Dysart Burghs


Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1790-1820, ed. R. Thorne, 1986
Available from Boydell and Brewer

Background Information

Kinghorn (1790, 1807), Dysart (1796, 1812), Kirkcaldy (1802, 1818), Burntisland (1806), all in Fifeshire


12 July 1790HON. CHARLES HOPE2
 John Craufurd2
4 Mar. 1805 ROBERT DALLAS vice Erskine, called to the Upper House 
 Philip Charles Durham1

Main Article

The principal interest in 1790 was that of government acting through Henry Dundas, whose influence in turn derived from that of his friend Gen. Scott of Balcomie. This hold was tenuous, but the support of Kinghorn was secured through Andrew Hamilton of the excise office, and Kirkcaldy, a decayed and corrupt burgh, could be counted on. Dysart was in the interest of Sir James St. Clair Erskine, then a Whig, and Burntisland in that of William Ferguson of Raith, a friend of William Adam.

The retirement of the sitting Member Sir Charles Preston of Valleyfield was anticipated in September 1788 when Henry Dundas induced Robert Lindsay, brother of the Earl of Balcarres, to stand in his place. After spending £3,000, Lindsay backed down. He was replaced by Dundas’s future brother-in-law Charles Hope of Waughton, to the disappointment of William Ross of Shandwick, who had offered to spend £4,000 on the same interest. Hope was opposed by John Craufurd of Auchenames, for whom William Ferguson made way in the autumn of 1789 and who was also supported by St. Clair Erskine. The result was not in doubt, Hope being returned by the casting vote of Kinghorn.1

In 1796 Dundas expected to return Hope again, but was thwarted by the candidature of St. Clair Erskine, who managed to detach Kirkcaldy and allied himself with William Ferguson. Hope backed down. St. Clair Erskine retained his hold on Kirkcaldy and was unopposed in 1802. When he succeeded to his uncle’s earldom of Rosslyn in 1805, he secured the return of Robert Dallas—though his first wish seems to have been for Sir Charles Douglas, ‘to enable Lord Dalkeith to sit in Parliament for an English borough’.2

In 1806 Rosslyn intended to put up his brother-in-law Sir Francis Vincent of Debden Hall, Essex, but placed the seat at the disposal of the Grenville ministry, on condition that they found Vincent an English seat. The condition was waived and government kept the seat in reserve for William Adam or Henry Erskine, in case they failed elsewhere. When it was clear that they would not fail, Rosslyn was anxious to promote William Maxwell II* (of Carriden), but Maxwell would not give up his contest for Linlithgow Burghs. Reluctantly Rosslyn swallowed Ferguson of Raith’s son’s candidature: he feared that the Fergusons would assume control of the burghs. Lord Melville considered challenging these arrangements, but made no overt move before the election, which was uncontested.3 Melville, still sure of Kinghorn, now sought to undermine Rosslyn’s and Ferguson’s hold on Burntisland. In 1806 the lord justice clerk had supported John Leven, collector of the excise, for provost of Burntisland against Rosslyn’s interest and it was to Leven that Melville looked; but the burgh was retained against this challenge through the exertions of the provost, Rosslyn’s friend Alexander Pitcairn, aided by Rosslyn, Ferguson, and William Adam. Melville therefore did not promote a candidate in 1807.4 He was urged by William Wemyss* to persevere at Burntisland. Wemyss was convinced that Ferguson, a staunch Whig, could be defeated by a suitable ministerial candidate at the next election. Adm. Philip Charles Durham of Largo, who had applied for Melville’s support on the vacancy of 1805, came forward under the same auspices in 1812. He secured Kinghorn only, making an unsuccessful bid for Kirkcaldy, which would be the returning burgh at the next election. His tactics included kidnapping five councilmen, but his every move was thwarted by Ferguson.5

Ferguson was not to be shaken. On 17 Sept. 1816 Francis Horner informed John Allen:

I fear that General Ferguson has lately lost hold of Kinghorn, which is gone over to Admiral Durham, but this, if true, does not decide the next election, for the two burghs the general still has, have the next two turns as returning burghs.6

Author: D. G. Henry


  • 1. Ginter, Whig Organization, 90, 119; H. Furber, Henry Dundas, 221-3; Edinburgh Advertiser, 22-25 June 1790; Caledonian Mercury, no. 10,735.
  • 2. NLS mss 11145, f. 15; Add. 51917, ‘State of the Scotch counties, etc.’.
  • 3. Blair Adam mss, Rosslyn to Adam, [Tues.], 20, 22, 23, 28 Oct., reply 26 Oct., Gibson to same, 28 Oct. (bis), Innes to same, 9 Nov. 1806.
  • 4. Ibid. Gibson to Adam, 27 Oct., R. C. Ferguson to same, 21 Dec. [1806]; NLS mss 8, f. 172.
  • 5. SRO GD51/1/198/10/63, 64, 69; NLS mss 1053, f. 112; Edinburgh Advertiser, 16, 20, 23 Oct., 3 Nov. 1812; Caledonian Mercury, nos. 14, 169; 14, 173.
  • 6. Add. 52180.