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.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

A Covenanted Union?

Did the Westland Whigs become today's south west Tories?


The role of religion in the political construction of the image and identity of south west Scotland.

On the 15th February 2007 a debate took place in the Scottish Parliament which may yet prove to mark a significant development in the ‘image and identity of south west Scotland’. The debate was important since, for the first time since the advent of the devolved Scottish Parliament in 1999, MSPs representing the south west acted as a ‘regional bloc’ in defence of the region. Uniquely, the issue which united the MSPs was not a threat to close a hospital or a factory, but a threat to higher educational provision. Specifically, as every one of the MSPs involved mentioned, the threatened loss of access to higher education in the ‘Liberal Arts’ . Furthermore, as the MSPs also all drew attention to, in defending this educational opportunity, they were responding to concerns raised by individual constituents, the local business community, the regional council and regional economic, development and community service agencies - to an unprecedented strength of public and institutional opinion in support of the Crichton University Campus.

In my Oral Presentation, I reflected on the Scottish Parliament debate, asking if it represented a new development in the ’image and identity’ of the south west, or if it was rather the latest development in a historical sequence of shifts and changes in the region’s image and identity.

Post-feedback shift in emphasis
In the ‘critical feedback’ to my Oral Presentation on 5th March, Dr. Bold suggested that the central strand of my presentation - in which I suggested the Reformation and popular support for Presbyterianism in the south west in the 17th and early 18th centuries played a key role in shaping the image and identity of the region - would benefit from a comparative analysis of the importance of role of the pre-Reformation church in the shaping the historical image and identity of the region.

This suggestion is very useful. When considered in the historical context of the south west, and of Galloway in particular, the discontinuity I suggested occurred with the Reformation becomes less marked. Indeed, it may be possible that what appears to be a discontinuity is in fact a continuity, suggesting that the south west has a greater degree of historical consciousness and identity than I allowed in my Oral Presentation.

I have therefore expanded on the ‘religious identity’ theme in this written version of my Oral Presentation.

The Christian religious identity of the south west can be physically traced back to at least AD 450. These physical traces of Christianity are a series of carved crosses found at Whithorn. Unfortunately, despite successive archaeological excavations at Whithorn (most recently 1985-93, see Hill: 1997) the earliest phase of Christian settlement remains obscure. The most that can be said is that the evidence can be interpreted to support a direct link with the monastic settlements founded by St. Martin of Tours (died AD 397] at Liguge and Marmouiter in what was then still Roman Gaul, modern day France. Even if no trace of St. Ninian has been found, the archaeology supports later, Northumbrian, accounts of a link between St. Ninian and St. Martin.

With the Northumbrian period at Whithorn, the archaeology [ Hill 1997] has confirmed the historical record which covers the period AD 730 to 840 [Brooke 1994, 1997]. There was a very significant Northumbrian presence at Whithorn. At Hoddom in Dumfriesshire, archaeology has confirmed a similar Northumbrian take-over of an earlier British Christian settlement, in this case one associated with St. Kentigern [Lowe: 1992]. Unfortunately, important fragments of a Northumbrian carved cross at Hoddom were destroyed in the 1940s, but similar fragments were preserved at Ruthwell near by.

Although the extent and depth to which British and Northumbrian Christianity informed the religious identity of the south west is difficult to establish, Craig [1991] has shown that it survived beyond the apparent collapse of Northumbrian power in the late 9th century. This suggests that the appointment of Gilla-Aldan as bishop of Whithorn in 1128 was a continuation rather than a revival of the See of Whithorn. No less significantly, Gilla-Aldan’s superior was Thurstan, Archbishop of York . This link between the See of Whithorn (I.e. Galloway) and York was not finally ended until 1472. [Oram : 1997: 75]. Fergus of Galloway, who had been instrumental in the appointment of Gilla- Aldan, was keen to maintain the link with York, which had been established in the Northumbrian era, as a way to maintain the independence of his kingdom of Galloway against the territorial ambitions of David I of Scotland. David wanted to establish an Archbishopric of St. Andrews which would have religious authority over all of Scotland.

