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SOME ACCOUNT OF THE RISING OF THE LEVELLERS IN GALLOWAY IN THE YEAR 1723.
(Compiled from Nicholson's History and Harper's Rambles in Galloway)
Published in the Gallovidian Annual, 1923.
When the storm of rebellion (The 'Fifteen ") had completely subsided into a calm, various agricultural and other kinds of improvements began to appear. The proprietors of Galloway soon perceived, from the rapid rise of rents in nearly every other quarter, that their own system of management must be faulty, the rents of the richest land being here very small when compared with those of other parts of Scotland. There seemed to them no way of remedying the evil, or of introducing an improved mode of husbandry, so long as their estates lay undivided.
From time immemorial the farmers had possessed a right of pasturage in common on the whole property of their landlord, each having in general only one portion of land which was kept constantly in a state of tillage around his cottage. The price of cattle had now advanced, and it was found profitable to rear them. To erect march and sub-division dykes, by which the labour of tending cattle might be lessened, and the size of the farms increased, now called forth strenuous exertions on the part of many proprietors. But this procedure did not coincide with the wishes or the interests of the smaller tenants or cottars, who intuitively foresaw in this policy the weakness of the tenure by which they held their little crofts.
Their worst forebodings were realised when wholesale evictions (for no other term can he used ) becoming the order of the day. The distress which followed was extreme, and, looking back upon it, there is no doubt that - granted the agricultural improvement - the cottars were very harshly dealt with. Ejectment followed ejectment, and numerous were the instances in which five, seven, and even sixteen families on an estate were driven from their homes, and the homes of their forefathers.
Whitsunday, 1723, saw much of the land of the "Parking Lairds", as they were called, (Gordon of Earlston is named as the first proprietor in the Stewartry to enclose) enclosed but as the dykes appeared, the murmuring of an angry, sullen people grew louder. The air was full of apprehension and disquietude, and a detachment of Stair's Dragoons was stationed at Kirkcudbright in readiness for any emergency.
Kelton Hill Fair was the great gathering-place for the people of Galloway, and here it was, in that summer of 1723, that the rising was determined upon by the bolder spirits, who took upon themselves the name of "Levellers". The whole roughly-conceived organisation was a series of districts (generally parishes), both in the Stewartry and Shire, controlled by local committees, who secretly met and arranged their plans and expeditions. With the Levellers were the "Houghers" whose particular part of the scheme was the unpardonable maiming of the innocently offending black cattle in the enclosures.
The scheme was hatched and now the "levelling" of the dykes by these insurgents, all with weapons of some sort, became the order of the day, or rather of the night. The work went merrily on. The lairds, despite the determined attitude of the Levellers, continued to subdivide and enclose their parks; but as soon as the dykes were built, under cloud of night they were demolished. Even the portions built during the day were wont to totter and fall that same night.
The Stewartry had its own method of procedure. Over each band the most prominent individual was selected, and styled " Captain." Each man was furnished with a strong kent (staff) of from six to eight feet in length, which he fixed into the dyke at an approved distance from the ground and from his neighbour. After having ascertained that all was ready, the "Captain" shouted out, "Owre wi't, boys!" and over it accordingly tumbled, amid shouts that might have been heard at a distance of miles. Among the leaders were several old soldiers, who put the levies through a course of drill, and who in the disposition of their forces when meeting with opposition showed considerable military skill. The redoubtable Billy Marshall, the tinkler, who had seen service in the army abroad, sided with the cause of the Levellers, and was one of their leading organisers.
This riotous spirit and attitude of opposition first of all asserted itself in Wigtownshire, of which we shall first speak.
Here the movement took place considerably earlier than in the Stewartry, the first outbreak of lawlessness occurring on the lands of Monreith, when Sir Alexander Maxwell enclosed with a stone dyke the "Fell of Barhullion." A body of Levellers congregated, and in one night demolished nearly a thousand roods. Differing from the Stewartry in their methods, they used an instrument similar to a battering ram, with which they could overturn about a rood at a stroke.
In the course of their depredations the Levellers frequently met with opposition, and sanguinary and even fatal skirmishes sometimes took place. A farmer in Balsier, in the parish of Sorbie, for the second or third time enclosed a particular field, determined to oppose any attempt at demolition. He narrowly watched the operations of the gang, and summoning all his forces, after a severe contest fairly drove them from the field, one of the leaders of the Levellers losing his life. A precognition was immediately made by the Sheriff, and several of those who had taken part in the fray were found guilty and sentenced to imprisonment for three months.
An order or proclamation was also read from the pulpits in all the surrounding parishes, threatening "death and damnation" to all and sundry who would henceforth be found destroying their neighbour's property in any shape. This seems to have had the desired effect of putting an end to "levelling" in the district.
KIRKCUDBRIGHTSHIRE (THE STEWARTRY).
In Wigtownshire the civil powers were able to cope with the discontent and disorder, but in the Stewartry it was different. The disaffection quickly spread.
On the authority of Mackenzie, the parishes of Kelton, Twynholm, Tongland, and Crossmichael were the first to take the field, the march-dyke of Kelton estate being their initial objective.
Varying slightly from this latter definite statement, a description drawn up by Harper, of the Kelton estate episode, based on a contemporary account, is preferably given :-
"Part of a dyke which was left unmolested by the Levellers of Galloway may still be seen near Furbar, about a mile from Castle-Douglas, on the old military road to Rhonehouse. On a stone in the dyke on the right-hand side of the road leading from Lochbank to Furbar House there is a date which is now indistinct, but about forty years ago it was plainly 1725, and is commemorative of the event. This dyke, with others on the estate of Kelton (now Threave), was saved through the intervention of the minister of the parish, Rev. Mr Falconer, backed by the laird's supplies of ammunition in the shape of beer, bread, and cheese."
