Glasgow Burghs


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

Background Information

Rutherglen (1790, 1807), Glasgow (1796, 1812), Lanarkshire; Dumbarton (1802, 1818); Renfrew (1806)


 Boyd Alexander2
 ALEXANDER vice Houstoun, on petition, 30 Mar. 1803 
 Boyd Alexander2
 William Stirling1
30 June 1809 ALEXANDER HOUSTOUN vice Campbell, vacated his seat3
 William Stirling1
 Archibald Campbell2
 Kirkman Finlay2

Main Article

This district of burghs was liable to ‘great and doubtful contests’,1 much depending on the returning burgh. In 1789 Dumbarton was controlled by the Duke of Argyll; Renfrew by John Craufurd of Auchenames and Archibald Speirs* of Elderslie; while Rutherglen, controlled by the Duke of Hamilton, was amenable to the influence of its vast neighbour Glasgow, which, far outstripping the rest in importance, population, wealth, and patronage, tended to follow its own course, without being able to dictate to the others.

In February 1789 the alignment anticipated for the general election was of William McDowall, later that year chosen as Member for Ayrshire, a ministerialist of great weight at Glasgow, versus Capt. George Keith Elphinstone*, who would be supported by the Whig patrons of Renfrew and by Rutherglen which, nursed by John Morthland for the Whigs, had voted by 12 votes to 6 to present an address to the Prince of Wales during the Regency crisis.2 The by-election caused early in 1790 by the legal promotion of Ilay Campbell, the lord advocate, who had been expected to make way for McDowall, altered this arrangement. John Dunlop, merchant in Glasgow, was the ministerialist candidate, chosen with a view to promoting the Glasgow police bill at Westminster, while to the disappointment of Lord Daer, Member for the district in the Parliament of 1780, John Craufurd of Auchenames was the opposition or ‘Patriots’ candidate. The Duke of Hamilton reasserted his influence at Rutherglen, but offended Col. John Campbell of Blythswood, who had hoped to be preferred to McDowall and in pique deserted; moreover, thanks to the contrivance of Peter Speirs, advantage was taken of the negligence of the Duke of Argyll at Dumbarton, to secure a Patriot delegate, and this, with Renfrew’s casting vote, ensured Craufurd’s election.3 In revenge the Glasgow council resolved to ignore Craufurd, whose partisans had opposed the Glasgow police bill, and transact their business through William McDowall, who was earmarked to recover the seat from the Whigs at the general election. Craufurd, rather than contest the burghs with such an opponent, stood for Dysart Burghs, and Keith Elphinstone too found McDowall too strong for him and accepted £900 to quit the field. McDowall was sure of Glasgow and, with the assistance of Col. Spens of Rutherglen and the Duke of Argyll, secured his election as delegate for Dumbarton.4

McDowall was likewise secure in 1796. His friend John Dunlop had informed Robert Dundas, who wondered whether it was worth undermining Archibald Speirs’s hold over Renfrew, 5 May 1795:

Glasgow is the returning borough next time, which supported by Rutherglen or Dumbarton does the business. Dumbarton is the returning borough the election following which also does the business supported by Glasgow or Rutherglen; therefore, unless you can suppose both these burghs lost by the Duke of Hamilton and the Duke of Argyll, which is not likely, Renfrew is of no use.

In any case, McDowall secured the support of Archibald Campbell of Blythswood at Renfrew, and Archibald Speirs, whose potential candidature depended on his interest in that burgh, was sufficiently discouraged to award that interest, ‘although we differed completely in politics’, to McDowall. As for Dumbarton, where there had been ‘great stickling’ and where ‘whether the Duke of Argyll has lost that borough or not, depends upon a question that must come before the court of session’, McDowall made overtures to Messrs Dixon, the supposed overthrowers of the Argyll interest, through his friend Houstoun, lest opposition repeat their coup of 1790 there.5

