THE fiction of John Galt (1779-1839) is both geographically grounded and historically specific to the period from around 1760 to the 1820s, with the exception of Ringan Gilhaize (1823), a violent novel of action, religious extremism and the Covenanters, set mainly in the 1680s, and is a corrective both to Scott’s Old Mortality (1816) and Hogg’s Brownie of Bodsbeck (1818).

Galt’s self-righteous “justified sinner” Ringan Gilhaize foreshadows Hogg’s deluded fanatic in the Confessions (1824). Ringan, if he sees himself as an agent of God’s justice, is powerfully motivated by desire for revenge on the murderers of his wife and children, the royalist troops he dedicates himself to hunting down.

The story takes years and tests the hero’s endurance and resourcefulness until, at the Battle of Killiecrankie (1689), he finally enters history by killing Claverhouse, leader of the Royalist forces. The moral ambiguities Galt explores in the novel, based on the question of religious conviction and human justice, are close to those at the forefront of post-Civil War American western films such as John Ford’s The Searchers (1956) or Clint Eastwood’s The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976). In the former, racist prejudice against native Americans, and in the latter, the accident of political difference brutally defined in the American Civil War, are profoundly involved in the choices confronting the heroes. Similarly, it’s the self-justification conferred by religious authority that helps Ringan in his blood-drenched quest, but his humanity is both humbling in reflective passages and exciting in the action scenes.

The Ayrshire Legatees (1820-21) and The Provost (1822) are very different works. The former recounts the journey to London of Dr Pringle, a minister of “Garnock” in Scotland, and his family, to accept a legacy. The latter is set in 18th-century Scotland, and is a memoir of a small-town politics, blending the precise detail of social description with a psychological portrayal of the central character with subtlety, sympathy and irony.

It was a best-seller in its time. Both exemplify Galt’s understanding of legal and social priorities and principles, the liabilities of human temptation and the virtues of a balanced appraisal of the necessary priorities of law and the inevitable contingencies of society.

In the later 1820s, Galt was a company manager in Canada, founding the city of Guelph, Ontario. Lawrie Todd (1830) and Bogle Corbet (1831) are both set in Canada, and, like John Buchan’s Sick Heart River (1941), might be read in the context of that country’s literature. Galt’s later works, The Member and The Radical (both 1832) are novels about the politics of parliamentary reform, the first novels to focus on the foibles and fumbles, the humour and waste, of people in local and domestic situations of political ambition. These people are idealistic or selfish, propelled by their own rhetoric or scrambled by self-generated confusions and ambitions that breed chaos. All too familiar. Galt’s depiction of them is both satirical and sympathetic.

The distinction of these novels lies partly in this balance of sympathy and irony in their presentation of the work of politicians. Galt acknowledges that political work has to be undertaken responsibly, but he also has a sense of the absurdity, weaknesses and vulnerability of the people undertaking it. In the long aftermath of the Union of 1707, Scots continued to look after their own institutions of religion, law and education. If national political control was exiled to London, local politics remained in towns and city councils. Galt’s work was to restore to the provenance of literature the experience of local politics, through his intimate experience and knowledge of its workings. His most ambitious novel is The Entail (1823), crossing three generations, tracing the evolution of an inheritance (the “entail”) through an extended theatre of strong, colourful characters. It has moments of surreal humour and crazy absurdity, episodes and confrontations of grating Dostoevskian strangeness. The prioritisation of materialism sometimes cuts everything away except the worst aspects of greed and self-promotion. Characters stand out like grotesques on a shadowy stage, or figures in expressionist cinema. Madness seems near.

In an episode reminiscent of a Marx Brothers film, a funeral procession in Book I, Chapter 9, sets out to the graveyard so well-serviced with food and drink that the coffin is left behind; after returning for the corpse, a further generous service of food and drink is required, and “with a degree of less decorum than in their former procession” the mourners set out again, a number of them encountering such severe weather that they “either lay down of their own voluntary accord on the road, or were blown over by the wind”. Galt’s long-faced style masks the drunkenness and opens the occasion to grotesque hilarity.

Yet in Book II, Chapter 10, there is a description of another funeral, that of Charles Walkinshaw, son of Claud and father of Walter, which conveys a very different feeling: When the regular indoor rites and ceremonies were being performed, and the body had, in the meantime, been removed into the street, and placed on the shoulders of those who were to carry it to the grave, Claud took his grandson by the hand, and followed at the head, with a firmly knotted countenance, but with faltering steps.

During the procession to the church-yard no particular expression of feeling took place; but when the first shovelful of earth rattled hollowly on the coffin, the little boy, who still held his grandfather by the finger, gave a shriek, and ran to stop the gravedigger from covering it up. But the old man softly and composedly drew him back, telling him it was the will of God, and that the same thing must be done to every body in the world.

“And to me too?” said the child, inquiringly and fearfully.

“To a’ that live,” replied his grandfather; and the earth being, by this time, half filled in, he took off his hat, and looking at the grave for a moment, gave a profound sigh, and again covering his head, led the child home. When, in Book II, Chapter 32, one potential heir is advised that a quarrel with the patriarch may be prejudicial to his interests, he curses the word: “Your father seems to think that human beings have nothing but interests; that the heart keeps a ledger, and values everything in pounds sterling. Our best affections, our dearest feelings, are with him only as tare [a weight of commercial value] ... ”

He is countered with the question, what have affections to do with the counting-house: “I thought you and he never spoke of any thing but rum puncheons and sugar cargoes.” The reference is explicit to the fortunes built on the West Indian slave trade plantations, and the novel is carefully contextualised in the wake of the Jacobite “Rebellion” (the word is used in Book II, Chapter 23), in the era of the American and French revolutions and the post-Napoleonic peace in which the last chapter ends, in 1815.