Although fully part of European Christendom, the fact that the See of Whithorn remained outwith the Scottish church meant that the many religious houses founded by Fergus and his descendants - at Whithorn, Dundrennan, Soulseat, Lincluden, Glenluce, Tongland and New Abbey - provided Galloway with its own distinct (as in not Scottish) religious identity through the 14th century Wars of Independence. This distinct religious identity reflected and supported the challenges to the Scottish crown posed by the Balliol and Douglas lords of Galloway in the 14th and 15th centuries. Indeed, the unofficial declaration of James I in 1430 that Whithorn’s ‘subjection’ to York was ended prefigured the destruction of the Douglas lordship of Galloway by James II in 1455.

Stringer [2000 ] argues that the introduction of reformed monasticism (Cistercians Augustinians, Premonstratensians and Benedictines) into the south west in the 12th century had a ‘civilising’ effect on a people previously regarded as ‘barbarians’. However Brooke [1994, 1997] and Oram [1997, 2000] show that the alleged barbarity of the inhabitants of the south west has its origin in Ailred of Rievaulx’s support for his patron, David I, in his struggle against Fergus of Galloway

What the 12th century religious ’revival’ achieved in the south west was to link the region with European wide developments. Particularly in the case of the Cistercian abbeys of Dundrennan, Holm Cultram(in Cumbria but with extensive land holdings in the south west), Glenluce and New Abbey the impact was as much economic and educational as spiritual. The Cistercians farmed their huge estates via lay-brothers drawn from the local community to produce wool and other agricultural products for export, using the most ‘modern’ farming techniques. The 12th century also saw the division of the region into numerous parishes, each with their own chapel. This parish structure became the cornerstone of the 16th and 17th century religious ‘revival‘ of regional identity.

According to the Dictionary of National Biography [Stephen, 1901] , Alexander Gordon of Airds (1479-1580) “was one of the first to introduce the principles of the reformation into Galloway. He read Wycliffe’s New Testament to his tenants and others in a wood at Airds.”. Robertson [1963:107] suggests these readings began in 1530. This was only two years after Patrick Hamilton was burnt at the stake in St. Andrew’s for heresy, I.e. for advocating ‘reformation principles‘. In 1543, important south west landowner Robert, lord Maxwell persuaded the Scottish Parliament to pass an act legalising possession of Scots or English translations of the Bible such as the one owned by Alexander Gordon. Macdowall [1867] identifies William Harlow, a lay-preacher, as the first person to publicly ‘denounce the Mass as rank idolatry’ in Dumfries in 1558.

From these beginnings, by the 17th century the Scottish Reformation had become deeply rooted in the south west. But the reformation added a new element. It encouraged, even demanded, active rather than passive participation in religious life. Furthermore, in the presbyterian form of Protestantism which the south west embraced so passionately, this active participation in religious life required critical and literacy skills. The minister’s sermons were lectures to be reflected on, analysed and critiqued. The bible was a book to be read, discussed and debated in the home, not just in church.

Although limited and constrained by its reliance on scriptural sources, the effect of the reformation on the south west was to create a literate and argumentative popular culture, one which felt empowered by its religious knowledge to dispute the ‘divine right’ claims of the Stuart monarchy. The regional development of what began in 1644 as a theological attack on the ’divine right’ claim by Samuel Rutherford in his ‘Lex Rex’ [Colley:1997] can be traced through Richard Cameron’s 1680 Sanquhar Declaration [Whitley : 1977] to the political support the Cameronians gave advocates of the ‘Revolution Settlement’ at Edinburgh in 1689 and the military support they gave William of Orange against the Jacobites at Killiecrankie and Dunkeld in that same year. [Whatley: 2006]

This is an interesting shift and can be followed through into the 18th century. Although John Hepburn of Urr did protest against the Union of Parliaments in November 1706, the Act of Security passed in the same month firmly established the position and rights of the Church of Scotland ahead of the Union. As a result we find that in 1715, the wider south west mobilised its political and military forces in defence of the Revolution Settlement and the Hanoverian Succession against the Jacobite threat. Dumfries, supported by a militia raised in Galloway, successfully held off the Jacobites. Even John Hepburn offered his support, although this came with so many conditions it was not taken up. [Rae: 1718]

