Stirling Burghs


Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1690-1715, ed. D. Hayton, E. Cruickshanks, S. Handley, 2002
Available from Boydell and Brewer

Background Information

Stirling (1708); Inverkeithing (1710), Dunfermline (1713), Fifeshire; Culross, Perthshire; Queensferry, Linlithgowshire


26 May 1708JOHN ERSKINE4
 Charles Hay, Ld. Yesternil1
 George Preston 
 John Erskine2

Main Article

Comprising five towns spread across four counties in the Forth valley, Stirling Burghs was not amenable to control by any single interest. As the century progressed this district developed an unenviable reputation for venality, but paucity of evidence makes it impossible to establish how far corruption influenced elections in this period. Undoubtedly, some inducements were given. John Erskine, referring to Queensferry and Culross in 1708, asserted that ‘these kinds of people are very fickle and most must be plied to the very last hour’.2

In the last Scottish parliament, the individual burghs had returned supporters of the Union, three of whom were closely connected with the Court: Hon. Sir David Dalrymple, 1st Bt. (Culross), Sir James Stewart, 1st Bt. (Queensferry) and Colonel John Erskine (Stirling); the others were members of the Squadrone: Sir Peter Halkett, 1st Bt. (Dunfermline), and James Spittal of Leuchat (Inverkeithing). All of the towns except Queensferry had submitted petitions against the Union, but constituency opinion made no difference to votes in parliament. Of the five commissioners only Spittal failed to secure nomination to the first Parliament of Great Britain as a reward for having voted in favour of the Union. Each of these Members might have chosen to contest Stirling Burghs at the first election after the Union, but only Erskine came forward. Dalrymple looked for a safer seat elsewhere, and neither Halkett nor Stewart ever stood for this constituency.3

Erskine possessed a strong interest at Stirling, where he held both civil and military offices, as provost of the burgh and deputy-governor of the castle. He also enjoyed support from his stepson, the Earl of Mar, who owned a ‘fine palace’ in Stirling. With relatively slender resources, Mar was intent on establishing himself as a force both in Stirlingshire and the district of burghs. At Inverkeithing he was able to call upon the support of his fellow Court peer Lord Rosebery, who owned considerable property there and held the provostship throughout this period. Dunfermline by contrast was susceptible to Squadrone influence: the Marquess of Tweeddale, a sizable landowner in the locality, was hereditary bailie of the regality of Dunfermline, and Halkett himself was provost of the burgh. Tweeddale’s influence, to a lesser degree, also extended to Queensferry by virtue of the economic ties between these two ports. Culross was something of a special case. Under normal circumstances both Erskine and his namesake, the so-called ‘Black Colonel’ Erskine, should be reckoned influential, as too should William Cochrane of Ochiltree, who claimed in a petition to the Treasury after the Union that the return for Culross in the Scottish parliament had been ‘entirely depending on him’. In 1708, however, Culross had forfeited its right to municipal government by a collective refusal of the oath of abjuration. No electoral delegate could be chosen until the magistracy and council were restored, and this did not take place until after a petition to the convention of royal burghs in July. The refusal of the Abjuration in Culross was a continuation of the burgh’s protest against the Union. The objection was against conforming to an English Act of 1702 which was now deemed to apply equally to Scotland. While resistance to the oath was most commonly associated with episcopalian and Jacobite scruples, this particular revolt probably included non-juring Presbyterians as well. The implications did not dawn upon the candidates in 1708, both of whom cultivated interests at Culross to within days of the district election.4

Viewed in terms of pre-Union Scottish politics, the 1708 election was a battle between the Court and the Squadrone. Erskine, after expressing some initial reluctance, succumbed to Mar’s prompting and agreed to stand. The Earl naturally claimed full credit for Erskine’s subsequent success. The Squadrone candidate was Tweeddale’s eldest son Lord Yester. After consultations during February with Lord Rothes upon Fifeshire elections, Yester persuaded Halkett to surrender his interest at Dunfermline, offering vague prospects elsewhere by way of compensation. Yester explained to Tweeddale that in Stirling district ‘none but myself of your friends can pretend to do any good’. He therefore asked his father to make an approach to Rosebery for the vote of Inverkeithing:

I would have you speak to him about my pretensions. For I would not give him the pretence of my slighting him as a handle to oppose me, there being many in that town who entirely depend upon him, though, by the by, in all hazard I am endeavouring to see to get it done without him. I do not write to him myself because it is easy for me to delay the answering of a letter and then to say he is engaged . . . When you speak to Rosebery I would have you do it as a design of your lordship that I should set up and not as a thing already done.

