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.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

GLRP Intro


On 27 July 1793, Robert Burns and John Syme made an expedition from Dumfries westwards into Galloway.1 The route Burns and Syme took can be traced on a map of the Stewartry of Kirkcudbright produced by Ainslie in 1797 in conjunction with an Act establishing turnpike trusts in the Stewartry. 2 Heading towards Loch Ken, after passing Barncailzie (the farm where Syme had been born in 1755 but which his father lost after the failure of the Ayr Bank in 1772 ), Burns and Syme passed through the new village of Kirkpatrick Durham and the old farms of Kilquhanity and Macartney. At Parton they dined with Robert and Mary Glendoning. The Glendonings were one of Galloway's old Roman Catholic families. John Glendoning of Parton had been excommunicated in 1643 for adhering to the Roman Catholic faith. Mary Glendoning's grandfather, Robert Neilson of Barncailzie, had been similarly excommunicated in 1704.3 Burns and Syme then continued up Loch Ken to Kenmure Castle where they stayed with John Gordon of Kenmure for the next three days.

John Gordon of Kenmure was the grandson of William Gordon, the 6th Viscount of Kenmure. In 1715 William Gordon had been leader of the Jacobites in Dumfries and Galloway. Captured at Preston, William Gordon was executed in London in 1716. Burns believed that his grandfather, Robert Burnes of Kincardineshire, had also been a Jacobite in 1715. In 1791 Burns re-worked an old Jacobite ballad O Kenmure's on and awa ,Willie about William Gordon.

After their stay at Kenmure Castle, on 31 July Burns and Syme sailed down Loch Ken on John Gordon's barge to visit Airds of Kells farm where the poet John Lowe (whom Burns admired) had lived. They then crossed over the Black Water of Dee and headed through the hills towards Gatehouse of Fleet. According to Syme, as they crossed over the moors a thunderstorm broke out which inspired Burns to compose Scots wha hae. Synder (amongst others) casts doubt on this since Burns himself said he wrote the song after a walk by the Nith in late August 1793, possibly in response to the trial for sedition of Thomas Muir.4 However there are strong associations between Robert the Bruce and the Galloway hills through which Burns and Syme passed. As well as Bruce's battle at Glentrool in March 1307, local tradition credits him with victory in another battle fought at Raploch Moss on the Black Water of Dee. Perhaps the dramatic journey from Airds of Kells to Gatehouse of Fleet provided the initial historic Scots inspiration for Scots wha hae to which Burns then added references to struggles 'not quite so ancient', i.e. those of the Scottish reform movement.

Burns and Syme then spent the night in Gatehouse of Fleet, another of Galloway's new towns. Established by James Murray in 1760, by 1793 and powered by water drawn from Loch Whinyeon in the hills through which Burns and Syme had just passed, Gatehouse had four cotton mills employing 500 workers out of a population of 1150.5 Although later to be superceded by the steam powered cotton mills of Manchester (a technical advance facilitated by John Kennedy 1796-1855 of Knocknalling in the Stewartry of Kirkcudbright.6 ), in 1793 Gatehouse of Fleet was still at the forefront of industrial development and thus provided a very modern and striking contrast to Kenmure Castle and its historic associations.

The next day Burns and Syme finished their tour of Galloway with a visit to Kirkcudbright. Here they dined with John Dalzell of Barncrosh. Dalzell was a grandson of William Gordon of Kenmure and his father had been a Jacobite in 1715. After dining with Dalzell, Burns and Syme visited the Earl of Selkirk at St. Mary's Isle. Burns had not previously met the earl, but he had met Selkirk's son Basil William Hamilton Douglas (Lord Daer, 1763-1794) who was an improver of his father's estates and also “a champion of parliamentary reform and a member of the Friends of the People” 7

