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The Scottish Nation

GALT, a surname, meaning, in Gaelic, a stranger or travelled person.

GALT, JOHN, an eminent novelist and prolific miscellaneous writer, was born at Irvine in Ayrshire, May 2, 1779. He was the eldest son of a person engaged in mercantile pursuits, and his parents ranked among the native gentry. In the excellent schools of his native town he received the first rudiments of his education. In his eleventh year the family removed to Greenock, where he pursued his studies at the public school, under Mr. Colin Lamont; and being addicted to reading, his inborn passion for literature found ample gratification in the stores of a public library to which he had access. Having a mechanical turn, with a taste for music, he attempted the construction of a small pianoforte or hurdy-gurdy, as well as of an Æolian harp. In these early years he composed some pieces of music, one or two of which became popular. He also conceived the idea of several local improvements of importance, some of which were afterwards carried out.

      In his boyhood his health was delicate, and, like his great contemporary Sir Walter Scott, he was considered a dull scholar. His strength and energy of character, however, increased with his years, and in due time he was placed in the counting-room of Messrs, James Miller and Co., with the view of learning the mercantile profession. He continued in their employment for several years; but having, in 1804, resented an insult from a mercantile correspondent in a manner which rendered his situation in Greenock very disagreeable, he was induced to remove to London, where he embarked in trade in partnership with a Mr. M.Lachlan, but the connexion ultimately proving unfortunate, was in the course of two or three years dissolved, when he entered at Lincoln’s Inn, but eventually abandoned the law. In 1809, on account of his health, he embarked for the Mediterranean. At Gibraltar he made the acquaintance of Lord Byron and Mr. Hobhouse, (created in 1851 Lord Broughton,) in whose company he sailed to Sicily, whence he proceeded to Malta and Greece. At Tripolizza he conceived a scheme for forming a mercantile establishment in the Levant to counteract the Berlin and Milan decrees of Napoleon. After touching at Smyrna, he returned to Malta, where, to his surprise, he found that a plan similar to his had already been suggested to a commercial company there by one of their partners resident in Vienna. He now proceeded to inspect the coast of the Grecian Archipelago, and to ascertain the safest route to the borders of Hungary; and after satisfying himself of the practicability of introducing goods into the Continent by this circuitous channel, he returned home in August 1811. He made several applications to Government on the subject of his scheme, but these were little attended to, and he never derived any benefit from the project, which was soon afterwards acted upon by others to their great advantage. The result of his observations he communicated to the public in 1812, under the title of ‘Voyages and Travels in the years 1809, 1810, and 1811,’ which was his first avowed work, and contained much new and interesting information relative to the countries he had visited. He had previously published, about the end of 1804, a Gothic poem, without his name, entitled ‘The Battle of Largs,’ which he subsequently endeavoured to suppress.

      Having been appointed by Mr. Kirkman Finlay of Glasgow, joint superintendent of a branch of his business established at Gibraltar, he went for a short time to that place, where, however, his health suffered, and the victories of the duke of Wellington in the Peninsula having seriously checked the success of his mercantile operations, he resigned his situation, and returned home for medical advice. Shortly after his arrival in London he married Elizabeth, only daughter of Dr. Alexander Tilloch, one of the proprietors and editor of the Star evening newspaper, and editor of the Philosophical Magazine; by whom he had a family.

      Mr. Galt’s next work, published about the same time as his Travels, was the ‘Life and Administration of Cardinal Wolsey;’ and then followed in rapid succession – ‘Reflections on Political and Commercial Subjects,’ 8vo, 1812; ‘Four Tragedies,’ 1812; ‘Letters from the Levant,’ 8vo, 1813; ‘The Life and Studies of Benjamin West,’ 8vo, 1816; ‘The Majola, a Tale,’ 2 vols., 1816, which contains his peculiar opinions on fatality, founded on an idea that many of the events of life depend upon instinct, and not upon reason or accident; ‘Pictures from English, Scotch, and Irish History,’ 2 vols, 12mo; ‘The Wandering Jew:’ ‘Modern Travels in Asia;’ ‘The Crusade;’ ‘The Earthquake,’ 3 vols., and a number of minor biographies and plays, most of the latter appearing in a periodical work called at first the Rejected Theatre, and afterwards the New British Theatre. Among other schemes of utility which about this time engaged Mr. Galt’s attention was the establishment of the National Caledonian Asylum, which owed its existence mainly to his exertions. In the year 1820 he contributed a series of articles, styled the ‘Ayrshire Legatees,’ to Blackwood’s Magazine; these were afterwards collected into a separate volume, which, from its admirable delineation of Scottish life and character, became very popular, and established his name at once as second only to that of the author of Waverley. Soon after appeared ‘The Annals of the Parish,’ intended by the author as a kind of Scottish Vicar of Wakefield, and it certainly possesses much of the household humour and pathos of that admired work. About this period Mr. Galt resided at Eskgrove House, near Musselburgh, having removed to Scotland chiefly with a view to the education of his children. He next published ‘The Provost,’ in one vol., which was considered by the author his best novel; ‘The Steam Boat,’ 1 vol.; ‘Sir Andrew Wylie,’ 3 vols.; ‘The Entail,’ 3 vols.; and ‘The Gathering in the West,’ which last related to the flocking of the West country people to Edinburgh at the period of George the Fourth’s visit. The peculiarities of national character, the quaintness of phrase and dialogue, the knowledge of life, and the ‘pawky’ humour displayed in these works, rendered them unusually attractive, and they were in consequence eagerly perused by the public. A series of historical romances, in 3 vols. each, comprising ‘Ringan Gilhaize,’ ‘The Spaewife,’ and ‘Rothelan,’ were published by Oliver and Boyd, Edinburgh, but these were considered inferior to his other novels.

