ABERCROMBY, Alexander (1678-1729), of Glassaugh, Fordyce, Banff.
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Family and Education
b. 5 Nov. 1678, 3rd but 1st surv. s. of Alexander Abercromby (o.s. d.v.p. of John Abercromby of Glassaugh) by Katherine, da. of Sir Robert Dunbar, MP [S], of Grangehill, Elgin. m. by 1703, Helen (d. aft. 1744), da. and coh. of George Meldrum (d. 1692) of Crombie, Marnoch, Banff, minister of Glass, Banff, 2s. 4da. suc. gdfa. 1691.1
Commr. justiciary for Highlands [S] 1701, 1702; lt. 21 Ft. (R. Scots Fusiliers) 1706, capt. 1707, lt.-col. (half-pay) 1721; commr. Equivalent [S] 1707–19; a.d.c. to Duke of Marlborough (John Churchill†) in Low Countries 1711; lt. gov. Fort William 1726–?d.2
MP [S] Banffshire 1706–7.
Burgess, Edinburgh 1724.3
Falling into dependence on his Banffshire neighbour Lord Seafield (later 4th Earl of Findlater), Abercromby profited rather less than might have been expected from his patron’s extended ministerial career under Queen Anne. But, although occasionally resentful in private, he always performed his public duty as befitted one unflatteringly described by an outside observer as Seafield’s ‘creature’ and praised by the Earl’s agent as ‘the surest friend . . . that my lord has’. Descended from a younger son of Sir Alexander Abercromby of Birkenbog, grand falconer to King James VI, Abercromby had evidently inherited no strong religious or political principles, his immediate family background suggesting instead a survivor’s pragmatism. In 1685 his father-in-law, a Presbyterian minister, had eventually been deprived after a lengthy period of conformity, but at the same time his own father and grandfather were demonstrating their pliability by taking the test; and each served both James II and William III as commissioners of supply for their county. Having entered into possession of the Glassaugh estate while still a boy, Abercromby complained soon after coming of age that his finances were in ‘great disorder’, a state of affairs for which his tutor, Sir James Abercromby of Birkenbog, may well have been at least partly responsible, since Birkenbog’s management of his own property left something to be desired. Abercromby himself was no model of sobriety, for in January 1702 he was fined by the local Kirk authorities for ‘scandalous conduct’, but he took care to make himself an agreeable guest at Cullen House, providing the 3rd Earl of Findlater with books and obliging companionship. Through Findlater’s influence he was nominated to the commission of the peace for Banffshire, and the commission of judiciary for the Highlands. Slower in coming was the salaried position in hope of which he had pledged his ‘entire engagement’ to Seafield’s family. Advised in 1702 to ‘change the plough for the sword’, he set his mind on a military commission, but had to wait until February 1706 before he was made a lieutenant in the Royal Scots Fusiliers through Seafield’s intercession, as part of that general gratification of the Court grouping in Scottish politics by which the ministry sought to pave the way for the Union.4
Abercromby was brought in by Seafield to the vacant parliamentary commissionership for Banffshire in 1706 in order to give a vote for Union. This he did, adhering to a straight Court line in all divisions, except for two unimportant absences. In the middle of the session he was able to purchase a captaincy for £1,000, and to make doubly sure of him, the ministry had included him in the Scottish civil list for a pension of £450, though whether this sum was ever paid must be open to question. Afterwards he was appointed to the commission on the Equivalent, again at Seafield’s request. Predictably, he was also one of the Court contingent selected to represent Scotland in the first Parliament of Great Britain.5
Although the Equivalent commissionership remained disappointingly unremunerative, Abercromby gave no indication of dissatisfaction with the Court during his first session at Westminster. Indeed, until his departure for Scotland on active military service in mid-March 1708, he was surprisingly forward for someone so inexperienced. On 25 Feb. 1708 he told against a Junto- and Squadrone-inspired motion to alter the order of payments from the Equivalent; and his remaining appointment of significance, on 11 Mar., was to the drafting committee for a bill designed to counter the invasion threat by absolving Highland clansmen from their obligations to Jacobite chieftains.6
