Last of the Westland Whigs

In the late 17th century, the 'Westland Whigs' were the radical descendants of earlier Covenanters who had defied the absolutist rule of Stuart kings in south west Scotland.

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Galloway Levellers Update Jan 2007

I wrote up a first draft of this for a meeting I was due to have with Professor Cowan on Wednesday 18th Jan. The meeting was cancelled at very short notice. Listening to BBC Dumfries news the next morning I realised why - Glasgow University had announced they were quitting the Crichton Campus.

I have added a section on the end bringing the story almost up to date. What is difficult to show here are the maps and graphs I have been working on - comparing population density/ growth in upland parishes like Dalry, Kells, Minnigaff and Carsphairn with some lowland parishes - Borgue, Buittle, Urr, Kelton from 1690 to 1801 (and on to population peak in 1851).

Since its peak at 44 000 in 1851, Stewartry population has declined back towards 1755 level (21 000 in 1755, 23 000 today). The Stewartry Community Plan 2006-2008 has a wodge of demographic evidence which paints a pretty bleak picture of the slow death of a once vibrant rural community.

I have since met with Ted and - what is so galling, so frustrating, is that he totally recognises the importance of 'the Crichton project' as a way to breath some life back into D and G - and the potential for the more academic / Glasgow University research projects - like my Galloway Levellers work - to attack the historical roots of the problem.

Up the Levellers!

The Levellers and a thousand years of history?

I have just finished alphabetically organising by farm/ croft name the 350 tacks I extracted last year from the Kirkcudbright Sheriff Court Deeds (1723-1700). This has given about 250 farms and crofts. I have given a parish and map reference for each. I have not yet mapped the data, but I have done a count of tacks per parish to give a rough idea of distribution.

There are (or were pre-1974 local government reform) 28 parishes in the Stewartry of Kirkcudbright. Slightly to my surprise, I have found that there is an overlap between parishes with high (20 or more) tacks and parishes where there was Leveller activity.
However, these parishes (Borgue, Kirkcudbright, Rerrick, Kelton, Crossmichael, Buittle, Urr and Kirkpatrick Durham) form a band running south-west to north -east of lower lying and more fertile farmland. [See maps 1 and 2].

Today they form a ‘dairy-prairie zone’ traversed by the A 75 Gretna- Stranraer Euro-route. In winter, the nitrogen-enriched improved grasslands of this zone stand out in vivid green contrast to the washed out yellows and browns of the rough grazing zones on either side of this corridor. Above and beyond the rough grazing zone can be seen the sombre dark green of Sitka spruce forests.

Post-Leveller population growth

In the past (up until around 1860 when rail transport boosted dairy farming), this dairy-farming zone was an arable one. This is revealed by the evidence of the 17th century tacks. Tacks from parishes like Minnigaff, Kells, Carsphairn and Dalry in the upland/ rough pasture zone reveal a focus on sheep and cattle farming. Tacks from parishes in the lowland zone reveal a focus on the cultivation of oats and ‘beir’ (bere). Before post-war mechanisation, arable farming was more labour intensive than pastoral farming. [Note - from Third Statistical Account, some farms in Stewartry still used horse power in 1950ies, although first tractor was used in 1912.] Parish size and population density reflects this difference.

When taken forwards to 1851, when the population of the Stewartry of Kirkcudbright peaked at 43 121, the pattern is similar. There was little population growth in the upland parishes, gradual growth in lowland parishes without towns and very rapid growth in lowland parishes (Kirkcudbright, Kelton - Castle Douglas, Urr - Dalbeattie and Girthon - Gatehouse of Fleet) which contained towns. Significantly, although the upland parish of Kells contained the ‘Royal Burgh’ of New Galloway ( founded in1633 ) the burgh’s population never grew beyond the 436 recorded in 1841 when Kirkcudbright, Castle Douglas, Gatehouse of Fleet and Dalbeattie all had populations of over 1000.

Bar of Spottes: tracing the Levellers backwards in time

Although most of the 17th century ferm-touns are represented by only one or two tacks, I found five for Bar of Spottes between 1668 and 1696. Although there is no direct link with the Levellers, the Bar of Spottes is in the parish of Urr which has very strong links with the Levellers through John Hepburn who was the parish minister from 1688 to 1723.
Hepburn is best known for his actions in 1706 and 1715. In November1706, supported by an armed retinue, he burnt a copy of the Articles of Union at the Mercat Cross in Dumfries. In October 1715, he raised an armed troop of 300 followers and marched them to Dumfries to help defend the town against the Jacobites.

