Coaches, wi’ Fire in their Guts

With the research for the fellowship now well underway, it seems time to reflect on the initial stages. I hope to use this blog as a kind of behind-the-scenes account of the three years of the project. Naturally the first month or so has involved a lot of planning and meetings. I’ve had a host of useful chats with people doing complementary work. This includes local research organisations like the Dumfries Archival Mapping Project, arts bodies including The Stove, and a variety of archivists including the massively helpful Graham Roberts in the Ewart Library Dumfries and Christ Fleet at the National Library of Scotland (thanks go to Chris for the beautiful map you can see as a background to this site). Not to mention the network of scholars who have been so generous with their time and input so far.

Before getting really stuck into travel writing about the region as the first major portion of the research (see the following blog post), I spent a lot of time revisiting some of the excellent standard histories of the area. This includes, for example, William McDowall’s well-known 1867 History of the Burgh of Dumfries and William Mackenzie’s 1841 History of Galloway. These Victorian histories are rich sources, as much as ‘primary’ texts in themselves as secondary reference points. It’s interesting to note a recurring pattern among them – also present in many of the more familiar, canonical British histories of the period – in which ‘recent’ history (eg post-1745) is passed over relatively lightly, to allow more space for the older material. The Mackenzie is a case in point, with only about 100 pages from the mid-eighteenth century onwards, at the tail end of two pretty substantial volumes. We might expect pagination to swell in line with the availability of documentation. Then again, episodes like the Covenanting struggles of the seventeenth century understandably merited extended coverage. On one level, the implication is that the recent era is ‘known’, sufficiently documented, not fully deserving of the appellation of ‘history’.

An engraving of Dumfries town centre by John Gellatly, from McDiarmid’s 1832 Picture of Dumfries.

Among the standouts from the raft of nineteenth-century texts on Dumfriesshire and Galloway is John McDiarmid’s 1832 Picture of Dumfries, written in his enjoyable prose, with a keen eye for landscape, geography and of course that Romantic buzzword ‘improvement’. McDiarmid is an important figure for this project, not least as editor of the Dumfries and Galloway Courier from 1817. It’s worth quoting here from an inset tale in the Picture of Dumfries, in which McDiarmid ventriloquizes a local woman concerned about the changes of the times:

An’ our John, wha can look as afar afore him as the maist o’ them, says he wadna be surprised to see hammers lifted by steam napping stanes on the road side, and even coaches, wi’ fire in their guts, scouring past as fast as grews after a hare, or the racers ower the course at Tinwald Downs. You and me, Jenny, mayna live to see it ; but it’s my opinion there ’ill sune be nae use for poor folk ava.

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