In June 1794, Burns and Syme made another visit to Galloway. After staying at the Carlingwark Inn in the new town of Castle Douglas (founded by Sir William Douglas in 1791) they visited Patrick Heron at Kirroughtree near Newton Stewart. The Heron family helped develop and expand Galloway's cattle trade in the late 17th century. In 1795/6, Patrick Heron stood as the Whig candidate for the Stewartry of Kirkcubright and Burns composed four election ballads for Heron.8 These provide a series of brief but knowing pen-portraits of local landowners – Murray of Gatehouse of Fleet, Gordon of Balmaghie, Maxwell of Cardoness, Douglas of Castle Douglas, Gordon of Kenmure, Laurie of Redcastle, Oswald of Auchincruive and Kirkbean, Copland of Dalbeattie, McDouall of Logan and Heron of Kirroughtree. Regardless of their Whig of Tory political affiliations, these landowners were all busily engaged in a process of revolutionary change and transformation. The farmed landscape of Galloway was being transformed through the construction of new farm steadings, access roads, plantations, sub-dividing dykes and hedges, the draining of lochs and mosses and the application of marl and lime to the fields. Alongside the new farms, new towns and villages like Kirkpatrick Durham, Gatehouse of Fleet and Castle Douglas 9were being built and new industries like the cotton mills of Gatehouse were being introduced. Some of the landowners, like James Murray and Patrick Heron, were continuing a process of improvement of their estates already set in motion by previous generations. Others, like William Douglas who had made his fortune through trade with North America, had only recently become landowners.

Burns himself, along with hundreds of other tenant farmers, played his part in this process of revolutionary change and transformation. On Whitsunday 1788 he became tenant of Ellisland farm, owned by Patrick Miller of Dalswinton. Born at Glenlee in the Stewartry of Kirkcudbright, Miller became a Director of the Bank of Scotland (his brother Thomas was a lawyer who became Lord President of the Court of Session), an investor in the Carron Iron Works, a pioneer of steam powered boats and – after his purchase of Dalswinton estate – an agricultural improver. 10 Before he could move into Ellisland farm, a new farmhouse had to be built (a process which took a year to complete) and the fields had to be dyked and ditched. Even then, Ellisland was not good arable land so Burns and his wife (Jean Armour, who managed the dairy) attempted to diversify into dairy farming using Ayrshire cattle – as the Old Statistical Account of the parish of Dunscore notes:

The black cattle [of Dunscore], in general, are of the Galloway breed; but Mr. Robert Burns, a gentleman well known for his poetical productions, who rents a farm in this parish, is of the opinion, that the west country cows give a larger quantity of milk.11

The first these Ayrshire cattle was a gift “of the finest Quey in Ayrshire” from Major Dunlop, son of Mrs Frances Dunlop. 12 As pioneers, Robert and Jean Burns did not benefit from their introduction of Ayrshire cattle and dairying practice into Dumfries and Galloway, but where they led, others followed. Thus by 1838 it was believed by the more conservative of Galloway's beef farmers that “the very sight of Ayrshire cows in the neighbourhood corrupts the native [Galloway] breed”. William Cobbett, on the other hand, was so impressed by the high milk yield of the Ayrshire breed that when he visited Scotland in 1832 he “went so far as to purchase an Ayrshire bull and ten cows for his farm near London.”.13

Cobbett's visit to Scotland in 1832 was not intended as a livestock purchasing expedition. Rather, as Smout puts it :

He had left the southern English counties in that year smouldering on the edge of social war, with ricks being burnt, new machinery destroyed, men transported and in a few cases executed for their part in the destruction of property…Cobbett came north to find out why the Scots were quiet while the English burnt the ricks.14

These 'Captain Swing' riots of 1830/31 saw a wave of rick burning and destruction of threshing machines extending across southern England from Norfolk to Dorset, whilst isolated outbreaks occurred from Cornwall to Cumberland. Cobbett himself “was later actually tried and acquitted for instigating the movement”.15 Cobbett suggested that Scottish poor law, where relief relied on character judgment by the parish minister, created a more quiescent rural workforce but Smout does not consider this sufficient explanation. Instead, he draws attention to the Galloway Levellers.

A hundred years earlier, when the agricultural revolution was still in its earliest infancy, there had in fact been arising against it, the so-called Levellers Revolt that kept Dumfriesshire and Galloway in turmoil in the summer of 1724. Though local and short-lived, it was the first instance in Scottish history of a popular rural movement with the character of class war. Fighting in the past had been political personal or religious but never, till now, determined by an economic grievance with the combatants clearly split along class lines. It was also the last instance of a major organised protest against rural change ... not until the Crofters' War in Skye in 1882 was there anything else like it.16

However, unlike the Captain Swing movement, the Galloway Levellers uprising was an isolated movement which did not spread across the rural south of Scotland in the way the Captain Swing movement spread across the rural south of England. As Smout puts it

Opposition to the extinction of traditional ways of rural life faltered and died...One reason is probably that little of of the agrarian change in the Lowlands had the same 'depopulating' and impoverishing character of that first phase in Galloway.17

