John Galt was born in 1779 in the town of Irvine on the Ayrshire coast where his father was a shipowner and sea captain trading with the West Indies. The family moved to Greenock when Galt was 10, and much of his later writing came from this corner of the West of Scotland. Leaving his job as a junior clerk in Greenock, Galt set out for London at the age of 25. When his business plans did not work out he went on a tour of the Mediterranean and the Near East. It was during this time that he met and befriended Byron. Having published Life of Cardinal Wolsey and a volume of tragedies in 1812, Galt turned to writing full-time after his marriage in 1813. A second novel, The Majolo (1816) was published but met with little success. Galt found his metier with Ayrshire Legatees (1820), purporting to be letters home from a family of Scots visiting London. Appearing anonymously in monthly instalments in Blackwoods Magazine, this work led directly to the publication of Annals of the Parish (1821), a gently ironic masterpiece. This was followed in the same vein by The Provost (1822), while The Entail and Sir Andrew Wylie (both 1822) had similar strengths, although structured as more conventional novels. Ringan Gilhaize (1923) took a darker turn in a unique psychological and historical study of Covenanting fervour and the ‘killing times’ in the 17th century.
Becoming involved with the development of Canada, he became supervisor for the Canada Company. Galt helped to settle Ontario and founded the town of Guelph. However, he was baldy treated by the directors and after four years abroad his health failed and he returned to London to face bankruptcy and a spell in the debtor’s prison. His Life of Lord Byron (1830) was a controversial success and the novels The Member and The Radical (both 1832) took a searching look at his country’s political life. After suffering a disabling series of strokes he worked on his Autobiography (1833) followed by Literary Life and Miscellanies (1834). He returned to Greenock in 1834 and died there five years later.