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

Thursday, December 07, 2017

Regional romanticism and the invention of Galloway

I met Gerald McKeever recently and we had a very interesting discussion about the project he is working on 'Regional Romanticism: Dumfriesshire and Galloway 1770-1830’ 

I have jotted down some thoughts inspired by the conversation.

Concluding his study of the early medieval lordship of Galloway, Richard Oram commented-

Myth and tradition play a strong part in modern Galwegian thinking on the history of their land and people…This picture, created over the past 150 years by antiquarian commentators and powerfully reinforced by popular and populist writers, is an attractive but gross distortion of historical reality. Much of the tradition is spurious, or builds from elaborate hypotheses with little or no basis in fact. (The Lordship of Galloway, 2000, p. 264)

Did the ‘romantic imagination’ in the period 1770-1830 contribute to the myths and traditions of Galloway?  As a political, rather than geographical, expression, Galloway ceased to exist in 1455 with the end of the Douglas lordship of Galloway. After this, Galloway was divided into a Shire of Wigtown and a Stewartry of Kirkcudbright and Threave castle ceased to be the administrative centre for Galloway.

The Douglas administration was Scots speaking and the decline of Gaelic in Galloway began under Douglas rule. As early as 1438, Scots was the language of the baron-court of Whithorn. By 1512, the records of the Wigtown Burgh Court were written in Scots and contain no Gaelic and no translations from Gaelic. By the time John Knox preached to the ‘common people of Galloway and Nithsdale’ in 1560 he was able to do so without difficulty in Scots.
[Based on my 2011 article for the DGNHAS Transactions https://www.academia.edu/1534013/The_Decline_of_Gaelic_in_Galloway_1370-1500 ]

Did Gaelic survive longer in the more remote upland communities of Galloway, Carrick and Nithsdale? It is possible, but Andrew Symson in his ‘Large Description of Galloway’ (composed 1682, published 1823) does not mention any such survival. My assumption is that the loss of the Gaelic language led to the loss of the Gaelic culture -the songs, traditions and folklore - of Galloway, Carrick and Nithsdale. On the other hand if any fragments of the region’s Gaelic past had survived they might be present among the traditional songs and folklore recorded in the period of the study. The difficulty will be how to distinguish any such survivals within the literature.

There are three traditional tales from Galloway involving King Robert 1. In John Barbour’s Unique Traditions, Chiefly Connected with the West and South of Scotland (1833) the origin of the large cairn on Corserine is linked to King Robert I and the wife of the miller at Polmaddy. In James Denniston’s ‘The Battle of Craignilder’ (1832) there is a lengthy footnote concerning King Robert I and a widow with three sons by three different husbands who lived at Craigencallie. The footnote is taken from a description of Minnigaff parish composed c.1724 and which was published as an appendix to Symons’s Large Description of Galloway in 1823. In 1822, Simon Sprotte recounted a family tradition involving King RobertI and the Motte of Urr in the Dumfries Courier (1 October 1822).

All three stories are set in the period following the murder of John Comyn in Dumfries when Bruce was a fugitive in Galloway and feature women who recognise Bruce as their rightful king and are rewarded with gifts of land. However, Galloway was the region where support for the rival Balliol family was strongest so the stories are unlikely to date from the early fourteenth century.

Denniston’s ‘The Battle of Craignilder’ involves Archibald Douglas, the builder of Threave castle, Denniston claimed that a Mrs Heron of Creebridge recounted the original version which he then  re-structured -‘where a stanza was limping about  in a mutilated fashion, we may have occasionally supplied it with a leg…’ Denniston’s application of the romantic imagination to the improvement of tradition was matched near Threave castle by Alexander Gordon of nearby Greenlaw.

Shown on Roy’s 1755 Military Survey as a stream meandering across the marshes between Carlingwark loch and the river Dee above Threave island, in 1765 Gordon had the Carlingwark burn replaced by a mile and half of canal. Cutting in a straight line across the marshes, the canal is a striking example of how the traditional landscape was being rationalised at the same time as it was being romanticised.

Gordon’s canal was built to convey shell marl from Carlingwark loch to fertilise the fields which lay along side it. Farm by farm, estate by estate, surveyors with their theodolites and measuring chains marked out and mapped the regular grid-like pattern of fields which replaced the irregular enclosures of the traditional landscape.

