CLERK, John (1676-1755), of Penicuik, Midlothian.

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



1707 - 1708

Family and Education

b. 8 Feb. 1676, 1st s. of Sir John Clerk, 1st Bt., MP [S], of Penicuik by his 1st w. Elizabeth, da. of Dr Henry Henderson of Elvingston, Haddington.  educ. Penicuik sch. (Alexander Strauchan) 1686–93; Glasgow Univ. 1693–4; Leyden 1695, J. Dr. 1697; travelled abroad (Italy, France, Low Countries) 1697–9; adv. 1700.  m. 6 Mar. 1701 (with £2,000), Lady Margaret (d. 21 Dec. 1701), da. of Alexander Stewart, 3rd Earl of Galloway [S], sis. of Hon. John Stewart*, 1s. d.v.p.; (2) 15 Feb. 1709 (with 14,000 merks), Janet (d. 1760), da. of Sir John Inglis, 2nd Bt., of Cramond, Midlothian, 9s. (4 d.v.p.) 7da. (1 d.v.p.).  suc. gdfa. at Elvingston bef. 1710, fa. as 2nd Bt. 10 Mar. 1722.1

Offices Held

Burgess, Edinburgh 1700, Whithorn 1702, Wigtown, Ayr 1705, Dumfries, Aberdeen, Montrose, Dundee, Stirling 1708, Queensferry 1716, Glasgow 1720, Sanquhar 1729, Musselburgh 1739.2

MP [S] Whithorn 1703–7.

Commr. public accts. [S] 1703–5.

Commr. union with England 1706, Equivalent [S] 1707–9; baron of exchequer [S] (for life) 1708; Prince’s commr. [S] 1724, 1731, 1742; trustee, fisheries and manufactures [S] 1727–d.3

Extraord. dir. R. Bank of Scotland 1727–8.4

FRS 1729.


‘A name celebrated both in the civil history and literature of Scotland ... Sir John Clerk, from the great extent of his learning, his cultivated taste, and numerous personal accomplishments, joined to his active share in the important national transaction of the union with England, would have held a distinguished place in the history of any country.’ Later generations held the first great Scottish virtuoso of the 18th century in high regard as a polymath who nurtured a modern ideal of patriotism, grounded in polite scholarship, in which a preserved sense of ‘Scottishness’ could be ‘sublimated ... into a comprehensive Britishness’. A consistent advocate of union, Clerk was instrumental in negotiating the treaty and putting it into effect, but in the capacity of a bureaucrat rather than a parliamentarian. Once the union was accomplished he retreated rapidly into ‘an easy life of limited legal opportunity’ as a baron of the Scottish exchequer, reserving his real interest for antiquarian studies and extensive cultural patronage, which made him appear a worthy successor to Sir Robert Sibbald and resulted in such sobriquets as ‘the Lord Burlington of Scotland’ and ‘the Maecenas of his age’.5

‘Having nothing to boast of as to antiquity of my family, which, by the by, I have always laughed at in others, I shall trace my mean progenitors no farther back than about 1568.’ So begins Clerk's autobiography (pp. 3-4), which located his ancestry in a feuar of the Duke of Gordon, whose son became a merchant in Montrose. The family's name was made by Clerk's grandfather: as a factor in Paris he amassed a ‘considerable fortune’ (p. 4), with which, on his return to Scotland, he purchased the Penicuik estate. Sound commercial principles survived the acquisition of gentility in the next generation, and were reinforced by the Presbyterian piety which made Clerk's father, the first baronet, both a frugal manager of his business affairs and an austere moral guardian. ‘Though I be not descended from noble parents’, pronouned Clerk with pride, ‘yet I am the son of those who bore deservedly a very great name for religion, virtue, honour and honesty’ (p. 10).

After a miserable experience under a harsh dominie in the local school at Penicuik, Clerk endured an unhappy spell at Glasgow University. His tutor reported that

he has not idly spent his time, but made a considerable proficiency in his studies, and besides has been an exemplary pattern in matter of discipline to all his condisciples, and has endeared himself to all the masters here as a very hopeful gentleman.

Sent to Leyden in 1694 to study civil law, he also read widely in ancient history, indulged his passion for music, learned to draw, and took instruction in French and Italian in order to equip himself for the journey to Italy on which he had set his heart:

the vast desire I had to see a country so famous for exploits about which all my time had been hitherto spent in reading the classics, likewise a country so replenished with antiquities of all kinds, and so much excelling all other countries in painting and music, I say these things created such a vast desire in me to see it, that I am sure nothing in life had ever made me happy if I had denied myself this great pleasure and satisfaction.

