DUFF, James, 4th Earl Fife [I] (1776-1857), of Duff House, Banff.

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



1818 - 2 Apr. 1827

Family and Education

b. 6 Oct. 1776, 1st s. of Hon. Alexander Duff of Housedale, Echt, Aberdeen, 2nd surv. s. of William Duff., 1st Earl Fife [I], by Mary, da. of George Skene of Skene, Aberdeen and Careston, Angus. educ. by Dr Chapman at Inchdrewer, Banff 1783; Westminster 1789; Christ Church, Oxf. 1794; L. Inn 1794. m. 9 Sept. 1799, Maria Caroline, da. of John Manners of Grantham Grange, Lincs., s.p. Styled Visct. Macduff 1809-11; suc. fa. as 4th Earl Fife [I] 17 Apr. 1811; uncle George Skene* to Skene and Careston 1827, GCH 1823; cr. Baron Fife [UK] 28 Apr. 1827; KT 3 Sept. 1827.

Offices Held

Ld. of bedchamber Jan. 1819-21, 1827-35.

Ld. lt. Banff 1813-56; grand master of freemasons [S] 1814-16.

Lt.-col. Inverness militia 1803-12.


Duff’s father, an advocate based in Aberdeen, was described by his brother James, 2nd Earl Fife, as ‘a very honest though very weak man’. His Skene mother evidently shared her family’s characteristics of moral laxity and emotional instability and soon proved herself unfit, in Fife’s eyes, for the charge of her children, ‘from her inequality of conduct to them—kissing one day and thumping another’. When James was six, Fife, who was himself without legitimate issue and wished to groom him as his heir, removed him and his brother from parental care. He closely supervised their education, teaching them to ‘look up with horror to any connection’ with the ‘infamous’ Skenes. In 1788 Mary Duff ran off with her cousin George Skene of Scotland Yard (executed for forgery in 1812), and the following year her husband divorced her.1

In 1793 Fife reported his nephew much ‘improved’, with ‘really good principles, and temper, with every prospect of application and good parts’. Duff abandoned his legal studies in 1796, joined the Allied army on the Continent and was present at the Congress of Radstadt in 1798. On his return home he married the daughter of one of the Prince of Wales’s former cronies (he had been elected a member of Brooks’s on the recommendation of another, Lord Yarmouth, in 1796) and mixed with the Carlton House set. When Fife heard of his gambling debts and his accomplishments in the field of fast living, he is said to have remarked that ‘Jamie must be a clever boy to do all that on £500 a year’, the allowance he had made him on his coming of age.2

In 1800 Duff, at his uncle’s instigation, applied to Henry Dundas for ministerial backing at the next election for Banffshire, but Dundas, tired of Fife’s intractability and presumptuous demands for the extension of his British peerage to his nephews, coldly replied that the incumbent, Sir William Grant, solicitor-general, was assured of government support.3 The Duffs made no move against Grant in 1802, when James visited France. The death of Duff’s wife from rabies, the result of a bite from a pet dog, 20 Dec. 1805, drove him abroad, where he was captured by the French and held for a time in Paris. He was released in the summer of 1806 and proceeded to Vienna, where he joined the Austrian army under Archduke Charles, and got into further financial trouble.4

Although Duff appears to have remained on the Continent until 1813, he was involved in a complex series of election manoeuvres in 1806. At his request his maternal uncle George Skene tried early in the year to secure for him Lord Kintore’s interest in Elgin Burghs for the next election, but Kintore would have no truck with a connexion of Fife. Fife later proposed to Skene that Duff should stand for Banffshire and apparently promised Skene his support in the burghs if he obtained Kintore’s backing, which Skene managed to do. Fife got the support of the ‘Talents’ for Duff in Banffshire as ‘a very zealous friend to the present government’, but the early dissolution badly damaged his prospects of success. Fife then tried to cajole Skene into standing down in the burghs for their nephew, but Skene refused to give way. The personal intervention of the Prince on Duff’s behalf and William Adam’s eleventh hour interview with Kintore proved unavailing. Skene got the burghs and Duff was beaten in Banffshire. In 1807, the Whigs had high hopes of his return for Elgin Burghs. It seemed at one stage to be in his grasp, but mismanagement by his supporters, the intervention of Lord Melville and some last-minute malpractice resulted in his defeat by the new lord advocate.5

Duff enlisted in the Spanish army in 1808, rose to the rank of major-general and was badly wounded at Talavera and Fort Matagorda. His uncle died in 1809 and on the death of his father in 1811 he succeeded to the Irish peerage. On his return home he gave assurances of support for the Regent’s government and was appointed lord lieutenant of Banffshire. He resumed his intimacy with the Prince, fought an expensive but ultimately successful lawsuit against Sir James Duff of Kinstair, his uncle’s bastard son, over the 2nd Earl’s will, and proved himself a humane, improving landlord who enjoyed immense local popularity.6

Fife was returned without opposition for Banffshire in 1818 and made a lord of the bedchamber early the following year. He voted against Tierney’s motion on the state of the nation, 18 May, and for the foreign enlistment bill, 10 June 1819, but apparently did not speak in the House before 1820. His attempts to restore his family’s much decayed electoral interest created disturbances in Elgin Burghs, to the annoyance of ministerialists, in 1818 and 1820. His loyalty to government was clearly regarded with scepticism in certain quarters; and in 1820 Lord Melville admitted that any interference by himself with Fife over Elgin Burghs would be useless.7 He died 5 Mar. 1857.

Ref Volumes: 1790-1820

Author: David R. Fisher


  • 1. A. and H. Tayler, Bk. of the Duffs, i. 179, 193-5; Lord Fife and his Factor, 146-8, 167, 178, 193, 196, 205.
  • 2. Lord Fife and his Factor, 218, 242; PRO 30/8/131, f. 21; Tayler, i. 205.
  • 3. SRO GD51/1/54/1, 2; 51/1/198/4/10.
  • 4. J.G. Alger, Napoleon’s British Visitors, 317, 341; Tayler, i. 205-6; Add. 33981, f. 239; Blair Adam mss, Adair to Adam, 28 Feb. 1807.
  • 6. Tayler, i. 206-7; NLI, Melville mss, Abercromby to Melville, 7 June 1813; Creevey Pprs. ed. Maxwell, i. 244.
  • 7. SRO GD51/1/198/17/13-15; St. Andrews Univ. Lib. Melville mss 4589, 4614.