Elgin Burghs


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

Background Information

Elgin (1790, 1812); Banff (1796, 1818), Cullen (1802), Banffshire; Kintore (1806), Inverurie (1807), Aberdeenshire


27 Nov. 1806GEORGE SKENE 
 James Duff2
13 July 1810 WILLIAM DUNDAS vice Campbell Colquhoun, vacated his seat 
13 Apr. 1812 ARCHIBALD CAMPBELL vice Dundas, vacated his seat 
30 Oct. 1812PATRICK MILNE 
11 July 1818ROBERT GRANT 

Main Article

The most powerful interests in this district in the late 1780s were those of the 7th Earl of Findlater, whose candidate William Adam* defeated the nominee of the 4th Duke of Gordon in 1784; and the 5th Earl of Kintore. Findlater’s power was based primarily in Cullen and in Banff, where it was bolstered by his cousin and heir Sir James Grant*, while Kintore’s was in Inverurie and Kintore. The Gordon interest was of little account after 1784, but James Duff, 2nd Earl Fife, who had established a foothold in Elgin, emerged as a force to be reckoned with.

The burghs were included in the ‘pacification’ of north-east Scotland negotiated by Henry Dundas between Gordon, Fife, Findlater and the Grants in 1787. Findlater and Kintore agreed on a system of alternating nomination, with Findlater to have the first. Both they and Fife promised to support the candidate recommended by Dundas, who in September 1788 named Sir James Grant. Adam made a late bid to save his seat by offering to use his influence in Inverness Burghs for Grant, but Findlater insisted on honouring his agreement with Dundas. In the event, it was not Grant who was put up in 1790 but Dundas’s friend Alexander Brodie, a rich nabob, who stood unsuccessfully for Cromarty at the same election. This substitution may have provoked the observation by Findlater’s agent that he could not guarantee Findlater’s ‘not embarking on an improper and ill-concerted scheme, as I have known instances of his being carried away at once by people who had no title to influence him’, but all went according to plan. Although Brodie regarded his seat as ‘temporary accommodation’ at Dundas’s ultimate disposal, no change was made during the 1790 Parliament. In 1795, it was reported that Fife claimed to have gained control of Banff, but there was no disturbance in 1796 when Kintore, in fulfilment of an earlier pledge of his interest to Dundas, returned Brodie.1

Later events suggest that Fife did win Banff, but that this was counterbalanced by Findlater’s gaining the upper hand in Elgin. When Brodie retired in 1802 Sir James Grant’s second son Francis came in on Findlater’s nomination. Findlater himself went to live on the Continent, leaving management of his affairs in the hands of the Grants. Kintore died in 1804, and according to Alexander Crombie, Lord Aberdeen’s agent, writing to his employer on 17 Sept. 1806, his successor

behaved very foolishly in his politics. Lord Fife deprived him of his natural burgh Inverurie by the vilest means, but the prudent measure of the late Earl [of Kintore] in coalescing with Lord Findlater gave him the same command so long as he retained Kintore. By the agreement ... it was [Lord] Kintore’s turn to send the next Member ... and the Earl of Findlater’s commissioners wrote his lordship that they were ready to continue the former agreement made with his father, but he thought proper to attach himself to Lord Fife, who had turned him out of Inverurie.

Yet six weeks later Crombie told Lord Melville that Kintore had ‘proposed to renew the agreement between his father and Lord Findlater’. The nature of the relationship between Fife and Kintore, whom Adam described as ‘rather a weak man’, is not clear, but Kintore’s vacillation may well have contributed to the confusion which occurred in 1806 and 1807.2

According to a letter of self-justification written by the Foxite George Skene to Lord Grenville in April 1807, he was asked early in 1806 ‘in private confidence’ by his and Fife’s nephew James Duff*, who was about to go abroad, to try to secure for him Kintore’s interest in the burghs. Skene corroborated his story with a letter from Kintore, solicited for the purpose, to the effect that Skene had approached him on Duff’s behalf but that he, Kintore, had ‘for family reasons’ rejected the proposal, having ‘determined from the first’ to have ‘no political connection with Lord Fife’, and that he had returned no answer to a direct approach from Duff. It is not clear how much reliance can be placed on Kintore’s testimony regarding this transaction. In April 1806 he definitely informed Lord Lauderdale, who passed on the information to Grenville, that he intended to support the ‘Talents’. By this time Skene, according to his own account, had decided to contest Aberdeen Burghs, but in May 1806 he agreed to a proposal from Fife that James Duff should stand for Banffshire and ‘that I should endeavour to secure Lord Kintore’s interest, in which event I was to have his [Fife’s] interest for the burghs’. Skene claimed to have obtained Kintore’s support and to have made it known to Fox and Lauderdale that he was to stand for Elgin Burghs, without conditions, at the next election. He cited letters from Lauderdale to substantiate this story.3