      In 1824 he was appointed acting manager and superintendent of the Canada Company, for establishing emigrants and selling the crown lands in Upper Canada, a situation which required his almost constant residence in that country, and appears to have yielded him a salary of £1,000 a-year. Unfortunately he soon got involved in disputes with the Government, having encountered opposition to his plans from the governor, Sir Peregrine Maitland; and his conduct being unfairly represented to the Directors at home, in 1827 he sent in his resignation to the chairman. He had in the meantime founded, amidst many difficulties, the now flourishing town of Guelph, on the spot where he had hewed down the first tree in that till then uncultivated wilderness. Another town in the neighbourhood of Guelph was named Galt, after himself, by his friend the Hon. William Dixon. He returned to Lo9ndon in 1830, just previous to the breaking up of the Canada Company, who seem to have treated him in a very harsh manner. At a subsequent period he endeavoured, but without success, to form a New Brunswick Company; and, besides various other schemes, he entertained a project for making Glasgow a sea-port, by deepening the Clyde, and erecting a dam, with a lock at Bowling Bay. This, which was a favourite crotchet of his, he said was the legacy he left to Glasgow, in gratitude for the many good offices done to him by the inhabitants of that city. His portrait is subjoined.

[portrait of John Galt]

      After his return to England he again had recourse to his pen for support, and was for a short time editor of the Courier newspaper. Among the principal of his works after this period may be particularly noticed – ‘Lawrie Todd, a Tale,’ 3 vols., 1830, in which Mr. Galt gives the fruits of his own experience in America as agent for the Canada Company; ‘Southennan, a Tale,’ in 3 vols., 1830, which embodied an antiquarian description of Scottish manners in the reign of Queen Mary; ‘The Lives of the Players,’ 2 vols, written for the National Library; ‘The Life of Lord Byron,’ for the same series; “Bogle Corbet, or the Emigrants,’ 3 vols., 1831, intended as a guidebook to Canada; ‘Stanley Buxton, or the School-fellows,’ 3 vols., 1832; ‘Eben Erskine,’ 3 vols.’ ‘The Stolen Child,’ 1833; ‘Apotheosis of Sir Walter Scott;’ ‘The Member’ and ‘The Radical,’ political tales, in one volume each.

      In July 1832 Mr. Galt was struck with paralysis, and was removed to Greenock, to reside among his relations. Although deprived of the use of his limbs, and latterly unable to hold a pen, his mental powers retained their vigour amid the decay of his physical energies. His memory, it is true, was so far impaired that, some time previous to his death, he required to finish any writing he attempted at one sitting, as he felt himself at a loss, on returning to the subject, to recall the train of his ideas, yet his mind was as active, and his imagination as lively as ever; and the glee with which he either recounted or listened to any humorous anecdote, showed that his keen sense of the ludicrous, displayed to such advantage in his novels, had lost none of its acuteness. In 1833 he published his ‘Autobiography,’ in 2 vols.’; and in 1834, his ‘Literary Life and Miscellanies,’ 3 vols. He also contributed a variety of minor tales and sketches to the magazines and annuals. Among his latest productions was a tale called ‘The Bedral,’ which was not inferior to his Provost Pawkie; and ‘The Demon of Destiny, and other Poems,’ privately printed at Greenock in 1839. His name appears as editor on the third and fourth volumes of ‘The Diary Illustrative of the Times of George IV.,’ a work which created considerable outcry on the publication of the first and second volumes in 1838. Mr. Galt wrote in all sixty volumes, and it would be difficult to furnish a complete list of his works. In a list which he himself made he forgot an epic poem, and he afterwards jocularly remarked that he should be remembered as one who had published an epic poem, and forgot that he had sone so.

      About ten days before his death he was visited by another paralytic shock, being the fourteenth in succession. This deprived him at first of the use of his speech, although he afterwards had power to articulate indistinctly broken sentences. He was, however, quite sensible, and indicated, by unequivocal signs, that he understood what was said to him. He died April 11, 1839, leaving a widow and two sons. In person he was uncommonly tall, and his form was muscular and powerful. He had moved, during the greater part of his life, in the best circles of society; and as his manners were frank and agreeable, he was ever a most intelligent and pleasant companion. His feelings during the monotonous latter years of his changeful life, which were varied only by his sufferings, he expressed in the pathetic lines given in his Autobiography, beginning –

                        “Helpless, forgotten, sad, and lame,
                              On one lone seat the livelong day,
                        I muse of youth, and dreams of fame,
                              And hopes and wishes all away.”

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