John Galt

1779 - 1839

Biography

John Galt was born in Irvine in 1779, the son of a sea captain who traded with the West Indies. In 1789 the family moved to Greenock and much of Galt’s fiction draws from the localities of the west coast of Scotland where he spent his youth. He was a sickly child and much of his time was spent listening to the traditional tales of his mother and the local women of Greenock, an influence that feeds into Galt’s gift for storytelling and his acute ear for regional dialect.

John Galt was possessed of a pragmatic as well as an imaginative turn of mind. He had a keen interest in business and politics and always maintained that he regarded writing as a secondary profession. From 1796 - 1804 Galt worked as a junior justice clerk in Greenock before setting off for London on a sudden impulse of restless ambition. Here he studied political economy and commercial history and practise but failed to really make his mark on the business world despite several promising ventures.

Around the age of twenty-four Galt began writing. He experimented in verse but was an inferior poet. Several of his essays, however, were published and this writing at this time demonstrates his early interest in politics and the colonies, particularly Canada which had long captured his imagination.

In 1809 Galt spent a period of time travelling on the Mediterranean and it was here that he made his acquaintance with Lord Byron who was to become the subject of his acclaimed biography The Life of Byron in 1830. In 1811 he returned to London, his commercial aspirations disappointed and turned to journalism as a means of making money. At 34, he married the daughter of his literary patron, Alexander Tilloch. It was at this time too that Galt gained his experience of the workings of Parliament as a lobbyist for the Edinburgh-Glasgow canal. These experiences were to be formative in Galt’s later political career in Canada and were also to inform his later political novels, The Radical and The Member.

In 1813 Galt conceived the idea of writing a west of Scotland novel based on the observations of a parish minister but he was to wait until the writing of Walter Scott had transformed the climate of Scottish literature before a publisher would accept a book about a Scottish subject. Once published Galt’s works flew off the press. The Ayrshire Legates were serialised in 1820 –21. Then came Galt’s The Steamboat and Annals of the Parish in 1821, and Sir Andrew Wylie, The Gathering of the West, The Provost and The Entail in 1822. In 1823 Ringan Gilhaize, was published, followed by two less successful historical novels.

Yet despite critical and commercial success, Galt had not abandoned his business aspirations. In 1824 Galt became actively involved in political campaigning on behalf of the Canadian colony and two years later left for Canada leaving the manuscript for The Last of the Lairds with his publisher. During the years 1827-29 Galt developed the virgin territories of the Canadian colony and founded the townships of Guelph and Goderich. For Galt, the Canadian project was the realisation of his most profound ambitions. But he was to fall foul of colonial bureaucracy and was eventually forced to return to Britain in 1829 under charges of debt and placed in prison.

Once again Galt resorted to writing for money, contributing short stories to periodicals and penning and several long novels. These, however, were not the format in which his talents lay and his final political novels The Member and The Radical mark a return to form in 1832. In his later years Galt suffered a stroke and composed his Autobiography by dictation, with the intention of setting the record straight about his involvement in Canada. He returned to Greenock in 1834 and continued writing up until his death, aged 60, in 1839.

Works

Galt’s pragmatic turn of mind meant that he was disinclined to write novels merely as exercises in fancy. His intention was to instruct as well as to entertain and he gave the title of ‘theoretical history’ to the body of his works. Novels such as Annals of the Parish (1821), The Entail (1822), The Provost (1822) or The Member (1832) are studies of religion, politics and law in the local boroughs of Scotland during the transitional late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Galt’s novels then are concerned with the effects of change upon communities and upon the social institutions that shape those communities. The novels are far from dry, prosaic studies, however. Galt’s gift for storytelling is characterised by wit and humour – often at the expense of the unsuspecting self-revelations of his first person narrators.

