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.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Origin of Scottish enlightenment

Sometime towards the end of October 1724, the last stand of the Galloway Levellers took place near Little Duchrae farm in Balmaghie parish. Around 200 Levellers, some armed with guns, took up a defensive position on an earthwork where they waited for the earl of Stair’s dragoons, led by major Gardiner to attack. Gardiner had instructed his troops to use minimal force, but the Levellers do not appear to have put up much of a fight. Most were captured and taken back to Kirkcudbright, but only a few arrived there. Most were allowed to escape en route.
The lack of bloodshed at Little Duchrae followed the pattern of previous encounters during May and June 1724. When the local justices of the peace and heritors (larger landowners) encountered large groups of armed Levellers, negotiations rather than conflict ensued. When the troops were involved, the Levellers dispersed rather than confront them.
Why was the Levellers uprising such a bloodless affair? One possible reason is that there was that even king George I had expressed sympathy for their grievances so they were seen as misguided rather than wicked. Another possibility is awareness of recent history. In 1666, an armed uprising which began in Dalry had ended in the battle of Rullion Green near Edinburgh. In 1679, there had been the battles of Drumclog and Bothwell Brig which had involved many from Galloway. More recently, during the Jacobite rebellion of 1715, Jacobite forces had advanced towards Dumfries but turned back rather than risk a repeat of the 1689 battle of Dunkeld when the Cameronian regiment had held off a fierce assault by a Jacobite force. The Cameronian regiment and Major Gardiner also fought the Jacobites at the battle of Preston in 1715. In 1724, John McMillan of Balmaghie was minister to the ‘civilian’ (religious sect) Cameronians. Since several of the enclosing landowners the Levellers had risen up against were active Jacobites in 1715, the fear that a cycle of violence might break out again was a legitimate fear.
So, although the lack of bloodshed in 1724 has relegated the uprising of the Galloway Levellers to footnote to Scottish history, the peaceful resolution of this event marked a significant victory for reason on both sides. It was the first sign of Enlightenment in Scotland’s long and bloody history. And it happened here, near Little Duchrae farm in Balmaghie parish in the Stewartry of Kirkcudbright.


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