Single Member Scottish County

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1754-1790, ed. L. Namier, J. Brooke., 1964
Available from Boydell and Brewer

Background Information

Number of voters:

rising from 97 in 1759 to more than 200 in 1788


9 May 1754James Mure Campbell 
 Patrick Craufurd 
28 Apr. 1761Archibald Montgomerie 
16 Apr. 17681David Kennedy45
 Archibald Montgomerie27
13 Oct. 1774Sir Adam Fergusson60
 David Kennedy47
18 Oct. 1780Hugh Montgomerie65
 Sir Adam Fergusson55
 Fergusson vice Montgomerie, on petition, 2 Apr. 1781 
16 Aug. 1781Fergusson re-elcted after appointment to office 
20 Apr. 1784Hugh Montgomerie 
3 Aug. 1789William MacDowall vice Montgomerie, appointed to office 

Main Article

There were more voters in Ayrshire than in any other Scottish county. The leading interest was that of the Earl of Eglintoun, but the Earls of Cassillis and Loudoun also carried weight. There were in addition many independent freeholders, strong enough to defeat a combination of the three earls in 1774. The electoral pattern depended upon the pacts between these groups, and their relationship to the Government of the day. Hence, Ayrshire was a county with considerable political activity.

At the election of 1754 the sitting Member, Patrick Craufurd, was opposed by James Mure Campbell, on the interest of his cousin Lord Loudoun, and Archibald Montgomerie, on the Eglintoun interest. Loudoun conducted a most vigorous campaign, ‘riding the county’ throughout the autumn of 1753 on Campbell’s behalf. There were rumours all through the winter and the following spring that Craufurd and Montgomerie had reached an understanding, but negotiations dragged on until April 1754, when Montgomerie agreed to withdraw in exchange for a promise of Craufurd’s support at the next election. On 20 Apr. Allen Whitefoord wrote to Loudoun: ‘I understand my friend Mr. Craufurd is playing his golden engine against you, and with some success, but it will not avail him in the main.’2 When the election came Campbell, with the aid of Argyll and the ministry, carried it ‘by a very great majority’.3

Eglintoun soon began preparing for the next round. On 24 Mar. 1759 Whitefoord wrote to warn Loudoun:

I am afraid he is proceeding by sap, and that there is some concert formed, as several new votes are made, and particularly by the Earl of Glencairn.

Early in 1760 another of Loudoun’s friends reported that affairs in the county were ‘more unfavourable than ever I expected’; Eglintoun was making the fullest use of his friendship with Lord Bute, ‘the rising sun’.4 For some time Eglintoun toyed with the idea of renouncing his peerage and standing himself, but it came to nothing, and at the election his brother Archibald was the candidate once more. But with the accession of George III, the situation had changed completely. As part of the settlement between Bute and Argyll, it was agreed that Montgomerie should come in for the county, and the King himself prevailed upon Loudoun to withdraw his opposition. On 20 Feb. 1761 Sir Harry Erskine wrote to Bute:5

Lord Loudoun wishes to set out as soon as possible because he is resolved that his cousin Colonel Mure Campbell shall give up all opposition in the county of Ayr; but he wishes among his friends to make a decent wheel.

Montgomerie was accordingly returned unopposed.

By 1766 Sir John Whitefoord, John Hamilton of Bargany, and Sir Adam Fergusson of Kilkerran had all sounded their friends for support. In November 1767 David Kennedy, brother of Lord Cassillis, declared himself a candidate, and made overtures to Loudoun. ‘If your Lordships join interest’, wrote Charles Dalrymple to Loudoun, 18 Nov. 1767, ‘the thing will be carried by a majority of about 20.’ Loudoun, always anxious to challenge the Eglintoun interest, concurred, on the understanding that at the next election Cassillis would support his nominee, and their group was joined by Lord Dumfries, Lord Glencairn, Lord Auchinleck S.C.J., and Sir Adam Fergusson. Eglintoun’s chief supporter was Sir John Whitefoord. By 21 Mar. 1768 Kennedy’s friends were confident of victory, but Montgomerie stood the poll and was well beaten.

Ayrshire was not allowed much respite from electoral manœuvres. By 1770 Dalrymple was reporting to Loudoun that Fergusson and Whitefoord had joined forces, and were engaged in ‘some deep plot’. On 4 Mar. 1771 he wrote again:

Lord Eglintoun is not to join them. They will make but a poor figure in opposition to the power of the nobility, who will be very unpolitical if they do not all unite rather than have things carried whether they will or not.

During the summer of 1772 Fergusson hoped that Loudoun might adopt him as his own candidate, but early in 1773 it became known that the three earls, Eglintoun, Loudoun and Cassillis, had formed a ‘triple alliance’ to support Kennedy. Many of Loudoun’s former supporters were highly indignant. Fergusson himself wrote to James Mure Campbell, 19 Jan. 1773:

Lord Loudoun gave his friends to understand that he had acquired an accession to his party at the last election by supporting Mr. Kennedy in return for which he was to have had Lord Cassillis’s interest next time. Instead of which, it would appear that he means to sacrifice his own interest altogether to Lord Cassillis.

