Sep 13 2005

Who Were the Galloway Levellers?

Category: Emancipation & Liberation,Issue 11RCN @ 2:50 pm

Alistair Livingston

Local variations aside, what was the fate of those who were no longer required on the land that once fed them? More than Adam Smith, more than any of the other Enlightenment theorists, it was the ex-Jacobite, James Steaurt, who foresaw their fate. As Marx recognised, ‘He examined the process [of the genesis of capital] particularly in agriculture; and he rightly considers that manufacturing proper only came into being through this process of separation in agriculture. In Adam Smith’s writing’s the process of separation is assumed to be already complete’.

Steaurt predicted, in words that should have been written in fire and blood, ‘That revolution must then mark the purging of the lands of superfluous mouths, and forcing those to quit their mother earth, in order to retire to towns and villages, where they may usefully swell the number of free hands and apply to industry’

(1) Neil Davidson, The Scottish Path to Capitalist Agriculture-Part 2

Neil Davidson’s quote, that should have been written in fire and blood, comes from Sir James Steuart’s Inquiry into the Principles of Political Economy, first published in 1767. Nearly 80 years earlier, Queen Mary (married to the Stuart King, James VII and II), suggested that, Scotland will never be at peace until the southern parts are made a hunting park. Queen Mary’s remark was made in the context of the ‘Killing Times’ of 1685/6 when her husband believed he faced armed insurrection by the Cameronians in southern Scotland. After the 1603 Union of the Crowns, his great-grandfather James VI and I had pacified the Borders by transporting whole ‘clans’ like the Grahams and Armstrongs to Ireland. Had her husband been able to stay in power, this old Stuart policy of ‘pacification through clearance’ may well have been applied to the Cameronian insurgents.

Queen Mary’s remarks were repeated in an anonymous letter in support of the Galloway Levellers published in June 1724. This News from Galloway, or a poor man’s plea against his Landlord, in a letter to a friend, raised the fear that Jacobite landowners in Galloway were pursuing military and political objectives under the guise of economic agrarian rationalisation – the ‘purging of the lands of superfluous mouths’. What seems to have revived the spectre of politically motivated clearance were the actions of one Basil Hamilton. He actively supported the Jacobites in 1715.

Lately the said Mr Basil Hamilton hath cast out 13 families upon the 22nd of May instant who are lying by the dykesides. Neither will he suffer them to erect any shelter or covering at the dykesides to preserve their little ones from the injury of the cold, which cruelty is very like the accomplishment of that threatening of the Jacobites at the late rebellion [1715], that they would make Galloway a hunting field, because of our public appearance for his Majesty King George at Dumfries, and our opposition to them at that time in their wicked designs (2) .

So were the Galloway Levellers simply acting against local Jacobites? Perhaps to begin with, but soon they were levelling every dyke they found, regardless of the landowners’ political affiliations. Indeed, as I explain below, the Levellers actions forced Jacobite and Covenanter landlords to work together with the Hanoverian state to suppress their uprising.

But is there a link from the Galloway Levellers uprising to Sir James Steaurt and hence to Karl Marx? Discussing the Galloway Levellers, Davidson makes the following point.

Galloway was part of the south-western heartland of the later Covenanters and, in particular, was the area from which the post-Cameronian sects which succeeded them had drawn their highest levels of support. Some of these sects, like the Hebronites and the MacMillanites, who had been active in opposition to the Treaty of Union, were still functioning and provided the insurgents with an ideological and organisational framework within which to mobilise… (3).

Following up this reference to Hebronites and MacMillanites, I found an article on The Hebronites (4) (followers of John Hepburn, minister of Urr parish) and discovered that Sir James Steuart of Goodtrees knew both Hepburn and Macmillan – or so this comment by Sir James Steaurt indicates,

Mr. Hepburn I know to be a good man but weak, but as for Macmillan—! (5)

This James Steaurt was the father of Marx’s James Steaurt, and was solicitor general of Scotland in 1724, the Year of the Galloway Levellers. But who were these Levellers? Two years ago, when asked this question, on a BBC Radio Scotland series on the Lowland Clearances, I thought I knew.

Direct and militant action

The Galloway Levellers were a thousand strong group of small tenant farmers and cottars who took direct and militant action against local landowners who wanted to clear them from the land. These landowners were taking advantage of the Union of 1707 to breed cattle for export to England in exchange for hard cash. The cattle were bred and then fattened in large enclosures, some up to two square miles in size. Everyone living on the land so enclosed was evicted.