When the decision to dissolve Parliament was taken ministers certainly thought that Skene was to contest the burghs and Duff Banffshire, and had promised Fife support for the latter enterprise. Grenville, Lauderdale and Adam initially intended to reserve Elgin Burghs as a refuge for Henry Erskine, the lord advocate, should they fail to place him elsewhere, or for Adam himself, in case he was defeated in Kincardine. Adam, confident that he and Lauderdale could sway Findlater, despite his attachment to Melville, aimed to arrange with the Foxite William Maule* ‘the best way of dealing with Lord Kintore’, and asked Grenville to write personally to Fife. Grenville drafted a letter, stating that Skene would be asked to stand down for Erskine if it proved necessary, and inviting him to co-operate, but sent it under cover to Adam and not direct to Fife, being ‘not quite sure’ whether Adam had ‘mentioned that the ultimate views respecting the lord advocate should be stated to him in the first instance’. The following day Lauderdale became aware, as a result of communications from Skene and Fife, that the situation was far from straightforward. He and Grenville concluded that the problem should be left for Adam ‘to do the best for us on the spot’, and Grenville’s letter was not sent on to Fife.4

Skene had already announced his candidature publicly and, boasting that he had the support of both Kintore and Fife, had ‘no doubt of an unanimous election’. Fife, on being informed of the dissolution, told Grenville that its suddenness might jeopardize his nephew’s chances in Banffshire, though he was still optimistic and claimed to have Elgin Burghs ‘perfectly secure’, despite the machinations of Melville and Sir James Grant, whose electoral support the ministry had been courting, without much success, for several months. Fife’s agent in Banff, George Robinson, told Lauderdale that Fife’s party would have control of Kintore, independent of Lord Kintore, within ten days, to add to Banff and Inverurie; and this news prompted Lauderdale to observe to Adam that such an eventuality would ensure Duff’s return ‘without the possibility of your making any arrangement in that quarter, either for Erskine or yourself’. By the time Adam got to grips with the situation in Elgin Burghs, both he and Erskine were confident of success elsewhere and the question of using the seat as a safety-net seems to have been taken no further.5

Fife had briefly considered a scheme whereby John Peter Grant* of Rothiemurchus was to receive his interest in the burghs in return for supporting Duff in Elginshire, but the plan was abandoned when Grenville decreed that the incumbent in the Elginshire seat was not to be disturbed. While Adam was travelling north there was an exchange of letters between Skene and Fife, who expressed surprise at Skene’s candidature for the burghs, claiming that they had agreed that he was to canvass them on behalf of Duff as a safeguard against failure in Banffshire. Skene replied:

I began the canvass and all along proceeded upon the confidence that if I was fortunate enough in obtaining other support I might depend upon yours. Your lordship is perfectly right that it was my original intention and sincere wish to procure the interest of these boroughs for Colonel Duff ... But after every endeavour on my part for that purpose, finding that object impracticable, and that other candidates might have been proposed, I was under the necessity of coming forward myself.

Skene complained that Fife was working against him in Kintore and that ‘his lordship’s crooked policy must force me to oppose my nephew’, but claimed on 5 Nov. 1806 to have carried Kintore, along with Cullen and Elgin, and told Adam that he could not back down. According to Fife, Skene won Kintore by promising the council to obtain from Lord Kintore renewal of leases on favourable terms, a bargain which he failed to keep. Fife, who now had little hope of success in Banffshire, also appealed to Adam and stated his case to Grenville, expressing a confident belief that ministers had wanted Duff to come in and had signified that wish to Lord Kintore. Skene confessed to Adam that if Duff could be provided for elsewhere it would save him ‘a great deal of trouble at Kintore, for although they appear cordial at present, there is no trusting to events’. Grenville evidently considered that Fife had reasonable cause for complaint and, on his authority, Adam, who had already tried without success to persuade Maule to talk Skene out of standing, sought a personal interview with Lord Kintore to put the case for Duff. The Prince of Wales, with whom Duff was on close terms, also interceded, but Adam was unable to move Kintore, as he explained to Grenville:

Lord Kintore ... assures me of his steady attachment to your lordship ... and that whatever interest he has of his own (unconnected with others to whom he is in honour bound to adhere) shall always be disposed of in the manner which government shall think most advantageous ... But in the present case he does not stand in that predicament as there has existed between his family and Lord Findlater’s a compact which he was bound in honour to preserve. That when Mr Skene was proposed to him ... he was both known to him and represented to him as a steady friend of government. That Mr Skene had the good wishes of those who acted for Lord Findlater, who could not be brought to support Lord Fife’s candidate, or his particular friend: and that particular circumstances had rendered that line of conduct not reconcilable to his (Lord Kintore’s) own sentiments. That his arrangement for Mr Skene had been formed under the sanction of Mr Maule, some time since, and had been most readily adopted by him from an understanding that Lord Lauderdale and Mr Fox had approved of Skene in the winter in London. That the delegates had been chosen with a view to Skene, and that even if the motives which induced him to adopt Skene were not conclusive it was not now practicable to substitute Duff for Skene.

Skene came in for the burghs, apparently without challenge from Duff, who was defeated in Banffshire.6

In 1807, Skene made way for Duff, of whose success the Whig managers were fairly confident. The Grants, prompted by Melville, put up Archibald Colquhoun, the new lord advocate. With Cullen and Banff secure for him, and Inverurie and Banff for Duff, everything hinged on Kintore. Fife thought that as Findlater himself was supposed to be hostile to the Portland ministry, Lord Kintore might be persuaded to disregard the Grants’ preferences and to support Duff, on the understanding that he would vacate if Findlater objected to his return within six months, or at the least to prevent the Kintore delegate from attending the election, which would give the casting vote to Inverurie. George Robinson, too, noted that Kintore could materially assist Duff merely by ‘not being very active’. In the event, Colquhoun secured the decisive vote of Kintore. Adam, who ascribed Duff’s defeat to ‘Lord Kintore being bound to give this turn of election to Lord Findlater and Lord Findlater’s commissioners having declared with government’, admitted to Grenville that he had not intervened for Duff as Fife had requested:

It is possible that Lord Fife may have gained Kintore, but it was a subject I thought it best to keep aloof from. Lord Kintore ... held himself bound by his agreement with Lord Findlater ... and he would have been injured in his permanent family interest if there had been any interference for Lord Fife.7

Subsequent correspondence from Fife and Robinson indicates that there had been a fierce and unscrupulous struggle for ascendancy in Kintore, where Lord Kintore’s hold was weakening. By their account, nine of the 13 councilmen, determined to secure generous leases from Kintore, publicly assured Duff’s friends that they would support him if Kintore did not meet their terms. They rejected Kintore’s offer to comply with their wishes after the election, but were persuaded by two of their number, James and William Rae, to postpone making an unconditional declaration of support for Duff in order to leave the door open for Kintore to come up with a fresh proposal. Colquhoun arrived in Kintore on 26 May, but made no headway. The following day, when the delegate was to be chosen, bribes were offered by Crombie, Kintore’s kinsman Patrick Milne and William Garden, on behalf of Lord Kintore, but the rebel councilmen rejected them. James Rae was elected as delegate, supposedly in Duff’s interest, by eight votes to three over Sir Alexander Bannerman, Kintore’s father-in-law. Between then and the day of election on 29 May Rae was courted by Milne and Crombie and granted all the terms desired, with an additional personal douceur. He was incarcerated in Kintore’s house until the time of the election, when he emerged to vote for Colquhoun. Fife and Robinson also accused Skene of breaking a promise to approach Kintore on Duff’s behalf and alleged that Melville’s ‘liberal promises of places and pensions’ had played a part. Their threatened petition never materialized.8

Four days after the election Colquhoun told Dundas that, after sounding Lord Kintore on general politics, he concluded that ‘it would be impossible by stipulation to detach him from his present party’, but that by conferring on him the office of knight marischall, without conditions, Melville could expect eventually to procure his allegiance ‘from gratitude’:

This may be of consequence ... on account of his having the right of naming the Member ... next Parliament, provided he can keep the burgh of Kintore, which by good management may now be done, as I left Colonel Duff in possession of only one supporter in the council who had it not been for interference would have been ill-used by the people of Inverurie on the day of election.9

Kintore did not receive this office, but he seems to have re-established control of his borough and, for the rest of the period, politics in the district were much less contentious.

