Englishmen, Rogues and Levellers

‘I’ve a saw heed’, said Alistair. Had he grazed his head? Did he need to see a doctor?  ‘Ask your mother to send a note,’ I said. 

Next morning Alistair, sighing with impatience, thrust a scrunched up scrap of paper into my hand and went back to sit amongst his friends, leaving me standing alone at the front of the class. I unfolded the paper to reveal a smudged, spidery scrawl: ‘Alistair had a saw heed, Alistair’s Mam.’ I took my seat on the raised platform, pretending all was clear to me now. It wasn’t, of course. The class knew I was being too English. I learnt a lesson that day. A couple of years later, when I said I was going back to England, my pupils paid me an unexpected compliment: ‘You’re English?’ they chorused.

‘If one lives in Galloway, one either fishes or paints.’ I suspect Lord Peter Whimsey did not mean this sort of fishing: a Scallop dredger in Harbour Square, Kirkcudbright.

Edwin Muir, in his 1935 ‘Scottish Journey’ came across a group of English tourists in the dining room of his Kirkcudbright hotel. He characterised them as the ‘Shufflebottoms’, who have the ‘strange and exasperating habit’ of filling their visit to a ‘foreign country’ with the ‘local atmosphere of some provincial or suburban district of their own land’. He may well have been thinking of Richard Hannay in ‘The Thirty-nine Steps’ and Lord Peter Whimsey in ‘Five Red Herrings’ who roamed Galloway as if they had recently returned from an anthropological study of colonial tribes and were irritated to find they were not now in the Home Counties.

The same cannot be said of S.R. Crockett’s 1894 story of smuggling and cattle rustling, ‘The Raiders’. Patrick Heron, the Laird of Hestan Island is very much a creation of the Galloway mind, set around the Colvend coast, Hestan Island, and the Galloway Hills. Although S.R. Crockett, like fictional English toffs Whimsey and Hannay did his fair share of roaming around England and Europe.

The authors of ‘Five Red Herrings’, ‘The Thirty-nine Steps’ and ‘The Raiders’ wrote at a time when industrialisation was evident around Kirkcudbright, and in quite an innovative way, but all three ignored it. On my return to Galloway after an absence of thirty years, I pass through Tongland, on the Dee just north of Kirkcudbright, and the site of a factory that made munitions during the First World War. After the war, Dorothée Pullinger, was appointed director and manager of Galloway Motors. The converted armament factory produced ‘a car made by ladies for those of their own sex’ until 1923. The factory, catering for the largely female workforce had two tennis courts on the roof, a swimming pool and a hockey team.

The journey time from Dumfries is faster now, with the piecemeal widening of the A75, and there are obligatory supermarkets on bypasses at Castle Douglas and Dumfries. In Kirkcudbright I find a tattoo shop, which would, in the past, have caused raised eyebrows. The Reverend Dick, travelling by cycle and foot before the First World War, described it as ‘small, clean, silent and respectable’. Dorothy L. Sayers, in 1931, saw a different town. She thought the tidy, brightly painted houses hid guilty secrets. Her sleuth, Lord Peter Whimsy unearthed murder most foul amongst the artistic community. There were Five Red Herrings, five artists: all respectable, all credible suspects. 

Nothing is quite what it seems in this sleepy town. Not even it’s name. Countless books and pamphlets claim Kirkcudbright was named after a visit from St. Cuthbert. But there is an older provenance according to the Reverend Elder, writing in 1895. He argued Celtic tribes were the town’s earliest inhabitants, and they called the settlement “Caer-cuabrit…or the fort at the bend of the river.” The town’s name is not the only thing early Christians tried to adopt from the Druidic tradition. An attempt to win hearts and minds went badly wrong when visiting priests from Lindisfarne offered their blessing of the ancient ritual of bull baiting in St. Mary Street. It is said the bull broke free from its tether and attacked the Abbey’s priests, bringing the annual celebration to an inglorious end.             

The town, and the Galloway Hills have a violent and troubled past. In the twelfth century, local lad Gilbert gauged the eyes from his brother Uchtred at Castledykes to claim the Lordship of Galloway. In the religious turbulence of the 1680’s Grier of Lagg brought terror, witch-hunts and death to Covenanters throughout the Stewartry of Kirkcudbright during the ‘Killing Times’. By 1720 the killing had stopped but the dying hadn’t. Starvation cast a shadow over the countryside, and the town fell into disrepair. The town council complained half the houses were empty or falling down, and that gangs roamed the streets, assaulting and robbing inhabitants. In the eighteenth century, in the Galloway hills, Levellers wrecked hundreds of yards of wall in a single night. Leaving few walls standing between Kirkcudbright and Gatehouse. Concessions were gained, but many Levellers were captured, imprisoned, or banished to plantations in the West Indies and North America.

There is of course, another popularized connection with North America, the Galloway founder of the American Navy, John Paul Jones. Imprisoned briefly in the town’s tollbooth, accused of killing one of his crew in the West Indies, he built his naval reputation through attacks upon Whitehaven. Less well know was his attempt to kidnap the Earl of Selkirk from his house on St. Mary Isle. When he found the Earl wasn’t at home he made off with the silver plate instead. Herman Melville writes a fictional account of this attack, and Jones’ attack upon Whitehaven, in his 1855 novella, ‘Israel Potter’. 

History and fiction meet again in the silver waters between Rockcliffe and Auchencairn. Muir dismissed ‘The Raiders’, a smugglers tale, as a part of that body of work that responded to the Industrial Revolution, with ‘comfort and escape’. Set in the aftermath of the ‘Killing Times’ of Grier of Lagg, it is a rousing story, immersed in the character, landscape and history of the period. The book is set in a time when Galloway was recovering from religious terrorism, a time of great poverty and despair. No wonder smuggling, or the ‘Gentle Trade’ as it was known, became an attractive, romanticised occupation. ‘Free trading’ and cattle stealing are still commemorated in the ‘Murder Holes’ of the hills, and the ‘Smuggler’s Caves’ of the coast that pepper the Ordnance Survey map.

‘The Raiders’, written largely in dialect, caused me a ‘saw heed’, but The Laird of Rathan Island occasionally deserts dialect, and speaks ‘…very slow and calm…as English as I could’, maybe a concession to the English reader, a concession Alistair and his Mam didn’t make for this Shufflebottom.

Inspired by:

C.H. Dick with Illustrations by H Thompson (First published 1916: 2001 Edition) Highways & Byways in Galloway, G.C. Book Publishers

Dorothy L Sayers (First published 1931:1988 Edition) Five Red Herrings, Hodder & Stoughton

Edwin Muir (First published 1935: 1979 Edition) Scottish Journey, Mainstream Publishing

Herman Melville (First published 1855: Kindle Edition) Israel Potter: His Fifty Years of Exile. Kindle

John Buchan (First published 1915:1993 Edition) The Thirty-nine Steps, Wordsworth Classics

S.R. Crocket (First published 1894:1978 Edition) The Raiders, MaDonald and Sproat