Yester placed undue confidence in the Squadrone’s campaign to abolish the Scottish privy council. He predicted the acquiescence of Rosebery ‘if what we expect in relation to the finishing the dissolution of our government hold, for his interest is his surest party’. Yester’s confidence was short lived, and within days he was writing of Rosebery’s probable hostility. Mar was aware of the rival candidacy by mid-April, and used his Court connexion with Rosebery to deny Inverkeithing to Yester. Mar was nevertheless concerned that Yester was likely to secure Dunfermline. He therefore wrote to his brother, Lord Grange (Hon. James Erskine†), instructing him to ‘bestir yourself in this, for I would be sorry if Colonel Erskine did not carry it, and yet the more if Yester come in’. He suggested that Spittal’s interest at Inverkeithing could also be secured and that approaches should be made to the ‘Black Colonel’ and Cochrane of Ochiltree for their interest at Culross. Yester himself was confident of success: two days before the election it was reported that he ‘brags much of his getting Culross and Queensferry to be his friends’. Yet, at the election he failed to secure a single vote and may conceivably have withdrawn at the last minute. Evidence (by no means conclusive) that he stood a contest survives both in private correspondence and the report of one Scottish newspaper. Yester should therefore be regarded as a defeated candidate in the unanimous election of Erskine by the four burghs attending the election. Erskine voted in his own favour as commissioner from Stirling. The delegate from Culross was called for several times during the election, but ‘did not compear’. The precise reasons for the complete evaporation of Yester’s support have not been ascertained, though Erskine certainly suggested to Grange that bribes should be offered to waverers. The failure of Dunfermline to vote for Yester may simply indicate unwillingness to waste a vote upon a lost cause.5

The 1710 election was not a straightforward contest between the Court and the Squadrone. The Court interest (now Scottish Tory) was active, but opposition came from Henry Cunningham, whose affiliation with the Squadrone only became marked in the ensuing Parliament. Evidence that Cunningham received Squadrone support during the election is inconclusive. In June 1710 Mar expressed his determination that Erskine should stand for re-election, and approached Rosebery in order to secure Inverkeithing. He was apprehensive that Rosebery might expect to nominate his own candidate as a quid pro quo for former assistance. Erskine was even less enthusiastic about standing than in 1708. Mar complained that, if he would only ‘bestir himself for his election . . . once we had it sure for him, we could put in another’. Erskine was instructed not to broadcast his diffidence, nor seek out a successor. Erskine’s response was to insist that he had not been indiscreet, while reasserting that he was ‘firmly resolved not to stand’. He predicted that Stirling and Culross would support any candidate proposed as a ‘firm friend’ to Mar, and that either Rosebery’s interest at Inverkeithing or Halkett’s at Dunfermline would suffice to carry the election.6

Other developments were beginning to cloud the picture. Sir John Erskine, 3rd Bt.* (a relative of Mar but a former Squadrone client of Montrose and Rothes), informed Grange on 17 Aug. that he could be ‘helpful’ in Colonel Erskine’s election and wished to be ‘guided by Lord Mar’. He referred to an offer, which had come indirectly from Rothes, of the possibility of standing for Dysart Burghs. Expanding on this theme a few days later, he referred to another (but unattributed) approach made in early August comprising ‘an offer of two of the towns . . . viz. Dunfermline and Queensferry’. This proposal had been accompanied by the suggestion that Sir John might ‘endeavour the procuring a third’. Unwilling to associate himself with the Squadrone and averse to securing Dysart Burghs on false pretences, he wrote to secure the votes of Dunfermline and Queensferry in order to aid Colonel Erskine: ‘at least . . . if I cannot get them to vote as I would, they may throw away their votes on me’. It was not explicitly stated that the second offer came from Squadrone interests, but this was implied in Erskine’s convoluted reasoning. His objective was to get himself ‘shuffled altogether into my Lord Mar’s interest’, but ‘in such a way as would neither be too remarkable nor seem blameable’. To stand for Dysart Burghs with the backing of Rothes and then to support Mar at Westminster would be unconscionable; yet, to declare his political intentions beforehand would make it ‘unfit’ for Rothes to aid him. ‘I believe the same difficulty’, he admitted, ‘would occur in case my standing or setting up in Stirling district could be of any use to my uncle the colonel.’ Sir John therefore did not pursue the offer of Dunfermline and Queensferry. The evidence of the election points towards Cunningham’s having adopted the strategy himself.7