Such was his enthusiasm that he was prepared to suffer his father's disapproval and the privations imposed by a niggardly allowance of £100. These slender resources he eked out over two years to fund a Grand Tour in which he made the acquaintance of the Austrian Emperor and the Grand Duke of Tuscany, who took Clerk under his ‘protection’ and appointed him a gentleman of his bedchamber. At Rome, where his ‘two great diversions ... were music and antiquities’ (p. 28), he founded a long-standing friendship with the 2nd Duke of Bedford, whom he accompanied on sightseeing trips to the Bay of Naples. He may also have enjoyed the unusual privilege, for a Scots Presbyterian, of a papal audience. Cutting short his stay in a belated response to paternal expostulations, he returned to Holland via Paris, which he found agreeable but ‘far from giving me that entertainment I had at Rome’ since everything there appeared but a pale imitation of the Roman original (p. 35); and embarked for Scotland to resume his legal studies, with a view to a career as an advocate.6

Clerk was temperamentally unsuited for the law. A ‘natural bashfulness’ lamed his oratorical powers; indeed, he declared in later life that whenever he had spoken in public it had been ‘against my natural inclinations’ (pp. 36-37). In typically priggish fashion he added: ‘the talent of copiousness and locquacity I abominated in all my acquaintances, and therefore could never think to practice it myself’. To begin with, however, he had little choice but to look to the bar: the epic scale of his Grand Tour had not been contrived without incurring debts that subsequently snowballed. By 1703 he owed nearly £12,000 Scots, with little immediate prospect of being able to pay off his creditors.

To pay these debts I have but a small stock, seeing my father will retain my annuity of £1,000 Scots till he be paid; and of the rents of Elvington and the lodging in Edinburgh I cannot make above £1,000 ... Wherefore I shall bless God if I can maintain myself and my son and hinder my debts to increase.

What saved his prospects at this time was his first marriage, which, despite the tragic death of his wife soon after the birth of their only child, had brought him enduring advantages through her brother Lord Galloway's connexion with the Duke of Queensberry. In 1702 the recently widowed Clerk had accompanied Galloway to Edinburgh to be introduced to the Duke, who

made his compliments of condolence ... with great civility and humanity ... and from that moment he took a resolution to advance me to every station in the government of Scotland that he thought proper for me.

His grace was a complete courtier, and . . . had brought himself into a habit of saying very civil and obliging things to everybody. I knew his character, and therefore was not much elated with his promises. However, I found afterwards that there was nothing he had promised to do for me but what he made good [p. 44].

Clerk, who in politics followed his father’s somewhat simplistic adherence to the Presbyterian and ‘Revolution’ interest, and to Court parties of whatever complexion, now found himself taken up by Queensberry. He responded to this kindness with unconditional loyalty, accepting without question the Queensberry line on every issue and often acting as an apologist for the Duke, to a degree that must indicate a pathological self-interest, an excess of personal devotion, or extreme naivety. A clue can perhaps be found in the self-importance and Panglossian optimism surviving into the autobiography, which suggests that in his immaturity Clerk may well have been even more of an innocent.7

To begin with, however, the power of Queensberry’s patronage remained to be proved, and Clerk quickly realized that he also required some leverage of his own. On Galloway’s nomination he was returned to the Scottish parliament for Whithorn in 1702, and immediately enlisted in the Court party, being appointed a commissioner of accounts on Queensberry’s recommendation. As the Duke’s principal agent on the commission he naturally became part of the inner group upon whom the business devolved. Its first report in 1704 was Clerk’s handiwork alone. As much as anything else, it was probably his literary skills which had first attracted Queensberry’s attention: Clerk claimed to have contributed two pamphlets to the previous year’s constitutional debates, one a polemic against any diminution of royal prerogatives, the other an essay on the ‘limitations’ proposed by the Country party. The two grants of £200 which parliament made to the accounts commissioners as reward for their efforts would certainly have helped towards rescuing his embarrassed finances, but he required some more substantial and permanent provision. At first he had harboured designs upon an unnamed ‘clerkship’ but abandoned these in favour of something grander. At last, on Queensberry’s recommendation to the Duke of Argyll, he found himself named as one of the Scottish commissioners to treat for a union with England.8