Dumbarton being the returning burgh in 1802, McDowall had requested the Duke of Argyll’s interest in May 1801; but when it became clear that the duke’s positive reply was no guarantee of obtaining the burgh’s vote, he gave up the burghs in favour of his friend Boyd Alexander. The latter was sure of Glasgow (through McDowall) and Renfrew (through Archibald Campbell). The Duke of Argyll agreed to help him to Dumbarton’s vote, as he was approved by ministers, but his competitor Alexander Houstoun, also as it happened connected with McDowall, had the support of the stronger anti-ducal party there; and in the struggle that ensued for Rutherglen, Houstoun got the upper hand. So he was victorious, by Dumbarton’s casting vote. Argyll’s agent maintained that Dumbarton was lost to the duke, unless he had been prepared to support the pretensions of William Stirling, a ministerialist who stood a better chance than Alexander. On 30 Mar. 1803 Houstoun was unseated on petition, Alexander proving his case that the delegate for Dumbarton had been elected by less than a clear majority of the council, one of the voters being disqualified as a deputy postmaster.6

In 1806 William Adam advised the Grenville ministry that Glasgow was ‘decidedly open for a Whig candidate’. Their solicitor-general John Clerk of Eldin was duly put up. His mainstay was the Duke of Hamilton’s interest at Rutherglen, and the duke’s sons, Lord Douglas and Lord Archibald Hamilton, pressed government to strengthen their hand in the burghs. The Duke of Argyll was urged to support Clerk, but Dumbarton remained in the hands of Alexander Houstoun, who since 1804 had made it clear that he wished to regain the seat. Alexander Campbell of Blythswood had come forward as a candidate at that time too and was in control of Renfrew, the returning burgh. Glasgow was prepared to support the sitting Member Alexander, since William McDowall and Henry Glassford*, who had the major interests, were committed elsewhere. There were thus four contenders and some kind of a compromise was inevitable.7 It was Clerk, who after unavailing efforts at Glasgow and false hopes at Renfrew, gave up a hopeless struggle and the ministry agreed to support Boyd Alexander, who pointed out to them that he had ‘all along approved’ of them. To thwart Alexander, Campbell and Houstoun compromised to share the Parliament, and with Glasgow and Rutherglen supporting Alexander, and Dumbarton and Renfrew Campbell, the latter was returned by Renfrew’s casting vote.8 Alexander informed William Adam that there were grounds for petition and that the expense of it would be more bearable to him if his brother John were made postmaster of Glasgow. Apart from the ‘bargain to divide the Parliament’, there were technical objections to the return of Campbell: informality in the oaths at Renfrew, errors in the sheriff’s precept to Renfrew and Dumbarton and omission to summon the deacons at the latter burgh. Alexander and the provost of Rutherglen duly petitioned, but Campbell was confirmed in his seat, 20 Mar. 1807.9 To counter the allegation of a bargain to share the representation, Campbell informed the election committee of a last-minute bid by Alexander through John Hamilton, provost of Glasgow, to come to terms with him. Alexander, who had been rebuffed on a previous proposal of a similar nature made for him by McDowall to Campbell and likewise got no satisfaction in his later bid, regarded this disclosure as highly indelicate; particularly as he had refrained from mentioning ‘a proposal, made to me, for a compromise’, evidently again through McDowall. Campbell, however, denied that the latter proposal had come from him. This altercation took place in 1808, when there was still such bad blood between Campbell and Alexander that they were persuaded, in the interests of local harmony, to submit their quarrel to the arbitration of Lord Melville’s son Robert, who exonerated Campbell on the grounds that he had refused to listen to Alexander’s proposition of compromise. Campbell never forgave Alexander, however, and subsequently hindered the latter’s ambition to sit for Renfrewshire.10

Meanwhile, in 1807, because of the short duration of the Parliament, Campbell was permitted by Houstoun to keep the seat for another two years. He was opposed by William Stirling of Drumpellier on Lord Archibald Hamilton’s interest at Rutherglen, which was the returning burgh. Campbell, as a ministerialist, received Lord Melville’s blessing and obtained the support of Glasgow, through the influence of Henry Glassford with the provost. Stirling could therefore only carry Rutherglen.11 When Campbell vacated in favour of Houstoun in 1809, Stirling again came forward, but the result was exactly the same and Stirling’s attempt to trip up Houstoun with a petition exposing the bargain to share the representation failed, 2 Mar. 1810.12