"According to a contemporary account," (Mr Harper's authority was Samuel Geddes, of Keltonhill, who had the account from his grand-father, who was then a little boy herding cattle, and who saw the Levellers begin their operations.) "a band of Levellers and Houghers, or, as some called them, 'Rabblers', having traversed the coast from Balmae to Kirkbean, levelling dykes and houghing Irish cattle (the introduction of which was one of their grievances), they reached the estate of Kelton. Captain Johnstone was then laird, and had built a high dyke as a fence to his estate from the public road. He had been at great expense in its erection, and, anxious to preserve it, he prevailed on Mr Falconer to accompany him in going to the Levellers, with the view of advising them to desist from their destructive proceedings and return to their respective dwellings."
"At the Gallows Slot, (near Lochbank), where the dyke began, Captain Johnstone and the minister waited until the Levellers arrived. Mr Falconer then addressed the crowd, pointing out to them the usefulness of the dyke that was before them, telling them that Captain Johnstone had not erected it for the purpose of subdividing his estate, but only for a march-dyke from the public road, and he further assured them that no man or family would be evicted from Captain Johnstone's estate on account of its having been erected, that every person on his lands should continue to have and to hold his house, his yaird or garden, and the usual quantity of corn sown. After this well-timed conciliatory speech the bread and cheese were divided, and the barrels of beer broached."
"The dyke was not overturned, and before proceeding on their way Captain Johnstone was lustily cheered for his kindness. As a wise precaution, Mr Falconer accompanied the Levellers to the end of the dyke on Kelton estate."
Many skirmishes took place, in one of which a man of the name of M'Crabin, in the parish of Tongland, got his ear cut off by the sabre of one of the dragoons. (The dragoon was said to be Andrew Genunel, the prototype of "Edie Ochiltree" of Sir Walter Scott's Antiquary.) Much blood might have been shed had not the military, under Major M'Neil, (Major M'Neil, in command of the dragoons, has left the reputation of a humane and tolerant man, and on this account was found much fault with by many of the landed proprietors.) behaved with admirable coolness and moderation.
Disturbances at "Culquha, near Barcaple," and at the Duchrae, in the parish of Balmaghie, are also quoted in the History of Galloway. In Tongland, on another occasion, the same band of Levellers who spared those of the Kelton estate, only dispersed after having razed to the ground almost every dyke in the parish.
An interesting account has been left of their depredations in the district between Munches (Buittle) and Dunrod (Kirkcudbright) in the notable letter written by John Maxwell, Esq. of Munches, to W. M. Herries, Esq. of Spottes (February 8th. 1811), from which a quotation is now given:
" That same year many of the proprietors enclosed their grounds to stock them with black cattle, and by that means turned out a vast number of tenants at the term of Whitsunday, whereby numbers of them bacame destitute; and in consequence rose in a mob, when, with pitchforks, gavellocks, and spades, they levelled the park-dykes of Barncailzie (Kirkpatrick-Durham) and Munshes at Dalbeattie, which I saw with my own eyes. The mob passed by Dalbeattie and Buittle, and did the same on the estates of Netherlaw (Rerwick) and Dunrod, &c., and the Laird of Murdoch (of Cumloden), then proprietor of Kilwhaneday (Kilquhanity, Kirkpatrick-Durham), who turned out sixteen families at that term. The proprietors rose, with the servants and dependants, to quell this mob, but were not of sufficient force to do it, and were obliged to send for two troops of dragoons from Edinburgh, who upon their appearing, the mob dispersed."
"After that, warrants were granted for apprehending many of the tenants, and persons concerned in the said mob. Several of them were tried; those who had any funds were fined. Some were banished to the plantations, whilst others were imprisoned, and it brought great distress upon this part of the country. At that period justice was not very properly administered; for a respectable man of the name of M'Clacherty, who lived in Balmaghie parish, was concerned in the mob, and on his being brought to trial, one of the justices admired a handsome Galloway which he rode, and the justice told him, if he would give him the Galloway he would effect his acquittal,which he accordingly did."
But violence and irregularities never at any time made for true success, nor was it destined to be otherwise in the case of the Levellers, and although this unhappy condition prevailed in Galloway, more particularly in the Stewartry, for more than a year, the end was near. Its death stroke was delivered at Bombie Muir (Kirkcudbright) in May of 1724.
"By the aid of the dragoons the ring-leaders were apprehended, taken to Kirkcudbright Jail, and tried at a Court of Justices holden within the Tolbooth upon the 27th day of January, 1725. They were found guilty of having, in May, 1724, in a most ryotous, tumultuous, and illegal way assembled and convened themselves with several hundreds of other ryoters, mostly all armed with gunns, swords, pistolls, clubs, battons, pitchforks, and other offensive weapons, in and upon that part of the lands of Bombie called Bombie Muir, lying within the parochen of Kirkcudbryht, and Stewartry thereof, and, being so assembled and convened, did march in a full body to the lands of Galtways, belonging to the complainer, Lady Mary Hamilton, in property, and there did demolish and throw down to the ground the number of five hundred and eighty roods of feald dykes built by her upon the said grounds, each rood of which cost eight shillings Scots in building,' &c."
"They were all found guilty, and discerned against to make payment to the said Lady Mary Hamilton, or to the Honourable Basil Hamilton, her Ladyship's factor, of the sum of £777 4s Scots money, with the imprisonment of the ringleaders; and by the exaction of these heavy fines the rioters were dispersed and awed, and the dykes were rebuilt unmolested. The spirit of insubordination shown by the Levellers having been put down, agricultural improvement advanced with rapid strides. The great work of enclosing was carried on with vigour, and the advantages of the system were generally felt and acknowledged."