Regional Romanticism: John Paul Jones

Industrial action and crazy winter weather have combined to make the last few months challenging in lots of ways, but I’m happy to report that work on Section 2 of my fellowship has come along nicely. Coming in to the project, my plan for this portion was to focus in on the paramount question of landscape, with my eye on a selection of literary contexts. As is so often the case, though, the working process has involved refining the research parameters. In the end, I decided to invest my time in a study of the Solway firth and its integral role within the regional culture of Dumfriesshire and Galloway. Specifically, I have been building this around the figure of John Paul Jones and his various literary imaginings across the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, in novels but also in an assortment of non-fictional texts. This should complement the travel writing covered in Section 1, most of which was decidedly ‘landlubbing’, to fill out a wider picture of the region.

It would be glib to describe D&G as a maritime area, but the presence of the Solway is universally recognisable in Romantic-era sources. The ports of Kirkcudbright and Dumfries did not keep pace with the nautical boom taking place further north in the Clyde estuary. At Dumfries, there were consistent challenges in maintaining a serviceable harbour on the Nith river, but there was a significant coastal trade based there and at Kirkcudbright, with foreign shipping a less major component of the regional economy. Research on this subject has tended to emphasise the Solway’s smuggling trade, which peaked in the years before the 1765 Revestment Act curtailed the smuggling hotbed of the Isle of Man.

Still, while smuggling continued to be a significant feature of the region’s maritime life, the Solway was also a global gateway. In James McCulloch’s 1831 ‘Voyage to the West Indies’, for example, published in The Castle-Douglas Weekly Visitor and Literary Miscellany, there is a real sense of a transatlantic community, based around the lucrative slave economy in the West Indies. McCulloch details his travels to Jamaica, where he becomes dangerously ill. It is only when he encounters another Galloway expatriate that things begin to look brighter, the doctor seeming to pay more attention as soon as he is informed of his patient’s heritage!

John Paul Jones (born John Paul at Kirkbean in Kirkcudbrightshire in 1747) is a historical figure who embodies many of the issues of a rapidly globalising world. Famously, Jones mounted a series of shocking raids on the British coast across 1778-9 on behalf of the American Revolutionary forces, including a landing at St. Mary’s Isle not far from where he was born. In this apparent betrayal of home, contemporaries found a way to think through the complexities of life an era of political and social ruction.

This was certainly true of Allan Cunningham, the Dumfriesshire author who in 1826 published a novel on the subject. Working in the wake of Walter Scott’s popularity – Scott had famously covered the Solway coast in Guy Mannering (1815), Old Mortality (1816) and Redgauntlet (1824) – Cunningham fearlessly embellished the real history of Jones. I am reading his text alongside a variety of other treatments of Jones, including the American novelist James Fenimore Cooper’s The Pilot (1824), as a way to unpack the category of the ‘local’ in a time of change.

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