This is part two of the Events of 1724. [Galloway Levellers Uprising]
If the attacks on Sir Basil Hamilton’s dykes were motivated by his Jacobite background, the anti-Jacobite element of the Galloway Levellers actions may have influenced their decision not to level a dyke built for Robert Johnston of Kelton parish. At first sight, as recounted as a tale told by the grandfather of Samuel Geddes of Keltonhill by Malcolm Harper and published over 150 years later, this incident may appear to be a piece of folklore rather than history. According to Harper:
A band of levellers and houghers, or as some call them ”Rablers” 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 to fence his estate from the public road…anxious to preserve it he prevailed upon Mr. Falconer [minister of Kelton parish] to accompany him in going to the levellers with the view of advising them to desist from their destructive proceedings… Mr. Falconer then addressed the crowd… assuring them that no man or family would be evicted from Captain Johnstone’s estate on account of [the dyke] being erected - that every person on his lands should continue to have and hold his house, his yaird or garden, and the usual quantity of corn sown (in these days it was generally customary for the labourers to have a certain quantity of corn sown to produce a melder for the family, and fodder for the cow and calf).
This speech, aided by the distribution of bread, cheese and beer provided by Captain Johnstone, persuaded the Levellers to pass on, leaving Johnstone’s dyke still standing. As confirmation, Harper says “On a stone in the dyke of the right hand side of the road leading from Lochbank to Furbar House, there is a date, which is now indistinct, but about thirty years ago [I.e. 1840] it was plainly 1725, and is now commemorative of the event.”. Unfortunately for Harper’s account, although there is an inscribed stone in the dyke next to Furbar House, the date on it is clearly 1757 and the events described would have happened in 1724.
On the other hand, in John Nicholson’s notebook can be found the original account by Samuel Geddes of Keltonhill as used by Harper. This original account is dated 1831, so could realistically have been a story told to Samuel Geddes by his grandfather. In addition, William Falconer was the minister of Kelton parish in 1724 and is mentioned by Morton as one of the ministers alleged to have been sympathetic to the Levellers. Robert Johnstone became laird of Kelton in 1706, purchasing the estate (centred on Kelton Mains farm, now part of the 1500 acre NTS Threave Estate) from William Maxwell, earl of Nithsdale. In 1715, Robert Johnstone was one of the Steward-Deputes of the Stewartry of Kirkcudbright appointed to help defend Dumfries against Jacobite forces led by William Maxwell.
As well as having strong anti- Jacobite credentials, Johnstone was (at least according to the Latin inscription on his gravestone in St Michael’s kirkyard in Dumfries) a “ strong opponent of Union and assertor of Scotland’s liberty” . In 1706 Johnstone represented Dumfries Burgh in the Scottish parliament and voted against the proposed Union. As the rest of the inscription on Johnstone’s grave shows, he had also been several times provost of Dumfries and represented the burgh in the Convention of Royal Burghs. But although these anti-Jacobite and patriotic credentials distinguish Robert Johnstone from Jacobite landowners like Sir Basil Hamilton, Lady Mary Gordon (nee Dalzell) of Kenmure and George Maxwell of Munches, the origin of Johnstone’s wealth in trade as a Dumfries based merchant is more significant.
Like William Craik (a Dumfries based merchant who was Johnstone’s father -in - law and business partner and who bought the Arbigland and Duchrae estates in the Stewartry of Kirkcudbright in the late 17th century. ), landownership was secondary to Johnstone’s main economic activities. The income he derived from his Kelton (Threave) Estate was therefore supplemental. So long as his tenants provided a steady stream of income through mainly arable farming( Kelton Estate having been arable/ grange land since at least the 13th century ), Johnstone had no pressing need to gamble on the cattle trade and therefore no pressing need to evict his tenants to create a cattle park at Kelton.
Yet if the Galloway Levellers had only been able to draw on support from those directly evicted to make way for new cattle parks, like the sixteen families dispossessed by Murdoch of Cumloden, the events of 1724 would have been on a much smaller scale. If the eye-witness account of James Clerk is to be believed, the breaking of Sir Basil Hamilton’s dykes in early May 1724 involved 1000 levellers. Although it is possible that it was the threat posed to the ‘moral economy’ which mobilised such a large group, the emphasis given to the 43 Irish cattle ( out of a herd of 400 cattle) seized by the Levellers in their account of the incident and by James Clerk in his account suggests a more direct economic linkage. The smuggling of Irish cattle was also of concern to the customs officers in Dumfries.
