John Galt, the Scottish novelist, died on the 11th of April, 1839.
John Galt was Samuel Coleridge’s favourite novelist, which is as good a recommendation as any. Perhaps Galt’s greatest novel is ‘Annals of the Parish’, which is on the list of the ‘100 Best Scottish Books of all Time’ and certainly deserving of Coleridge’s praise. Galt’s greatest skills as a writer stemmed from acute observations of human psychology, a philosophical approach to history, and his ability to faithfully reproduce an authentic and distinctly Scottish voice. Quite often, Galt used the Scots tongue for dialogue and sometimes even for narrative. He saw the Scots as having a distinct advantage over their English cousins in terms of vocabulary – after all, they had both English and native Scots upon which to draw. A great achievement of Galt’s lies in his retelling of Scotland’s history, in the period between 1760 and 1820, through a series of thirteen innovative and very entertaining novels. Those were known collectively as the ‘Tales of the West’ and offer an all-embracing view of life in Scotland at the time – a human history.
Galt began writing around the age of twenty-four, experimenting in verse before realising, like many of us, that he was really an inferior poet. In 1813, he conceived the idea of writing a novel based on the observations of a parish minister. At first, he could find no enlightened publisher that would accept a book set in the west of Scotland. However, once Sir Walter Scott entered the scene and transformed Scottish literature, Galt found an outlet for his ‘Scottish stories’. Once published, there was no holding him back.
Galt called his first stories, quite appropriately, his ‘theoretical histories’. They were written in the 1820s and the first of them, ‘The Ayrshire Legates’ was serialised in Blackwood’s Magazine, in 1820-21. Galt’s voluminous output includes: ‘The Steamboat’; ‘Annals of the Parish’; ‘Sir Andrew Wylie’; ‘The Gathering of the West’; ‘The Provost’; ‘The Entail’; ‘Ringan Gilhaize’; ‘The Last of the Lairds’; and the ironic political novels, ‘The Member’; and ‘The Radical’, which were both published much later in his career. In addition to being a star contributor to Blackwood’s Magazine, Galt also wrote an acclaimed biography of his friend Lord Byron, whom he had met whilst travelling on the Mediterranean in 1809. Galt’s ‘The Life of Byron’ (that’s By-ron, not Brian) was published in1830; the first biography of the poet.
John Galt was born in Irvine on the 2nd of May, 1779. John received his early education at Irvine and Greenock, and found his first employment as a clerk in a mercantile office. In 1804, Galt trotted off to London, where he published anonymously and advisedly so, a poem called ‘The Battle of Largs’. In London, Galt made unsuccessful attempts to succeed in business and also entered Lincoln’s Inn, but never made it to the bar. Thirsty then, he obtained a commission to investigate whether Napoleon’s Berlin and Milan decrees could be evaded. Those decrees of Bonaparte’s were part of the diminutive dictator’s continental system; his plan to defeat the British by waging economic warfare. Galt was also employed by the Glasgow merchant, Kirkman Finlay, on similar business, probing for cracks in the Bonaparte regime and it was during his time on the Continent that Galt met and travelled with Byron.
Much of Galt’s fiction draws from the west of Scotland where he spent his youth. It appears he was a sickly child and spent much of his time soaking up local and traditional tales. Such apparent idleness was well spent as he developed his gift for storytelling and ear for regional dialect. Some of his later novels were set in North America, of which he had personal experience, and were amongst the first to be located there. Despite critical literary success, Galt also had business aspirations and a profound desire to go to Canada. After becoming actively involved in political campaigning on behalf of the colony, off he sailed, in 1826. For two years, he devoted himself to developing the virgin territories of the colony, founding the townships of Guelph and Goderich. Unfortunately, he fell foul of bureaucracy and eventually he had to return to the United Kingdom, which he did in 1829, under charges of debt. He was imprisoned for a while, but afterwards, he happily returned to writing and the aforementioned political novels, drawing on his experiences – from a rich and varied well.
‘The Annals’ is Galt’s masterpiece of small-town Scottish life, an insightful character portrait and a wonderful, humorous observation of social change, coloured by local trivia. It is described in a review of the ‘100 Best Scottish Books of all Time’ as “more beautifully coloured than anything by Walter Scott.” The story is narrated by the simple, if rather worldly and vain, Reverend Micah Balwhidder, a Presbyterian minister in the Ayrshire town of Dalmailing. It spans the time of Burns and the Industrial Revolution, and charts this turbulent period of economic and social change through a rare vernacular beauty. Its characters, such as Mr Macskipnish, the owner of the dance school at Irville, are reminiscent of Dickens – except Galt was a predecessor.
If history was taught in schools by making pupils read books like ‘The Annals’ they wouldn’t find topics like the industrial revolution so dull an uninteresting. When you think about it, history is happening as we speak, and that’s the beauty of the book, history unfolds as the characters tell their stories. The combination of historical accuracy alongside sociological insight led Galt’s contemporary critic, John Wilson, to say, “(it was) not a book but a fact” – quite a compliment for a novel.
Another book worth looking up is ‘Ringan Gilhaize’, which was described by Sir George Douglas as “a neglected masterpiece”. In this novel, Galt addressed the psychology of the Scottish race and the tragedy of its then recent history involving the likes of the Covenanters. It deals with the themes of community, loyalty, religious and legal justice and violence as a begetter of violence. Those themes, which are just as prevalent and topical today, show that history continues to repeat itself; we just have a different technological and economic environment in which to play them out.
In his later years, Galt suffered a stroke, but he continued writing up until his death, which occurred on the 11th of April, 1839. He was buried in Greenock.