John Galt

John Galt (1779 - 1839): was born in Irvine, Ayrshire; his family later moved to Greenock, where Galt lived until he was 20.

Galt led a varied and exciting life. An unsuccessful London business venture sent him off on a trip around the Mediterranean where he met and became friends with Lord Byron. By this time Galt was already writing poems, blank-verse tragedies and plays. On his return to Britain he would become Byron’s first biographer, and add travel writing to his growing array of literary skills, but he really only found his voice when he began writing novels, the best of which include The Ayrshire Legatees (1821), Annals of the Parish (1821), and The Entail (1823). In 1824 Galt travelled to Canada where he was appointed Secretary to the Canada Company, an extension of the British Empire which was engaged in the settlement of a large part of Ontario. He founded and planned the town of Guelph there in 1827, naming it after one of the family names of the British royal family. Guelph was the first planned town in Canada – in an odd twist of historical symmetry, Galt’s birthplace, Irvine, became a victim of civic planners as one of Scotland’s New Towns in 1966. Galt travelled back and forth to Canada for several years and finally settled in Greenock in 1834, where he continued to write until his death.

But Galt is remembered primarily for his novels, which he called “treatises on the history of society”. They are marked by historical and local detail, and an ear for dialect. His overall theme was the gradual transformation of society. Such was the accuracy with which he constructed his vision of Ayrshire life, he referred to his novels as “theoretical histories”. He is often compared to Walter Scott, with whom he was contemporary, but Galt was more willing to engage in criticism of the current political climate and as such he provides us with a more accurate picture of his times. With Galt’s work it is interesting to look at where fact separates from fiction, where his literary and business activities diverge. Sometimes the lines are not all that easy to draw.

Galt’s uncompromising attention to detail, his avoidance of sentimentality and romance, and his vivid and ironic wit have ensured that the best of his novels have continually appealed to new generations of readers. His most popular works have remained continuously in print since his death, a rare accolade.

Further Reading

Scottish Libraries
Good general introduction to John Galt and his work.
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Project Gutenberg
Read three of Galt’s novels online! The Ayrshire Legatee, The Annals of the Parish, and The Provost.
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The website exists for you to buy their books – but they also give you loads of info on the writers they publish. Follow the links for discussions on, and extracts from, Galt’s novels Ringan Gilhaize, and The Member and the Radical.
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