Unfortunately, apart from a study by Leopold in 1980 18 ( which is essentially an extension of Smout's 1969 analysis) there has been no in depth study of the Galloway Levellers since Morton's 1936 narrative account in the Transactions of the Dumfriesshire and Galloway Natural History and Antiquarian Society.19 Morton's account in turn is based on research carried out mainly between 1820 and 1830 by Kirkcudbright publisher and historian John Nicholson (1778-1866)20 and contemporary material gathered by the Reverend Robert Wodrow.21 To these sources can be added Prevost's invaluable transcriptions of a series of letters written during 1724 to Sir John Clerk of Pencuik by his brother (who was a Customs Officer in Kirkcudbright) and his brother-in-law (who was the Earl of Galloway).22From these sources it is possible to construct a fairly accurate narrative account of the sequence of events in 1724. But to place theses events in their context is more difficult.

The approach adopted has been firstly to consider the background to the Galloway Levellers uprising; secondly to study the events of 1724 in detail; thirdly to consider what impact the Galloway Levellers uprising had on the development of Galloway in the later 18th century.

The background aspect of this study has been considered from two, related, perspectives : that of changes in land ownership and land use during the later 17th and early 18th centuries; and the religious and political conflicts which occurred during the same period. A finding of particular interest which emerged from this background study is that Galloway's cattle trade had its origin in the 1609 Plantation of Ulster. By 1627, the Murrays of Broughton (Wigtownshire) had acquired 60 000 acres of poor quality 'plantation' land in Donegal. To enable their Irish tenants to pay their rents, the Scottish Privy Council granted permission to the Sir John Murray (Earl of Annandale) for cattle from Donegal to be landed at Portpatrick and driven through Galloway for export to England.23 By 1667, when the English banned the import of Irish cattle, up to 10 000 Irish cattle per year were being driven through Galloway to England. Since the import of Scottish cattle was not banned, a trade in cattle from Galloway to England was then developed by landowners like Sir David Dunbar of Baldoon and Sir Robert Maxwell of Orchardton.

Significantly, Dunbar was an Episcopalian and Stuart loyalist who used the income from his cattle trading activities to extend his land holdings, acquiring land near Kirkcudbright previously owned by the McLellan lords of Kirkcudbright. The McLellans had bankrupted themselves through their support (raising a regiment) for the Covenanters in the 1640s.24 In 1715, Dunbar's great grandson Sir Basil Hamilton joined the Jacobite forces led by William Gordon of Kenmure. In 1723, Hamilton built a cattle park near Kirkcudbright on land originally owned by the McLellans. The dykes around this park were levelled in May 1724. The Earl of Selkirk visited by Burns and Syme at Kirkcudbright in 1793 was Hamilton's son and the radical Lord Daer (subject of Burns' poem On Meeting with Lord Daer ) was his grandson.

The role of Wigtownshire landowners like Sir David Dunbar of Baldoon in the development of Galloway's 17th century cattle trade is familiar to historians25 from the Reverend Andrew Symson's mention of Dunbar's cattle park in his Large Description of Galloway26. However, apart from the Herons of Kirroughtree 27 , the role played by landowners in Stewartry of Kirkcudbright is not so well known.

Evidence of 17th century cattle parks in the Stewartry of Kirkcudbright can be found in the Kirkcudbright Sheriff Court Deeds. These documents were discovered in the loft of Kirkcudbright Court House in 1934 by regional historian R.C. Reid. With the financial support of the Marquis of Bute, transcriptions were made and published in 1939 (covering the years 1623-1674) and 1950 (covering the years 1675-1700). The overwhelming majority of the deeds are simply bonds recording loans but also included are over 300 tacks (farm rental agreements) and related documents. When cross-referenced with P.H. McKerlie's five volume Lands and their Owners in Galloway, compiled between 1870 and 1878, a fairly comprehensive view of land use and land ownership in the Stewartry of Kirkcudbright can be gained – at least for the period 1660 to 1700. The following provides an illustration of this approach.

