DUNDAS (afterwards SAUNDERS DUNDAS), Robert (1771-1851), of Melville Castle, Edinburgh.

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



9 May 1794 - 1796
1796 - Feb. 1801
1 June 1801 - 29 May 1811

Family and Education

b. 14 Mar. 1771, o.s. of Henry Dundas* by 1st w. educ. Edinburgh h.s. 1777-83; Edinburgh Univ.; Emmanuel, Camb. 1788; L. Inn 1788; continental tour 1792. m. 30 Aug. 1796, Anne, da. and coh. of Richard Huck Saunders, MD, 4s. 2da. and took name of Saunders before Dundas. suc. fa. as 2nd Visct. Melville 29 May 1811; KT 17 July 1821.

Offices Held

Priv. sec. to his fa. 1794-1801; jt. clerk register of sasines [S] 1799-1819; keeper of the signet [S] 1800-14; dep. privy seal [S] till 1811, ld. privy seal 1811-d.; pres. Board of Control Apr. 1807-July 1809, Nov. 1809-Apr. 1812, Feb.-Sept. 1828; PC 26 Mar. 1807; PC [I] 15 Aug. 1809; chief sec. to ld. lt. [I] Apr.-Oct. 1809; first ld. of Admiralty Mar. 1812-May 1827, Sept. 1828-Nov. 1830.

Gov. Bank of Scotland 1811-21; chancellor, St. Andrews Univ. 1814-d.

Capt. Cinque Ports fencibles 1794, maj. 1795; capt. R. Miidlothian yeoman cav. 1800, lt.-col commdt. 1801.


As heir to the most powerful political interest in Scotland, ‘Robin’ Dundas had, in his father’s view, only one essential public object to keep in view: the credit of ‘the honourable and natural connection in politics which circumstances have prepared for you’.1 He sustained this role without great difficulty, until his father’s public humiliation in 1805. Melville, licking his wounded reputation at his fastness of Dunira, imposed too great a strain on his cub, exemplified at critical moments by simultaneous public and private admonitory letters, the former intended to vindicate his public persona, the latter expressive of parental anxiety. This culminated in a flash of filial rebellion in 1809, in which father and son both resolved to go their own ways: but the impracticability of this was manifest within days and their relationship ended in an uneasy truce.

Henry Dundas had fair expectations of his only son at the outset of his public career: his only fault was ‘the love of his pillow’.2 There were plans to procure him a Scottish seat in Parliament; Kircudbright was mentioned, but his father’s choice was Perthshire. This plan was frustrated and it was for English Treasury boroughs that he was returned in 1794 and 1796.3 For the remainder of Pitt’s administration he acted as private secretary to his father. He drew no particular attention to himself in the House, apart from assisting his father’s views against immediate abolition of the slave trade in March 1796. In 1798, after he had expressed an interest in going to Ireland to confront the rebels, his father concluded ‘that his son was not ambitious and had not turned his mind to political pursuits, so that his [own] exclusion from the House of Commons would not disappoint any views of his’.4

On his father’s political retreat in 1801 Dundas, who resigned his seat, was not expected by him to play any significant role in Parliament; yet in June he was returned unopposed for Edinburghshire in place of his cousin Robert. ‘My chief comfort’, his father wrote, 6 July 1802, ‘is that my son is getting on so fast in the confidence and goodwill of the country [Scotland]. I think he will soon save me a great deal of disagreeable trouble.’5 At his re-election in August 1802, Dundas spoke of ‘our duty not to allow the martial spirit of the nation to subside’.6 In October, however, his father informed the premier that Dundas had ‘no thoughts of attending Parliament’ till after Christmas, though if he could be persuaded to speak it would do more good ‘than a dozen of other Members from this country attending’.7 He evidently had reservations about his father’s accepting a peerage soon afterwards, but his only expressed objection was to the danger of Melville Castle, settled on him at his marriage but entailed on his father’s heirs general, becoming divorced from the title if it were confined to heirs male.8 On 3 June 1803 he was teller for Pitt’s question for the orders of the day against Patten’s censure motion on the government. He also joined in the Pittite opposition on defence measures, 16, 23, 25 Apr. 1804, which toppled Addington’s ministry. On Pitt’s return to power his support, apart from a brief defence of the Scottish additional force bill, 25 June 1804, was inarticulate and so might have remained but for the assault on his father’s reputation in 1805, which he resisted as best he could. On 11 June he moved that his father should be permitted to speak in his own defence that day, and next day he sought to vindicate Melville’s reputation, while on 25 June he was an advocate of impeachment rather than criminal prosecution, ‘unaccustomed as he was to speak in public’. On 29 Nov. 1805 Melville wrote to William Adam:

My son talked of not going to London till February, but I have urged him to go before the meeting of Parliament, for it appears to me that in every point of view his presence is essentially necessary. He is in every view the best channel of communication both with my counsel and parliamentary friends.9

He was in attendance at Pitt’s funeral.

Dundas had to come to terms with his father’s reluctance to leave Scotland—it soon became his principal grievance—in February 1806 when Lord Moira chose him as his confidant for the Scottish arrangements proposed by the Grenville ministry. Knowing that his father could not openly support a government that was prosecuting him and that the family interest in Scotland was at stake, he was impressed by Moira’s assurance that he did not intend to be ‘the instrument of a system of dispossession’. Moira’s lack of cordiality with Fox inspired in son and father alike the hope that the ministry would in due course dish the Foxites in favour of a junction with the proscribed Pittites, with Moira swaying the Prince of Wales to support it. This was in accordance with the notion of the leaders of the Pitt party that they might form a corps de réserve for Lord Grenville to draw on, rather than go into systematic opposition, which Dundas assured Moira was not their wish. This plan soon met with obstacles: Melville had not forgiven Grenville his desertion of Pitt; Moira gave up the management of Scotland to Earl Spencer; and the Foxites embarrassed Dundas by proposing an opposition to him in Edinburghshire, though he soon scotched it. Early in March he was at the dinner of opposition ‘younkers’ at White’s, after being absent on the division of 3 Mar.; and on 26 Mar., Whitbread’s motion for the House to attend Lord Melville’s trial at Westminster Hall was carried, against his opposition, after he had failed to get Lord Grenville to restrain his colleagues’ vendetta. He was in the minority against the repeal of Pitt’s Additonal Force Act, 30 Apr. 1806. He had suspected from the start that it would prove impossible to please both parties.10

Dundas drew little attention to himself in Parliament during the remainder of the Grenville ministry, though it was expected that, on any change, his father wished his son to ‘represent his father’s name and secure his influence’. Meanwhile, in June 1806, his attempt as keeper of the signet to promote a congratulatory address on his father’s acquittal rattled the ministry and came near to provoking a remodelling of the legal establishment in Scotland.11 In January 1807 Melville resisted his son’s plea to come to London to concert opposition to a government which the King had taken no pains to upset. Much as he disliked the ministry, and more particularly the Prince of Wales’s association with it, he termed opposition ‘factious’ and made it clear that he disliked the notion of a Pittite junction with Grenville. Dundas informed his father, 24 Jan. 1807, that he was so dissatisfied with such indecisiveness that he would not attend Parliament until his father could provide a better plan of campaign than resentment of Grenville, whom he personally found the least objectionable member of the ministry, or of the Prince of Wales, who was not at present a suitable target for opposition.12 Canning mentioned Dundas to Grenville as a candidate for office, suggesting a place at the India Board in their abortive negotiation of March 1807, but Grenville, without ‘the slightest personal objection’ to Dundas, could promise nothing, still less make a bid to conciliate Melville. Canning privately believed Dundas might like the Admiralty or the government of Jamaica.13

