John Galt was born on 2 May 1779 at Irvine in Ayrshire, the son of a ship’s captain involved in trade to the West Indies. Sickly as a child, Galt was at first schooled at home, later attending grammar school at Irvine.
In 1789, the family moved to Greenock in Renfrewshire when Galt’s father became a ship-owner and in 1796 John began work as a clerk for a local firm. In 1803 and 1804 he found some published success as a poet when the Scots Magazine published part of his epic poem, ‘The Battle of Largs’. The poem was published in full in 1804, around the time its author moved to London in an attempt to become a businessman. In 1807 his article, ‘A Statistical Account of Upper Canada’, was published in The Philosophical Magazine, and in 1808 his main business partnership was declared bankrupt, though without Galt suffering liabilities.
In 1809 he studied law for a few months, entering Lincoln’s Inn, but then decided to travel around the Mediterranean where he met Lord Byron. In 1811, back in London, he published two volumes of his travels and a biography of Cardinal Wolsey, and became editor of the Political Review. In 1813 Galt married Elizabeth Tilloch and also published a sequel to his Mediterranean travels, Letters from the Levant. In 1814 he became editor of The New British Theatre and the following year gave up this position to become Secretary of the Royal Caledonian Asylum, a charity established by the Highland Society in London. In 1816, Galt published The Life and Studies of Benjamin West, a biography of the American painter who became President of the Royal Academy. In 1818 his tragedy, The Appeal, was staged in Edinburgh with a verse prologue by John Gibson Lockhart and verse epilogue by Sir Walter Scott. Back in London in 1819, Galt began lobbying Parliament for the Edinburgh and Glasgow Union Canal Company, though this first attempt failed. He also turned his hand to writing school text-books under various pseudonyms. The following year his parliamentary efforts were successful and he was given a substantial reward by the canal company. In 1821 The Ayrshire Legatees was published in monthly parts in Blackwood’s Magazine, and in the same year Galt was engaged by a group of businessmen from Upper Canada, attracted by his lobbying reputation, to assist them in obtaining compensation from the government for losses sustained in the War of 1812. The Steam-Boat and Annals of the Parish were both published in 1821, followed in 1822 by Sir Andrew Wylie, The Provost, The Gathering of the West, and The Entail. In 1823, Ringhan Gilhaize and The Spaewife appeared in print.
The following year Galt was a prime mover in founding the Canada Company whose Secretary he became; in 1825, he was one of five government commissioners sent to Canada on a fact-finding mission. Later that same year, Galt was granted the freedom of Irvine. The Omen and The Last of the Lairds were published in 1826, the same year that Galt was appointed superintendent of the Canada Company. He travelled via New York to the areas around modern Ontario including Toronto. In 1827 Galt established the towns of Guelph and Goderich but in 1829 he was recalled to London, dismissed from the Canada Company in June, committed to King’s Bench Prison for debt in July, and discharged in November.
Galt’s methods were subsequently vindicated because the Canada Company, following the patterns he had established, made profits from the 1830s until it was wound up in the 1950s. He was a good community builder but he laboured with little help, he alienated the reactionary establishment of Upper Canada and he failed to impress on his directors that the profits would accrue in the medium to long term.
In 1830, Lawrie Todd, Southennan and The Life of Lord Byron appeared and Galt briefly became editor of The Courier, a London evening newspaper. In 1831, Bogle Corbet was published and Galt played an instrumental role in forming the British American Land Company (to do in Lower Canada what the Canada Company was doing in Upper Canada) and appointed its Secretary. In 1832, The Member and The Radical were published and Galt suffered the first of a series of strokes.
In 1833 he published his Autobiography and the following year his Literary Life and Miscellanies. In 1834, he retired to Greenock where he lived quietly but continued to write articles, short stories, novellas and poems. He died on 11 April 1839.
This sketch merely skims the surface of a life packed with incident. To learn more about this fascinating man there is John Galt the life of a Writer, by Ian A Gordon (Edinburgh: Oliver & Boyd, 1972); The Galts A Canadian Odyssey, by H B Timothy (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1977); and Paul H Scott’s John Galt (Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press, 1985). A comprehensive reading list, including criticism and articles, is contained in The International Companion to John Galt (G Carruthers and C Kidd, eds. Glasgow: Scottish Literature International, 2017).