In 1812, in the face of fresh opposition, Campbell and Houstoun were encouraged by the 2nd Viscount Melville to renew their compromise, Campbell being offered the first turn. His opponent was Kirkman Finlay, an influential and popular Glasgow merchant and provost elect, who by dint of promising to go into Parliament unfettered, obtained the support of the Whigs, notably of Lord Archibald Campbell at Rutherglen: but it was his interest at Glasgow, the returning burgh, which ensured his return by casting vote, Renfrew and Dumbarton, the ‘close’ burghs, supporting Campbell. Lord Douglas and Lord Archibald Hamilton, who had carried Rutherglen for Finlay by 15 votes to three, were conspicuously present at Finlay’s victory dinner.13 He was the first native Glaswegian since 1741 to represent the district.

In 1818 when, according to his agreement with Campbell, Houstoun came forward, Finlay stood little chance, as Dumbarton, Houstoun’s own burgh, was the returning burgh. The ensuing tie was resolved in Houstoun’s favour by casting vote. A protest was made in Finlay’s name and he threatened to petition, but nothing came of it.14 As he found a seat elsewhere and declined to contest the burghs at the next election, Campbell obtained the seat in 1820 and Houstoun’s death in 1822 gave him further security of tenure.

Author: D. G. Henry


  • 1. NLS mss 1, f. 206.
  • 2. N. Riding RO, Zetland mss ZNK X2/1/866; SRO GD22/1/315; PRO 30/8/131, f. 90; Ginter, Whig Organization, 33, 36, 41, 44, 45, 49.
  • 3. Zetland mss X2/1/973; SRO GD237/139, Dundas to McDowall, 23 Feb.; GD267/1/15, G. to P. Home, 6 Mar.; PRO 30/8/131, f. 92; 141, f. 117; Edinburgh Advertiser, 26 Feb.-2 Mar. 1790.
  • 4. PRO 30/8/154, ff. 154, 166-9; Edinburgh Advertiser, 6-9 July 1790.
  • 5. SRO GD51/1/198/22/1; 51/1/198/3/11; 51/1/198/8/1; 51/5/24/1; 51/5/364/7.
  • 6. Argyll mss, McDowall to Argyll, 29 May 1801, 21 June; reply 28 June; Robert to Ld. J. Campbell, 13 Feb., 6, 8 July 1802; Duke of Argyll, Intimate Society Letters of the 18th Cent. ii. 510; Blair Adam mss, McDowall to Adam, 30 July 1802; R. H. Peckwell, Controverted Elections, i. 351; CJ, lviii. 30, 31, 303, 306.
  • 7. Add. 51917, ‘State of the Scotch Counties etc.’; Fortescue mss, Lauderdale to Grenville, 9 Apr., Grenville to Erskine, 22 Oct., Mackenzie to Grenville, 31 Oct.; SRO GD51/1/198/3/38; 51/1/198/15/25, 26; Blair Adam mss, Adam to Argyll, 25 Oct. 1806.
  • 8. Fortescue mss, Alexander to Grenville, 25 Oct.; Blair Adam mss, Hamilton to Adam, 28 Oct., Gibson to same, 28 Oct., Clerk to Gibson, 29 Oct.; Gillies to Adam, 30 Oct., Grenville to same, 31 Oct., Clerk to same, 3, 15, 16, 18 Nov. 1806.
  • 9. Blair Adam mss, Alexander to Adam, 26 Nov., Gibson to same, 26 Nov., Gillies to same, 27 Nov., Clerk to same, 21 Dec. 1806; CJ, lxii. 30, 39, 263.
  • 10. NLS mss 1, ff. 117-41.
  • 11. Ibid. 8, f. 172; Edinburgh Advertiser, 8-12 May, 29 May-2 June 1807.
  • 12. CJ, lxv. 66, 139.
  • 13. Brougham mss 34961; SRO GD51/1/198/22/5; Edinburgh Advertiser, 2, 6, 13, 16, 23 Oct. 13 Nov. 1812.
  • 14. Edinburgh Advertiser, 10 Feb., 14 July 1818.