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

Friday, April 26, 2013

Green Galloway and Radical Independence

Monument in memory of James Neilson who invented the 'hot blast' technique of iron smelting in 1828.

Scotland's industrial revolution began in 1828 when James Neilson's hot-blast technique of iron smelting led to the rapid rise of Scotland's heavy engineering industries.The final collapse of those industries as a consequence of the economic policies of Margaret Thatcher's government in the 1980s began the process which has Scottish independence as its end.

Glasgow born Neilson's family came from Galloway and were driven from the land by the Lowland Clearances. In 1848, James Neilson returned, buying a farm near Ringford in Galloway. Lacking coal and iron, Galloway never experienced an industrial revolution so it is ironic that Neilson's Monument was built in a such a rural location.  The lack of industrial development and urbanisation also meant that through the Thatcher years, Galloway remained a Conservative and Unionist heartland.  In September 2014, the region might even reject independence. But, as I conclude below, without the culture shock of independence, the enduring legacy of the Lowland Clearances will never be overcome and the region's future will be as an empty green desert.

“Every one is born as a free person, that is, by nature, no one comes out of the womb under any civil subjection  to king, prince or judge; nor does any one bring out of the womb a sceptre or crown upon their head.”

This quotation is from  ‘Lex, Rex or the Law and the Prince’, which was written by Samuel Rutherford  while he was in London in 1644. Rutherford was involved in the negotiations for a religious and political union between England and Scotland proposed by the Solemn League and Covenant. The book used a fierce combination of philosophy and theology to argue against the ‘divine right of kings‘. After the restoration of Charles II in 1660 it was burnt by the public hangman and  Rutherford would have been executed  for his treasonable  beliefs, but before he could be brought to trial, he died in March 1661.

Rutherford’s connection to Dumfries and Galloway  is that he was  the very popular minister of Anwoth near Gatehouse of Fleet between 1627 and 1636. Although very few people in the region would have read the book, the religious and political struggles which produced Lex Rex lasted from 1638 to 1746. During  Charles II reign, the region was seen as a rebellious province and experienced a low intensity civil war. 

Opposition to the Stuarts in Dumfries and Galloway led to support for William of Orange’s invasion in 1688. From Wigtownshire, James Dalrymple and his son John were part of the invasion force. They had been leading figures in the Scottish legal establishment until forced into exile in Holland. From the Stewartry there was William Maxwell. His father had been a contemporary of  Samuel Rutherford as the Presbyterian minister of Minnigaff parish. William Maxwell went on to fight for King William at the battles of Killiecrankie and the Boyne, rising through the ranks to become a colonel.

In Dumfries, William Craik was elected as the new provost on 26 December 1688 and Dumfries burgh council voted to proclaim  William of Orange their new king on 9 January- the first town in Britain to do so. Scots supporters of William of Orange favoured closer union with England, but William’s English advisers rejected this.

William Craik’s son in law Robert Johnston represented Dumfries’ burgh in the 1706 Scottish Parliament. Colonel William Maxwell represented the Stewartry in the same Parliament. Both voted against some, but not all the Articles of Union- despite this Johnston’s grave in Dumfries carries a Latin inscription stating that he asserted Scotland’s liberty by strongly opposing the Union. 

In November 1706, John Hepburn, minister of Urr led a troop of armed horsemen into Dumfries where they burnt  the Articles of Union at the Mercat Cross where the Mid-steeple now stands. On the other hand, John Dalrymple who was now the 1st earl of Stair, was a strong supporter of the Union which he believed was an essential defence against  the threat of a second Stuart restoration.

The reality of that threat was demonstrated by the Jacobites in 1715. In Dumfries and Galloway a small force of Jacobites were led by William Gordon of Kenmure, whose father had fought for William of Orange at Killiecrankie. The other leading Jacobite was William Maxwell, the 6th earl of Nithsdale who was a member of the region’s Roman Catholic community. In October 1715 along with a some Jacobites from the north of England and a group of Highland Jacobites, they attempted to capture Dumfries. 

