in the rural population- people who are better fed have children who are stronger and so infant mortality decreases while adults live longer, healthier lives. But as the rural population increased there were more people than needed to work the new improved farms. This drove wages down which encouraged young people to move from the countryside to the cities where wages were higher. In England this was one of the process which drove the growth of London.

Since the agricultural revolution came before the industrial revolution, the workers in the new factories came overwhelmingly from the surplus rural population, not from people cleared off the land by enclosures.  

Evidence from Wales shows that rural wages were higher in areas closest to the iron/coal districts where farmers had to compete with the wages paid to industrial workers. Further out, rural wages were lower. This created a gradual movement of rural workers towards the industrial districts via the higher wage rural areas. There was no need to force the Welsh ‘peasants’ off the land, they moved off the land in pursuit of higher wages.

Farm wages close to cities were also higher than in more distant rural areas, so a similar process occurred. People did not always move directly to the cities, but first moved from lower to higher farm wage areas before making the final move into the cities.

The Importance of coal.

During the 16th to 18th centuries  in England and the  18th century in Scotland, coal became a substitute for wood in many industrial process and for domestic heating. This was important because without the use of coal a shortage of wood would have choked pre-industrial economic growth. London, as a major example, relied on coal shipped by sea from Newcastle. Between 1600 and 1700 London grew from 200 000 to 600 000, overtaking Paris as the largest city in Europe in the 18th century, reaching 1 million in 1801.

The growth of London is significant because it stimulated the development of what was to become capitalism. Landowners around London found it was worthwhile to improve production -using methods developed by the Dutch - to feed the city.

London as a market even had an effect as far away as Galloway. In 1667 the English parliament banned the import of cattle from Ireland wich was running at about 60 000/ year. Of these 10 000 reached England from Ulster via Galloway (short sea crossing). Landowners in Galloway took advantage of the ban to start selling cattle from Galloway to England in the 1670s. Some of the landowners became capitalists by re-investing the profits from cattle sales to England to buy or lease more land to produce more cattle. Others cheated by smuggling in Irish cattle and passing them off as Scottish…

 Brick-making, glass-making, brewing and salt-making all shifted from using wood as fuel to using coal. Greater demand for coal led to two problems. Mines became deeper so water had to be pumped out. This led to the use of the first (atmospheric) steam engines. Around Newcastle the early mines close to the river Tyne became worked out. The new mines were further from the river so wooden rail roads were built to carry the coal from the mines to the ships.

Until about 1750, charcoal was used to smelt iron, but it then became cheaper to use coke instead of charcoal. By 1780 Watt’s improved steam engine was in use- it used less coal than previous steam engines but that made it more attractive as a source of power for pumping water, providing the blast for iron furnaces and -by 1800-  working cotton spinning mills. Steam powered ships and railway locomotives were developed over the next 25 years.

In 1700 the UK was producing   2.7 million tons of coal/year.
In 1750 the UK was producing   4.7 million tons of coal/year.
In 1800 the UK was producing  10.0 million tons of coal/year.
In 1850 the UK was producing  50.0 million tons of coal/year.
In 1900 the UK was producing 250.0 million tons of coal/year.

By 1860, if wood had been used as fuel in the UK instead of coal an area of 25 million acres of forest would have been needed, equal to the entire area of farmland in England.

The transition of the UK from a rural/ agricultural traditional economy to an industrial/urban capitalist economy would have been impossible without coal. No coal = no capitalism.

Economists like Adam Smith writing in the mid 18th century expected the agricultural revolution to produce economic growth which would stimulate industrial/ manufacturing growth.

But they expected this growth to tail away leading to ‘the stationary state’- the end of economic and population growth.

They did not expect and could not imagine the economic growth which took place in the 19th and 20th centuries and which is only slowly ending in the 21st.

This was because they believed that land was the foundation of the economy. The land produced food from arable crops and livestock, but also timber for fuel and building. Clothing  also came from the land  as wool from sheep, linen from flax and leather from animal hides. The land produced fodder for horses which ploughed the soil and transported people and goods.  

The land could be improved, could produce more, but there was an economic limit to improvement. This would happen when the cost of improving and maintaining the productive capacity of marginal/ poor quality land was greater than the value of what that land produced. This ‘law of diminishing returns’ was a limit on economic growth. As return on investment in improvement diminished, so the stationary state came closer.

This actually happened in Galloway. The population grew through the 18th century and early 19th century but then peaked in 1851. By then all the good quality lowland land had been improved, leaving only the poor quality uplands which were given over to sheep farming. The local industrial revolution did not progress beyond the water powered  cotton mill stage. Significantly there is no coal in Galloway.

In central Scotland where there was coal, the population continued to grow through the 19th century. In central Scotland the cotton industry moved from water to steam power. Central Scotland also had coal and iron ore and so developed as an industrial region.