Entry 1265 in the Kirkcudbright Sheriff Court Deeds 1675-1700 is a Factory written at Killeleagh (on Strangford Loch in northern Ireland) dated 25 February 1688 by Sir Robert Maxwell of Orchardton appointing his nephew, Robert Maxwell of Gelston as factor for Sir Robert's Scottish estates, Sir Robert “now having his residence in the kingdom of Ireland”. Amongst the instructions given in the Factory is that the park of Netherlaw is not to be set to the plough and the Factory describes William Johnstone as “herd in the park of Netherlaw”. Ten years later, KSCD 1675-1700 entries 3182 and 3183 dated 31 March and 1 April 1698 respectively concern the herding of stock and upkeep of the dykes of Hugh McGuffog's parks at Dunrod, Kissocktown and Laigh Borgue in the parish of Borgue. KSCD 1675-1700 entry 1940, dated 28 December 1691, shows that Hugh McGuffog and Patrick Heron of Kirroughtree had previously [Dunbar died in 1686] been in partnership with Sir David Dunbar of Baldoon 'anent the parks thereof'. When this information is added to Leopold's research, which shows that the Netherlaw and Borgue cattle parks were levelled in 1724 28, the implications become significant. It suggests that the Galloway Levellers were not just reacting to recent evictions and enclosures. Some of their grievances appear to have been more long standing. In at least one case, the levelling of Robert Neilson's dykes at Barncaillie, the grievance may have originated in the religious and political conflicts of the 'Killing Times'.

The Neilsons had owned Barncailzie from 1527 to 1749,when it was sold to John Syme's father. The Neilsons were a Roman Catholic family, viewed with suspicion by their Presbyterian neighbours. It was alleged

that when the martyrs were shot upon the Moor of Lochenkit in 1685, Robert Neilson prohibited the burial of their bodies, even threatening to arrest any one who interred them, as abettors of their so-called crimes...In 1705, after frequent citations and provocations, Robert Neilson was solemnly excommunicated by the Presbytery of Dumfries; but in 1710, not with standing that sentence, Mr. Neilson and his family were still denounced as “popish”.29

Since Neilson of Barncaillie was not listed amongst the 'depopulating' lairds in any of the Levellers' various manifestos it is possible that an old score was being settled in his case. Likewise, the levelling of the dykes of George Maxwell of Munches. Again, Maxwell was a Roman Catholic landowner and his family had been Stuart supporters in the 17th century. In this case, however, the score being settled may have been more recent. Along with his brother Robert, George Maxwell had joined the Dumfries and Galloway Jacobites in 1715. As will be shown, by threatening to overturn the Revolution Settlement of 1689, the Jacobite rebellion of 1715 threatened to become a civil war in Dumfries and Galloway. In October 1715 Dumfries was threatened by local Jacobite forces led by William Gordon, Viscount Kenmure and William Maxwell, Earl of Nithsdale with the support of 2000 Highlanders led by William Mckintosh of Borlum. With all regular troops engaged in the struggle with the Earl of Mar's force in the north, the defence of Dumfries was left to a thousand or so local volunteers. These included a force of 300 'Hebronites' raised and armed by the Reverend John Hepburn of Urr.

Fortunately, rather than replay the Battle of Dunkeld (when a force of Cameronians held off a Jacobite attack in 1689) the Jacobite forces retreated and decided to invade England instead.30 When the Galloway Levellers took up arms against cattle parking lairds like the former Jacobite Sir Basil Hamilton of Baldoon in 1724, the muskets they carried and the skills needed to use them were most probably acquired by the 300 followers of Hepburn of Urr in 1715, although Hepburn himself had died in 1723.31

Whilst seventy years had passed between the Galloway Levellers uprising and the visits of Robert Burns and John Syme to Galloway in 1793 and 1794, the events of 1724 were still within living memory. Indeed, Burns himself knew an eye-witness to those events. An eye-witness who played an active and significant role in the revolution which finally swept away the last vestiges of the thousand year old social and agricultural environment the Levellers had known. This eye-witness was John Maxwell (1720-1814) of Terraughty and Munches,described by Burns as “Maxwell's veteran Chief!” in his Epistle to John Maxwell Esq. of Terraughty written to celebrate Maxwell's 71st birthday. Maxwell had laid claim to the earldom of Nithsdale forfeit by William Maxwell, 5th Earl of Nithsdale in 1716. Burns was familiar with other members of the Maxwell family. He wrote Nithsdale's welcome hame for Lady Winifred Maxwell Constable, granddaughter of William Maxwell. Burns friend and doctor, Dr. William Maxwell, was the son of James Maxwell of Kirkconnell (Stewartry of Kirkcudbright) who was a Jacobite in 1745/6. Dr. Maxwell was more of a Jacobin. He supported the French Revolution and witnessed the death of Louis XVI , allegedly dipping his handkerchief in Louis' blood.32

Since the final party of this study includes a detailed discussion of John Maxwell's career and achievements, a brief summary is presented here. In a letter written in 1811, John Maxwell described the “state of society, the value of land and conditions of agriculture” as they had been eighty years earlier. The letter was published in 1845 as a footnote in the New Statistical Account for the parish of Buittle.33 In the letter, John Maxwell gave an account of the Galloway Levellers.