So rigid were the revenue regulations at this period  , that when some charitable people in Dumfries commissioned two ship loads of oatmeal from Ireland that the poor might obtain it cheap when it was hardly to be had of home growth for love or money, the collector durst not permit the meal to be landed till he was specially authorized to do so by his official superiors. The officers were also scandalized by a daring innovation which had sprung up, especially at Kirkcudbright, of importing Irish cattle, and they sorely bewailed the connivance given to it by the County gentlemen and their tenants.
Leopold’s research suggests that the first Levellers action took place at Netherlaw near Kirkcudbright on 17 March 1724. In their Letter to Major Du Cary the Levellers mention this incident:
understanding that there were a considerable number of Irish cattle in the Parks of Netherlaw, we did, in obedience to the law, legally seize and slaughter them to deter the gentlemen from the like practice if importing or bringing Irish cattle, to the great loss of this poor country as well as the breeders in England, too much the practice of the gentlemen here.
Although direct evidence of the import of Irish cattle is lacking in the case of Alexander Murray of Cally (Girthon parish, Stewartry of Kirkcudbright), who had “a large park that feeds one thousand bullocks, that he sends once every year to the markets of England” in 1723 , Murray had inherited over 60 000 acres of Irish land, mainly in Donegal. Alexander Murray‘s ancestor, George Murray of Broughton in Wigtownshire, had been granted these lands in 1610 as part of the Plantation. By 1621, cattle from these Irish estates were being sold in England. In 1724, Alexander Murray would therefore have been highly likely to have been involved in the illegal import of Irish cattle and to have been a target for the Galloway Levellers - which he was. According to one of John Nicholson’s sources - Violet Nish, whose father Robert was born in 1715 at Enrick in Girthon parish- Alexander Murray’s dykes in Girthon parish were levelled in 1724 during an incident in which shots were fired.
At Cardoness in Anwoth parish, on the west bank of the Fleet and only 1 km (½ mile) from Alexander Murray’s cattle park at Cally, lay the cattle parks of Colonel William Maxwell. If the Levellers had been intent on breaking the dykes of all such enclosures, then Colonel Maxwell’s dykes would have been a next and obvious target. But Maxwell’s dykes were left standing. Colonel Maxwell is mentioned in the Letter to Major Du Cary as having, along with ‘Laird Heron’ (either Patrick Heron senior or Patrick Heron junior, both of Minnigaff parish) as having reached an agreement with the Levellers “that we should live peaceably and throw down no man’s dykes.”. This agreement was negotiated immediately after an encounter between a party of armed heritors and armed Levellers at the Steps of Tarff. There appear to have been two such confrontations, one in early May and one in early June, but it is unclear which is being referred to.
More certainly, although the Letter to Major Du Cary includes the Herons “Yr. and elder” amongst its list of depopulating lairds, stating that “the little town of Minigaff belonging to Mr. Heron is only a nest of beggars since he inclosed all the ground about it.” , the Herons’ extensive cattle parks were not levelled. Yet, as Woodward notes in his comparative study of the 17th century Irish and Scottish cattle trade, “Patrick Herron sent 1000 or more cattle to England via Dumfries in each of the years 1689-91 inclusive.” . Until the death of Sir David Dunbar (elder) of Baldoon in 1686, Patrick Heron senior had managed Dunbar’s cattle trading activities. After Dunbar’s death, Heron and his son built up extensive landholdings in Minnigaff parish to become the main cattle traders in Galloway. Since these landholdings included both upland and lowland farms, this suggests that the Herons had developed a ‘vertically integrated’ approach to the cattle trade. The profitability of this indigenous business model would have been undermined by the illegal import of Irish cattle.