Fife died in 1809 and was succeeded by his brother Alexander, a far less assertive character. On his death in 1811 the Irish peerage passed to James Duff, but he did not return from Spain until 1813. With the deaths of Sir James Grant and Findlater in 1811, management of the Findlater interest fell to Francis William Grant as acting head of the clan and legal representative of his imbecile elder brother, who inherited Findlater’s earldom of Seafield. There were no disturbances in 1810 and 1812 when the seat changed hands in reshuffles of the seating arrangements for various ministerialist Members. Although Kintore died three weeks before the election of 1812, Milne was presumably his choice.

In 1818, when it was Francis Grant’s turn to nominate, the 2nd Lord Melville hoped he might retain Milne, who had supported government, but Grant put up his distant kinsman Robert Grant, the son of Charles Grant, the powerful East India Company director. The 4th Earl Fife, whose professed loyalty to government was suspect, was evidently bent on restoring his family’s depleted electoral interest. Grant told Melville that Fife had ‘been using his best endeavours to create disturbance’ at Elgin, but the burgh declared for Robert Grant and, with Cullen and Kintore also secure, there was no opposition. Francis Grant’s departure for the Continent in 1819 gave Fife the opportunity to prepare the ground for a renewed and serious challenge to the Kintore-Grant alliance.10

Author: David R. Fisher


  • 1. PRO 30/8/157, ff. 53, 59, 63; Blair Adam mss, Adam to Findlater [Oct.], reply 16 Dec. 1788; SRO GD51/1/198/1/3-5; 51/1/198/4/5, 6; 51/1/198/17/5; 51/1/198/23/2; Macpherson Grant mss 391, Ross to Gen. Grant, 5 May 1790 (NRA [S] 771).
  • 2. SRO GD51/1/198/1/12, 13; Fortescue mss, Adam to Grenville, 30 May 1807.
  • 3. Fortescue mss, Lauderdale to Grenville, 19 Apr. 1806, Skene to same, 18 Apr. 1807.
  • 4. Ibid. Rosslyn to Grenville, 21 Oct., Adam to same, 22 Oct., Grenville to Fife, 24 Oct.; Blair Adam mss, Grenville to Adam, 24, 25 Oct., Lauderdale to same, 25 Oct. 1806.
  • 5. Blair Adam mss, Robinson to Lauderdale, 22 Oct., Skene to Adam [?24 Oct.], Lauderdale to same, 27 Oct.; Fortescue mss, Fife to Grenville, 24 Oct. 1806.
  • 6. Blair Adam mss, J. P. Grant to Adam, 23 Oct., Fife to same, 26 Oct., 3, 19 Nov., Skene to same [4], 5, 11 Nov., Maule to same, 14 Nov., Bloomfield to same, 15 Nov., Kintore to same, 25 Dec. 1806, ‘Narrative of facts’, 29 May 1807; Fortescue mss, Fife to Grenville, 9 Nov., Adam to same, 23 Nov. 1806.
  • 7. NLS, Melville mss (Acc. 6409), Melville to Saunders Dundas, 1 May; Blair Adam mss, memo [May], Fife to Adam, 16 May; SRO GD225/34/25, Robinson to Gen. Hay, 7 May; Fortescue mss, Adam to Grenville, 30 May 1807.
  • 8. Blair Adam mss, ‘Narrative’, 29 May, Robinson to Adam, 8 June, Fife to same, 15 June; Fortescue mss, Fife to Grenville, 10 June 1807.
  • 9. SRO GD51/1/198/1/19.
  • 10. St. Andrews Univ. Lib. Melville mss 4555, 4614; SRO GD51/1/198/17/13-15.