To summarise. In the 17th century, the south west witnessed a people’s protest against political interference in their religious liberties. Had the Stuarts not attempted to impose an Episcopalian structure on a presbyterian church, there would have been no conflict here. But there was a conflict and this conflict had the effect of transforming the south west’s religious identity into a political identity. It led the south -west to politically identify with first with William of Orange and the Revolution Settlement of 1689 and then with the Hanoverian Succession and the Union of 1707. When this new political identity, which remained closely linked to religious identity, was threatened by the Jacobites, the people took up arms against them. The ‘religious- political- historical consciousness’ of the south-west, which can be traced back to the 5th century foundation of a Christian monastic settlement at Whithorn was still alive in the 18th century and remained influential into the 19th century.

In so far as this regional ‘religious-political -historical’ identity overlapped with what Kidd [1993] has described as the ‘Scottish construction of Anglo-British identity’ (after the defeat of the Jacobites in 1746) , it was also part of a new ‘Scottish as British’ national identity. The extent of the overlap between regional, Scottish and British identity can be illustrated :

Lord Ardwall then submitted “The Imperial Forces”, and in doing so he said - Mr. Chairman , croupiers and gentlemen, the toast I have to propose is one that is always well received in all companies of patriotic citizens, and specially of patriotic Scotsmen. [Harper:1907:146]

The occasion for Lord Ardwall’s toast to ‘The Imperial Forces’ was a public banquet held in honour of local author S.R. Crockett in Dalbeattie in 1906. Later the same evening, Crockett himself asserted:

I think a man ought to feel a special love for his little fatherland- for Galloway, for Dumfries, for the Borderlands. He is all the more a good Scot because of that. We will not be the less but the more good citizens of the Empire, because we love our village more than your village!

But this Edwardian continuum of identity, in which Crockett’s representations of locality -‘Galloway’- flowed smoothly into the ability of Ardwall’s ‘patriotic Scotsmen’ to identify with the ‘Imperial Forces’, was challenged by the Great War and the emergence of Scottish political nationalism in its aftermath. The Scottish National Party was formed in 1934 but had to wait until 1974 to achieve significant popular support. The election of 11 SNP MPs in that year (including one elected by Galloway) set a process in motion that ultimately led to the creation of a devolved Scottish Parliament in 1999. Although Scottish political nationalism has yet to undo the Union of 1707, the ‘Empire Unionist’ continuum of local-Scottish-British identity which existed in 1906 has been undone by the rise of popular-culture nationalism.

For the south west, the political shift from unionism towards nationalism and the corresponding cultural shift in identity from ‘Scottish and British’ to ‘ Scottish not British’ poses a challenge. Although the south west today lacks a distinctive religious identity, for a thousand years, from the foundation of a religious settlement at Whithorn in the 5th century to the final breaking of the link with York in the 15th century, it did. In the 17th century, the region’s (presbyterian) religious distinctiveness brought it into conflict with successive Stuart kings. These conflicts forged religious identification with Presbyterianism into a political identification with the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688 and the Revolution Settlement of 1689. Although there was local opposition to the Union of 1707, fear that the anti-Union Jacobites might restore a Catholic Stuart king created strong and deep support for the Union and the Protestant Hanoverian kings.

Up until the Devolution Settlement of 1999 effectively undid the Revolution Settlement of 1689 and placed the Union of 1707 in question; the historical ( religious and political) tensions which had so often existed between the south west and Scotland had been defused by the existence of a shared British/ United Kingdom identity. Unfortunately for the south west, or rather for Dumfries and Galloway, whilst the mainstream of Scottish political opinion shifted towards devolution between 1979 and 1997, Dumfries and Galloway voted for the anti-devolution Conservative and Unionist Party. In the 1997 devolution referendum, Dumfries and Galloway was one of only two Scottish regions (Orkney was the other) to vote against giving the new Parliament tax raising powers. In the 2001 UK election, Galloway and Upper Nithsdale returned Scotland’s only Conservative MP. In 2005, Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale had this honour.