Agreeing to serve on the Union commission was a decision over which Clerk agonized, largely because his father, ‘whom I always considered as an oracle seldom mistaken’ (p. 58), had expressed grave reservations about the wisdom of such a step. Clerk himself, expecting that the negotiations would come to naught, regarded the prospect with neither pleasure nor satisfaction. When at last his father ‘grew passive’, however, and at the same time Queensberry ‘threatened to withdraw all friendship . . . I suffered myself to be prevailed upon’ (p. 58). The case he put to his father was that appointment to the commission might be a first step towards obtaining legal office, whereas a refusal would inflict embarrassment on Queensberry; at the same time Clerk would be placed in a position to perform a vital service for his country, since union would constitute ‘the only barrier we can have for keeping out popery and preventing our falling into confusion at the Queen’s death’. Forearmed with a battery of detailed advice from his father on the political, ethical and practical implications of the appointment, and determined, or so he said, to act as prudently and live as cheaply as he could while a member of the commission, he travelled to London in March 1706. Once again he found committee work his métier, and distinguished himself by diligence in routine affairs, being one of those responsible for compiling the minutes, and entrusted with the particular duty of scrutinizing the calculations of the Equivalent. During the negotiations he made ‘three formal speeches’ on the settlement of the Kirk, but disparaged their effect. Meanwhile he lost no opportunity to ‘cultivate’ Queensberry’s favour, and on several occasions accompanied the Duke into Queen Anne’s presence. Once the treaty had been settled, Clerk receded from prominence. In the debates in the Scottish parliament over ratification he was ‘entirely passive’ (p. 66), though he naturally added his vote to the Court side, and published two pamphlets: Some Considerations on the Articles of Union and An Essay upon the XV. Article, the latter concentrating on the question of the Equivalent, and putting the somewhat specious argument that the distribution of the Equivalent among the wealthier and more influential elements of Scottish society was less a political bribe than a necessary stimulus to a depressed economy. One aspect of the issue impinged on him directly: the payments that were to be made to the Union commissioners, which in his case amounted to £500. Squadrone members made two separate attempts at sabotage, first moving for a lesser sum and then opposing priority of payment out of the Equivalent. Clerk was furious at what he considered to be an instance of mere malice and even after these manoeuvres were defeated continued to be concerned that the allowance should be paid.9

Queensberry made sure that his protégé was included on the Court slate as one of the Scottish Members of the first Parliament of Great Britain. ‘I had no hand in the honour’, Clerk recalled, ‘but the Duke of Queensberry insisted that I should be one on the list . . . and as an incitement to me he offered me a place in one of his coaches to London, which I accepted of, and set out with his Grace on the 2nd of April 1707’ (p. 67). Once again he was obliged to explain himself to his father, who evidently disapproved of his election on grounds of expense. In anticipation of this objection Clerk stressed that attending the Parliament was probably the only means by which he might secure the £700 due to him from the crown; that he only intended to remain a Member for one session, until the dissolution; and that if he did secure his money he would make a handsome profit, since he intended to live as frugally as possible while in London. He pointed out that it would be ‘silly’ for him to ‘bear the odium’ of having played such a part in the Union while others ‘carry away the prize’. When he arrived in London other possibilities opened, especially since he found himself given access to the ministry at the highest level, being among those called upon to advise Lord Treasurer Godolphin (Sidney†) on Scottish affairs; and while he protested again that he had ‘only one plot’ in view, namely to ‘make the public pay the expense and debt I contracted upon my education abroad’, he was faced with the choice of living for the future ‘in a public or a private capacity’. Though his monetary ambitions were modest, requiring a steady income of no more than £1,000 p.a. (something, he was quick to point out, that he had never had the happiness of enjoying), he clearly had his eye once again on a legal office, and insinuated the prospect into his correspondence with his father with sufficient skill to induce Sir John to send more ‘suitable advices’, this time ‘on the nature of preferments, and such as are agreeable to the word of God’, a prize example, apparently, being the post of Queen’s solicitor, which his father assumed would be a step towards a seat in the court of session. ‘For my own part’, Clerk wrote, showing more than a suspicion of hypocrisy,

though I very industriously shun the opportunity of being offered some preferment, yet if it be offered I cannot tell how to refuse it, the duty I owe to my country on the one hand may press me to accept something which requires more of honesty and application than any other qualification, and upon the other hand the regard I ought to have for myself will not allow me, because of the danger there is in meddling, when governors are not like to fall upon such an administration as will be acceptable to these people among whom I am to live.