From a more modern perspective, the limit on the growth of pre-industrial economies was the amount of energy from the sun that plants could photosynthesise. 18th century improvement could  maximise this ‘solar harvest’ but not move beyond it. Coal is the product of millions of years of photosynthesis, a huge store of solar energy. It was this massive reserve of stored energy which powered the industrial revolution, breaking through the limits to growth.

Continuous economic growth fuelled by coal allowed the new capitalist class to buy off the proletariat through higher wages. It also allowed the UK to pay for food imports from other countries, exchanging iron for wheat. The percentage of workers on the land could be reduced without the country starving.

The global transition to fossil fuels.

In 1851 a ‘Great Exhibition’ was held in Hyde Park in London. It was huge celebration. Six million people, equal to a third of the British population, visited the Exhibition. In 1851, the  UK was the only industrial power in the world. It was a free trade state, with no import barriers- but it didn’t need any since there were no industrial competitors. Instead the UK exported manufactured goods and imported food and raw materials from around the world.

The Exhibition was huge success, but there were some background worries.  The UK did not just export finished goods. It also exported machinery for making those goods- like cotton spinning machines. It also sold steam engines and railway engines along with railway building materials. Some people wondered if other countries might begin to catch up with Britain.

The development of railway networks in countries with coal and iron ore was the key factor in the spread of industrialisation and industrial capitalism. By the 1890s, Germany and the USA had caught up with the UK and by the beginning of WW1 then overtook the UK in a key industry- steel. Germany was also ahead in the chemical and electrical industries. Mass production of automobiles started in the USA in 1908 with the model T Ford.

The global trade network pioneered by the UK in the 19th century extended beyond the British Empire. The first railway was built in Argentina in 1855 and railways encouraged the growth of agriculture, mainly beef and wheat, which were then exported. Japan’s industrialisation benefited from the disruption of British cotton exports in WW1, allowing the Japanese to sell their cotton to India and China. Even within the Empire, the disruption of trade during WW1 encouraged industrial growth. The first Tata steel works opened in India in 1914.

After WW1, the UK struggled to rebuild the trade it had lost. The UK cotton industry which had led the industrial revolution entered a decline which it was never to recover from. As a sign of things to come, in 1929 the Scottish steel industry, which had relied on ship-building as its main market, was in crisis. There was a plan to build a new modern steel works to replace the Victorian ones. The Tata company suggested an alternative. They could supply Scottish steel makers with 100 000 tons/year of Indian pig iron more cheaply than it could be produced in Scotland. The offer was not taken up but by 1930 India was producing 1 million tons of pig iron every year.

The economic depression of the 1930s followed by a second world war disrupted global trade. After the war, although the UK economy recovered in the 1950s, the USA was now the dominant capitalist power. The American’s fear of communism saw them support the rebuilding of west Germany and Japan as major industrial powers. The resulting surge in post-war global economic growth ended in 1974.

The post-war global economy had been built on cheap oil rather than coal. The cheapest oil came from Arab countries in the Middle East. In October 1973 a coalition of Arab states led by Egypt and Syria attacked Israel. The USA supported Israel and in response  Arab oil producing countries cut oil supplies to the USA and its allies- including the UK and Japan. By 1974 the price of oil had jumped from $3/barrel to $9/barrel, triggering an economic crisis, despite the cuts being reversed in March 1974. Then the 1979 Iranian revolution and the 1980 Iran-Iraq war pushed oil prices even higher to $38/barrel.

This had two consequences. One was the political and economic shift to neoliberalism. This used the increase in inflation which followed the rise in oil prices to push through policies which reduced the power of organised labour in manufacturing industries  through mass unemployment. Although oil prices began to fall again through the 1980s as increasing supplies of oil from the North Sea, Mexico, Nigeria, Venezuela and Russia became available, this cheaper oil was used to cut transport costs from factories set up in low-wage countries rather than revive manufacturing in the UK and USA.

By 1998, adjusted for inflation, the oil price was lower than it had been since 1946. In the 1990s, the collapse of communism opened up new cheap sources of labour in eastern Europe and China. Through the 1990s and into the 21st century a new global market economy emerged. This was in some ways a reverse image of the global economy which had existed 100 years earlier, with China and India among the countries supplying a de-industrialised UK with manufactured goods.

The resulting neoliberal boom was unsustainable. The destruction of organised labour and the loss of manufacturing jobs in the older industrial economies kept wages low. To keep the globalised economy going, consumers were encouraged into debt. There were also worries that the increase in oil production, which along with coal, was fuelling the boom, would exhaust supplies of easily accessible oil. Oil prices would then rise choking off growth.