In response, through the summer of 1724, the Levellers ‘levelled’ these new enclosures. The landlords tried to stop them, but the Levellers had been drilled by ex-soldiers like Billy Marshall, ‘king’ of the Galloway gypsies, and were armed with muskets, swords, pitchforks and scythes. The only dyke left unlevelled by Marshall and his force belonged to Robert Johnstone of Kelton. This was only saved with the support of William Falconer, the minister of Kelton, bribes of beer and bread, an agreement by Johnstone not to evict any of his tenants and the claim that his dyke was a march dyke built along the public highway.

Unable to control the revolt themselves, the landlords called for back-up from the state. Troops of dragoons were despatched and, by November 1724, the Galloway Levellers uprising was over. The ringleaders were imprisoned, fined or sent to the Plantations. No other such uprising occurred, allowing the process of ‘agricultural improvement’ in Scotland to proceed unhindered through the 1760s into the 1830s. The Galloway Leveller’s uprising was therefore only a footnote to Scotland’s history, fascinating for a local historian like myself, but of little wider importance.

But then the makers of the series, Peter Aitchison and Andrew Cassell, went on to ask Professor Chris Whately of Dundee University his views on the significance of the Galloway Levellers. He suggested that the Leveller’s uprising had an important and long lasting impact beyond Galloway. The Galloway Levellers had so ‘frightened the authorities’ that the process of agricultural improvement/lowland clearance proceeded more cautiously and slowly (6).

Chris Whately’s comments prompted me to research, via the internet, the wider significance of the Galloway Levellers. This led me to Allan Armstrong’s article, Beyond Broadswords and Bayonets in Emancipation & Liberation 5/6 – which connected the Galloway Levellers to the Cameronians – and to Neil Davidson’s book, Discovering the Scottish Revolution, which also discusses the Galloway Levellers. Subsequently, when Allan provided me with back issues of Emancipation & Liberation, I found the following in Neil Davidson’s reply to criticisms of his article.

Unless comrades are prepared to engage with primary sources and to interrogate the historical meanings of concepts which they use…there cannot be any real debate (7).

Revolutionary traditions

These words jolted me. I realised that I had accepted rather than interrogated local historical sources of information about the Galloway Levellers. Nor, until I read Allan Armstrong’s Beyond Broadswords and Bayonets (8), had I thought of the Galloway Levellers as part of Scotland’s revolutionary traditions. Challenged by the debate in Emancipation and Liberation, I have gone back to my local history sources and interrogated them. As a result, my previous understanding of who the Galloway Levellers were has been revolutionised.

What began as a short article on the Galloway Levellers for Emancipation and Liberation has so far reached 7000 words and keeps growing. With no conclusion in sight, the following summary of research will have to suffice for the present. The key text from which all subsequent historical accounts of the Galloway Levellers are drawn, including Davidson’s, is a thirty page long article by A.S. Morton (9). Most of what follows comes from following up persons, events and places mentioned in Morton’s text and cross-referencing these with other local historical sources.

The absence of commercial agriculture in Scotland meant, however, that whatever other depredations were suffered by the peasantry, clearance had not yet been one of them… The Gallwegian economy was largely geared up towards cattle rearing and in that respect was closer to the economy of the Western Highlands than to that of Aberdeenshire (10).

Yet in 1721, when Sir John Clerk of Penicuik visited his brother-in-law, the 5th earl of Galloway, James Steuart (or Stewart), he described already existing enclosures dating from 1684 in Wigtownshire which had involved clearance (11).

Although called the ‘Galloway’ Levellers, dyke levelling activities (which took place between March and September 1724) were focused on 6 ‘lowland’ parishes in the Stewartry of Kirkcudbright/ east Galloway. In autumn 1724, some levelling activity spread to Wigtownshire/west Galloway, but this was met with more forcible opposition, including the death of a leveller and the rapid deployment of sufficient troops (an additional 4 troops of dragoons) to quell the revolt in October / November 1724.

The military skills of the Levellers, although attributed to the involvement of ex-soldiers with experience in Europe, is more likely related to the raising of a local ‘militia’ in response to the threat posed by the Jacobite rebellion of 1715. According to a contemporary account [Rae, 1718] those drawn from the Stewartry of Kirkcudbright numbered 2000 (out of a population of 20 000) in October 1715. In the previous months (at around 100 per parish) this militia had been armed and drilled on a weekly basis by ‘captains’ appointed by the Marquis of Annandale, as Steward of Kirkcudbright and Sheriff of Dumfries.