Colonel William Maxwell had been sent to Glasgow to organise its defences. Meanwhile Robert Johnston  helped organise the 3000 volunteers who rushed to defend Dumfries along with John Hepburn and 300 of his armed followers. The Jacobites turned back and marched into England where they were defeated at the battle of Preston. 

Significantly then, even the strongest opponents of the Union in 1706  became supporters in 1715, preferring the rule of  King George to that of another King James.

John Hepburn died in 1723 after a long an eventful life which included escaping a charge of treason for his involvement in a plot to kill both Charles II and his brother James in 1683. Then, in 1724, Hepburn‘s followers, called the Hebronites became involved  the uprising of the Galloway Levellers. This began in March and continued through until October.

What sparked off the Levellers uprising was the first of the Lowland Clearances. In order to create large cattle enclosures, several hundred tenants and cottars were evicted from their farms. According to the Caledonian Mercury newspaper, a ‘hill preacher’ addressed a conventicle of the dispossessed in such forceful language that they immediately set out to remove the source of their grievances by throwing down the dykes of the newly built cattle parks. When the owners of the demolished dykes attempted to intervene the Levellers armed themselves with muskets. Outnumbered and outgunned, the land owners sent an urgent plea to the authorities in Edinburgh for troops to be despatched to restore order.

The troops sent to restore order were the 2nd earl of Stair’s dragoons, commanded by Major James Gardiner. He was a deeply religious man who spent much of his time in Galloway in the company of local ministers, most of whom were sympathetic to the Levellers. Gardiner had fought against the Jacobites at the battle of Preston so when Jacobite landowner Basil Hamilton demanded that extreme measures should be taken against the Levellers, Hamilton was ignored. 

The Levellers last stand took place in October. Gardiner ordered his dragoons to use minimal force and the Levellers put up minimal resistance. About 200 Levellers were captured, but most were allowed to escape on the march back to Kirkcudbright. 

Despite the defeat of  Jacobites in 1715, they remained a threat. There was little local support in 1745, but they were joined by James Maxwell from New Abbey. James Maxwell was one of the local  Roman Catholic Maxwells. He survived the battle of Culloden and after a few years exile in France returned home to live quietly on his estate. His son William, born in 1760, was to follow a very different path.

William Maxwell was educated by Jesuits in Europe, yet despite this education and his family’s royalist traditions, after a visit to Paris in 1789, Maxwell became an enthusiastic supporter of the French Revolution. In 1792, he visited Birmingham in an attempt to buy arms for the Revolutionaries. This created  a political storm. On 8 October 1792 he was denounced by the Sun newspaper as  ‘English Jacobin Number 1’.

Sensibly, Maxwell fled to Paris where he was welcomed by the Revolutionaries and made an officer in the National Guard. On 21  January 1793, Maxwell was a member of the National Guard unit which escorted king Louis XVI to the guillotine. 

On 1 February 1793, France declared war on Britain. In March, Maxwell returned to England and  soon afterwards became a doctor in Dumfries where Robert Burns was his patient and his close friend. While Burns could share his radical views in private with Maxwell, the forces of reaction dominated the public realm. It was in the midst of this gathering storm that Burns wrote ‘Scots Wha Hae’.

According to John Syme, ‘Scots Wha Hae’ was written while he and Burns were travelling through the Galloway Hills in late July 1793. The verses were completed after they arrived back in Dumfries where Burns said he made an association between the Wars of Independence  and ‘the glowing ideas of some other struggles of the same nature, not quite so ancient’. This is a guarded reference to the  trial in Edinburgh of Thomas Muir and William Palmer for sedition as supporters of the French Revolution. Muir was sentenced to transportation for 14 years and Palmer for 7.

Yet while one revolution was being held in check another revolution was growing in strength. This was the industrial revolution. 