Oil prices did rise by 500% between 1998 and 2008 when the price of oil was higher than it had been in 1980. This triggered a global banking crisis and the price of oil fell rapidly.

The second consequence of the 1973/4 oil crisis was to encourage a proto-green movement -the radical or alternative technology movement. While governments promoted nuclear power as an alternative to dependence on oil and coal, the radical technologists favoured renewable sources of energy- hydro, wind and solar power. They supported a shift away from industrialised farming since it relied heavily on oil derived fertilisers and the internal combustion engine. They also supported a shift towards worker co-operatives and industrial democracy along with a shift to ‘socially useful’ production of goods and services.


 The radical technology movement was part of a wider ‘utopian’ cultural /political movement which emerged in the 1960s and expanded in the 1970s. The rightward shift under Thatcher in the UK first checked the expansion of this movement and then attempted to reverse it.

This had an effect on the radical technology movement even where, with wind power for example, the technology continued to improve. In the early 1990s, Margaret Thatcher’s former press secretary Bernard Ingham was a paid  supporter of nuclear power. Wind turbines were a cheaper and greener alternative to nuclear, so in 1992 Ingham helped set up an anti wind-farm protest group called Country Guardian and became its chair.

With support in the right wing press and linked to climate change denial, the anti-wind power groups have helped frustrate and delay the essential transition to a post-fossil fuel future.

The transition movement did not emerge directly from the radical technology movement. Rather it has emerged out of the permaculture movement which began in Australia in the 1970s. In 2004 permaculturalist Rob Hopkins became aware of ‘peak oil’ and began looking at ways for communities to make the transition to a sustainable, post-oil, future. The aim is for communities- towns and villages- to maximise their self-sufficiency through encouraging local food production, recycling and generally reducing reliance on long supply chains.

If, however, it is now accepted that climate change rather than peak oil is the future, then the limitations of the transition movement become apparent. Local production for local consumption is a necessary step, but if that exists side by side with business as usual outside the transition towns or even transition regions, the positive local outcomes will be overwhelmed by the impact of global changes. The transition to a post-carbon future must be a combination of national and international level changes. For example, even localised food production will be at risk from extreme weather events such as flooding or a prolonged drought.

In the UK and especially Scotland, the concentration of the population in former industrial districts makes it difficult if not impossible to achieve localised self-sufficiency in food. In pre-industrial Scotland, the staple cereal crop was oats since wheat was difficult to grow in most parts of the country. Bread made from wheat was a luxury which only the rich could afford. A return to an oat based diet would help reduce Scotland’s carbon footprint, but would also require a major cultural shift.

This takes us to the underlying problem. The transition to a  carbon-neutral future is possible in theory, but very difficult in practice. It would be very difficult to make the transition without it being seen as a regression to the pre-industrial past or at least a permanent commitment to a ‘wartime’ economy where everything has to be rationed- including bread made from wheat…

Rationing and other limitations are accepted in wartime as temporary measures necessary for national survival. Neither peak oil nor climate change are such obvious threats to national survival as the German U-boats of world wars 1 and 2.  The transition movement  must therefore rely on the willingness of individuals to voluntarily ‘ration’ their consumption of goods and services.

If adopted widely, the focus on local production for local consumption would remove the mass market for mass manufactured goods. There would be a reversion to the pre-industrial economy which remove the voluntary aspect of transition. All that would be available would be food and goods which could be produced locally. Something similar occurred in the fifth century after the collapse of the Roman empire. In England the archaeology of this transition is marked by the absence of mass produced wheel-thrown Roman style  pottery and its replacement by varieties of locally produced and cruder hand made pottery.

What eventually replaced the Roman empire in Europe was feudalism. In the Marxist model of history, feudalism was in turn displaced by industrial capitalism which in turn will give way to socialism as part of the transition to communism. This progressive movement assumes that the benefits of industrialisation will be conserved, but equally distributed rather than concentrated in the hands of a ruling capitalist elite. That there will be abundance rather than scarcity.  

From a Marxist perspective, the transition movement is seen as capitalism with a green face, an attempt by the ruling class to re-introduce ‘scarcity’, thus imposing another obstacle for the proletariat in their attempt to secure the fruits of their labour.

To the extent that the transition movement was a response to fears of ‘peak oil’, this is a justifiable criticism. Climate change, however, is a different matter. Regardless of who controls the ’means of production’, if the ’energy of production’ is a fossil fuel, then there will be a contribution to global warming and climate change.

Any communist society will therefore have to immediately revolutionise the means of production, substituting renewable for fossil fuel energy as a power source. Failure to do so will condemn the new communist society to a future of scarcity and potential starvation. Unfortunately, unless a communist society emerges within the next 5 to 10 years, the opportunity to avoid a future of scarcity and probable starvation will have been lost.