In Annals of the Parish, Galt’s first and perhaps best known ‘theoretical history,’ Galt takes as his narrator the simple, if somewhat worldly and vain minister Micah Balwhidder. The novel is deceptively simple, with very little in the way of plot development. Each chapter describes the events of a single year in Balwhidder’s ministry, spanning the years 1760 to 1810. Much of the pleasure of the book derives from Galt’s ironic treatment of the narrator’s own deluded self-importance. Balwhidder’s theology is strictly orthodox and his interpretation of events, in which he places himself as a latter-day apostle, is often restricted to a parochial and self-interested view. For his observations of international affairs he reads the Scots Magazine, he unwittingly reveals his desire to take a wife for selfish, domestic ends and he is more than casually interested in his worldly status. One of the most celebrated of Galt’s techniques is his faithful rendering of Ayrshire Scots as a vehicle for sophisticated storytelling and Balwhidder’s narrative voice is recorded with attention to its peculiar ministerial elements of biblical allusion and classical learning.

The novel then is a vehicle both for irony, at the expense of an unwitting central character, and social critique via its observations of parish life during the latter half of the eighteenth century. The novel records the effects of agricultural improvement, industrialisation, new roads and communications as well as the impact of the American Wars of Independence and the French Revolution, albeit events and changes that are seen to merely touch upon the edges of a quiet rural parish. The skill of the novel is in conveying the rapid change of Scottish society in a manner that accurately reflects the way in which history itself moves by increments and that the peoples at the eye of the storm rarely perceive its momentum. It was this combination of historical accuracy alongside sociological perception that led the contemporary critic, John Wilson, to comment of Annals of the Parish, that it was “not a book but a fact” – a practicable reading that would, no doubt, have pleased Galt immensely.

Galt’s writing has undergone a patchy critical reception. Some critics charged him with parochialism and some considered his rendering of ‘coarse Scots’ too ‘vulgar’ for polite tastes. Other regarded Galt simply as a comic writer and failed to perceive his wider historical and sociological intentions.

A novel such as Ringan Gilhaize (1823), described in 1897 by Sir George Douglas as “a neglected masterpiece,” gives the lie to such assessments. The nineteenth-century reviewer, Francis Jeffrey, criticised the novel for its gloomy atmosphere. But in this book Galt made a radical departure from the tone of his past works in an historical novel that is intended to shock rather than entertain. Ringan Gilhaize is comparable with James Hogg’s earlier Private Memoirs and Confessions of A Justified Sinner (1824), which describes the effects of religious fanaticism. The psychological precision of Galt’s depiction of the eventual demise of his central protagonist, Ringan, was part of Galt’s larger desire to investigate the private motives animating the Covenanting movement and the spirit that ignited the religious controversies of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The novel, which is ultimately a plea for moderation and good sense, eschews partisanship, and depicts incidents of generosity and compassion on both sides.

In this novel, arguably more than any other, Galt turned his attention to the psychology of the Scottish race and attempted to analyse the tragedy of its recent history. It deals with the themes of community, loyalty, religious and legal justice and with violence as a begetter of further violence. The novel illustrates Galt’s engagement with the philosophies of the Scottish enlightenment and particularly Francis Hutcheson’s theories of man’s innate moral sense as developed in the movement known as the Scottish Commonsense School. It is, in the final analysis, testimony to Galt’s greatest skills as a writer; as an acute observer of human psychology, an acute as well as philosophical historian, and a faithful recorder of the Scottish voice and experience.

Reading Lists

Primary

The Ayrshire Legatees (1820),

Sir Andrew Wylie (1820)

The Provost (1820)

The Gathering of the West (1820)

The Entail (1820)

The Steamboat (1821)

Annals of the Parish (1821)

Ringan Gilhaize (1823)

The Last of the Lairds (1826)

Lawrie Todd (1830)

Life of Byron (1830)

Bogle Corbet (1831)

The Radical (1832)

The Member: An Autobiography (1833)

Secondary

P.H. Scott, John Galt (Scottish Writers Series) (1985)

Ian Alistair Gordon, John Galt: The Life of a Writer (1972)

John Galt 1779 – 1979, ed. by Christopher A Whatley (1979)

'John Galt', Scottish Literary Journal 8 no 1 (May 1981)

Related Links

Writing Scotland themes