Annals of the Parish by John Galt

Or the Chronicle of Dalmailing during the Ministry of the Rev Micah Balwhidder, written by himself.
Oxford University Press World’s Classics, 1986, 272 p – including xiv p Introduction, 1 p Note on the Text, 2 p Select Bibliography, 3 p Chronology of John Galt, 3 p Textual Notes, 29 p Explanatory Notes.

Annals of the Parish cover

Not just one of the 100 Best Scottish books but a World’s Classic no less, and set in the interesting times of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries so taking in growing industrialisation and, at a distance, the American War of Independence and The French Revolution. The book is couched as the parish memoirs of the Rev Balwhidder who is at first not welcomed by his new congregation as being imposed on them by the parish’s heritors but wins them over soon enough. Initially he refers to Dalmailing as the clachan (village) but the town grows in size when manufacturing begins.

While, as Galt himself admitted Annals of the Parish is not a novel since it has no plot, the book still has enough human activity to sustain interest. Characters are sketched economically and develop by repeated exposure to their doings. Mrs Malcolm in particular engages the narrator’s and hence the reader’s sympathies. Some of the lesser characters’ names are playful. Mr Cayenne has a temper, the mason is a Mr Trowel, there is a Mr Toddy who owns a drinking establishment, Mr Cylindar is an engineer, the doctors Tanzey and Marigold are named after medicinal plants.

There are many biblical allusions and several animadversions against Roman Catholicism – to be expected of a Presbyterian minister of the time, though the Parish elders and Rev Balwhidder himself mellow in this regard later in the book as a consequence of the French Revolution. At one point he observes that, “The world is such a wheel carriage that it might properly be called the WHIRL’D.” (If someone 200 years ago could write that how much more would their disorientation be now?)

Modern sensibilities may be a little shocked by the mention of a “blackamoor” servant named “Sambo” (my quotation marks.) And there is the phrase “avaricious Jew” – though that epithet is directed at the Rev Balwhidder when he seeks an augmentation of his stipend.

In the notes it is said that the word Utilitarian – and thus its ism? – might have been lost (Jeremy Bentham gave it up for ‘greatest happiness principle’) had not John Stuart Mill recovered it from Annals of the Parish.

For a piece of fiction with no plot Annals of the Parish is surprisingly readable, even two centuries on. As a portrait of small town Scottish life at the time it is admirable and its lessons not applicable to Scotland alone.

Pedant’s corner:- David and Goliah (Goliath,) but if was one of misfortune (it.) Once again I noticed dulness with one “l” and there was “when I now recal to mind.” There is one use of the word bairns for children but otherwise weans is used throughout.

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