Until his death in 1792,William Maxwell’s brother Thomas had been a partner in the Manchester firm of Taylor and Maxwell. Set up in 1785, this firm pioneered the use of chlorine to bleach cotton and James Watt’s son, James Watt junior was apprenticed to Taylor and Maxwell in 1788. James Watt junior infuriated his father by becoming a supporter of the French Revolution, before, like William Maxwell, settling down to become a respectable member of society.

The decision to apprentice James Watt junior to a cotton manufacturing firm in Manchester was influenced by Peter Ewart who was Boulton and Watts agent there.  Peter Ewart was born just over the Nith in Troqueer.

 This local connection helped Peter Ewart sell steam engines to the two largest cotton spinning firms in Manchester. These had been set up by John Kennedy and his partner James McConnel and by Adam and George Murray- who also came from the Stewartry. As teenagers in the 1780s, they had become apprentices to machine maker William Cannon another economic migrant from Galloway. The four moved to Manchester in the 1790s, where they established businesses.

As an apprentice in London,, Peter Ewart had helped construct the cast iron gears of the Albion Flour Mill. Powered by Boulton and Watt steam engines, this burnt down in 1791 and its blacked ruins were the inspiration for William Blake’s ‘dark satanic mills. 

By 1815, when the battle of Waterloo finally brought the years of war to an end,  the firms of Kennedy & McConnell and A & G Murray owned the largest factories in Manchester, each employing over 1000 workers. In 1824, John Kennedy and Peter Ewart  joined the management committee of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway.  John Kennedy became very deeply involved in this railway plan, acting as a judge at the Rainhill Trials in 1829 which established that the future of transport lay with steam locomotives.

But while speeding up the movement of cotton between Liverpool and Manchester helped increase the profits of manufacturers, it also increased the pressure on the workers in the cotton factories to work ever harder and ever faster. 

Born in Newtown Stewart in 1814, Peter McDouall discovered the destructive reality of the industrial revolution as doctor in Lancashire. He witnessed at first hand the appalling price paid by the  men, women and children who worked in the factories and so became  militant Chartist and advocate of a ‘general strike‘.  

In July 1839, he was arrested and imprisoned in Chester for a year but McDouall remained committed to his beliefs. Following his release from prison he was one of those who swung the Chartist movement behind the general strike of 1842. With a reward of £100 for his capture hanging over him, McDouall fled to France, where he lived until 1844. On his return to England, McDouall resumed his work for the Chartist movement. In 1848, McDouall was arrested again and sentenced to two years in prison. Then in 1854 he  emigrated to Australia with his family, but died soon after arriving.

The 1850s also marked a peak in the population of Dumfries and Galloway, when it reached 145 000. It then shrank and has only recently returned to a similar level. However, the recent growth has been confined to Dumfriesshire. The population of the Stewartry is only 23 000, about the same as it was in 1755. The situation in Wigtownshire is similar, but the growth of Stranraer has kept the numbers up to around 30 000.

The decline in population over the past 160 years has created a socially and politically conservative culture. A few years ago a friend who had moved here from Edinburgh described Dumfries and Galloway as a ‘feudal region’. It certainly provided generations of soldiers, administrators, traders and settlers for the British Empire. In the 1930s this culture of loyalty to the Empire was carried over into a flirtation with fascism. In 1934, the British Union of fascists had around 1000 members in Scotland. The Dumfries branch had about 120 and the Galloway branch, based in Dalbeattie had 400 members.

In 1939, John McKie, the Unionist MP for Galloway was a member of the anti-Semitic and pro-Nazi Right Club, as was the earl of Galloway who was chairman of the Galloway Unionist Association. McKie was de-selected for the 1945 election  so stood as an Independent Unionist, but won anyway. He was then re-admitted to the Unionist party and continued as MP for Galloway until his death in 1958.