One who knew Hepburn well was Colonel William Maxwell of Cardoness. Maxwell was the son of a Covenant supporting minister from Minnigaff. After embracing Argyll on the scaffold in 1685 fled to Holland where he joined William of Orange’s army in Holland in 1688. He fought for William at the battles of Killiecrankie and the Boyne and organised the defence of Glasgow in 1715. In 1725 Maxwell was the Presiding Magistrate when several Levellers were sued for damages by Sir Basil Hamilton at Kirkcudbright. Hamilton was a leading local Jacobite in 1715. In 1724 Hamilton protested vigorously to the Marquis of Annandale that the Provost of Kirkcudbright and other local officials were ‘Leveller sympathisers’. Maxwell certainly responded sympathetically to a Complaint addressed to him by the Levellers (even George I is on record as having been concerned by their plight).

Significantly, given his local knowledge and political background, William Maxwell was of the opinion (noted by Wodrow) that the hardcore of the Levellers were ‘Hebronites’ - followers of John Hepburn. [Note: Hepburn himself had died in 1723].

Like John Macmillan, minister of Balmaghie parish and later (after 1726) minister to the ‘suffering remnant’ of militant Cameronian Covenanters, Hepburn held his parish in defiance of the Church of Scotland establishment. He was only able to do so because he had strong popular support from landowners like George MacCairtney of Blaiket. MacCairtney’s Barony of Blaiket (now a dairy farm - Blaiket Mains) had been forfeit in 1680 for his alleged support of the ‘rebels’ at Bothwell Bridge, but he regained possession after 1688. [ Details can be found in Kirkcudbright Sheriff Court Deeds]. The MacCairtney/ Hepburn connection gives a very strong backwards link from the Levellers to the ’Killing Times.

Fergus and the Kingdom of Galloway

In 1456, 108 properties scattered over 6000 square kilometres - from Morroch in the Rhinns of Galloway in the west to Preston on the Nith estuary in the east and from Little Arrow in the Machars of Wigtownshire in the south to Castlemaddy in the Glenkens to the north - were forfeit to the Scottish Crown by James, the 9th Earl of Douglas as Lord of Galloway. The lands were forfeit because the Douglas earldom posed a substantial threat to the Stewart king, James II. Ironically, James II great- great grandfather Robert II had allowed Archibald Douglas to re-unite the Lordship of Galloway in 1371. Archibald Douglas was given power in Galloway as a loyal supporter of the Bruce/ Stewart dynasty. For over 200 years before 1371, the rulers of Galloway had been a threat to the unity of Scotland.

From 1120 to 1234, Fergus of Galloway and his descendants effectively held Galloway independently of the Scottish Crown. In 1234, Fergus great-great grandson Alan of Galloway died and his ‘kingdom’ was divided between his three daughters and their husbands. One of these daughters married a John Balliol. Their son, John, became king of Scots from 1292 to 1296. In 1332 ,after the death of Robert the Bruce in 1329, John’s son Edward Balliol claimed the throne with the support of Edward III of England. This led to a ‘second’ War of Scottish independence. By 1347, however, the only parts of Scotland Edward Balliol held were in Galloway - his family home of Buittle castle on the river Urr and Hestan Isle at its mouth. In 1356, Edward Balliol renounced his claim to the Scottish throne, gifting it to Edward III. Edward Balliol died in 1365. In 1369 David II (Robert the Bruce’s son) endowed Archibald Douglas (son of Bruce’s loyal ally James Douglas) with ‘all of our existing lands in Galloway between the river Cree and the river Nith’ - i.e. the Stewartry of Kirkcudbright. In 1372, Archibald bought western Galloway - i.e. Wigtownshire - from Thomas Fleming, thus re-uniting the divided ‘kingdom’ of Galloway as a Lordship.