Abercromby was not only returned on Seafield’s interest for Banffshire at the 1708 election, he acknowledged that the decision on whether he should stand at all belonged to his patron. Seafield was able to boast of him as one of ‘my friends . . . who, I hope, will serve her Majesty faithfully in the Parliament’. He was entrusted with carrying to Flanders the address of thanks from the House to the Duke of Marlborough, obtaining a leave of absence for this purpose on 25 Jan. 1709. He took the opportunity to solicit the Duke in person for military advancement, but to no avail. Returning to Westminster, he was nominated to draft a bill for the more effectual prohibition of wine imports on 9 Mar. 1709, and told on 31 Mar. against receiving the report of the Earl of Lindsey’s (Robert Bertie, Lord Willoughby de Eresby*) estate bill, something of a party cause since Lindsey’s turn to the Whigs, and thus a sign that Abercromby, as would be expected, was staying with the Court against the Junto and Squadrone. On 7 Apr. he told against the motion for a committee of the whole on the African Company bill, signalling his disapproval as a Scot for an initiative that appeared prejudicial to the equality of trade promised under the Union. Included in the renewed commission of the Equivalent in 1709, he continued to support the Court and voted for the impeachment of Dr Sacheverell in 1710. By this time he had set his eyes on another plum, the estate of James Douglas, an Aberdonian who had died intestate. Douglas’ illegitimacy meant that, according to Scottish law, the property came to the crown, and it was customary in such cases for the discoverer to be granted either the whole estate or a substantial portion. Claiming to have ‘discovered’ the case, and citing his own ‘good services’ to the ministry as additional justification, Abercromby put in his request in March 1710. Initially, Seafield obtained a promise from Lord Treasurer Godolphin (Sidney†) that a grant would be made, but before the barons of the Scottish exchequer could send the necessary report a rival claimant emerged in the shape of the burgh council of Aberdeen. Exploiting the political leverage they derived from the imminent dissolution of Parliament, councillors enlisted in their cause such powerful advocates as the Earl of Mar and thereby succeeded in blocking prompt action, so that for Abercromby, abroad with his regiment, the summer of 1710 dragged by without the anticipated gratification from the Treasury. Moreover, Seafield’s influence suffered considerably with the change in ministry. The best that could be done for Abercromby was to postpone a final judgment on the Douglas estate until another round of representations might be made.7
Abercromby’s behaviour in the Parliament of 1710, to which he was returned unopposed with Seafield’s blessing, faithfully reflected the political manoeuvring of his patron, who, starting from a position of loyalty to Godolphin, in due course made his peace with the new ministers. Abercromby appears as a Whig in the ‘Hanover list’, but as an episcopal Tory in the analysis of the Scottish returns by Richard Dongworth, episcopalian chaplain to the Duchess of Buccleuch. Neither classification bears much resemblance to reality. The first clue to Abercromby’s political alignment in the new House was his vote on 10 Feb. 1711 in favour of the Squadrone Member, Mungo Graham, over the disputed election for Kinross-shire. This followed a fortnight’s leave, granted on 26 Jan. 1711, and preceded a further prolonged absence on the Continent from May onwards, which seems to have lasted the entire campaigning season. According to Abercromby himself, he had intended to rejoin his troops earlier still, but ‘my Lord Seafield, Mr Boscawen [Hugh, II*], and some others of my Lord Godolphin’s friends . . . advised my stay’ to perform his duty in defence of the old ministry. When at last he did get away he applied himself immediately to Marlborough, armed with earnest recommendations from Seafield on his behalf. In reply, the Duke gave little more than promises: ‘you may assure Lord Seafield’, Marlborough told his Duchess, ‘that whenever it is in my power I shall be glad to serve Captain Abercromby, for I know him to be a very honest and a good-tempered man’. All the Duke could do was appoint Abercromby as one of his aides-de-camp, but what was required was something altogether more substantial, especially since it now seemed less and less likely that the gift of Douglas’ estate would materialize. In desperation Abercromby turned to Seafield:
As my endeavouring to serve his Grace in Parliament or otherwise was upon your lordship’s account, so it must be by your lordship’s interest with him that I can expect anything. I therefore beg your lordship will write to him and use what arguments you think proper, in which you may represent the expense I have been at, as also my losing the gift of bastardy.