In this world of fierce international commercial economic competition and war, familiar signals of Scottishness are treated with satirical disdain. When one character proposes to visit “Glengael” the language becomes Ossianic, rhapsodic and unbelievable: “The spirits of my fathers hover in the silence of those mountains, and dwell in the loneliness of the heath. A voice within has long told me, that my home is there, and I have been an exile since I left it” (Book III, Chapter 9). When a group of the characters embark on a sailing excursion around the Western Isles to Orkney and Shetland, it all ends in disaster, shipwreck and death. These melodramatic parts of the last third of the novel seem to have been written hastily at the publisher’s request, but Galt effectively contrasts their clichéd Romanticism with the commercial materialism of his main narrative.

The most powerfully Scottish quality here is evident in the language of his characters, especially “the Leddy”, the matriarch who develops in the first book and becomes the central character, presiding over all the others till her death, at a ripe age, at the end of Book III. Her final confrontation with the self-serving lawyer Mr Pilledge is a moment of great dramatic satisfaction (Book III, Chapter 14). After having been told with pedantic insistence and supercilious authority by the lawyer that her late husband had intended the estate to go to “the heirs-male of his sons” or other men in the family line, it is gratifying to see this self-possessed and powerful woman round on him:

“... As yet I hae had but ae lawsuit, and I trow it was soon brought, by my own mediation, to a victory; but it winna be lang till I hae another; for if Milrookit does na consent, the morn’s morning, to gie up the Kittlestonheugh, he’ll soon fin’ again what it is to plea wi’ a woman o’ my experience.”

Pilledge was petrified; he saw that he was in the hands of the Leddy, and that she had completely overreached him. In Galt’s novel, human worth needs to be tough to get what is rightfully its own, and the strength of the Leddy is impressive in contrast to the sympathy extended to Watty the daftie, whose set-piece scene is a court trial to consider his mental capacity (again, humour and pathos are in careful counterpoint). Watty is a better person than his brother George, the eminently reasoning, judicious businessman.

Galt’s ability to see these people in the round, caught up in their interwoven trajectories, moving in a circumscribed geography in Ayrshire and south Glasgow, is sustained and impressive. His realism is hard-headed, his compassion is tough-minded, his humour contagious but tainted with the sense that chaos and catastrophe are never far away.

The Leddy reminds one character of the value of self-righteous intervention that Ringan Gilhaize would have agreed with: “For sure am I, had no I ta’en the case in hand, ye might hae continued singing Wally, wally, up yon bank, and wally, wally, down yon brae, a’ the days o’ your tarrying in the tabernacles o’ men” (Book III, Chapter 29).

Galt was prolific, not only as a novelist but also a poet. The Selfish is one of those poems that retains perennial relevance.

There is a death, an apathy profound

As that of those who in the churchyard lie,

Although the sepulchres be above ground,

Where rot these moral morts unconsciously.

They rot with vermin, dead as clod of clay,

And greedy sycophants, heart- eating worms,

Forever gnaw on them, forever they

To all that crawl or creep or coil or prey

Remain insensible; not fear informs

Their cold residuum, – if a man may call

That thing a residue, which never knew

One throb for others; wrapt in cerements all,

In shrouds of selfishness they cannot rue

The loathesomeness of their estate and hue.

This is the work of a writer who knows intimately the world of callous greed and vanity familiar among certain bankers, politicians, and senior managers of various institutional organisations, and whose compassion sees them so wanting in a world more human than that maintained behind their pillars and closed doors.

In the Sunday Herald of June 9, 2002, the late Ian Bell wrote this: “Coleridge believed that Galt was ‘second only to Sir W Scott in technique’. Certainly they shared an ambivalence towards the disappearance of the old Scotland. […] Sometimes he is hard going, a writer with important things to say and a leisurely way of saying them. Grant him the effort he deserves, however, and the Scotland he portrays with such assurance begins to seem very familiar indeed.”

Galt has dropped from popular currency even more than Walter Scott, but he is an important novelist and warrants reappraisal and new reading.

The International Companion to John Galt, edited by Gerard Carruthers and Colin Kidd, is published by the Association for Scottish Literary Studies and includes new essays by Andrew O’Hagan (on Galt in Ayrshire), Craig Lamont (on Galt in Glasgow), Ian McGhee (on Galt in North America), Christopher Whatley (on Galt in the era of improvement, urbanisation and revolution) and other major scholars of Galt’s life and work.

THE John Galt Society, inaugurated at the University of Glasgow on December 6, 2014, promotes the appreciation and study of the life and works of this great Scottish writer and pioneer of Canadian development.

The website can be visited at:
Membership costs £10 per year for individuals and organisations. To join, contact the secretary, Ian McGhee, at: arts

Preparations are under way at Edinburgh University Press to publish a select set of Galt’s works, including Annals of the Parish (ed Robert Irvine), Sir Andrew Wylie, of that Ilk  (ed Sharon Alker), The Entail 
(ed Mark Schoenfield & Clare Simmons), The Provost (ed Caroline McCracken-Flesher) and Three Short Novels: Glenfell, Andrew of Padua, The Omen (ed Angela Esterhammer).

The research team of Professor Angela Esterhammer, general editor of the series, has set up a website presenting the John Galt Project at the University of Toronto, featuring, among other things, transcriptions of unpublished manuscript material held at the Archives of Ontario.