After the break-up of this lordship in 1456, no single landowner ever held similar power over the region. Although this is pure speculation, I wonder if the fragmentation of landownership (still visible in the form of the many small tower houses which dot the region) was a factor in the post-Reformation history of Galloway? In particular, the key role played by the region in the 17th century. From support for the National Covenant of 1638 through to support for William of Orange in 1688 (and strong opposition to the Jacobites right up to 1746), Galloway was a heartland of anti- Stuart Calvinist Presbyterianism. Whilst the great landowners found in other regions of Scotland could be ‘leant on’ by the Stuart state, the many small landowners (‘bonnet lairds’) of Galloway were more difficult to control.

The Wealth of the Land.

To return to the medieval era of Fergus of Galloway and the Balliols; Blaiket and Spottes were neighbouring estates at this time. Spottes was amongst the estates forfeit in 1456. Along with Dunrod, Senwick, Kelton and Threave in the Stewartry it was a ‘grange’ estate, geared up to producing an arable surplus for the lords (earlier kings) of Galloway.
This is significant. The ability of the rulers of Galloway to exercise their physical power ultimately relied on their ability to feed and maintain their soldiers (and sailors - Alan of Galloway had a fleet of 150 ships). Their ‘spiritual power’ - abbeys and religious houses at Dundrennan, Whithorn, Glenluce, Soulseat, Tongland, New Abbey and Lincluden - was no less dependent on the wealth of the land.

But what form did this ‘wealth of the land’ take? Critically, was the medieval agricultural economy of Galloway mainly pastoral or mainly arable? Significantly, out of the 108 forfeited landholdings of 1456, only ten are located within the upland/ pastoral zone. All the rest are located within the lowland/ arable zone. This suggests that arable rather than pastoral farming was the dominant form. But when and how did this pattern of land use emerge?

Northumbrian Settlements

One possibility is that the pattern of arable land use was introduced after 1160 by Uchtred, Fergus’ son, and developed by his son Roland. Both Uchtred and Roland promoted the settlement of eastern Galloway by Norman landholders from Cumbria and Scotland. In western Galloway, this process was resisted by Gilbert, Fergus’ other son.
Alternatively, there is Daphne Brooke’s suggestion [PSAS:1991- online at

that the wealth and power of medieval Galloway rested on Northumbrian foundations. In particular, Brooke proposed that the various grange lands of medieval Galloway - including those of the Spottes estate - were first exploited for their arable agricultural potential by Northumbrian settlers in the late 7th and early 8th centuries.

Brooke’s theory was based on a combination of Northumbrian/ Anglian place name and artefact evidence. One of the strongest pieces of place name evidence comes from Urr’s neighbouring parish - Buittle - which takes its name from the Old English botl. [In 1282, the Statues of Balliol College, Oxford, were sealed at Buittle castle by Devorgilla Balliol.]

Regarding the parish of Urr, Brooke suggested that the chapel at Blaiket - blaec-heath -which is mentioned in a charter of 1164 /1173, was one of several ‘daughter- chapels‘ of a main church at Edingham. Although no similar charter evidence has survived for them, two possible chapel sites were recorded by the Ordnance Survey in 1847 on the Spottes estate (which extended from Bar of Spottes through Mid Spottes to Spottes Hall on the Urr and included King’s Grange - see map 3). Although no archaeological investigation of these sites has been carried out, in 1993 there was a rescue- archaeology dig at Chapelton on the Spottes estate and close to one of the possible chapel sites. This found evidence that the land may have been part of a Northumbrian farming settlement associated with a chapel. [Transactions DGNHAS: 2004]

The evidence takes the form of a Northumbrian ‘styca’ or coin dated to AD 840. In the 1990s, similar stycas were found at Whithorn in Wigtownshire and another at Hoddom in Dumfriesshire. Earlier, other stycas were found at Luce Bay in Wigtownshire and at Talnotrie in the Stewartry. The Talnontrie finds were part of a ‘hoard’ dated to AD 875.

Unfortunately, although Dr. Richard Oram - one of the few historians with expert knowledge of medieval Galloway - argued [Transactions DGNHAS: 2002] that Daphne Brooke’s PSAS article ‘revolutionised historical interpretations of the nature and extent of the historically obscure period of Anglian hegemony in Galloway from the later 7th until the 10th centuries‘, the implications of her ‘revolution’ have yet to work their way through into national historical narratives. This in turn means that my claim that the Galloway Levellers of 1724 were attempting to defend 1000 years of ‘cultural heritage’ is likely to prove controversial.