According to a letter dated 20 May 1724 written by James Clerk in Kirkcudbright to his brother Sir John Clerk:
Upon Wednesday last a party of about 100 [Levellers], all armed came into town, driving before them about 53 Black Cattle which they had, after throwing down the dykes, brought in the name of Irish cattle. They demanded us to assist in retaining said cattle…We thereupon refused to meddle in the affair, especially considered that we writt the Commissioners 15 days ago upon that account, and have as yet no orders to give any such assistance, upon which they drove them out of town and slaughtered each one [of] them in a barbarous manner notwithstanding as law directs proof was made… that they were not imported from Ireland, but bought of a Highland drover .
According to Morton, the slaughter ‘in a barbarous manner’ was carried out in Dundrennan Abbey a blacksmith named McMinn, giving rise to the local folklore saying that “M’Minn’s fore-hammer was more deadly than a butcher’s knife.”. . Between 1640 and 1700 the Kirkcudbright Sheriff Court Deeds record seven related McMinn’s who were blacksmiths and a Francis McMinn (blacksmith) was a portioner of Gregory croft near Dundrennan in 1724.
Further confirmation that the alleged illegal import of Irish cattle was a significant factor in the events of 1724 is given by the Earl of Galloway in one of his letters to Sir John Clerk. In this letter, the Earl of Galloway describes an incident which occurred on the 12th May when the Levellers “slaughtered near Kirkcudbright 55 or 57 cattell belonging to Hugh Blair of Dunrod [parish of Borgue] notwithstanding he made it appear they were bred in Britain, and they have used some of Basil Hamilton’s cattell after the same way and manner upon Saturday morning last.”.
The defence that the cattle involved were not Irish echoes that made on behalf of Sir David Dunbar (elder) by Symson in his Large Description of Galloway forty two years before.
Those of his [ Dunbar’s] owne breed, are very large, yea, so large, that in August or September 1682 nine and fifty of that sort , which would have yielded betwixt five and six pound sterling the peece were seized upon in England for Irish cattell; and because the person to whom they were entrusted had not witnesses that there ready at the precise hour, to swear that they were seen calved in Scotland (although the witness offered to depone that he liv’d in Scotland, within a mile of the park where they were calved and bred) , they were, by the sentence of Sir J.L., and some others who knew well enough that they were bred in Scotland, knockt on the head and kill’d; which was, to say no more, very hard measure , and an act unworthy of persons of that quality and station who ordered it to be done.
By their seizure, public display and slaughter of over 150 ‘Irish’ cattle, the Galloway Levellers were trying to drive a wedge between those landowners and farmers who were involved in the legitimate cattle trade and those who were not. It is difficult to judge how effective this strategy was in broadening the base of support for the Levellers’ actions in the Stewartry of Kirkcudbright. Certainly in Wigtownshire the use of battering ram to demolish a dyke built around the Fell of Barhullion by Sir Alexander Maxwell of Monreith suggests the Wigtownshire Levellers were numerically fewer. Maxwell was also able to enlist his tenants to defend his remaining dykes, although seven of his cattle were houghed (had their hamstrings cut) in the night. This houghing incident, compared with the very public slaughter of cattle in the Stewartry, is another indication that there were fewer Levellers in Wigtonshire. At Balsier in Sorbie parish, it was the tenant who organised the defence of a field dyke ( I.e. a subdividing enclosure) against the Levellers. In the struggle which ensued one of the Levellers was fatally wounded. Finally and most tellingly, the Sheriff of Wigtown was able to suppress the Wigtownshire Levellers without recourse to the Earl of Stair’s Dragoons.
If the Wigtownshire Levellers were fewer in number, why did they not seek support from the Stewartry? One possibility is that if large scale support for the Levellers was confined to the central parishes of the Stewarty of Kirkcudbright, it would have been logistically difficult to level more distant dykes or to give support to the Wigtownshire Levellers. When the known instances of dyke-breaking in the Stewartry are plotted on a map, they are all within a 16km (10 mile) radius of Kelton Hill. This may be a practical reason why the Herons’ cattle parks in Minnigaff parish were untouched. Minnigaff is 30 km (19 miles) in a direct line from Kelton Hill and approximately 45 km (28 miles) by existing tracks. Likewise, although ‘Murray of Cavens’ was alleged to have threatened thirty families with eviction, his estate in Kirkbean parish was left unmolested. Cavens is 24 km (15 miles) in a direct line from Kelton Hill and approximately 30 km(19 miles) by existing tracks.
