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

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Levellers of Galloway - update on research

The Galloway Levellers

On first appearances, the story of the Galloway Levellers seems fairly straightforward. Although the economic impact of the Union of Parliaments in 1707 took time to become apparent, by the 1720s progressive landowners in Galloway were benefiting from the Union. These ‘improving’ landowners began enclosing farms on their estates to profit from the export of cattle to English markets. In 1724 the process of enclosure was met with opposition from those dispossessed by this new economy. This opposition took the form of direct action - the enclosing dykes were thrown down i.e. levelled.

Between March and June the dyke-levellers gathered in sufficient numbers, up to 1000 strong, to over awe the landowners. However the landowners were able to call in military aid, resulting in a stand-off between troops and Levellers at Duchrae (Balmaghie) in October 1724. Possibly with local memories of the Covenanting period still strong, the conflict was resolved peacefully. Some 200 Levellers were captured, but only a handful were ever brought to trial. The Galloway Levellers uprising may have checked the process of enclosure for a generation, but from the 1760s onward it was renewed. By the 1830s, the landscape of Galloway had been transformed almost beyond recognition. The traditional ferm-touns the Levellers knew remain only as the names of some of today’s farms. Even these represent perhaps a only third of the ferm-touns which once dotted the landscape of Galloway.

However, when this rather neat historical narrative is checked against local historical sources, a more complex picture begins to emerge.

To begin with, the trade in cattle which was the economic root of the Levellers’ uprising can be traced back nearly sixty years before 1724. Following the restoration of Charles II, London was undergoing an economic boom which neither plague nor fire could halt. To supply London with beef (and hides for the leather industry) 70 000 Irish cattle a year crossed the Irish Sea. In response to pressure from landowners, the English parliament banned the import of cattle from Ireland in 1667.

Of the 70 000 Irish cattle, around 10 000 per year came from the north of Ireland, passing through Galloway en route to London. Only 1000 or so local cattle per year were exported to England before the ban came into effect. Unfortunately there is then a gap in the Dumfries customs records, but by the 1680s, local cattle exports had increased to 10 000 cattle per year, replacing the Irish cattle exports. Where did the 9000 extra cattle per year come from?

Some came from the Baldoon (Wigtownshire) cattle park of Sir David Dunbar. This was described by Andrew Symson (minister of Kirkinner parish) in his Large Description of Galloway: 1684 as being ‘about two miles and an halfe in length and mile and a halfe in breadth’ and could hold up to 1000 cattle. Symson also noted that at least five other Wigtownshire landowners had also created cattle parks. There were also cattle parks in the Stewartry.

From the Kirkcudbright Sheriff Court Deeds[ KSCD] there is an entry, No. 1265, dated 6 March 1688 which contains instructions by Sir Robert Maxwell of Ochardtoune to his nephew, Robert Maxwell (younger) of Gelston, for the management of his estate - Sir Robert now having his residence in the kingdom of Ireland. According to these instructions, the park of Neitherlaw (managed by a herd called William Johnstune) ‘is not to be set for ploughing’. From other references in the KSCD, it is clear that Johnstune was involved in the cattle trade, i.e. there was a cattle park at Netherlaw by 1688.

Cattle parks also existed in the parish of Borgue. KSCD entry No. 1940 (dated 4 January 1692) reveals that Hugh McGuffog of Rusco had been in partnership with Sir David Dunbar of Baldoon (senior, died 1686) and Patrick Heron (younger) of Kirroughtrie. Entries 3182 and 3183 (both dated 22 October 1698) concern the herding of the parks of Dinrod, Kessarton and Laigh Borg -all in Borgue parish - and the ‘upholding’ of dykes around these parks. Entry 2147 (4 April 1693) links Hugh McGuffog with William Johnston ‘in Netherlaw park’. Therefore there were probably cattle parks in Borgue parish before 1686 and definitely by the 1690s.

Clearly then, the local cattle trade was already well established before the Union of 1707 and the construction of cattle parks was not an innovation in 1724. So why did the Galloway Levellers uprising occur in 1724 and not a generation earlier?

I strongly suspect that the answer lies in the realm of politics. A key target of the Levellers in 1724 were the Stewartry cattle parks built by Sir Basil Hamilton of Baldoon. Hamilton was the great grandson of Sir David Dunbar of Baldoon. Dunbar had been a supporter of the Stuarts during the post 1660 Covenanting era. According to Andrew Symson (who was an Episcopalian minister imposed on Kirkinner parish), Dunbar and his son were the only two parishioners who remained loyal to his ministry at this time. Basil Hamilton appears to have inherited the Dunbars’ political and religious loyalties. In 1715, Hamilton supported the local Jacobite rebellion (led by Viscount Gordon of Kenmure and William Maxwell, Earl of Nithsdale). Along with Kenmure and Nithsdale, Hamilton was captured with other Jacobites at Preston. Kenmure was executed but Nithsdale managed to escape from the Tower of London. Hamilton avoided execution but his estate was forfeited to the Crown.