Cunningham had carried Stirlingshire at the previous election with the support of Montrose and Mar. In 1710 Montrose remained passive and Mar had dropped Cunningham in favour of a stronger candidate. Although Cunningham did not entirely give up hope of Mar’s support until late in the day, he had reason to be looking for an alternative seat. Mar himself had alleged in July that Cunningham was caballing with the Squadrone, a charge which is otherwise unsubstantiated. The Earl also asked Colonel Erskine to persuade Cunningham not to stand for the shire. The plausible hypothesis advanced by one modern historian that, by way of consolation prize, Mar later acquiesced in Cunningham’s election for Stirling Burghs is undermined by a report in a Scottish newspaper that Cunningham stood against one Colonel Preston. This candidate, who may be identified as George Preston of the Cameronians, the younger son of a Perthshire baronet, had been mentioned in correspondence between Lord Dupplin (George Hay*) and Grange. On 13 Aug. Dupplin described Preston as ‘a pretty gentleman’, adding that ‘I wish he may have interest amongst the other towns. I shall be glad to know what is resolved above as to the Colonel’s standing for these towns. I’m afraid Colonel John Erskine will have enough to do to manage his towns right this election.’ After Erskine’s withdrawal, it is likely that Preston was adopted as Mar’s candidate. Assuming that Cunningham secured Dunfermline and Queensferry, it remains unclear whether the decisive vote came from Inverkeithing or Stirling. The last is the most probable, since Cunningham did not develop an interest at Inverkeithing until after this period, whereas his natural interest lay with his own property in the neighbourhood of Stirling. Additional evidence may be found in the behaviour of the Court interest in the convention of royal burghs in 1711. Stirling, in conjunction with several burghs from other districts, received an unfair increase in taxation, allegedly ‘because of the choice they had made of Members to serve in this present Parliament’(see GLASGOW BURGHS).8

During the life of the 1710 Parliament the political divisions in the district became sharper. On the issue of peace there was an unmistakable divide between Whig and Tory which was congruent with religious disputes between Presbyterians and episcopalians over toleration. There was an influential episcopalian community at Stirling, where the meeting house was attended by ‘great numbers of the gentry and people about it’. In the wake of the Toleration Act in 1712, an ostentatious service was held there, attended by Lords Mar, Wigtown, Linlithgow, Weymss and Elcho. Although Culross sent up a Whiggish address on the peace in October which gave favourable mention to the Protestant succession, the first address to emanate from Stirling was overtly Jacobite. Transmitted by Sir Hugh Paterson, 3rd Bt.*, and presented by Lord Kilsyth in November, it was signed not by the magistrates and council, as was the norm, but by ‘the burgesses, freemen, and other considerable inhabitants’. The address referred to ‘the firm principles of loyalty to the most illustrious, ancient and sacred race of Stuarts, the unquestionable heirs to the imperial crown of Great Britain’. Effusive thanks were offered to the Queen for ‘settling the church and monarchy, that the truths of Christianity, with the undoubted priesthood may be continued, and the hereditary succession . . . preserved’. The war was described as ‘bloody and expensive’, and the Whigs dismissed as a ‘factious party’. This address, which was reproduced in the Scottish and English press, prompted an official response from Stirling council. An alternative address was drawn up in late December 1712 and presented by Cunningham the following March. Referring to the war as ‘long and necessary’, it dwelt upon the Queen’s care for the Protestant succession and her assurances of protection for the rights and privileges of the Kirk. This ‘pretty address’ delighted the Presbyterian divine Robert Wodrow, but caused controversy in the English press.9

A printed letter from ‘A Gentleman in Scotland’ appeared in the Post Boy for 19-21 Mar. 1713, which gave a Tory version of the history of the Whig addresses which had been sent up from the shire (see STIRLINGSHIRE) and burgh of Stirling.

You may remember that when some of the chief magistrates, a good while ago proposed their addressing her Majesty, the Presbyterian teachers opposed it with violence, and never would yield to any address at all, until they saw that which was sent up by the episcopalian people of this town . . . So it is evident the promoters of this new one have been unlucky in it; for the better part of the magistrates would have no hand in it, refused to sign it, and left the meeting. So it is properly the address of the Presbyterian teachers there, and of the more illiterate mechanics of the town . . . some of which [sic] cannot sign their names but by a notary public.

This letter received two blistering Whig replies in consecutive issues of the Flying Post in early April. The first was styled ‘An English Tory’s Answer’ to the above letter. The writer, posing as a Hanoverian Tory, sought to expose the Jacobite motives of the Scottish Tories:

Sir . . . give me leave to explain a little your own letter to you, that you may perceive wherein the mistake lies . . . I’ll offer you a direct proof that what you call the reproach to the shire of Stirling is the thanks to Her Majesty for her care and concern for the Protestant succession . . . The former address from the inhabitants of Stirling (as you call it) contains all the sense of this address, excepting only that mention of the illustrious family of Hanover . . . Since that address which you approve of . . . asserts all the rest . . . it necessarily follows that you plainly affirm that such a dutiful expression in favour of the House of Hanover . . . to be what you call Whiggism and a reproach to the shire. Pray Sir, now give me leave to ask you, what party you are of?
The address of the town, signed by 16 of the town council . . . having words in it in favour of the church of Scotland, I did not wonder you disapproved of it, yet that church being secured by the same law with our church of England here, I am not ready to agree with your zeal upon that head . . . I have observed in relation to the Scotch addresses when the magistracy of the town is not in your interest you pick up vagrant subscriptions . . . and call it the address of the inhabitants, and that to every legal address . . . disapproving of your principles you set up a pretender from the inhabitants (we Tories in such cases are apt to call them the mob).