In a letter to Sir John Clerk of Pencuik dated 3rd June 1724, James Clerk states that two troops of horse and four of foot left Kirkcudbright at 3 am on the 2nd June and arrived at the Boat of Rhone at 8 am, expecting to confront a gathering of Levellers, but no Levellers appeared. The direct distance from Kirkcudbright to the Boat of Rhone (at the junction of the rivers Ken and Dee) is 15 km (9 miles). Even if the actual distance travelled along the rough tracks then existing was nearer 19 km (12 miles), the troops were travelling at 3.8 km/ hour (2.4 miles/ hour). A large group of Levellers are unlikely to have travelled any faster than the troops so would have taken roughly 12 hours to reach Minnigaff from the centre of the Stewartry and 8 hours to reach Kirkbean. Sorbie parish in Wigtownshire is 20 km (12.5 miles) south of Minnigaff. It would have taken a party of central Stewartry Levellers at least 17 hours walking non-stop to provide support for the Wigtownshire Levellers. Any such attempt would have been easily halted long before this by the two troops of horse stationed in Kirkcudbright.
Of the 23 Levellers pursued for damages by Sir Basil Hamilton in January 1725, having demolished 580 roods of dyke at Galtway (near Kirkcudbright) between the 12th and 16th May 1724, Thomas Moire and Grizel Grierson his wife lived furthest away. Moire was the owner-occupier of Beoch farm in Tongland parish. Beoch is 13 km (8 miles) from Galtway. As a farm owner, Moire and his wife would have been able to travel by horseback to Galtway. The other named Levellers all lived less than 9 km (5.5 miles) from Galtway and the majority lived within 4 km (2.5 miles). Three lived at mills (at Auchlane Miln and Nethermilns), two in crofts (Greenlane and Meadow Isle) and the rest were either tenant farmers or cottars. One, John Martin, was the 14 year old son of a tenant farmer in Lochdougan.
The involvement of Thomas and Grizel Moire is significant since it reveals that at least some of the Galloway Levellers were owner-occupier farmers. Their respective family backgrounds also suggest that, at least in the case of Sir Basil Hamilton, the anti-Jacobite rhetoric of the Levellers had deep historical roots. Grizel Grier was the daughter of Thomas Greirsone of Bargatton farm. Thomas Moire was the son of Henry Moire of Beoch. These are neighbouring farms.
In 1640, William Grierson of Bargatton (Grizel’s grandfather) was appointed to the Stewartry of Kirkcudbright War Committee of the Covenanters, and was one of the Stewartry representatives in the Scottish Parliament from 1644 to 1651. Between 1649 and 1704, William Grierson and his son, also William ( I.e. Grizel’s uncle) were Commissioners of Supply for the Stewartry of Kirkcudbright, but by 1724, Bargatton was no longer owned by the Griersons.
In 1640, William Grierson of Bargatton (Grizel’s grandfather) was appointed to the Stewartry of Kirkcudbright War Committee of the Covenanters, and was one of the Stewartry representatives in the Scottish Parliament
from 1644 to 1651. McKerlie gives the details of the ownership of Bargatton, noting that it and seven other farms in Balmaghie were owned by the Grierson family between 1600 and 1700. The farms then changed hands several times. William Murray, a merchant in Dumfries owned them from 1700 to 1712, then Robert Maclellan of Barcloy had them until 1720, followed by his brother Samuel until March 1725 when Colonel William Maxwell of Cardoness bought them before they were sold again in 1735 to the Reverend Walter Laurie of Redcastle (parish of Urr). The Laurie family were still in possession when McKerlie was writing in 1878, owning 12 farms and the village of Clachanpuck which Walter Laurie improved and re-named Laurieston. Mckerlie also notes that in 1678, Henry Mure (or Moire) commissary-clerk of Kirkcudbright owned Bellymack and Grannoch Waulk Mill in Balmaghie parish. Unfortunately, McKerlie apart from noting that ‘Hendrie Moore commissar clerk of Kirkcudbright’ also had principle sasine of Beoch (Tongland parish) in 1678 does not provide any further information on the Moires of Beoch.