The cruck framed and thatch roofed farm steadings and cottars’ crofts were demolished and replaced by solid stone walled and slate roofed buildings and separate, more elaborate, farm houses.
Even before his death in 1846, Tannymaas cottage where poet William Nicholson had been born in 1783 had been demolished and a new Tannymaas built. The replacement building still stands, but is itself now abandoned.

New towns like Gatehouse of Fleet, Dalbeattie and Castle Douglas were built and existing towns, like Kirkcudbright, remodelled. Altogether 85 new towns and villages were built between 1730 and 1830 across Dumfriesshire and Galloway, linked together by new roads and bridges. Old harbours were improved and new ports built and rivers- the Nith and Fleet- were straightened to improve navigation.

The modernisation of Galloway and Dumfriesshire required a huge investment by landowners. Several of the first improvers, including Robert Maxwell from the Stewartry, Secretary to the Honourable Society of Improvers in the Knowledge of Agriculture between 1723 and 1747, suffered financial losses. It was only as food prices rose in the later part of the eighteenth century and the first part of the nineteenth century, especially during the Napoleonic Wars, that the improvement became economically viable.

The underlying process which increased food prices was the demand for food created by industrialisation and urbanisation in west central Scotland and north west England. By 1830, the modernisation of Dumfriesshire and Galloway was effectively complete. The old landscape of traditional subsistence farming had been replaced by a modern farmed landscape producing a surplus of food. But in contrast to the dynamic and chaotic industrial landscapes of Lanarkshire and Lancashire, the rationalised agriculture landscape of the region was already outdated.

Modernity had moved on and a pace of life still dictated by the annual cycle of ploughing, planting and harvesting seemed slow when compared with the pace of industrial production.

This shift in the idea of modernity is confusing. As Brian Bonnyman pointed out in The Third Duke of Buccleuch and Adam Smith ( Edinburgh, 2014, pp 65-7), the agricultural improvement of Dumfriesshire and Galloway was practical expression of the Scottish Enlightenment’s political economy. Smith argued that agriculture added greater value to the wealth of a country and than manufacturing or commerce.

The landowners of Dumfriesshire and Galloway, including the duke of Buccleuch, increased the productive value of the land and physically improved the conditions of the rural workforce. However, as Chris Whatley explained in an interview for a BBC Radio Scotland series on the Lowland Clearances, the Galloway Levellers Uprising of 1724 was also a factor.
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.
  Improving the conditions of the rural workforce did have a pacifying effect. The political radicalism of the region in the seventeenth century, and which had influenced the Galloway Levellers, faded away in the second half of the eighteenth century. Although the transformation of the landscape and the lives of the people in the second half of the eighteenth century was more profound than the changes which had provoked the Galloway Levellers, there was no repeat of 1724.

Even in the uplands, where whole communities like Polmaddy were abandoned, a process very similar to the Highland Clearances passed over in silence. The first Ordnance Survey map of Galloway, surveyed in the 1840s, shows across lowland and upland areas, dozens of farms ‘in ruins’ and many more for which documentary evidence exists, including earlier maps, had already disappeared without trace by then.

In The Origin of Scottish Nationhood (Pluto, 2000, chapters 7-9) Neil Davidson discusses the Highland/ Lowland  divide in Scotland and the role of the romantic imagination from James Macpherson to Walter Scott in the process of making the Highlands part of Scotland’s national identity.  This process happened at the same time as the Highland Clearances were weakening the distinctive Gaelic identity of the Scottish Highlands and Islands. For example, Duncan Ban Macintyre composed ‘Oran nam Balgairean’ (The Song of the Foxes) circa 1790-1804. The poem was inspired by the Clearances and contains the lines (in William Neill’s  translation).

The customs that were followed
They have perished now in Gaeldom

By 1770 in Galloway and Dumfriesshire, unlike the Highlands, the continuity with the past provided by Gaelic had been lost. The process of enlightened improvement did not produce the sense of cultural loss expressed by Macintyre in ‘Oran nam Balgairean’.

