Prophets without honour

John Galt’s Annals of the Parish is not towards the top of any college reading list, yet read patiently through its very mild Scots English it gives a good account of the Revolution that came to industry and society towards the end of the 18th century, and into the early 19th. Moreover, it does this in a manner cozy and compact, as the diary of a country clergyman in Ayrshire, far, far from any world-historical events.

It is the book in which John Stuart Mill discovered the word “utilitarianism,” putting it to use many decades later in the service of liberalism and progress; whereas Galt’s decent if vain and rather conceited narrator, the Reverend Micah Balwhidder, knew better. In the rural Jacobins of his age he saw the wicked appropriation of all Christian ideals to the new materialist creed, and with that the formation of the Big Lie that has governed every “enlightened” machination through the two centuries since his time. Not all Galt’s many novels are strictly readable today, but he left an half-dozen whose gentle irony is seriously addictive. He was what we call “a natural” in the art of prose fiction.

With Galt himself (1779–1839), and his “Canadian angle,” I will hardly deal. Yes, on sojourn from his native south-west Scotland, as superintendent of the Canada Company, he pioneered settlement of the Huron Tract in southwestern Ontario. Founder of Guelph, Goderich, and so forth. Recalled to England, he was rewarded with imprisonment for sloppy bookkeeping. His services to the British Empire elsewhere were significant, and his earlier adventures with such as Lord Byron in Europe, add to the largeness of his biography; but as I say, he is forgotten. We now live in a society that has no use for great men, whether living or in recollection.

My interest of the moment is Galt’s depiction of “a natural,” plural capitalized as “Naturals,” of the Ayrshire landscape; “haverels” in Scots. The term refers to the village idiot or fool, there being by reputation one in every place. They were by ancient custom not allowed to travel, both for their own good and the public weal; as wandering they would tend to collect uselessly in the cities. Davie Gellatley is the male model in the Annals, Meg Gaffaw a female equivalent; “Daft Jamie” is memorable in another work. Each plays the part of The Fool in the mediaeval tradition preserved in Shakespeare — being given the ancient liberty to “speak truth to power,” and to be fonts of paradoxical wisdom and wit.

For, Davie was “no sae silly as folk tak’ him for,” or rather, from frequent contact, folk would often tak’ the “puir fellow” for a kind of prophet. And this is only possible among people who may glimpse Christ in him.

Today, in for instance greater Parkdale, his descendants are placed on the welfare rolls, and offered the attention of social workers, when not simply left to the ministrations of the weather. They are defined as “homeless” and as “social problems.” Sympathy is directed to them as a class, but in a cold, abstract way. Our ear buds help us to ignore what they are saying. They disrupt the sterility of conurban life, get in our way on the sidewalks, and should they become more a nuisance can be drugged into docility as outpatients of our “mental health” bureaucracy.

Knowingly, or perhaps unknowing since he was himself somewhat prophetic, John Galt celebrates an aspect of that antediluvian world, before utilitarianism was legislated. What to us is a bother and worriment for the authorities, was to the mediaeval and earlier modern mind instead a community resource.


Perhaps I should clarify that the above has nothing to do with the character “John Galt” in Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged; or any other garage mechanic from Ohio. Nothing whatever. I’m sorry to have to mention that woman’s name in an Idlepost. I hope it will not be necessary again.