The Scottish Unionist party became the Conservative and Unionist Party in 1965. Apart from the election of George Thompson as SNP MP for Galloway between October 1974 and May 1979, the Conservative and Unionist Party won every election in Dumfries and Galloway until 1997. In 1997, the SNP won in Galloway and Labour in Dumfriesshire. The Tories then won Galloway back in 2001 but lost to Labour after a boundary change in 2005. The same boundary change saw the Tories win the new seat of  Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale.

In the 1979 devolution referendum, 59.7 % of  the voters in Dumfries and Galloway voted no. In 1997, 60.7% voted yes for a Scottish parliament but 51.2% voted against the parliament having tax raising powers.  In Scottish Parliament elections, Labour have held Dumfriesshire since 1999 and the Tories have held Galloway. In the 2011 Scottish election, across Dumfries and Galloway, Conservative and Labour both got roughly 21 000 votes and the SNP about 19 000. 

Looking ahead to 2014, to paraphrase Karl Marx, although we make our own history, we cannot make it as we please, we are constrained by circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.

The particular past which has been transmitted to us here in Galloway is the past of a region which resisted becoming part of Scotland in the middle ages and supported the Balliols against the Bruces during the wars of Scottish Independence. Four centuries later, when the Jacobites challenged the Union with England, bitter memories of the Killing Times led to support for the Hanoverian kings against the Stuarts. More recently, despite New Labour’s success since 1997, the east of the region now provides visitors from other parts of Scotland with sightings of an otherwise extinct species - a Conservative and Unionist member of parliament. 

For everyone in Scotland, a yes vote in 2014 will mark a break with the past. For many, perhaps most, voters in Dumfries and Galloway, the decision to vote yes will be especially difficult. Our is a region which has been comfortable with the Union, has accepted a dual identity as both Scottish and British. 

As a consequence, if the result in 2014 is independence, this region will experience a profound culture shock. Like a physical earthquake, independence will alter the familiar landscape, creating a new and unfamiliar world. As one of life’s optimists, I hope that this will open up a space for radical, even revolutionary, ideas and practices to emerge here. 

To  finish with  I am going to pick up on the problem of land reform which came up at the Dumfries meeting. 

In other rural areas of Scotland land reform is closely connected to the existence of very large privately owned estates. While there are a few such estates here, the biggest landowner in Galloway is the state via the Forestry Commission. When it was set up in 1919, one of the key objectives of the Forestry Commission was to reverse rural depopulation by providing employment. However, the mechanisation of forestry means that only around 2000 people are employed in forestry and related industries.  

The major expansion of forestry in Galloway began in the 1960s, by which time economic development theory advocated  rural depopulation as a 1968 Strathclyde University study of Galloway’s economic future bluntly put it 

‘Although it may be desirable on socio-cultural grounds to preserve the life of rural settlements, the available labour could be more efficiently used elsewhere… the policy of allowing these localised areas to decline continually, to the gain of larger centres, will result not only in the greater attractiveness of the region to an employer, but also improve the standard of skill of the labour force.’ 

This never became official policy, but between 1961 and 1981, while the expansion of forestry was in full swing, the population of the Stewartry fell from 29 000 to 23 000. Since 1981, the population has stabilised since the numbers of younger people leaving  has been balanced by the numbers of older people retiring here in search of a peaceful place to enjoy their last few years of life. The anticipated result is a demographic time-bomb where the needs of  an ever increasing population of frail and elderly  people will overwhelm our ability to provide the necessary levels of care .

Without a radical change, without the culture shock of independence, it is difficult  to see how this time bomb can be defused. Even with independence finding ways to reverse the Lowland Clearances will be very difficult. Land reform policies aimed at breaking up large Highland estates will not help us. A radical reform of the Forestry Commission to make the provision of sustainable rural employment a key part of its remit will be more useful. Land reform aimed at reversing the intensification of farming to improve biodiversity and  economic diversity would also be helpful. The big picture which needs to drive such radical reforms is climate change. My vision is of a radical green Galloway taking its place within a radically independent green Scotland.


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