Of the local Jacobites, Hamilton’s was the largest estate. Significantly, most of his landholdings in the Stewartry had been acquired in the 1660s and 1670s by his great grandfather from the Maclellan lords of Kirkcudbright who had bankrupted themselves through support for the Covenanters in the 1640s and 1650s. Furthermore, when the Jacobite rebellion of 1715 threatened to reverse the ‘Revolution Settlement of 1689’, a local militia was swiftly raised. According to Rae’s ‘History of the Late Rebellion’ (published in Dumfries in 1718), as many as 100 men in each parish of the Stewartry were armed and drilled ready to defend Dumfries and Galloway against the Jacobites.

Amongst the ‘Steward-Deputes’ appointed to raise this militia by the Marquis of Annandale as chief Steward of the Stewartry of Kirkcudbright was ‘Captain’ Robert Johnston, Laird of Kelton. In what at first appears as a rather amusing aside to the story of the Galloway Levellers, Johnston managed to save his march -dyke at Furbar [near entrance to NTS Threave Gardens] from destruction by offering the Levellers a bribe of bread and beer. In this he was supported by the Reverend William Falconer, minister of Kelton parish.

However, when studied more carefully, this ‘incident’ is very revealing. Johnston, it emerges, was the son-in-law and business partner of William Craik of Arbigland and Duchrae. On the 27th of December 1688, i.e. four days after king James VII/ II finally fled London for France following the arrival of William of Orange and his army in England, Craik was elected as the first ‘post-Glorious Revolution’ provost of Dumfries. Johnston himself was several times provost of Dumfries and was MP for the burgh in the Scottish ‘Union’ parliament of 1703/7. According to the Latin inscription on his gravestone in St. Michael’s churchyard in Dumfries, Johnston ‘fortiter Union opposuit’ - strongly opposed the Union - by voting against it.

However, it does appear that Johnston’s voting record was not quite as solid as the inscription suggests. He abstained from several key votes. Perhaps coincidentally, Johnston became ‘Laird of Kelton’ in April 1706, buying what is now the National Trust for Scotland’s Threave Estate from William Maxwell, Earl of Nithsdale. Was Johnston ‘bought and sold by English gold’? Firm evidence either way is lacking.

However, it is clear that in 1724, Johnston was firmly part of Dumfries and Galloway’s post-Revolution Settlement establishment. Other significant figures in the story of the Galloway Levellers can also be linked to the ‘Fall of the House of Stuart’. In Borgue parish, the Reverend James Monteith was accused of being a Leveller sympathiser. In 1689, Monteith had been one of the Protestant defenders of Londonderry against the forces of James VIII/II.

Even more directly involved was Colonel William Maxwell of Cardoness. William Maxwell’s father had been the Presbyterian minister of Minnigaff parish in 1661, but was then forced out, dying just before William Maxwell was born in 1662. William was educated in Edinburgh, intending to pursue a career as a doctor. But then in 1685 he expressed his Covenanting sympathies by embracing Archibald Campbell (9th Earl of Argyll) immediately before Campbell was about to be executed for attempting to overthrow James VII/II. William then had to flee to Holland where, rather than continue his medical studies, he joined the army being assembled by William of Orange in 1688. William Maxwell then rose through the ranks of William of Orange’s army, fighting at both Killiecrankie and the Battle of the Boyne. Although in retirement at Cardoness in 1715, William was asked to organise the defence of Glasgow against the Jacobites. In 1724, the Levellers addressed a plea to Colonel Maxwell, which he seems to have viewed sympathetically. In 1725, he was president of a court which fined a group of Levellers £700 Scots for damage done to Basil Hamilton’s dykes.

Furthermore, after the death in mysterious circumstances of Major Du Cary (original commander of the troops sent to quell the Levellers’ Uprising), a Major Gardiner was given command. Like Colonel Maxwell, Gardiner was a deeply (protestant) religious ‘Christian soldier’. Gardiner had also fought against the Jacobites in 1715 and again in 1718. By 1745, he was himself a colonel and died at the battle of Prestonpans whilst leading a countercharge against the Jacobites. [Gardiner features as a character in Walter Scott’s ‘Waverley’ novel]. According to Robert Wodrow, during his time in Galloway in 1724, Gardiner spent much of his time with local ministers. Was James Monteith one of these ministers?

