Allan Cunningham

The literary history of Dumfriesshire and Galloway, 1770-1830 involves a fascinating range of characters, including (in no particular order): Robert Heron, Robert Burns, John Mactaggart, James Hogg, Suzanna Hawkins, Dorothy and William Wordsworth, John Keats, Thomas Pennant, Henry Duncan, John McDiarmid, William Nicholson, Walter Scott, Tobias Smollett and James Fenimore Cooper. However, one name sticks out for the striking qualities of his literary relationship with the region: Allan Cunningham.

Cunningham (1784-1842) was born at Blackwood in and raised near Dalswinton, on the banks of the Nith river north of Dumfries. In fact, his family were at once time close neighbours of Robert Burns just across the Nith at Ellisland farm, a fact that Cunningham would return to in his lifelong idolisation of the elder poet. Following his meeting with R. H. Cromek and in advance of the publication of their 1810 Remains of Nithsdale and Galloway Song, Cunningham migrated to London, where he would live for the rest of life as superintendent of works for the period’s leading British sculptor, Francis Chantrey. Indeed, however much this was the product of inclination or necessity for a (very) hardworking man, he rarely left the metropolis for any reason whatsoever.

Cunningham pictured holding his mason’s hammer.

Still, for all that we was city-bound at least in a physical sense, Cunningham would continue to publish an astonishing variety of literary works about southwest Scotland and the wider borders region – especially his own Nithsdale – for the remainder of his life. Taken as a whole, what emerges is an extended literary contemplation on the nature of belonging and on locality as such. Cunningham’s work in this vein provided a major contribution to what was then recognised as a key theme of Scottish culture internationally: nostalgic homesickness.

Cunningham published all kinds of work: songs, poetry, novels, tales, a reading drama, biographies of artists and writers. And yet for all the formal miscellany of his work, what is actually most remarkable is the consistency of his interest in his former home. In works as diverse as The Maid of Elvar (1832), a long verse romance about Anglo-Scottish border reiving; Paul Jones (1826), a novel about the American revolutionary figure (and supposed pirate) John Paul Jones and his own thorny relationship to Galloway; or indeed Cunningham’s (notoriously unreliable) edition of Robert Burns (1834); he retains a real clarity of focus around the meaning, the stability and the emotional significance of what he would call the ‘native’.

Cunningham has emerged as among the key figures in the research for Regional Romanticism, in respect to the distinctive quality – and tenacity – of his imaginative geography of the southwest. I am also working closely with my colleague David Stewart of Northumbria University on Cunningham. We believe that he is among the most significant Scottish writers of this period yet to receive systematic scholarly attention, something we aim to rectify in the coming years.

5 comments

  1. Great to see this posting. Cunningham gets more than an honourable mention in my chapter on paratextual imagery and metaphors in Romantic Celtic song collections.
    Book, Our Ancient National Airs (Ashgate, 2013; Routledge 2016)

  2. Hi Gerard, a really interesting article here! I’m intrigued by your mention of the perception of Scottish Culture from this time. The theme of ‘nostalgic homesickness’ immediately brought to mind the character Donald Farfrae from Hardy’s Mayor of Casterbridge who is nostalgic for his home but more passionate about seeing the world. From first reading it for an A level many years ago I think I see now how his character symbolises much of the Scottish Enlightenment movement. Written some 50 years after the time of Cunningham, it’s clear the impact of Scottish Culture internationally was huge. Something I’ve never considered before. Can you recommend any particular works by Cunningham that explore these themes of belonging and locality, please?

    1. Hi David – thanks for your comment. The Hardy comparison is an interesting one! It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that the majority of what Cunningham wrote contains this theme in one way or another. Aside from the works I mention in this blog post, you might have a look at his short fiction for the London Magazine, subsequently published in book form as Traditional Tales (1822) and available in a modern edition by Tim Killick.

      1. I always wondered why Hardy chose a homesick Scotsman as a character. Perhaps he was directly influenced by Cunninghams themes? Thanks for the suggestions I love the short story form and will look forward to exploring his work. Cheers Gerard!

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