The Galloway Levellers and the Scottish Enlightenment

Setting aside my claim that the pattern of arable farming the Galloway Levellers sought to defend can be traced back to the era of ‘Anglian hegemony’ in Dumfries and Galloway, what can be said about their influence on subsequent developments?

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. [ See Lorna Philip: Planned Villages in Dumfriesshire and Galloway: Transactions DGNHSAS: 2006 ]. To further ‘pacify the people’, new industries were created, with cotton mills built at Gatehouse and Castle Douglas. Even tiny hamlets like Auchencairn briefly possessed a cotton mill. Philip links these agricultural and industrial developments with ‘The Enlightenment’.

Locally, Sir James Murray began the ‘enlightened’ industrial development of Gatehouse of Fleet and the agricultural development of the surrounding Cally estate in 1760. Significantly, the Levellers had threatened to demolish dykes erected by his father Alexander. [Note- the Murray family can be connected back to the Plantation of Ulster in 1610 - see for details ]

But were the ‘enlightened ‘ landowners who transformed Galloway in the later 18th century still worried by the actions of the Levellers? From evidence I have found in the archives of the Hornel Library at the National Trust for Scotland’s Broughton House in Kirkcudbright, I believe they were. This evidence is in the form of handwritten research notes made by John Nicholson circa 1820/1830. The research notes formed the factual background to a three-act play Nicholson wrote about the Levellers in 1838. From the notes, it is clear that vivid tales of the Levellers Uprising had been passed down from parents and grandparents for 100 years.

Of most interest, Nicholson’s notes include an account by John Martin [1710-1801] of his participation as an active (and armed - after he picked up a gun an older Leveller dropped) teenage Leveller in the Uprising of 1724. Martin’s father was a cottar at Halmyre and then Lochdougan farms in the parish of Kelton. Martin subsequently became a clock and watch maker in Kirkcudbright.

From peasant cottar’s son to artisan clockmaker via the Galloway Levellers, John Martin’s story illustrates the revolutionary change which occurred in his life time. The world his father knew was one in which time was still measured by the annual, agricultural rhythms of the deep past. The world John grew into was one increasingly driven by the ‘artificial’ time of industrial labour, driven by the movements of machines whose mechanical and mathematical logic was to shape the future.

At the time of John’s death in 1801, the new town of Gatehouse of Fleet with its water powered cotton mills, brick built workers houses and surrounded by enclosed and improved farmlands could still represent a future of ‘progress through enlightenment’. However, in Manchester the first steam powered and gas lit cotton mills were already in operation, and were already connected to Liverpool via a network of canals.

By 1844, when John Nicholson published Mackenzie’s History of Galloway, the region’s brief industrial revolution was over. Although Galloway’s population had more than doubled in size since 1755 - from 37 671 to 80 215 in 1841 - and was to peak at 86 510 in 1851, its wealth still flowed from agriculture and the land rather than industry and factories.

Even today, it still does. Outside of Dumfries (pop. 33 000) and the ferry port of Stranraer (pop. 10 000) farming and forestry + ancillary processing industries are the mainstay of the regional economy. Tourism is the other key sector. It in turn depends upon the quality of the region’s ‘natural’ (I.e. that of post-Leveller Enlightened Improvement) landscape and the ‘cultural heritage ‘ of its small towns and ‘sleepy’ villages like Gatehouse of Fleet where over 30% of the population are 65 + .

Taken with population and other statistics contained in Stewartry of Kirkcudbright Community Plan 2006- 2008, a somewhat bleak picture emerges of a rural area slowly dying as its most dynamic young people drift away to seek education and employment and are replaced by older people seeking a quiet life in a land where only the cries of whaups [ curlews] and peewees [lapwings] can be heard.

TO S. R. CROCKETT (On receiving a Dedication)- Poem by Robert L. Stevenson

BLOWS the wind to-day, and the sun and the rain are flying,
Blows the wind on the moors to-day and now,
Where about the graves of the martyrs the whaups are crying,
My heart remembers how!

Grey recumbent tombs of the dead in desert places,
Standing stones on the vacant wine-red moor,
Hills of sheep, and the howes of the silent vanished races,
And winds, austere and pure:

Be it granted me to behold you again in dying,
Hills of home! and to hear again the call;
Hear about the graves of the martyrs the peewees crying,
And hear no more at all.

Alistair Livingston 30 January 2007


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