The one dyke left unlevelled belonged to Robert Johnstone of Kelton , who was one of these ‘captains’. Johnstone was a former (post-1689) provost of Dumfries and his lands at Kelton in theory belonged to the Maxwell earls of Nithsdale – long time Stuart supporters and active Jacobites in 1715. (Legally, the Maxwell’s only finally lost ownership of their Kelton lands in 1747.) Robert Johnstone was also an investor in the Darien Scheme.

The initial focus of levelling activities were dykes built by the Maxwells of Munches and Basil Hamilton of Baldoon’s lands, near Kirkcudbright. All had been active Jacobite supporters in 1715. Basil Hamilton (related to Dukes of Hamilton) is a key figure. His mother was daughter of David Dunbar of Baldoon in Wigtownshire. Dunbar (died 1686) was first to enclose lands for the cattle trade, circa 1640. He had been a Stuart supporter during ‘Killing Times’ of 1680s. In the 1670s, Dunbar acquired land in Stewartry of Kirkcudbright forfeited after 1660 by Lord Maclellan of Kirkcudbright for his active support in the 1640s for the Covenant cause. The situation was reversed in 1716, when it was the Dunbar estates, inherited by Hamilton, which were forfeit. They were not regained until 1732. Hamilton only avoided execution as traitor in 1716 after intervention by his cousin, the Duke of Hamilton.

Many other named landlords, initially on the side of Levellers’ Revolt, figure in Rae’s account of 1715- e.g. Thomas Gordon of Earlston and Patrick Heron of Kirroughtrie. It was Heron who advised landowners not to fight Levellers after noting their military skills. Heron was also a ‘captain’ in 1715 and so had helped train local anti-Jacobite militia of whom ex-members (I strongly suspect) supplied Levellers with their military tactics. Gordon of Earlston was another ‘captain’ from 1715 with deep family Covenanting roots.

Although the Levellers’ Revolt may have begun as a limited attack on the property of known Jacobite landlords, the participants moved on to level all the dykes. The threat posed to their interests united both Jacobite and Covenanter, as can be seen from a letter dated 2 May 1724 by the Earl of Galloway to his brother-in-law, John Clerk of Penicuick in Edinburgh [Prevost: 1967: 197] Noe doubt you have heard of Mr Hamilton’s going to Edinburgh with Earlstoune to represent the grievances of our countrie on that score. [ i.e. the activities of the Levellers; the mission being to request that troops be sent].

The physical actions taken by the Levellers were supported by printed pamphlets spelling out their grievances. Dated June 7th 1724, one of these: News from Galloway, or the Poor Man’s plea against his Landlord must have reached Edinburgh, since a twenty page long response was published there by Philadelphus on 1st July. Entitled Opinion of Sir Thomas More, Lord High Chancellor of England, concerning enclosures, in answer to a letter from Galloway, the pamphlet also quotes from a book published by Robert Powell in 1636 (a lawyer belonging to the Society of the New Inn) De-population arraigned, convicted and condemned by the laws of God and Man. This pamphlet caused considerable alarm among the authorities in Edinburgh, and the Lord Advocate went personally to the bookseller to demand the name of the author. An attempt was made to stop the sale of it, but the result was a greater demand for it than before (12).

The Lord Advocate then called for a Public Enquiry, which was held in Kirkcudbright during the summer of 1724. Basil Hamilton was infuriated, claiming that Provost Kilpatrick of Kirkcudbright, who led the Enquiry, was a Leveller sympathiser. [I am trying to track down the findings of this Public Enquiry].

Although both Neil Davidson and Allan Armstrong both agree that the Galloway Levellers had the support of, and were encouraged by, radical Covenanting elements (the Macmillanites and Hebronites) local evidence does not fully support this. Hepburn, minister of Urr, in the Stewartry, died in May 1723. Macmillan, who had illegally occupied the parish church and manse of Balmaghie since 1703 with armed Cameronian support, spent little time in Galloway after 1723. This was the year Macmillan’s second wife, sister to Thomas Gordon of Earlston, died.

The strongest ‘religious’ support for the Levellers came from Monteith of Borgue who opposed Macmillan and was firmly within the Church of Scotland. Falconer of Kelton was likewise an opponent of Macmillan, but was also suspected of being a Leveller sympathiser. Additional support may have come from Hugh Clanny, a minister at Kirkbean who had been expelled for immorality in 1702.

And finally, Morton gives us the names of some of the Galloway Levellers.