Dundas evidently feared that his father’s professed indifference to office for himself, as well as the risk to the popularity of any government that restored his father to office, would prejudice his own public prospects. He was engaged in ‘softening’ Melville, to prevent this outcome, when the restoration to power of Pitt’s friends brought him the offer of the presidency of the Board of Control. On 23 Mar. 1807 Dundas assured his father that he would decline the offer next day unless Melville was prepared to give his cordial support to ministers; he was genuinely averse to office for himself. Melville, in his ambiguous reply, eschewed office ‘for the dregs of my life’, but indicated that, since he had been cleared of the charges against him the year before, he regarded his reputation as unsullied, and that his son’s taking office under a government he was certainly prepared to support was not to be regarded as an abdication of it on his part.14 Melville was temporarily placated by his restoration to the privy council and was soon assuring the Duke of Buccleuch that the Board of Control was ‘the very promotion I wished for Robert’.15 On 26 June 1807, when Lord Milton cast aspersions on Melville’s character in the debate on the address, Dundas sprang to his defence, but thinking discretion the better part of valour, declined moving that the censure resolution of 1805 should be expunged from the journals.16

Dundas’s contribution to the Portland administration was largely confined to Indian business, for the transaction of which he insisted on a house in Downing Street. He soon found himself handicapped by his father’s discontent with ministers, expressed in July 1807 over the government’s interference in Scottish patronage arrangements. These Melville evidently wished either to have complete management of or to relinquish, hinting to his son that he had meant to devolve their control gradually on him.17 Dundas himself appreciated this and by December 1807 was critical of Portland’s weakness as premier. He had to contradict rumours that his father was joining Lord Grenville in opposition, as well as to explain that Melville was averse to office, unless at the King’s command. But he failed to persuade his father to come to London to parley, either on the assurance that he would be in office within a week; or with the threat that Lord Sidmouth might be asked to join the government, in which case Dundas wished to retire; or with an appeal for advice on Indian affairs, on which he had come to the conclusion that, inefficient as the East India Company might be, it must be sustained and defended in Parliament as a bulwark against Buonaparte’s oriental expansion. On 11 Jan. 1808 Melville informed Dundas that he now felt that the ministry had done him an injustice the year before in not at least reserving the Admiralty for him, and that as to his privy councillorship he had yielded to the pleas of his wife, son and nephew in accepting it.18 Dundas was preoccupied that session with stating the East India Company’s case for a subsidy to meet their deficit, which he at length carried on 13 June, not without much harassment from opposition.19 By this time his name had been mentioned in cabinet circles as a successor to Sir Arthur Wellesley as Irish secretary; the only real snag being that he might have to stipulate for office for his father, who was expected to claim the Admiralty and who was also indignant at the failure of the government to bestow peerages in Scotland, which made it difficult for Melville to rally the Scots peers when requested by Portland to do so in January 1809 through his son. Dundas informed Portland that, Melville’s assistance not being officially required by ministers, they must not expect much attendance from Scotland and promised his father that he would bid through Canning, ‘to whom I can address myself most confidentially’, for ‘a more respectable and firm footing’ with government.20

In April 1809 Dundas reluctantly agreed to become Irish secretary, though his father thought that he discharged his Indian business ‘with great éclat’ and would be missed in that department, while the management of Scotland should more properly have been his concern than that of Ireland. Moreover, Melville was driven into near hostility by not being invited to take office himself. Dundas admitted to ‘an hereditary hankering ... after Indian concerns, and a proper Caledonian maladie du pays’.21 Meanwhile, as Lord Harrowby did not succeed him at the Board of Control until 17 July, Dundas discharged the duties of two departments, opposing Parnell’s Irish tithe motion on 30 May and defending Indian policy in June.22 Meanwhile as Melville’s mouthpiece, he informed Lord Chancellor Eldon, that he would not consent to continue in office another session ‘if matters were conducted in the same manner as in the last’, though he ‘did not presume to suggest the remedy’.23

