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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.


Anonymous Archie McConnel said...

That was a great read Alistair!
I am very sorry to have missed your talk.
Not only is it a good read but a great bit of work as well. Thank you!

9:48 pm  
Anonymous Luke Moloney said...

A fascinating read - thank you.

2:53 pm  

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