The Scottish Qualifications Authority is looking for novels, plays and poems by Scottish writers for the ‘Scottish Question’ that will comprise part of the new English Higher examination. Most of the names on the list up for consideration so far are recognisable; and, no doubt, when the list is completed there will be more familiar texts and writers who will be studied for this part of the examination. However, one of the names that will not be on the list will be John Galt, friend of Byron and the forgotten man of Scottish Literature – a wonder in itself as he was so highly prolific and a creator of not just novels, but genres.
John Galt was born in Irvine, the son of a naval captain and cousin to Alexander Allan who went on to found his own shipping line. He traveled in Europe (befriending Byron) and lived in London, Edinburgh and Glasgow as he wrote and sought his fortune. Involved in a business venture in Canada, he moved there but fell afoul of the authorities and, being recalled to Britain, was imprisoned for failure to pay his debts. This didn’t stop him getting involved in another scheme in Canada, however, his health failed him and he returned to Greenock and published his two volume auto-biography. He wrote continuously throughout his adult life.
For the past year or so, an interest in the Scottish Borders had been a consistent focus of my reading, so finding John Galt’s Annals of the Parish on a trolley in school, I thought I’d give it a bash. I wouldn’t say it was a revelation, but it was very enjoyable and I found it to be very a perceptive novel. It is a story of the years of a Scottish Presbyterian minister’s ministry in a small Ayrshire parish as told by himself, the Reverend Micah Balwhidder. The narrator is a mixture of the admirable, the kind, the self-deluding and the absurd. His recounting of the events of the parish give an insight into the values of the time and how the great events and changes of that period, the later 18th century to the early 19th century, impacted on ordinary people in the west coast of Scotland.
It has been called the first social novel. It was intended, by Galt, to do for Scotland what the Vicar of Wakefield did for England, although I’m not sure what that was? A satire on the Church of England and society? There is certainly a strong satiric element to Annals of the Parish.
For me though, the real strength of the novel is the fact that it is so limited in time, place and social scope. It deals with very few characters, never extends in distance beyond a visit to Edinburgh and, in the main, deals with very few remarkable events. The great, world-changing historical events of the period are demonstrated by the immigration of an American loyalist family after the American Revolution; the industrial revolution by the opening of a mill; the French revolution touches Ayrshire in the form of dropping church numbers and a restlessness among the workers leading to fines. Although the Reverend Balwhidder can be viewed as prudish, naive and narrow, he is given to moments of insight that are hugely impressive because we, with the benefit of 200 years of hindsight, can see how accurate his statements were with the subsequent unfolding of society.
Buoyed by this experience, I’ve started to read Ringan Gilhaize; a much darker story about Scottish Covenanters. John Galt wrote it to correct the faulty portrayal of them by Walter Scott no less. Although, I can’t compare John Galt to Walter Scott – yet. I’ve read enough to know that John Galt is a serious and major figure in Scottish Literature and deserves more recognition than a commemoration outside Makars’ Court in Edinburgh and a memorial fountain in Greenock. He deserves to be read!
Will he be one of the authors selected for the ‘Scottish Question’? No. He’s too little known, there are too few resources on him and many of the events of which he writes are completely unknown to Higher students. Unfortunately, the historical knowledge required to understand some of the important themes in his writing would take some time to teach and Higher English does not afford the luxury of that sort of time. And, ironically, he writes with a good sprinkling of Scots. Despite being promoted by the government, a Scots language text involves a certain amount of risk for an English teacher – will the requirement to look up too many words alienate students from the text? It can do.
Nonetheless, he is a very good read and hopefully the promotion of Scottish Literature will carry John Galt in its wake.