The Galloway Nag: sharing the history of a little-known horse

Six years ago, I began work on something I’d wanted to do for a long time. That was to begin serious academic research into a great obsession of mine: the little-known landrace of horses known as Galloway Nags.

I’d grown up on Tyneside hearing horses called “gallowas” by all kinds of people. This intrigued me. Why did we call them “gallowas”? Was it confined to North East England? Where did it come from? I was mad about horses as well as the history of our region, and so I investigated further. By my teens I was already aware that there had been a type of horse from Galloway in Scotland known as the Galloway Nag. It was even referenced in Shakespeare, and this is still the reference that most people know, if they know anything at all about the Galloway. It still didn’t explain why so many people in the North East called horses gallowas, nor why so many of those people should have been working class, including miners, horse dealers, and rag and bone men. It was a warm-hearted term, one that reminded me of everything that represented home to me in the north, like songs such as The Blaydon Races, saints such as Cuthbert (after whom donkeys and sometimes small ponies are called affectionately cuddies), the great cathedral at Durham, the beach and castle at Bamburgh. The term was part of my history, and part of me.

Much later I learned about the border reivers of the Anglo-Scottish border, and it seemed that in some way the horses were connected to them. Having read the work of Anthony Dent, who was a big fan of the Galloway, I also discovered that the Galloway had in some way contributed to early racing and perhaps the Thoroughbred racehorse. By the mid 1980s I was confident that the Galloway had played an important role in racing in Britain, and probably in the creation of the Thoroughbred.

Why did no-one seem to be aware of this? Why was the only Thoroughbred narrative we ever heard linked to those three legendary stallions, the Darley Arabian, the Godolphin Arabian (or Barb), and the Byerley Turk? Why was the Galloway clearly so important to some people, who used the term with affection and nostalgia, while others were completely unaware of it?

Those are a few of the questions I set out to answer when I embarked on my PhD in 2016. One of the consistent reactions was a not very sanguine “Good luck with that; there’s probably not much to discover.” PhD dissertations are usually between 70,000 and 100,000 words in length. It seemed a lot at the start. When I began writing up the PhD in 2020, I contacted my supervisor. “I’m up to 100,000 words already and I still have masses to include.”

Restructuring inevitably followed, with the intention of developing the dissertation into a book, which at around 150,000 words is now in the process of being published. See what you can do in six years? Whatever it is you want to do, do it now, and start today.

So that brings me on to the next part of the story. In March this year I gave a talk to a charity called the Carriage Foundation, at a study day they had organised at Beamish Museum. Beamish is one of my favourite places (I’ve worked there), and the Carriage Foundation is doing fantastic work in ensuring that the role of horses in our history is not lost. There was something else that was special about this for me, though. I had already presented aspects of my work at various academic conferences, some of which had resulted in publications. I had also taken part in Cassidy Cash’s award-winning podcast That Shakespeare Life, talking about the Galloway as known to Shakespeare and his contemporaries. However, the Carriage Foundation study day at Beamish was the first opportunity I’d had to share my work with a general audience with little knowledge of the Galloway but a great deal of knowledge about matters relating to equine history.

This is a good test of how robust research really is. Having to condense it down and fit it into an hour’s talk or so makes the researcher focus on what’s important in the story, what’s different, what people need to know. And afterwards, I had the opportunity to put the talk into print in the Carriage Foundation journal, The Whiffle Tree. This week the results arrived in the form of the latest issue of the (highly glossy and appealing!) journal.

I’ve been a writer, in parallel with other careers, for over forty years. (Yes, really. I did start quite young. Does a letter in the Dandy when I was nine count? Or perhaps that piece I wrote for the local paper when I was thirteen?) There’s still something magical about appearing in print. It never grows dull. I’m particularly pleased with this one though, as I hope it represents the first of many more popular and academic pieces on the subject of what I have come to call “the most influential horse that few have ever heard about.”

Check out the work of the Carriage Foundation here:

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