The picture which begins to emerge is one of a more complex conflict than that of ‘traditionalist peasantry versus improving landowners’. The story of the Galloway Levellers contains a strong political (or politico-religious) element rooted in local history, but with national implications. Even George I is reported as having expressed concerns about the eviction of ‘loyal subjects’ by Jacobite landowners (i.e. Basil Hamilton and Viscountess Gordon of Kenmure).

Nor can the Levellers Uprising be neatly described as ‘resistance to improvement through enclosure’. The dykes which were levelled (in the Stewartry at least) were ‘ring-dykes’. These had their origin in Sir David Dunbar’s great cattle park at Baldoon. They were not field size subdividing dykes but dykes enclosing whole farms. Farms which (from tacks in the Kirkcudbright Sheriff Court Deeds) were labour intensive arable farms, each supporting eight or more families. When population figures are studied, the Levellers argument that such enclosures had a ‘depopulating’ effect seems to be justified. The same figures suggest that genuine ‘improvement’, i.e. effective crop rotations, the application of marl and lime as fertiliser and the construction of subdividing field dykes and hedges, led to population increase.

Writing in 1721, Sir John Clerk of Pennicuik estimated that some 20 000 acres in Wigtownshire had been ‘depopulated’ by such cattle enclosures. From Hearth Tax records, in 1690 the populations of Wigtownshire and the Stewartry were roughly equal at around 15 000 each. By 1755, the population of the Stewartry had increased by 41% to 21 205, but that of the Shire by only 9.7% to 16 466. In comparison, for the period 1755 to 1821 which covers the era of ‘genuine’ improvement, population growth in Wigtownshire exceeded that of the Stewartry. The population of the Shire grew by 102% to 33 240. The population of the Stewartry grew by 84% to 38 903. Significantly, by 1790, the cattle park of Baldoon had been converted back (and subdivided by new dykes and hedges into farms and fields) to arable farming. The main crop was wheat which can only be grown on the best quality farmland in Galloway.

In addition to the practical fears of the ‘peasant’ cottars, who faced mass-eviction/ clearance and the political fears of the ruling elite, who worried about the Jacobite threat to the Revolution Settlement/ Hanoverian Succession, support and sympathy for the Levellers’ cause also came from the ‘middle’ class of tenant and owner /occupier farmers. This support was based on economic self-interest. Although it is difficult to get a clear picture, it does seem that significant numbers of cattle were being illegally imported from Ireland by some landowners and cattle dealers.

From the Kirkcudbright Sheriff Court Deeds, there is evidence that this had begun as early as 1670. Fifty years later, according to McDowall’s ‘History of Dumfries’, customs officers were ‘scandalised’ by the importation of Irish cattle ‘especially at Kirkcudbright’ and ‘sorely bewailed the connivance given by county gentlemen’ to this trade. A trade which the Levellers did their best to expose by seizing 53 Irish cattle, slaughtering some of them at Dundrennan Abbey and others at Auchencairn.

The farmers’ complaint was that cattle traders (e.g. Patrick Heron junior of Kirroughtrie) were using the cheaper costs of smuggled cattle to drive down the prices paid for locally bred cattle. In other words, rather than supporting the local agricultural economy, by making up numbers through the illegal importation of Irish cattle, the cattle traders/ landowners were damaging it. In addition, as Frances Wilkins research into the local smuggling trade has revealed, the France/ Isle of Man/ Solway smuggling network overlapped with a network of Jacobite supporters in the 1720s.[The Isle of Man and the Jacobite Networks: Wilkins: 2002]

Finally, it appears that the Galloway Levellers may well have had a significant impact on the process of agricultural improvement. Key figures here are Robert Maxwell of Arkland (Kirkpatrick Durham) and Sir John Clerk of Pennicuik. Maxwell farmed Prestongrange near Edinburgh and set up the Society of Improvers in the Knowledge of Agriculture in 1723. Clerk was an important member of this Society. Clerk was also kept informed on the Levellers Uprising by his brother (who was a Customs Officer in Kirkcudbright) and his brother -in -law (who was the Earl of Galloway).

