One of the best-known economists of the nineteenth century, John Ramsay McCulloch (1789-1864) , was born at the Isle of Whithorn and educated at Whithorn parish school. He came to be one of the first editors of the new “Scotsman” newspaper, provided an early exposition of David Ricardo’s economic doctrines, and later became Comptroller of the Stationery Office for many years. He married a Whithorn girl, Isabella Stewart, regularly returned to carouse with old friends at the now-vanished “Red Lion” inn, and is said never to have lost his Whithorn accent.
A plaque still exists at number 76 George Street, Whithorn, to local poetess Jeanie Donnan, who composed odes on local events, usually publishing them in the ‘Galloway Gazette’. Her work forms part of a substantial corpus of local poetry, which is now eagerly collected and of which there are substantial archives at local libraries, the Ewart Library at Dumfries, and Broughton House Library, Kirkcudbright. Other well-known local poets, all of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, include :, David McWhirter of the Isle of Whithorn (‘A Ploughboy’s Musings’) , John Fleming , Jeanie Whannel, David McKie, and James Fleming Cannon, who composed the ‘Droll Recollections of Whithorn and Vicinity’, a much-treasured account of local eccentricities, and a record of dialect and character.
Not surprisingly for an area whose settlements have such early foundations, mediaeval and late mediaeval literature is well represented : Patrick Hannay (?1594- 1640’s) whose family owned Sorbie Tower and lands at Kirkdale in the Stewartry, wrote the sophisticated court poetry characteristic of the court of James VI, while the fascinating correspondence of Patrick Vaus of Barnbarroch, near Whauphill (1530-1597) reveals much about the life of a Galloway laird in the sixteenth century. The monastic library which one supposes must have existed at Whithorn has been lost without trace, but the two works on the life of St. Ninian are sophisticated literary productions and indicate the prestige of his cult: one dates from the mid-700’s and the second, by Ailred of Rievaulx, dates from the 13th century.
The Victorian antiquarians are well represented in the South Machars, and their work in recording local history and archaeology did much to promote recognition of its historical treasures : PH McKerlie, ( 1817-1900) whose family was associated with the lands of Cruggleton near Garlieston, wrote the monumental “Lands and their Owners in Galloway” , still a source for genealogy and estate history today. The 3rd Marquess of Bute (1847-1900) was responsible for much of the excavation and reconstruction in the Whithorn area during the late nineteenth century : he was one of the most famous Roman Catholic converts of the century, and his devotion to all things mediaeval and ecclesiastical was caricatured in Disraeli’s “Lothair”. Sir Herbert Maxwell (1845-1937) wrote prolifically throughout his long life on the history of Dumfries and Galloway, place names, plants , and on country life in his seven volume ‘Memories of the Months’, where he often refers to his own experience on the estate at Monreith.
It was Sir Herbert’s grandson, Gavin Maxwell (1914-1969), however, who is the most famous literary figure from the Machars : his autobiographical writings about his life with otters in the West Highlands, where he lived after World War II, brought him world-wide fame and earned him the reputation of being the father of British conservation; but one of his most sensitive and intimate portraits is of his childhood at Elrig in the Machars (‘The House of Elrig’), and provides the key to Maxwell’s complex and often unstable character. You will find copies of his books in local bookshops in Whithorn and Wigtown. Monuments to Gavin Maxwell are on the headland at Monreith’s St. Medan’s Golf Course, and at Port William’s Maxwell Park. The grounds of his family estate are open to the public, but his birthplace at Elrig is a private house with no public access.