I was born at Buittle,in this parish, which in olden times, was the fortrss and residence of John Ballioll, on the 7th day of February, old style, 1720, and do distinctly remember several circumstances that happened in the year 1723 and 1724.... In that same year [1723] many of the proprietors enclosed their grounds to stock them with black cattle,and, by that means, turned out a vast number of tenants at the term of Whitsunday 1723, whereby numbers of them became destitute, and, in consequence, rose in a mob; when, with pitchforks, gavellocks and spades, they levelled the park-dikes of Barncailzie and Munches, at Dalbeattie, which I saw with my own eyes. The mob passed by Dalbeattie and Buittle, and did the same on the estates of Netherlaw, Dundrod &c., and the Laird of Murdoch, then proprietor of Kilwhaneday, who turned out sixteen families that term.

Since Munches is only 2 km (1.5 miles) from the tower house and castle of Buittle where Maxwell was brought up, his claim to have witnessed the Levellers in action there is plausible. His knowledge of the more distant (and otherwise unrecorded) levelling of the dykes at Barncaillie is also plausible. His grandmother Margaret was a Neilson of Barncaillie who had married James Maxwell of Arkland (Kirkpatrick Durham) on 27 December 1694.34 John's mother was Elizabeth Maxwell of Arkland, sister to Robert Maxwell, Secretary to the Honourable Society of Improvers in the Knowledge of Agriculture which was founded in Edinburgh in 1723. Robert Maxwell himself was the enthusiastic improver but financially unsuccessful tenant of Prestongrange farm near Edinburgh. The burden of debt created by his commitment to agricultural improvement eventually forced Robert Maxwell to sell the family farm of Arkland .35

In contrast to his uncle Robert, John Maxwell found success through improvement and was able to buy back the family farm of Terraughty which his father had lost through debt, as well as buying Portrack estate in Nithsdale. But John Maxwell was able to become an improving landowner in his own right only after he had improved the lands of others. Unable to inherit Terraughty, Maxwell was first apprenticed to a cabinet maker and joiner in Dumfries. In his mid-twenties, Maxwell became factor to the Duke of Queensberry, managing the duke's Drumlanrig estate until 1765. He was then recommended to wealthy businessman Richard Oswald who was looking for someone to oversee the improvement of his estate in Galloway. This particular process of improvement is the subject of a detailed case study by Devine.

The estate of Cavens and Preston in Kirkcudbright was acquired by Sir Richard Oswald of Auchincruive in 1765...He was a man of immense wealth, with kinsfolk among the Glasgow tobacco aristocracy, who made his large fortune through his merchant house in London and especially as a result of his role as an arms contractor during the Seven Years War. Between his purchase of Cavens and the 1780s the property was subjected to a comprehensive programme of improvement under the supervision of Oswald's energetic factor, John Maxwell.36

Significantly, Devine notes that when John Maxwell had the opportunity to replace eighteen cottar or crofter families paying rents worth £66 with three tenant farmers paying £90 to £100, Maxwell “was not willing to countenance the mass clearance involved.”. Instead, Maxwell decided to raise the rent to £80, divided amongst the existing possessors. It may have been, as Devine suggests, that Maxwell's gradualist approach to improvement was facilitated by Richard Oswald's great wealth. On the other hand, the Galloway Levellers actions clearly made a strong impression on Maxwell as a child. The spectre of armed Levellers ranging unchecked across the countryside which haunted his childhood may well have influenced his unwillingness “to countenance mass clearance.”. Indeed, Cavens estate itself may have been subject to the attentions of the Levellers in 1724, since “Murray of Cavens” was included in the Levellers' list of depopulating lairds.37

Hancock, in his study of Richard Oswald and his associates (who included William Herries of Spottes, the recipient of John Maxwell's letter of 1811), attributes the consensual approach to the management of Cavens to Oswald himself.

If Oswald succeeded in his improvements, it was because he proceeded cautiously, experimenting with new techniques and treating his workers leniently by the standards of the time. Although it is not the image of the improver passed down by contemporary or subsequent commentators, a picture of Oswald as a landlord fiercely intent on establishing close, long-term relations with his workers and tenants emerges from his estate correspondence.38