Dundas was in Dublin when the Portland ministry collapsed in September 1809 and, when summoned to London to parley, made it clear that he would not accept office under a patchwork administration: new strength must be obtained. He admitted to Perceval that between him and Canning his preference went to the latter, but he thought Canning had put himself in the wrong at this juncture. To Canning’s disappointment, he ignored a previous assurance (made before he went to Ireland) that he would not stay in office if Canning went out, and he conditionally made himself available to a new ministry. He approved overtures to the opposition leaders Grey and Grenville, provided their terms were moderate and that ‘Jacobins’ were excluded; and he declined coming to terms with Perceval, wishing to judge a new government on its merits, though his finances were ‘not very flourishing’ at this time.24 He had not so far been able to consult his father who, however, commended his conduct, advising him against becoming a partisan and assuming that Dundas would be returning to Ireland.25 Not so, for on the failure of the negotiation with the Whig leaders, Perceval resolved to go it alone. Dundas, satisfied that an effort had been made to recruit extraneous strength, but that it had failed and that the King was relieved that it had, was then offered the secretaryship for War and Colonies. This he informed his father on 28 Sept. he would accept if Melville approved and would help him in the execution of it, regretting at the same time that the offer had not been made to Melville instead.26 Dundas had in fact committed himself to an extent that his father could not approve, calling it standing by the King, returning to Dublin to wind up his business there and assuring Perceval that he had no objection to the inclusion of his father’s enemy Lord Sidmouth in the ministry, if necessary, though he doubted if this would work.27 On 2 Oct. his father, who felt no commitment, advised Dundas not to accept office until he knew who his colleagues were to be, but that day Dundas wrote that he was willing to accept the War Office in a Perceval ministry and that Perceval, while he could not offer Melville a seat in the cabinet, would offer him an earldom.28 Perceval, who had announced Dundas’s appointment to the King on 3 Oct., did so on 5 Oct., but while appearing to swallow the reasons for the ministry’s inability to include him in the cabinet, Melville declined the peerage and pointed out that he was still prepared to take office in a national emergency, though not for ‘personal gratification’. Dundas had not wished for the peerage offer, because the family could not afford it and it would be seen as a price for political support, but he did not wish these considerations to serve as an obstacle. He was therefore disappointed on his return from Ireland to hear from his father not only that he declined the earldom and feared that Dundas was forgetting his connexion ‘with a great and powerful interest which has long wished, and that too very recently, for my return to office as essential to their having any confidence in the administration’, but also that he would rather see Dundas at the Board of Control than at the War Office. On 15 Oct. 1809 Dundas informed his father that, far from pursuing his own ambitions, he now felt obliged to decline the War Office or any other, as without the support of Melville and his friends he could be of little use to ministers, though he would give them his individual support. Next day he informed Perceval, who was, so he reported to his father, ‘much depressed’: he had hoped that Dundas would at least accept the Board of Control, but made it evident that there would be no spontaneous offer to Melville to take office. Dundas announced that he would attend Parliament until the spring, but added on 19 Oct. that he declined being ‘the channel of any other Scotch applications’.29 Pained as Melville had been by the unprecedented bitterness of his son’s letter of 15 Oct., which he would not have acknowledged but for the more qualified language of the next day’s letter, he was inclined to blame the influence of Lords Harrowby and Bathurst for his son’s petulance and indicated in his reply, 20 Oct., that he had not meant Dundas to decline all office; but if he persevered in his determination ‘not to accept the Board of Control or any other office’, he himself, who had been hankering for the inclusion of Lord Moira and the Prince’s friends in the government, would feel free to express those criticisms of government which he had stifled while his son held office. On 23 Oct. Melville wrote again, suggesting that they go their separate ways, and two days later he informed a friend that he washed his hands of the matter and would return to ‘my plantation and my plough’.30 On 26 Oct. 1809 under family pressure Dundas, who two days before had assured Perceval that he declined office, wrote a conciliatory letter to his father, announcing that he had accepted the Board of Control and now wished his father’s consent to his being of the cabinet. Melville relented, approved and advised delay, 31 Oct., but by 4 Nov. Dundas could see no honourable reason for declining the honour.31

