JOHNSTONE, Sir James, 4th Bt. (1726-94), of Westerhall, Dumfries.

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



1784 - 1790
17 June 1791 - 3 Sept. 1794

Family and Education

b. 23 Jan. 1726, 1st s. of Sir James Johnstone, 3rd Bt., M.P., and bro. of George and John Johnstone and William (Johnstone) Pulteney.  educ. Leyden 1745-6.  m. bef. 3 July 1759, Louisa Maria Elizabeth Colclough wid. of Rev. John Meyrick, vicar of Edwinstowe, East Retford s.p.  suc. fa. 13 Dec. 1772.

Offices Held

2nd lt. Marines 1748; capt. Scots Brigade in Holland 1747-56; capt. 19 Ft. 1756; capt. 66 Ft. 1758; maj. 1761; maj. commandant 101 Ft. Nov. 1762; half pay 1763; lt.-col. 1772.


Johnstone was the head of a Whig family, closely related to the Marquis of Annandale. He may have been the ‘Major James Johnstone’ who unsuccessfully contested St. Ives in 1768. At the general election of 1774 he attempted to challenge the very strong Queensberry interest in Dumfriesshire, but eventually withdrew in favour of Alexander Fergusson of Craigdarroch, who was unsuccessful. But Johnstone increased his interest in the county at the expense of the unpopular 4th Duke, and at the general election of 1784 successfully contested Dumfries Burghs.

Johnstone was expected by William Adam to support Administration; in fact, he was a highly independent Member, unconventional as a speaker in both manner and matter. Wraxall writes:1

Sir James ... realized our ideas of these hardy Scots, the companions ... of Robert the Bruce, cast as he was in a Herculean mould, of an uncouth aspect, rude address and almost gigantic proportions ... [but] who concealed under ... unpolished manners great integrity directed by common sense.

His sonorous voice, which compelled attention, was first heard on 28 May 1784 when, ‘as an old man but a young Member’, he unsuccessfully urged the House to disregard fatigue and continue its sitting on the Westminster election. On 7 June he was the centre of an acrimonious scene when he charged Fox’s counsel, Thomas Erskine, with vilifying the House. His frequent interventions that session ranged over the Ordnance estimates, finance, West Indian trade, East India affairs, the militia, game licences, and the plight of Scottish fishermen. In the East India debate of 21 July he insisted that if returning Company servants were required to declare their fortunes, naval and military officers should in fairness do the same. With difficulty he found a seconder for his motion which, after acrimonious exchanges, was lost.2

On all questions Johnstone followed his own judgment, resenting pressure from any quarter, and his vote was unpredictable. He supported Pitt on the Westminster scrutiny, voted for his parliamentary reform proposals of 18 Apr. 1785, and commended the commercial treaty with France. He later declared that he had voted against Richmond’s fortifications plan, but his name does not appear in the division list of 27 Feb. 1786. He was no respecter of persons: in a debate on naval promotions he called Howe, first lord of the Admiralty, ‘a mere driveller’, and on 15 May 1787 objected to any limitation of the Post Office inquiry, merely because the postmaster-general was involved. ‘He would suspect whom he pleased. He would suspect the Speaker, the bishops, every man in the House. He was sent there to suspect them and he dared to do his duty.’ On East India affairs he tended to go with the Opposition. On 2 Mar. 1787 he declared ‘upon his conscience and upon his stumps, which were almost gone’, that he was convinced of Warren Hastings’s guilt and would vote for his impeachment. Thereafter he never wavered in his determination to bring Hastings to a fair trial, ‘for the honour of the nation’, regardless of expense. Similarly, on 9 May 1788 he supported the impeachment of Impey. ‘We have beheaded a King, we have hanged a peer, we have shot an admiral, we are now trying a governor-general, and I can see no reason why we should not put on his trial a judge and a chief justice.’3

Johnstone had real sympathy for the burdens of the poor and repeatedly pleaded their cause: on the candle tax, the duties on hawkers and pedlars, and the improvement of seamen’s conditions. He objected to the extension of the penal laws, advocated universal toleration (though himself favouring Presbyterianism as ‘the least expensive road to Heaven’), and supported the abolition of the slave trade. In Scottish affairs he was an individualist, advocating complete uniformity between England and Scotland in law and taxes, and frequently alleging the gross partiality of Scottish juries, sheriffs and even judges. On 17 Apr. 1787 he moved for a bill limiting Scottish sheriffs’ discretionary powers at elections in conformity with English practice. His zeal did not, however, extend to the reform of Scottish burghs: he vehemently opposed Sheridan’s bill in 1788 and again in 1789, despite petitions from his own constituency and Sheridan’s appeal to his love of civil liberty. He supported Pitt on the Regency. ‘He had never been at St. James’s since 1761 nor at Carlton House in his life. A man might be a good Member of Parliament ... without cringing at court or sacrificing to the rising sun.’ At the general election of 1790 he was defeated for Dumfries Burghs.4

Johnstone died 3 Sept. 1794.

Ref Volumes: 1754-1790

Author: Edith Lady Haden-Guest


  • 1. Mems. iii. 404; v. 111.
  • 2. Ibid. iii. 404; Stockdale, i. 103-4, 308; iii. 323; Debrett, xv. 246, 266, 291-2; xvi. 143, 147, 150-1, 368; xvii. 286.
  • 3. Debrett, xxi. 358, 361, 470, 503; xxii. 42, 81, 365; Stockdale, xiii. 201-2; xiv. 138, 253-4, 369; xviii. 76; Wraxall, Mems. v. 111.
  • 4. Stockdale, ii. 385-6; vi. 440, 520; xiv. 56; xv. 189; xvi. 179; xvii. 64, 190, 242, 275, 346-7, 428-9; xviii. 85; xix. 254; Debrett, xxi. 470; xxii. 489.