Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Killinchy; or, The Days of Livingston: A Tale of the Ulster Presbyterians

This book was published in 1839, written by James Meikle, but has been out of print ever since. A friend of mine who lives near Killinchy has an original edition - some years ago he keyed in the text of the whole book and was kind enough to email it to me. The introduction outlines Killinchy's location on the shores of Strangford Lough, and describes its people as "a peaceful and contented peasantry, industrious, enlightened and patriotic; banishing poverty by their labour, and reaping in the comforts of their homes and the hilarity of their hearts the ample reward of all their toils.” It's a book of historical fiction, set in the period when Hamilton & Montgomery brought tenant farming families to the north and east of County Down:

'...But we pass from what Killinchy is, “and up the stream of time we turn our sail” to days when its desert state, long unfamiliar with the scythe or the plough-share, was invaded by the hand of industry, and fertility spread over wastes unbeautified, but by the hues of the wild-flower and diversified only by the change of the passing seasons.

In the beginning of the seventeenth century, the greater part of the parish of Killinchy was peopled by Scottish settlers, who accompanied Sir James Hamilton, or subsequently emigrated to Ulster. That the motives which induced them were various, cannot be doubted, yet it seems evident that future prospect more than present advantage must have operated on their minds; the soil being barren, and the conveniences for farming almost unknown. But Scotchmen, though proverbially attached to their native

“Land of brown heath and shaggy wood,
Land of the mountain and the flood,”

have ascribed to them a roving propensity and spirit of adventure which climate cannot deter nor difficulties damp; and hence born and nurtured as most of them must have been amidst the storms and sterility of their native clime even the rudest recesses of Ulster may have offered temptations powerful enough to engage them in the pursuit of fortune. Certain it is, that from the desire of acquiring a more comfortable subsistence, if not entire independence many of them

“Sighed their adieu to their father-land.
And left their native hills,”

while others prompted by less honourable motives,

“Looking back on their vanishing mountain homes,
Sing with joy their last farewell.”

Amongst those Scottish emigrants who settled in the parish of Killinchy was William Hamilton. In the spring of 1610, he entered upon the possession of the farm of Ballybreagh. A considerable part of summer was spent in repairing the dwelling-house, which was in a state of almost entire dilapidation, and in erecting the necessary appendages of barn, byre and stable. These operations were so far advanced by the beginning of harvest that he removed his family from Scotland. His children though they had left the home of their infancy with sorrow and regret, were not a little gratified at finding a home ready for their reception in the humble farm-house of Ballybreagh; and, although it was destitute of the pleasing associations of Knowehead; yet it possessed one charm, powerful and heart-stirring – it was their own, the house and home of their father.

William Hamilton devoted himself with energy and skill to the cultivation of his land, but for several years was but scantily remunerated for his exertions. In clearing and breaking up the soil which was overgrown with rubbish, he expended the greater part of his fortune without any certain prospect of a return; yet the treasure he had hid for a season in the earth began to reappear in the verdure of his fields, adding vigour to his efforts, and stimulating to still more laborious industry. Before ten years had rolled away, it began to be remarked that “Ballybreagh was the bienest bawn in the boun’s o’ the parish;” and his success gave rise to a saying common at that time, and still true, that “the eident han’ can blin’ the bleer’t e’e o’ starvin want.”

The story then moves on from the geography of migration, to Hamilton's commercial distractions from spiritual priority:

"...But while William Hamilton increased in outward prosperity, he began to forget the “God of his fathers.” In a short time after the world promised well, he began to neglect those spiritual exercises, which, while the gloom of poverty surrounded him had been his only solace and support. The farm and the market now engrossed more of his attention than the devotional services of the family-altar.

It is true he did not abandon altogether the observance of social praise and prayer, but only occasionally permitted the hour of the morning or the evening sacrifice to be engrossed by the hurry and business of the world. He still endeavoured to keep up in the eyes of men the character of a Christian, and frequently resolved when a more convenient season should arrive, to resume the regular discharge of sacred duty. Yet it so happened that as the delay continued, the desire was weakened, and by degrees languished into the faintest image of a momentary regret. It is a fearful thing to abandon the high ground of christian principle and profession – to descend from the elevated region of practical holiness – to forego the enlivening refreshment of daily communion with God, and by too keen a pursuit of worldly good to allow the pleasures of piety to lose the savour of superlative bliss to the soul.

The occasional intermission of a christian duty may not seem a voluntary abandonment of the way of salvation, but it is one step in the retreat from the path of victory – it is a symptom of declining zeal – of abating watchfulness – of cooling love, and shews that the province of the spiritual affections has been invaded by some neutralising principle, inimical to the upward ascent of the desires, and opposed to the growth of grace in the soul...'

Who was James Meikle?
Very little is known about James Meikle; he is believed to have been born in Scotland. He also authored another book called Our Scottish Forefathers which was published in Belfast in 1836. He is thought to have died in 1842, probably in Scotland.

What is particularly interesting is that Meikle was very well informed about the history of the 17th century Ulster Scots, a good few decades before the most important manuscripts from that century were eventually printed as books by commercial publishers in the mid/late 1800s. That he sought to popularise the history through creative writing is also significant - was he seeking to educate his readers, or was he tapping in to a ready market for a story that people already knew? James Seaton Reid's History of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland had been published in 1834 and was a hugely influential telling of the Ulster-Scots story.

Some of this history had trickled into print earlier, in the late 1700s and early 1800s. The Belfast News Letter had printed excerpts of the Montgomery Manuscripts in 1785/1786 (1786 was also the year that Robert Burns' poems were first printed in Kilmarnock - extracts were printed in the Belfast News Letter that same year) and also again in 1822. They then issued a small bound edition in 1830, the Preface of which indicates that its intended audience was "gentlemen" and "those who have studied". However, the publishers were clearly conscious of the need to also pick up sales among the general public; the Preface also says that the publishers hoped that it might "engage the attention of the majority", and there is also a reference to their efforts to issue the book at an affordable price.

The major printings of the early accounts of the County Down settlements took place after Meikle's death: George Hill's exhaustive footnoted edition of the Montgomery MSS appeared in 1869, the Hamilton MSS in 1867, Adair's Narrative in 1866, Robert Blair's Autobiography in 1848, and so on.

James Meikle is an obscure figure, but he may well have been the first to try to "package" the story of the first major Ulster-Scots settlement in a popular novel, centred upon a specific locality.


Nelson McCausland MLA said...

The eident han’ can blin’ the bleer’t e’e o’ starvin want - I had to use the Dictionary of the Scots Language for that one. It shows how dense the Ulster-Scots was in County Down at that time.