On the 27th January 1725, at a court held in the Tolbooth of Kirkcudbright in the Stewartry of Kirkcudbright in Galloway, with the following justices being on the bench – Thomas Gordon of Earlston, David Lidderdale of Torrs, Colonel William Maxwell of Cardoness (presiding), John Gordon of Largmore, Robert Gordon of Garvarie, Nathaniel Gordon of Carleton, and John Maxwell, provost of Kirkcudbright – the Honourable Basil Hamilton brought a complaint at the instance of Lady Mary Hamilton of Baldoon (being his mother) and himself as her factor against,

  • Thomas Moire of Beoch and Grisel Grierson his wife
  • John Walker of Cotland
  • Robert McMorran of Orroland
  • John Shennan and William Shennan of Kirkcarswell
  • John Cogan, John Bean, Thomas Millagane and Thomas Richardson of Gribty
  • James Robeson of Merks
  • John Donaldson and John Cultane the younger of Bombie
  • John Cairns and John Martin of Lochfergus
  • Alexander McClune and James Shennan of Nethermilns
  • James Wilson of Greenlane croft
  • Robert Herries of Auchleandmiln
  • John, George and Robert Hyslop of Mullock
  • John McKnaught of Meadowisles

that between the 12 and 16th days of May 1724, they did in a most riotous, tumultuous and illegal way assemble and convene themselves with some hundred other rioters, mostly all armed with guns, swords, pistols, clubs, batons, pitchforks and other offensive weapons on Bombie Muir, parish of Kirkcudbright on the Stewartry thereof and marched to the lands of Galtways, belonging to the complainer and then:

demolished 580 roods of dykes, equal to £19 6s 8d, in consequence of which the complainer was damnified of her stock of 400 black cattle kept at grassing within said inclosure, amounting to £50 by the loss of mercats; the fences being pulled down obliging the complainer to drive them to some remote place before sunset each night and watch them all night and keep them from straying which hindered them being fattened for which the sum of £50 is claimed, as also for the complainers cattle breaking away and destroying other people’s corn for which the complainer is chargeable, together with the sum of £500 sterling as damages sustained for rebuilding the said dykes (13).

My interrogation of the sources continues. However, it would appear that the actions of the Galloway Levellers began as an explicitly anti-Jacobite action, with the tacit support of some former Covenanting landlords. However, they developed in a more socially radical direction, levelling dykes without political discrimination. This is when they met the joint opposition of Covenanter and Jacobite landlords, who called in the Hanoverian state to help crush the rebellion. By this time, even the one-time, more radical, organised Covenanting factions, e.g. the Hebronites and Cameronians, had fallen into political passivity. The levellers had to fall back on their own independent Covenanting traditions and the support of various individuals, who looked with some trepidation to the consequences of the break-up of the old social order.

Alistair Livingston

References

  • (1) Neil Davidson, in the Journal of Agrarian Change, Vol. 4, No.4, 2004, p. 444
  • (2) An Account of the Reasons of Some People in Galloway, their Meetings anent Public Grievances through Inclosures in Morton, Transactions Dumfriesshire and Galloway Natural History and Antiquarian Society: 1935, issue 244.
  • (3) Neil Davidson, Discovering the Scottish Revolution, p. 217.
  • (4) H. Reid, The Hebronites in Transactions of the Dumfriesshire and Galloway Natural History and Antiquarian Society,
    (TDGNHAS) 1920.
  • (5) H. Reid TDGNHAS , op. cit., p.135, quoting Wodrow Analecta III p. 244.
  • (6) Peter Aitchison and Andrew Cassell, The Lowland Clearances – Scotland’s Silent Revolution, 1760-1830, p. 49, ( Tuckwell, 2003).
  • (7) Neil Davidson, ‘Unionism’, Progress and the socialist tradition in Scottish history, in Emancipation & Liberation 8, p. 30.
  • (8) Allan Armstrong, Beyond Broadswords and Bayonets in Emancipation & Liberation, 5/6, p. 41.
  • (9) A. S. Morton, The Levellers of Galloway, TDGNHAS, Third Series, 1936, volume 19.
  • (10) Neil Davidson, Discovering the Scottish Revolution, p. 216.
  • (11) W.A.J. Prevost:TDGNHAS, 1962/3.
  • (12) A.S. Morton, TDGNHAS, Third Series, 1936, volume 19, p. 247.
  • (13) A.S. Morton, TDGNHAS, Third Series, 1936, volume 19.

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