What did, eventually, emerge was the discovery of ‘Galloway’ as  geographically and historically distinct region. This was almost in spite of Walter Scott. Joseph Train provided Scott with many tales of Galloway (and artefacts, including the Torrs Pony Cap), several of which found their way into his novels. However, Galloway is not present as a separate region in Scott’s work.

One of Train’s discoveries was the existence of the Deil’s Dyke, the remains of a substantial wall which ran from Loch Ryan through the Galloway Hills to Nithsdale and then down to Lochmaben in Annandale. For Train, this showed that Galloway had existed as separate province in post-Roman Britain. It would have been one of the antiquities discussed in the ‘History of Galloway’ he and James Denniston planned to write. More recent research has found traces of early medieval linear earthworks in Nithsdale but the rest of the Deil’s Dyke has vanished, almost as if it never existed in the first place.

What would Denniston and Train’s ‘History of Galloway’ have contained? Probably very little which would have met with Richard Oram’s approval. Yet even if it had been mainly a work of the antiquarian imagination, as the first parts of McKenzie’s 1841 ‘History of Galloway’ were, the unwritten book is revealing. Unlike Dumfriesshire, the idea that Galloway could have a history shows that more than 350 years after the medieval Lordship of Galloway had ended, something of Fergus of Galloway’s ‘failed kingdom’ as Richard Oram has called it, remained.

But did the idea of ‘Galloway’ survive  as part of folk traditions and popular history among its inhabitants? Or did ‘Galloway’ re-emerge as a product of the romantic imagination? A careful examination of the folklore collected between 1770 and 1830 may reveal some traces of Fergus’ kingdom, but Andrew Symson’s ‘Large Description of Galloway’ does not mention Fergus at all, although it does mention the mythical ‘King Galdus’, who reappears again in McKenzie’s ’History of Galloway’ .

It seems likely that the idea of ‘Galloway’ as a distinctive region probably did emerge first within the romantic imagination before McKenzie began the slow process of turning myth into history- when Fergus of Galloway makes his appearance 167 pages in to his book. Dumfries and Dumfriesshire had to wait until William McDowall’s history of the burgh and county in 1886. Republished in 1986, it stands in splendid isolation in contrast to the many books on Galloway and its history which have been published.

A final thought. By 1830 the developmental trajectories of central and southern Scotland were diverging. The south was becoming a rural periphery, as it remains, to the more dynamic economy of central Scotland. Before this division, was there a common rural culture across the south (outside of Edinburgh and Glasgow)?

Were there differences between communities/ people living in Ayrshire and Lanarkshire and those living in Galloway and Dumfriesshire, or in what is now the Scottish Borders? If there were localised identities, how different were they from each other?

If they were more similar than different, were the shared identities 'Scottish’? If they were, how did this rural Lowland (but including the Southern Uplands) Scotland relate to the Gaelic Scotland of the pre-Clearance Highlands and Islands?

I am thinking here of a settlement like Polmaddy in Galloway in comparison to a similar settlement in the Highlands. When Polmaddy was founded, the people living there would have been Gaelic speakers, but by the time it was abandoned circa 1800 they were Scots speakers. But the material culture, the pattern of agriculture had not changed, and so it would have been similar to a pre-Clearance Highland settlement.  

If ‘the basis for Scottish nationhood was laid between 1746 and 1820’ as Neil Davidson (2000, p. 200) has argued, then ‘Scottish nationhood’ was the product of the dissolution of an older Scotland by clearance, improvement and then industrialisation. How was this new community imagined by its inhabitants? Confusingly, I think it was imagined not as a new nation, but as an ancient one, as  the traditional, feudal Scotland the Scottish Enlightenment had set out to banish through improvement.  It is as if the romantic antiquarians took the surviving fragments of the older Scotland and fashioned them into a simalcrum, filling in the gaps with the aid of the imagination.

On a smaller scale, the re-invention of ‘Galloway’ was part of a similar process. The smaller scale means that the process can be more easily followed.  And for all Richard Oram’s criticism of the regional romanticism which imagined a Galloway (and a Dumfriesshire?) which never existed, the impulses which led to the re-invention of ‘Galloway’  are no less part of the region’s history than Fergus of Galloway and his failed kingdom.


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