Although political identity is only part of the image and identity of the south west, I suggest that in the context of the apparent reluctance of voters in Dumfries and Galloway to whole heartedly embrace the Devolution Settlement, responses to the ‘Crichton Crisis’ are very revealing. As the debate in the Scottish Parliament on the 15th of February showed, support for the Crichton campaign has overcome national party political divisions and united MSPs in a so far solid bloc in defence of the regional interest.

This new regional political bloc has in turn emerged as a direct result of widespread popular support for the campaign. The depth and passion of this support seems to have taken everyone by surprise. No other campaign has managed to mobilise and motivate such levels of support from across the whole region. However, this development is very recent and, in time, may yet prove to be less substantial than at present it appears.

As I have argued ( following Whatley: 2006), three hundred years ago the politics of religion led the south west, if somewhat reluctantly, towards support for the Union of 1707. Subsequently this support ( see discussion of 1906 S.R. Crockett public banquet above) became embedded in regional image and identity. Up until 1997, the two UK parliamentary seats of Galloway and Dumfries were as solidly Conservative and Unionist as those of any of the English ’Home Counties’.

Post-1997, the region’s political identity has been in flux, electing SNP, Labour and Conservative MPs and MSPs. This confusion of political identity, I suggest, reflects a tension between the south west and Scotland, one which, as I have attempted to show, was historically expressed in the south west‘s distinctive religious identity. My underlying hypothesis, suggested by the Scottish Parliament debate - that the politics of education may become as significant as the politics of religion in shaping and defining the image and identity of the south west - will be tested in the forthcoming elections to the Scottish Parliament on May 3rd 2007. Will the south west continue to support the Union of 1707? Or will voters choose the SNP who seek to undo it?

Sources and References
Brooke, D. : Wild Men and Holy Places: Canongate: Edinburgh:1994
Brooke, D. : The early History of the Diocese of Whithorn from its foundations to 1100 : McCluskey (ed) : 1997
Coffey, J. : Politics, Religion and the British Revolutions :Cambridge University: Cambridge: 1997
Cowan, E. J. and McDonald, R.A. (eds) : Alba: John Donald :Edinburgh: 2000
Craig, D. : Pre-Norman Sculpture in Galloway : Some territorial Implications: Oram and Stell: 1991
Harper, M. : Crockett and Grey Galloway: Hodder and Stoughton: London: 1906
Harvie, C. :Scotland and Nationalism: Allen and Unwin: London: 1997
Hill, P. : Whithorn and St. Ninian: Suttton: Stroud: 1997
Kidd, C. : Subverting Scotland’s Past : Cambridge University: Cambridge: 1993

Lowe, C.E.- Craig, D.- and Dixon, D. : New Light on the Anglian 'Minster' at Hoddom : Transactions DGNHAS : Series III : Volume 66 : 1991
McCluskey, R. (ed) :The See of Ninian: Burns and Sons: Glasgow: 1997
McDowall, W. : History of the Burgh of Dumfries : 1867: Fourth revised edition: Faries: Dumfries : 1986
Oram, R. : Heirs to Ninian: the medieval bishops of Whithorn (circa 1100-1560): McCluskey (ed) 1997
Oram, R. : The Lordship of Galloway: John Donald : Edinburgh: 2000
Rae, P. : History of the Late Rebellion Raised against His Majesty King George: Rae: Dumfries : 1718
Robertson, J.: The Story of Galloway: Maxwell: Castle Douglas: 1963
Scottish Parliament : Minutes of Proceedings : Vol. 4, No 56, Session 2: Motion S2M-5444 : 15 February 2007
Stephen, L. :Dictionary of National Biography: Oxford: 1891
Stringer, K.J.: Reform Monasticism and Celtic Scotland: Galloway, c.1140-1240 : Cowan and McDonald :2000
Whatley, C. : The Scots and the Union: Edinburgh University: Edinburgh: 2006
Whitley, E.: The Two Kingdoms: Scottish Reformation Society: Edinburgh : 1977


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