Eventually, after his return to Scotland, the Duke of Queensberry named him, allegedly without his knowledge, to the commission for the Equivalent. In his autobiography Clerk claimed that a more lucrative post, in customs or excise, would have been his to command, but the Equivalent commission ‘requiring persons of known fidelity, I was in some measure compelled to accept of it, not without a positive promise from the Duke that I should be afterwards better provided for’ (p. 68). He entertained serious reservations about the appointment because of the poor remuneration to be expected (no more than £100–200 p.a.). There was some consolation in the prospect of making himself an indispensable expert on public finance. The duties of the new office prevented his leaving Edinburgh to attend Parliament until 29 Jan. 1708, and even then he arrived at Westminster suffering the discomfort and handicap of a fractured collarbone. As expected, he attached himself to the Court, and seems to have made a number of new acquaintances among Court Whigs like Hon. Spencer Compton*. On 28 Feb. he reported to his father:

Our debates upon the state of the war with Spain gave me wonderful satisfaction, and as a blessing to the common cause we defeat[ed] the Tories and the Squadrone by 55 votes, which will give great stroke to the encouragement our enemies once took in our divisions. So we carried an address to her Majesty against them all, justifying her conduct in the Spanish war.10

Before returning to Scotland Clerk was vouchsafed an audience with the Queen. Her attention and the promises of his patron proved enough to decide him against seeking election to the new Parliament:

1. Because there are about 147 offices above £500 yearly which Parliament-men are capable of and actually do enjoy in our House, to which I might be as much entitled as another.
2. I should in that case be in a condition both to assist myself and friends, and in all events to be able to make an honourable capitulation for myself.

Shortly afterwards he was appointed a baron of the Scottish exchequer, at a salary of £500 a year. As a life patent, this satisfied Clerk’s worldly ambitions better than the post of solicitor for Scotland, which had apparently also been on offer, but of which he would have had a more precarious tenure. The comparative slowness of the work also made it more attractive than the prospect of a place in the court of session.11

Although his father still felt that the new baron’s circumstances were ‘rather honourable than rich’, Clerk was sufficiently emboldened by his preferment to embark on the purchase of an estate of his own, at Cambo in Midlothian, costing 50,000 merks. He seems to have been content to take little further part in politics, at least at national level, retaining an unusual detachment from the bitterness of faction. He claimed that in 1708, of all the appointments to the exchequer bench ‘I’m the only man there’s no dispute about’; and in 1710 the Earl of Mar, on behalf of the incoming Tory administration, tried, albeit unsuccessfully, to tempt him with an offer of promotion to the court of session. He was prepared to accept the notion of a toleration for episcopalians, which would be ‘found to be a better thing for the Presbyterian interest than it appears at first sight’, though he refrained from giving a vote to George Lockhart* in Midlothian, and in fundamentals remained stoutly Whiggish. If the Union were to be broken, he wrote in 1713,

it will be impossible to keep up a good correspondence hereafter between the two nations, whereby it is ten to one but our malt drying trade, linen trade and West India trade will go to ruin; we fall again under the oppression of our own great men; the fundamental security of the Protestant succession will be broken; and it is a great question if Presbytery would be continued.

On the death of the Queen he was a signatory to the proclamation of King George I in Edinburgh. He did not make any efforts to seek a new patron after Queensberry’s death, and while his friendship with Lord Justice Clerk Ormiston led him to be described in 1716 as Ormiston’s ‘creature’, he seems to have steered a course between the rival political interests, and it was as an independent rather than an Argathelian that he was nominated to the fisheries and manufactures board in 1727. There was relatively little official business to transact, and with ‘a great deal of time on my hands’ he returned to the scholarly and artistic pursuits that were his first love: music, antiquarian scholarship, and the plantation and improvement of his estate. Among his most frequent correspondents was the noted English antiquary Roger Gale*, and among those who benefited most from his patronage was the painter Allan Ramsay, for many years a permanent house guest at Penicuik. Clerk’s later writings, which were frequently of a historical nature, and for the most part unpublished, included ‘Methods for Making a Man Happy and Easy in His Circumstances’ (c.1730), a subject in which he must be considered something of an expert; and some lengthy advice to his sons, which featured a set of rules, discovered by experience, ‘for enabling a country gentleman to make a considerable figure in life’. Clerk died on 4 Oct. 1755.12

Ref Volumes: 1690-1715

Author: D. W. Hayton


Unless otherwise stated this article is based on Clerk’s ‘History of My Life’ (Scot. Hist. Soc. ser. 1, xiii), to which specific reference is occasionaly made in the text. The only full-scale modern biography, I. D. Brown, ‘Sir John Clerk of Penicuik (1676-1755): aspects of a virtuoso life’ (Camb. Univ. Ph.D. thesis, 1980), focuses on the intellectual development of its subject.

  • 1. Album Studiosorum Academiae Lugduno Batavae ed. Du Rieu, 738; SRO, Clerk of Penicuik mss GD18/1875.
  • 2. Clerk of Penicuik mss GD18/2046–8, 2052–6, 2059, 2061–2, 5246/1/13, burgess tickets; Scot. Rec. Soc. lvi. 353.
  • 3. P. W. J. Riley, Eng. Ministers and Scotland, 214–15.
  • 4. N. Munro, Hist. R. Bank of Scotland, 406.