Charles Dalrymple, though he had advised just such an alliance, now denounced it as ‘a very bad bargain’, and warned Loudoun, 5 Mar. 1773, that ‘such a county as Ayrshire will not allow any Member fixed upon in private by a few to be forced on them’. Lord Auchinleck told Kennedy that the alliance would mean ‘the annihilation of the gentlemen’s interest’, and flung himself into the fray on Fergusson’s side. In January 1774 Loudoun calculated the ‘votes said to be made or making’. The triple alliance could claim 76, of which 39 were Eglintoun’s, 10 Loudoun’s, 12 Cassillis’s, and 8 Sir John Cathcart’s; the independent party were believed to have more than 100, Lord Dumfries commanding 33, Lord Glencairn 21, Lord Auchinleck 14, and Sir Thomas Wallace 12. When Henry Dundas and the Duke of Buccleuch gave their interest to Fergusson as well, the triple alliance faced defeat. Eglintoun was anxious to change candidates and put up his brother, Hugh Montgomerie, but his allies did not agree.6 The Kennedy party succeeded in carrying the praeses and clerk at the Michaelmas court by a majority of three votes, but were outmanœuvred at the parliamentary election a week later. George Fergusson, Sir Adam’s brother, proposed that the trust oath be put. Kennedy agreed readily, since his fictitious votes were far fewer than Fergusson’s. But while five of Kennedy’s nominal voters refused the oath, all twenty of Fergusson’s took it, having been carefully coached before the election. They then added another five of Fergusson’s supporters to the electoral roll, and carried the day by 60 votes to 47, amid scenes of great enthusiasm.7

It was partly as a result of the Ayrshire campaign of 1774 that there was considerable pressure for a reform of the law on fictitious voting; and a bill to regulate the position was introduced in 1775 in the House of Commons. But no alteration was made, and the same interests were again opposed in Ayrshire in 1780. The multiplication of votes continued. In 1778 there were 127 on the electoral roll: at the court of Michaelmas 1779 Fergusson and his allies put on 38 new names, while Eglintoun claimed 37, of which 25 were allowed: by the general election the number enrolled was 206. On polling day itself, there were heated arguments at every stage: the proceedings lasted for more than thirty-six hours, and when the final vote was taken, Montgomerie carried the day by 65 against 55 after 25 of Fergusson’s voters had been struck off.8 The House of Commons in April 1781 seated Fergusson on petition. Four months later, when he stood for reelection on taking office, Lord North wrote to the three earls, asking that they should ‘suspend their opposition to him’.9 Loudoun wrote to Eglintoun, 20 July 1781:

By the lists of the county as now made up, Sir Adam has a majority of one, and by the best information I can get has several more to enrol at the election, and I cannot learn that there are any on our side to be enrolled. ... If you dispute it you are certainly beat.

Eglintoun agreed that they should ‘make a merit of necessity’, and Montgomerie did not stand.

After the death of the fourth Earl of Loudoun in 1782, the triple alliance broke up. By the spring of 1784 several candidates had declared themselves. James Boswell appealed for the Eglintoun interest should Montgomerie not stand: neither he nor Sir John Whitefoord had much chance of success. The three serious contenders were Fergusson, Hugh Montgomerie, and John Craufurd of Drumsoy, the first two being Pittites and the third a Foxite. Though Craufurd was supported by Lord Glencairn and Lord Dumfries, he was too weak to play a single hand. On 10 Apr. 1784 Henry Dundas wrote to Fergusson:10

Craufurd is gone to Ayrshire to offer terms ... to support Colonel Montgomery. I do not wish them to have any connexion together, and have told Mr. Hamilton [of Bargany] to reject them, for I could assure him, if upon being rejected by them Mr. Craufurd should come to you and offer from revenge to share his interest, you would decline it. Unless I could give Mr. Hamilton this assurance, I could with no face ask them not to close with Craufurd, as a junction with him would put Colonel Montgomery’s election out of doubt.

Dundas was able to negotiate an agreement between the two ministerialists. Fergusson declined in favour of Montgomerie, on the understanding that he should have the seat at the next general election: in the meantime, Dundas was to bring him in for Edinburgh city. ‘My wish as well as Lord Eglintoun’s’, wrote Montgomerie to Fergusson, ‘is that everything should be reciprocal between us.’11 Lord Cassillis was also persuaded to support Montgomerie, and faced with this overwhelming combination, Craufurd declined the poll.

When Montgomerie retired in 1789, Sir Andrew Cathcart, nephew of Lord Cassillis, Whitefoord, and James Boswell declared themselves candidates. In May 1789 Boswell wrote to his friend Temple:12

Entre nous, my chance for representing my own county is very small. There is a great coalition between Lord Eglintoun and Sir Adam Fergusson, formed and supported by Dundas. Against that, there are three candidates, one who has a large number of votes, and two of us who have each such a number that he cannot succeed unless we both join him.

Boswell’s plan was to join Cathcart in return for assurances of future assistance, but the Dundas alliance carried the day without difficulty, bringing in William MacDowall as a stop-gap for Fergusson, who resumed the seat in 1790.

Author: J. A. Cannon


  • 1. Ex inf. sheriff clerk of Ayr and Bute.
  • 2. Loudoun mss.
  • 3. Cathcart to Loudoun, 18 May 1754.
  • 4. David Kennedy to Loudoun, 22 Jan. 1760.
  • 5. Bute mss.
  • 6. Eglintoun to Loudoun, 19 July 1774.
  • 7. Caledonian Merc. 8 Oct. 1774; Edinburgh Advertiser, 21-25 Oct. 1774.
  • 8. Edinburgh Advertiser 17-20 Oct. 1780.
  • 9. North to Loudoun, 19 July 1781.
  • 10. J. Fergusson, ‘Sir Adam and Sir John’, Scots Mag. xix. 224.
  • 11. Ibid. 227.
  • 12. Letters, ii. 370.