In the next issue of the Flying Post appeared ‘A Letter from a Gentleman in Stirlingshire’, which contradicted the assertions in the Post Boy: only five magistrates had signed the so-called address from the inhabitants of Stirling, and these were, properly speaking, former magistrates having been removed from office for ‘notorious corruptions and embezzlements’, whereas the 16 signatories of the Whig address (out of a council of only 21) had served prior to the Revolution and continued to do so. Further accusations were made against the individual styling himself ‘late provost or mayor’ who had allegedly been expelled from the Scottish parliament ‘on account of his irreligious expressions’. This was presumably a reference to John Dick, commissioner for Stirling 1693-5, a notorious Jacobite whose expulsion followed threats against a fellow member for his vote on the malt excise. Finally, it was maintained that the author of the address was ‘Mr Hunter, the tolerated episcopal minister’. In order to discredit him, extracts were printed from a libel case in the church courts ‘during the time of episcopacy’. Having thus exposed the ‘scandalous reflections’ in the Post Boy, the editor of the Flying Post considered it to be self-evident that:

The fury and insolence of the party against the Hanover succession is now arrived at such a height that no consideration either of law, reason or religion, and much less of quality, or past or present services to the crown or church, is able to stem the torrent of their rage.10

The 1713 election was hotly contested because Mar was determined to unseat Cunningham, who in addition to his involvement in the Whig address from Stirling had voted solidly with the Squadrone at Westminster. It was reported to Wodrow in August that Cunningham would ‘meet with great opposition’ and that Colonel Erskine had agreed to stand against him. Evidence of the election itself is scant. No details of voting are recorded in the council minutes of the presiding burgh. After the election Wodrow noted that there were reprisals against Presbyterian ministers at Dunfermline, who had been ‘meddling with the late elections . . . and appearing against the elections of the Jacobite Tories’. The figures for the election, however, can be derived from Erskine’s petition. He claimed that of the five delegates attending the election ‘there were three only legally chosen, two of which voted for the petitioner’. The clerk of Dunfermline and the sheriff, Lord Rothes, were also castigated for having ‘unduly returned’ Cunningham. It is clear therefore that Dunfermline voted for the successful candidate. The other disputed commission may have been at Stirling. Shortly before the petition was presented, precedents relating to the validation of delegates’ credentials were extracted from the burgh records, formally re-entered, and endorsed with the burgh seal, presumably as relevant evidence against the petition. Erskine’s case at Westminster, however, fell by default. He neglected to sign the petition in person, authorizing his agent to do so on his behalf in the mistaken belief that ‘such signing was usual and sufficient’. On 25 Mar. one of Hugh Montgomerie’s* correspondents reported that ‘there has been such heat in the committee of elections about Harry Cunningham’s election and Colonel Erskine that there was swords drawn’. Despite Erskine’s request for ‘indulgence to those of North Britain, who are still, in great measure, strangers to the forms and methods of the House’, an application to resubmit a signed petition was rejected.11

Cunningham retained the seat without difficulty at the next three elections. The Hanoverian succession and the Fifteen destroyed Mar’s influence; and Erskine, who quietly accommodated himself to the new regime, never stood for election again. Cunningham meanwhile consolidated his interest in the district by purchasing tenements in Inverkeithing from the Earl of Rosebery, whom he succeeded as provost of that burgh in 1720.12

Author: David Wilkinson


  • 1. Sandeman Lib. Perth, Perth burgh recs. B59/34/20, sederunt of commn. of Stirling Burghs, 26 May 1708. No delegate from Culross attended the election.
  • 2. SRO, Mar and Kellie mss GD124/15/831/5, Erskine to Grange, 24 May 1708.
  • 3. P. W. J. Riley, Union, 331, 334; Hist. Scot. Parl. 655; Lockhart Mems. ed. Szechi, 150; R. Chalmers, Hist. and Statistical Acct. Dunfermline, i. 279.
  • 4. J. Macky, Journey through GB, 184-6; R. Sibbald, Hist. Sheriffdoms of Linlithgow and Stirling, 42; W. Stephen, Hist. Inverkeithing and Rosyth, 30-31, 37, 120, 221; Cal. Treas. Pprs. 1708-14, pp. 155, 179; C219/106; Recs. Convention of R. Burghs, iv. 454-5; D. Beveridge, Culross and Tullialan, ii. 4