This letter also contained an ambiguous statement about promises made to him, via one Captain Middleton, of being ‘better protected last year if I would join the new party’. Although in Scottish terminology the Squadrone was often dubbed the ‘new party’ it seems more likely (on the assumption that the Argylls’ client, John Middleton II*, was the go-between) that Abercromby was referring to the new Scottish Court Tory interest supporting the Harley ministry.8
Returning to London for the beginning of the next session, Abercromby made a last effort to squeeze from Marlborough the performance of the various promises the Duke and the former lord treasurer had made. Having voted with the Whigs on 7 Dec. 1711 in favour of the ‘No Peace without Spain’ motion, he dispatched a letter two days later to one of Marlborough’s confidants, declaring that unless he received some financial relief he would be obliged to quit London for his Scottish estates, such was the dismal appearance of his affairs. He concluded with the reproach that ‘besides my expense and attendance my zeal and fidelity to his Grace’s interest has made me refuse from others what I would [have] been proud of accepting from his hands’. Subsequent events were to expose the level of disingenuousness in these remarks. As far back as April 1711 there had been contact between Abercromby and Robert Harley*, and an assurance given by the new chief minister that the affair of Douglas’ estate would be settled in Abercromby’s favour. Nothing had happened, but towards the end of December, in the middle of the crisis over the Duke of Hamilton’s patent and the peace terms, with Harley hunting every available Scottish supporter in the Lords, Seafield (now Earl of Findlater) renewed solicitations on his client’s behalf. He wrote to Harley (now Lord Treasurer Oxford) to recommend Abercromby to his consideration:
He is very willing to attend the Queen’s service in Parliament and observe your lordship’s directions in everything, for this I have earnestly recommended to him, but, having attended all the Parliaments and served all the campaigns since the Union without any assistance, he writes that he must return home unless your lordship do something for him . . . If your lordship do for him he will be very faithful to you and useful.
Harley must have responded with more promises, for on 18 Jan. 1712 Abercromby wrote to Findlater to assure him that he was ‘fully resolved to support the Union’ and that he had ‘satisfied my lord treasurer of my inclination to serve the Queen and ministry in everything except what concerns private persons who are my old friends’. Absence from the House, rather than support for the government, ensued when Abercromby obtained two months’ leave on 26 Jan. He therefore took no part in proceedings over the controversial Scottish Toleration Act. In the 1713 session he opposed the ongoing campaign by Sir Alexander Cumming* and Thomas Smith II* to regulate procedures for apportioning land tax in the convention of royal burghs, telling on 29 Apr. 1713 against an additional clause in the land tax bill for ‘a rule whereby to tax the royal burghs of Scotland’. In this he was following the wishes of his patron, a pattern of behaviour equally evident during the malt tax crisis and the campaign to dissolve the Union. Abercromby told on 21 May against the obnoxious clause which charged malt produced in Scotland at 6d. a bushel, and attended the meeting of Scottish Members on 23 May calling for united action with Scottish peers. He acted as unofficial clerk at the ensuing meeting of lords and commoners where the proposal for a motion to dissolve the Union was broached and Findlater was named as the peer to introduce it in Parliament. Then, with his patron and the rest of the Scots courtiers, he returned to administration over the issue of the French commercial treaty, voting in favour of the bill confirming its 8th and 9th articles, both at the second reading on 4 June and again at the engrossment on the 18th.9
In spite of his loyalty to Findlater and Oxford, Abercromby was no better off financially: the Douglas estate grant still hung fire, and his salary as an Equivalent commissioner was hopelessly in arrears. By May 1713 his domestic affairs were moving towards a crisis. His wife delivered an ultimatum that if no preferment was forthcoming in the current session he would not be able to entertain the prospect of another expensive journey to Westminster, and might even have to ‘sell his plate next Whitsunday’. Findlater, who had already spent substantial amounts of his own money in propping up Abercromby’s estate, through the purchase of land and the redeeming of wadsets, felt obliged to intervene once more, with an advance of £1,000. ‘I cannot see Glassaugh in distress’, he wrote. But not even this sum seemed likely to afford more than temporary relief, for the problems were deep-set. One of the Earl’s local agents reported:
We have had a conference with Glassaugh anent his affairs and find the half and much more is gone. I am heartily sorry I have occasion to tell you this but there is no help for it but sell he must. He imputed a great deal of his loss to his serving my lord, which he [Findlater] is not now in a condition to repay by getting anything done for him . . .
