SMOLLETT, Sir James (c.1648-1731), of Stainflett and Bonhill, Dunbarton; and Edinburgh

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. c.1648, o. s. of John Smollett of Stainflett, by Jean, da. of William Bontine of Ardoch, Perth.  educ. Dumbarton g.s.; Glasgow Univ. matric. 1661, MA 1664.  m. (1) Jean (d. ?1696), da. of Aulay MacAulay of Ardincaple, Dunbarton, 4s. (2 d.v.p.) 2da. 4 other ch. d.v.p.; (2) June 1709, Elizabeth, da. of William Hamilton of Orbiston, Lanark, s.psuc. fa. to Stainflett 1681; kntd. 1698.1

Offices Held

Dep.-clerk regality of Lennox 1676; burgess, Dumbarton 1681, provost, 1683–6, 1694–6, 1705–17, 1729–31; commr. excise, Dunbarton 1684; burgess, Edinburgh 1689, judge of commissary ct. 1690.2

MP [S] Dumbarton 1685–1707.

Commr. visitation of schs. and colls. [S] 1690; plantation of Kirks [S] 1690; anent fines and forfaultures [S] 1690; justiciary for Highlands [S] 1693, 1701; communication of trade [S] 1698; union with England 1702, 1706; customs and excise [S], 1703–7; Equivalent [S] 1707–19.3

Dir. Bank of Scotland 1696.4


Smollett was descended from a family long associated with Dumbarton, but his rise to pre-eminence in local politics was achieved largely through his own efforts. He was initially destined to become a writer to the signet, but his apprenticeship in Edinburgh was prematurely terminated on account of his master’s death in 1670 and his father’s financial difficulties. Returning to Dumbarton, Smollett demonstrated a sound head for business, setting himself up as a writer, managing his father’s property from 1672 and purchasing Bonhill in 1684. He rose rapidly from burgess to provost, and organized a scheme to construct a bridge over the Leven. He was returned as commissioner to the Scottish parliament from 1685 until the Union, also representing Dumbarton on numerous occasions at the convention of royal burghs and in the general assembly of the Kirk. His control of local affairs suffered temporary eclipse under James II, when Dumbarton’s elected officials were replaced by royal nominees in 1687. Smollett, a Presbyterian, chose to avoid the episcopalian backlash by removing himself to Edinburgh. This experience no doubt predisposed him towards the Revolution, but his conversion to the Williamite regime was not instantaneous. According to his later reminiscences, he was reluctant to represent Dumbarton at the convention of estates because the purpose of this meeting was to ‘forfault King James’.

I was convinced he had done many things against law, yet the pure child his son, if he really was such, was innocent, and it was hard to do anything [that] could reach the son for the father’s fault . . . when this question about forfaulting came to be touched, I could not go in it, so that thereby I was exposed to the wrath of several people. But afterwards when the crown was settled, I was well satisfied and went into all measures wherein my conscience allowed me for establishing the government both in church and state.

In March 1689 he signed the act declaring the convention a lawful meeting of the estates, and likewise the letter of congratulation to King William. He had no compunction about signing the assurance declaring William and Mary de jure sovereigns in August 1690, nor the Association of 1696.5

The Revolution afforded Smollett an opportunity to involve himself in the civic affairs of Edinburgh. In April 1689 he was appointed to a monitoring committee on the town’s elections to ensure that King James’s ‘arbitrary and despotic’ policy of ‘recommendations and nominations’ was reversed. His earlier efforts as a commissioner of the royal burghs in securing the restoration of the summer-sitting of the court of session were rewarded in May by his admission as a burgess of Edinburgh, his status being further enhanced by elevation to a judgeship in the commissary court in 1690. Although he retained the designation of Bonhill for the rest of his life, Smollett resided for much of the time at Edinburgh. He retained a strong interest in the affairs of Dumbarton and, in conjunction with his son, who had succeeded him as provost in 1694, negotiated the sale of Dumbarton’s Clyde privileges to Glasgow in 1700–1.6

In the Scottish parliament Smollett acted as a loyal supporter of successive Court interests from the Revolution to the Union. He was particularly associated with the Dalrymples and was described as a ‘known dependant’ of that family by Secretary James Johnston* in 1693. Smollett also possessed importance in his own right through his influence with the burgh members. In addition to supporting the government in parliament, he was entrusted with promoting its interests in the royal convention, during the late 1690s managing such questions as the tack of customs and excise and the trading relationship between royal and non-royal burghs. His services earned him a knighthood in 1698 and by 1700 he had designs on a vacant place in the court of session. Despite the support of a ‘squadron of burghs’, he was unsuccessful. Further recognition and reward were not long delayed, however, and he was made a union commissioner in 1702, and the following year became a commissioner of customs and excise, with a salary of £200 p.a.7

Smollett found no difficulty in accommodating himself to the ‘New Party’ experiment and voted with the Squadrone managers in 1704 against the Duke of Hamilton’s motion for postponing a decision on the succession. His status as a Court supporter was apparent in his nomination to the council of trade in 1705 and to the union commission in 1706. The Jacobite agent Scot simply described him as a ‘noted courtier’. Smollett voted the complete Court line on the Union, without absence or abstention. His actions were in direct contradiction to specific instructions from his constituents to oppose the Union as ‘subversive of the fundamental liberties of their nation, and plainly evacuating all the public oaths this nation lies under’. Smollett gave short shrift to any notion of being a mere delegate and received a contrite submission from his constituents that the instructions ‘were never designed to invade the liberty of your own conscience, whether as to the Union or any other matter, nor to bind you up from following your own light according to the oaths of parliament’. Smollett’s reward from government for supporting the Union (besides being owed £800 Scots for service on the two union commissions) was merely an Equivalent commissionership – an onerous responsibility without immediate promise of remuneration. Smollett’s inclusion on the Court slate for the first Parliament of Great Britain ought to have increased his political importance, but circumstances conspired against a Westminster career. His name does not appear in any of the committees recorded in the Journals, and it seems likely that he did not even travel to London for the session. His duties as an Equivalent commissioner provided one reason for non-attendance, but the principal cause was his involvement in proceedings at the royal convention. The promotion of trade and retention of the privileges of the royal burghs were important issues in the aftermath of the Union, and Smollett was involved in committee-work in Edinburgh in July and August 1707. He attended the particular convention in November, and was present again at committees in December. The only windows in this busy schedule for a trip to London were either at the very start of the session, or in January and February 1708, since he was back in Edinburgh by early March.8