Dundas could not himself avoid the conclusion others readily jumped to, that his father was prepared to sacrifice his career inter alia to his own ambition to return to power; he had been mortified by the discovery, but remained impressed by Perceval’s reasoning against any offer to his father. While he professed satisfaction at his restoration to the Board of Control, he was, in the Duke of Richmond’s words, ‘fit for any situation’. His undersecretary in Ireland, Saxton, reported himself ‘much bitten by his good sense and apparent purity. I verily believe with Richmond at our helm, the Scotchman’s sturdiness would have trimmed this cranky pinnace of our state very much to her own advantage and the public good’. Hiley Addington thought Dundas would have made ‘a good business secretary of state, being a man of sound judgment, great prudency and indefatigable industry. But as a speaker, he is nothing.’ Lord Mulgrave noted that while his father remained unpopular, Dundas was ‘perfectly unexceptionable and is highly respected and very popular’ but, not being allowed ‘to follow the bias of his own disposition’, his continued presence in the government was doubtless intended by Melville as a reproachful reminder of his own exclusion. Melville and other members of the family chose to remind Dundas of this.32 So did the newspapers.33

Although Dundas, no longer confining himself to official business, stood by government in the debates on the Scheldt inquiry34 and on Burdett, he was in a ‘most irksome’ predicament, so he informed Perceval, 14 Apr. 1810, and wished to resign the Board of Control. He had hoped for a strengthening of the ministry, ‘which would perhaps have induced a more cordial support from my father and which would consequently have rendered my resignation unnecessary’. He now believed the ministry strong enough to manage without him and his father’s hostile language did not enable him to promise support in future:

It is come to a crisis in which I must either break off altogether all political connection with him and endeavour to attach to the present administration as large a portion as possible of his friends in Scotland or I must act inconsistently with my duty to his Majesty and his government.

Perceval did not think government could afford to lose ‘the Scotch legion’, but pointed out that Melville could not dictate his terms for his return to office. Dundas promised to reason with his father, being, it was reported, unable to bear ‘the idea of appearing to detach his father’s friends from him’, which would cause a schism and be ‘the ruin of the Melville interest’. Perceval now offered Dundas the Admiralty, but he declined, 28 Apr., while offering to support any acquisition of strength to the ministry except the ‘Jacobins’ (i.e. Whitbread and Burdett). After an interview with Melville that day, Perceval reported: ‘Dundas and his Scotch friends will not I think leave us immediately, but he will not be reconciled to stay long unless we can get more strength’. Wellesley Pole gave a stronger version: that his father had called on Dundas to quit office ‘on pain of never seeing him again if he disobeys’ and that Dundas, ‘a dutiful child’, would desert, with 23 Melvillites.35 A month before, Dundas had written uncompromisingly to the lord advocate: ‘If the King’s friends do not now throw behind them all animosities and quarrels, and unite to form, as they may do, a strong administration, they are all absolutely insane’.36 He wound up his session by carrying the East India Company subsidy, 31 May, and by speaking against Catholic relief, 1 June 1810. He had voted against the abolition of sinecures on 17 May and against parliamentary reform on 21 May.

In the autumn of 1810 Dundas was reported to be one of the few members of the cabinet ready to take Canning back to their bosom and, failing that, he was prepared to advocate admitting Castlereagh and Sidmouth to the exclusion of Canning.37 Dundas stood by the government in the Regency crisis in November 1810, although his father urged him on 6 Nov. not to commit himself inextricably to his colleagues and refused to discuss cabinet secrets with him. In a cool response, 21 Nov., Dundas denied that he was becoming a party man and urged Melville to come to town with the Scottish peers. Although Melville insisted that the parallel the ministry were anxious to draw between the Regency problem of 1788 and the present one was false, he at length came to town.38 Between March and May 1811 Dundas was preoccupied with the defence of Indian business in the House. His last speech there, two days before his father’s death removed him to the Lords, was in defence of Melville’s reputation.