What Findlater’s assistance was able to achieve was to calm Mrs Abercromby’s fears and keep the family afloat until the general election in which, with strong backing from his patron, Abercromby overawed a persistent challenger and secured another unopposed return. But Abercromby evidently failed to keep his promise to ‘live upon his pay’ and the year ended with Findlater expending more money to satisfy Abercromby’s creditors and casting around desperately for some item of patronage on which to base a longer-term rescue. Several times Findlater applied to Oxford, pledging that Abercromby would ‘serve with great fidelity’ in the Commons, but received in return no more than repetitions of the old promise that £300 would be given of the Douglas estate.10
Abercromby’s ultimate dependence was therefore on the lord treasurer, and with his re-election newly secured he approached Oxford directly:
Being unanimously chosen, which I flatter myself I shall always be in this shire while I think it convenient or desirable, I take this opportunity to assure your lordship that in the Parliament you have not one more entirely devoted to your service than I shall be on all occasions and in everything to the utmost of my power. So you may acquaint the Earl of Findlater when my being in London can do you any service you shall find a ready compliance to testify what I do so sincerely profess, and since my Lord Findlater informed me how mindful you were of me after my departure from London, and the promises you were pleased to make there, I beg you to let the Earl or me know from whom I should receive your lordship’s commands . . .
Still nothing was forthcoming, and after making the journey down to Westminster Abercromby tried again. In mid-April he sent Oxford a memorial setting out his claim to a grant from the Douglas property and reminding him of the many previous assurances,
which . . . encouraged me, contrary to my own and friends’ inclinations, to be at the expense of being returned this Parliament, notwithstanding I had ruined myself and family by the expense of attending, and by close adhering to every measure I judged most agreeable to your lordship forfeited all manner of reputation and expectation of friendship from those who had done me service formerly and still declared their willingness when able . . . it was upon the Earl of Findlater’s call, and the late assurances he had from your lordship that I came up, and . . . as I have so will I strive to the utmost of my power to support every measure that may be agreeable and acceptable to your lordship; and lastly, had it not been upon the faith of these promises I could not have raised money to have brought me up, far less does my circumstances allow me to bear the charges of attending, and by trusting thereto both I and my numerous family must be reduced to great straits unless made good.
Not even these heartfelt pleas had any effect, a failure which may have helped to harden Abercromby’s outlook. Already in Lord Polwarth’s analysis of the Scottish returns he had been marked as a Hanoverian; and a tellership on 29 Apr. 1714 in favour of a Squadrone supporter over a Tory rival in the disputed election for Anstruther Easter Burghs was followed on 12 May by a vote for Robert Walpole II’s wrecking motion to extend the scope of the schism bill to cover ‘popery’. He was later described as a Whig in the Worsley list and, despite continued professions of service to the lord treasurer, may well have sided frequently with opposition. Early in June he had warned Oxford that, unless ‘you will make good your repeated promises both last year and this’, he would be forced to return to Scotland. The fact that he remained in attendance may indicate that at last he had penetrated the treasurer’s defences. His contributions to the business of the House give no hint of his attitude to the ministry, since they dealt with matters of personal or Scottish interest. For example, on 24 June, on the third reading of the bill to discharge the commissioners of the Equivalent of the money they had already disbursed, he led the opposition to a clause proposed by George Lockhart* and others, which would have obliged the commissioners to account for the surplus moneys granted, in accordance with their legislative authority, to assist the wool-producing areas of Scotland. Having been the principal speaker against the clause, he told against it. Then on 2 July he was a teller again, with fellow Scotsman George Yeaman, against an amendment to the soap and paper duties bill which concerned the leather export bounty.11
Abercromby welcomed the Hanoverian succession, being one of the signatories to the proclamation of George 1 at St. James’s on 1 Aug. 1714; and in November he presented a loyal address from Banffshire. Findlater secured his re-election the next year, and thereafter he voted consistently with the Court. After recovering financial solvency, he lost heavily in the South Sea and Mississippi Bubbles and was reduced once more to dejection and dependence. Petitions for preferment flowed from his pen. Some minor relief came through inclusion on the half-pay list, and a belated appointment as lieutenant-governor of Fort William. His sons were also provided for: one as a professional soldier, the other, an artist, with a life patent as King’s limner in Scotland. Still a ‘perfect friend’ of Findlater, he followed the Earl into the Argyll connexion and at the 1727 election, although standing down himself, actively assisted Lord Ilay’s burgh managers. He died on 23 Dec. 1728.12
Ref Volumes: 1690-1715
Author: D. W. Hayton
- 1. Hist. Scot. Parl. 2; C. D. Abercromby, Fam. of Abercromby, 87–88; Diary of Brodie of Brodie (Spalding Club), 351, 398, 406; SRO Indexes, xviii. 7, 474; Shaw and Gordon, Hist. Province of Moray (1882), iii. 391; Recs. Co. Banff (New Spalding Club), 39.