Smollett’s failure to secure a seat in any subsequent Parliament can be linked directly to the reduction in the burgh representation caused by the Union. He stood only once, in 1710, being defeated by Glasgow’s dean of guild, Thomas Smith II*. That Dumbarton lay within the Glasgow district of burghs proved a great handicap. The ever-increasing power of Scotland’s second city was manifest in a determination that only members of Glasgow council should be returned to Westminster. Resentment on this score may have prompted Smollett’s hostile attitude towards Glasgow’s complaints over unfair taxation to the convention of royal burghs after 1711 (see GLASGOW BURGHS). Although Smollett’s parliamentary career had been cut short, his political influence did not entirely evaporate. He had secured a collectorship of customs for his son-in-law, partly as a result of a direct appeal to the Treasury by the Earl of Glasgow in 1708, who referred to Smollett’s ‘good services . . . to the Queen in Parliament’. Smollett himself was retained in the reduced Equivalent commission of 1709, despite no longer being in Parliament, unlike some other commissioners similarly circumstanced who were dropped. His loyalty to the Hanoverian succession resulted in appointment as deputy lord lieutenant for Dunbartonshire during the Fifteen. The Duke of Montrose and his agent Mungo Graham* hoped that Smollett’s vote as Dumbarton’s delegate might be secured in favour of their preferred candidate at a by-election caused by the death of Smith in 1716. In the event, Smollett decided to ‘trim with the rest’, supporting the Argathelian candidate, Daniel Campbell*.9

Smollett died in 1731. His two eldest sons having predeceased him, the estates passed to his grandson James, who was served as heir in 1737. Another grandson was the author Tobias Smollett.10

Ref Volumes: 1690-1715

Author: David Wilkinson


  • 1. Hist. Scot. Parl. 650; J. Irving, Bk. of Dumbartonshire, i. 290–2, ii. 182–9; J. Irving, Some Acct. Fam. of Smollett, geneal. table; DNB (Smollett, Tobias); D. MacLeod, Historic Families . . . of the Lennox, 154; Recs. Glasgow Univ. (Maitland Club, lxxii), iii. 35, 112; Scot. Rec. Soc. xxvi. 605.
  • 2. Irving, i. 182–4; Dumbarton Burgh Recs. 90, app. list of provosts; Scot. Rec. Soc. lxxiii. 55; Reg. PC Scotland, 1684, p. 140; Extracts Edinburgh Recs. 1689–1701, p. 6.; CSP Dom. 1702–3, p. 468; Boyer, Pol. State, xlii. 552.
  • 3. APS, ix. 164, 169, 201; x. app. 107; xi. app. 145, 162; CSP Dom. 1698, p. 432; 1703–4, p. 408; Boyer, Anne Annals, v. 13; HMC Laing, ii. 100; CJ, xv. 419; Cal. Treas. Bks. xxxi. 342; xxi. 578–9.
  • 4. C. A. Malcolm, Bank of Scotland, 301.
  • 5. Irving, i. 291–2; ii. 183; Hist. Writers to Signet, 147; Dumbarton Recs. 93–5, 97; Acts of Gen. Assembly of Church of Scotland, 431; APS, ix. 10, 20; x. 11; Reg. PC Scotland, xv. 692.
  • 6. Edinburgh Recs. 1689–1701, pp. 1, 6; Irving, ii. 184; Scot. Rec. Soc. lxxxii. 63; APS, x. 323, 329.
  • 7. Info. on members of Scot. parl. from Dr P. W. J. Riley; P. W. J. Riley, King Wm. and Scot. Politicians, 127, 177; Carstares, State Pprs. 153–4, 380, 397, 611; CSP Dom. 1698, p. 432; 1703–4, p. 408; APS, x. app. 107; Edinburgh Recs. 1689–1701, pp. 221–2; 1701–18, pp. 2, 37; Sandeman Lib. Perth, burgh recs. B59/34/13, list of commrs. for royal burghs.
  • 8. Boyer, Anne Annals, iii. app. 44; info. from Dr Riley; Orig. Pprs. ed. Macpherson, ii. 12; Seafield Corr. 381–2; APS, xi. 294; P. W. J. Riley, Union, 332; Cal. Treas. Bks. xxii. 120; Irving, i. 292; ii. 182–3; Dumbarton Recs. 102; Recs. R. Burghs Scotland, iv. 403, 415, 419, 420, 427, 437, 438, 442, 445.
  • 9. Scots Courant, 30 Oct.–1 Nov. 1710; Cal. Treas. Pprs. 1708–14, p. 23; P. W. J. Riley, Eng. Ministers and Scotland, 124, 193–4; Cal. Treas. Bks. xxiii, 234; xxiv. 586; Scot. Rec. Soc. xxvii, 643; R. M. Sunter, Patronage and Pol. in Scotland, 205–7.
  • 10. Boyer, Pol. State, xlii. 552; Scot. Rec. Soc. xxi. 53; lxxvi. 195; Services of Heirs (ser. 1) i. 1700–39, p. 33; DNB (Smollett, Tobias).