The 400 Members of the Society of Improvers included virtually every ‘progressive’ landowner in Scotland. Duncan Forbes of Culloden was one, Archibald Grant of Monymusk was another, as was Patrick Heron (junior) of Kirroughtrie. Heron had been one of the Stewart-Deputes appointed by the Marquis of Annandale to raise an anti-Jacobite militia in 1715. His father had been a cattle trade business partner of Sir David Dunbar. In April 1724, Heron had been one of the 50 Stewartry ‘heritors and landowners’ who confronted the Levellers at the Steps of Tarff. It was Heron who advised Basil Hamilton that the firearms and military discipline of the Levellers ruled out direct conflict. [Heron himself may well have helped drill and arm some of the Levellers in 1715]. It was this confrontation which led the Jacobite Basil Hamilton and the anti-Jacobite Thomas Gordon of Earlston to ride to Edinburgh together to request that troops be sent to quell the revolt.

Later, Archibald Grant of Monymusk had a copy made of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland’s ‘denunciation’ of the Levellers’ actions in case he needed it. Even the Jacobite William Mackintosh of Borlum (captured at Preston in 1715 along with Basil Hamilton, Viscount Kenmure and the Earl of Nithsdale) in his 1729 ‘Ways and Means for Inclosing’ reported that the events in Galloway had turned peasants throughout Scotland against enclosure. [T. C. Smout: History of the Scottish People: 1560 to 1820].

For the recent BBC radio series and book ‘The Lowland Clearances’ [Aitchison and Cassell: 2003] Professor Chris Whately (who has made specialist study of rural unrest) was asked about the wider impact of the Galloway Levellers. He replied ‘One of the reasons why there were fewer of these disturbances in Scotland was partly because the Galloway levelling activities had been so frightening for the authorities that they took care to ensure that that sort of thing shouldn’t happen again. A lot of the activities of landowners in the second half of the eighteenth century are designed to preclude, to pre-empt this sort of activity. That is why people were rehoused and not just thrown off the land. An alternative was created to pacify the people.’

What form did this ‘rehousing ‘ take? The forms can still be seen in the Stewartry and across Scotland. The old ferm-touns were replaced with solid stone built farm steadings, farm houses and cottages. New villages and towns were also planned and built, of which there are over 80 in Dumfries and Galloway alone. To further ‘pacify the people’, new industries were created, with cotton mills built not only at Gatehouse and Castle Douglas, but even at Dundrennan and Stocking in the 1790s. [The Story of Bengairn: Fortune: AHS: 2005]

But, seventy years on, were local landowners still worried by the Levellers Uprising? Quite possibly yes. In the archives of the Hornel Library at the National Trust for Scotland’s Broughton House in Kirkcudbright can be found research notes made by John Nicholson in circa 1820/1830. This research formed the factual background to a play Nicholson wrote about the Levellers in 1838. From the notes, it is clear that tales of the Levellers had been passed down from parents and grandparents for 100 years. Nicholson’s notes even include an account by an actual Leveller of his participation in the Uprising.

At the same time, Joseph Train was also recording local folk-history and passing his research on to Walter Scott. Scott used Train’s research in several of his novels - Redgauntlet, Guy Mannering, Old Mortality and Heart of Midlothian. Sadly, however, although Train provided Scott with information on the Levellers (focussed on the alleged involvement of Billy Marshall ‘King of the Galloway Gypsies’) Scott did not write a ‘Levellers’ novel. It was left to S.R. Crockett to do so in his ‘The Dark of the Moon’, which was a continuation into the next generation of characters and themes from his best known novel ‘The Raiders’.

To conclude. The history of Galloway is in itself fascinating and revealing. Within Galloway, the differing histories of Stewartry and Shire are no less fascinating and revealing. Within the Stewartry, as the work of the Auchencairn History Society shows, detailed local knowledge can reveal (e.g. the existence of a cotton mill at Stocking/ Collin) features which even regional histories have overlooked. This ‘overlooking’ of specific local historic details may seem trivial, having little impact on the broader perspectives of national histories. And yet...

In the case of the Galloway Levellers, we have a piece of local/ regional history which has been recognised as part of national history. As such, it has wider, even ‘political’ significance. The recent Scottish Land Reform Act is an example, since part of the motivation behind it came from historic problems of countryside ownership and access created by the Highland Clearances. Yet long before the Highland Clearances, the Galloway Levellers took direct action against their eviction from the land. The Highland Clearances are linked at the level of popular history with the destruction of the ‘Highland way of life’ following the battle of Culloden. The story of the Galloway Levellers challenges this version of history. Here it was Jacobite landowners who tried to clear the people from the land, a people who had in 1715 supported George I against James VIII/ III in defence of a ‘revolution settlement’ they and their forbears had fought and died for in the 17th century.


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