- 2. CSP Dom. 1700–2, p. 339; 1702–3, p. 354; Boyer, Anne Annals, vi. 234; Cal. Treas. Bks. xxiii. 234; xxix. 342; xxxi. 579; info. from Dr P. W. J. Riley on members of Scot. parl.; Cal. Treas. Pprs. 1714–19, p. 450.
- 3. Scot. Rec. Soc. lxii. 1.
- 4. HMC Portland, x. 333; SRO, Seafield mss GD248/561/49/17, John Philp to William Lorimer, 25 May 1713; GD248/561/50/2, Findlater to [–], 2 Nov. 1714; GD248/567/92/1, same to Lorimer, ; Abercromby, 87–88; Diary of Brodie, 339; Reg. PC Scotland, 1684–5, pp. 164–6, 474–5; 1685–6, p. 357; APS, viii. 469; ix. 74; Seafield Corresp. 333–4, 338, 347–8, 354, 357, 368; Annals of Banff (New Spalding Club), ii. 73; Recs. Co. Banff, 232; Hist. Scot. Parl. 2; Fraser, Melvilles, ii. 196.
- 5. Fraser, 196; info. from Dr Riley; Riley, Union, 331; Stowe 246, f. 17; Cal. Treas. Bks. xxii. 116; Riley, Eng. Ministers and Scotland, 209; R. Walcott, Pol. Early 18th Cent. 232.
- 6. Cal. Treas. Bks. xxii. 79; Seafield Corresp. 466, 470–1.
- 7. Seafield Corresp. 470–1; Seafield Letters, 109; Marlborough–Godolphin Corresp. 1216–17, 1222, 1225–6; HMC 14th Rep. III, 208, 224; Cal. Treas. Bks. xxiv. 48, 196, 587; Cal. Treas. Pprs. 1708–14, pp. 174, 193–4, 207–8; HMC Portland, x. 333.
- 8. G. Holmes, Pol. in Age of Anne, 357–8; SHR, lx. 64; SRO, Montrose mss GD220/5/808/18a–b, Graham to Montrose, 13 Feb. 1711; Add. 61136, f. 165; Marlborough–Godolphin Corresp. 1669–70; Seafield mss GD248/572/1/7/9, Abercromby to Seafield, 24 Sept. 1711.
- 9. Stowe 246, f. 17; Add. 70051, memo. from Abercromby, 20 Apr. 1714; 70048, Findlater to Oxford, 22 Dec. 1711; Seafield mss GD248/572/1/7/10, Abercromby to Findlater, 18 Jan. 1712; NLS, ms 1392, f. 80; Aberdeen Univ. Lib. Duff House (Montcoffer) mss 3175/2380, ‘Resolution of the Commons to Call a Meeting of the Lords’,  May 1713; Lockhart Pprs. i. 424; Parlty. Hist. i. 69.
- 10. Cal. Treas. Bks. 1708–14, pp. 594, 613; Seafield mss GD248/561/49/10, 16–17, 30–31, 43, 56, William Lorimer to [Findlater], 7 Feb., 26 Sept. 1713, John to William Lorimer, 16 May 1713, John Philp to same, 25 May 1713, Abercromby to [Findlater], 29 Sept. 1713, John Carnegy* to [same], 31 Oct. 1713, Findlater to William Lorimer, 17 Nov. 1713; GD248/561/48/36–37, 39, same to same, 30 Apr., 19 May 1713, John Lorimer to same, 13 May 1713; GD248/572/1/7/11, Abercromby to [Findlater], 12 Oct. 1713; GD248/566/86/10, John Philp to [Findlater?], n.d.; GD248/567/92/1, Findlater to William Lorimer, ; HMC Portland, x. 211, 309; v. 351.
- 11. Add. 70048, Abercromby to Oxford, 29 Oct. 1713; 70051, memo. from Abercromby, 20 Apr. 1714; HMC Portland, x. 316, 318, 461–2; Lockhart Letters ed. Szechi, 107.
- 12. Boyer, Pol. State, viii. 117–18; London Gazette, 6–10 Nov. 1714; Mystics of the North-East ed. Henderson (3rd Spalding Club), 169–72; Cal. Treas. Pprs. 1720–8, p. 262; J. S. Shaw, Management of Scot. Soc. 107–9.