Melville, who in 1812 accepted the Admiralty, remained ‘a mere respectable head of department’39 and the fears of the ‘Scotch legion’ that he would not be such an effective mouthpiece for their interests in the cabinet as his father were to a large extent realized. He died 10 June 1851.

Ref Volumes: 1790-1820

Author: R. G. Thorne


  • 1. SRO GD51/1/195/115.
  • 2. Add. 34443, f. 207.
  • 3. NLS mss 1053, f. 23; SRO GD51/1/198/21/45.
  • 4. PRO 30/8/157, f. 343; Minto, iii. 38.
  • 5. Add. 38237, f. 10.
  • 6. Edinburgh Advertiser, 23-27 July 1802.
  • 7. SRO GD51/1/63/3.
  • 8. SRO GD51/1/66/6, 7, 8, 9, 11.
  • 9. Blair Adam mss.
  • 10. SRO GD51/1/195/5-7, 9-15, 18-19; 224/668/12/7; Harewood mss, Canning to his wife, 11 Mar. 1806.
  • 11. Harewood mss, Canning to his wife, 16 June; Add. 59263, Douglas to Grenville, 25 June, reply 27 June 1806.
  • 12. SRO GD51/1/195/20, 21.
  • 13. Harewood mss, Canning to his wife, 7, 8, 9, 10 Mar. 1807.
  • 14. SRO GD51/1/195/22, 23, 25, 26.
  • 15. SRO GD224/668/12/18.
  • 16. Parl. Deb. ix. 649.
  • 17. NLS, Melville mss (Acc. 6409), Melville to Saunders Dundas, 11 July [1807]; SRO GD51/5/377.
  • 18. SRO GD51/1/195/39, 42, 43, 44, 47.
  • 19. Parl. Deb. x. 1071; xi. 78, 130, 859, 1055.
  • 20. NLI, Richmond mss 70/1352, 73/1644; Melville mss, Saunders Dundas to Portland, 14 Sept. 1808; SRO GD51/1/136/2, 3.
  • 21. SRO GD51/1/139; 51/1/195/77, 78; Wellington Supp. Despatches, v. 642; PRO 30/9/15, Saunders Dundas to Abbot, 16 Apr. 1809; Add. 45034, f. 65.
  • 22. Parl. Deb. xiv. 794, 931, 969, 1072.
  • 23. SRO GD51/1/195/86.
  • 24. SRO GD51/1/195/80-82, 86; Harewood mss, Canning to his wife, 4 Aug., 15 Sept.; NLI, Melville mss, Saunders Dundas to Richmond, 17, 21 Sept., to Huskisson, 30 Sept. 1809; Add. 38737, ff. 364, 366; Perceval (Holland) mss 2, f. 10.
  • 25. SRO GD51/1/195/87, 88, 90.
  • 26. SRO GD51/1/195/92.
  • 27. SRO GD51/1/142/4; 51/1/195/93, 94.
  • 28. SRO GD51/1/195/99, 100.
  • 29. SRO GD51/1/112/3; 51/1/195/101-5; Perceval (Holland) mss 9, ff. 5-7; Lonsdale mss, Melville to Saunders Dundas (copy), 8 Oct. 1809.
  • 30. SRO GD51/1/150/2; 51/1/195/106, 107.
  • 31. Perceval (Holland) mss 9, ff. 15, 16; SRO GD51/1/195/108, 111, 112; NLI, Melville mss, Saunders Dundas to Wellesley Pole, 26 Oct. 1809; George III Corresp. iv. 4026.
  • 32. Perceval (Holland) mss 9, f. 13; Rose Diaries, ii. 418; Phipps, Plumer Ward Mems. i. 269, 274; Richmond mss 65/795; NLW, Coedymaen mss 30, Saxton to Williams Wynn, 20 Oct.; Sidmouth mss, J. H. Addington to Sidmouth, 6 Oct.; Lonsdale mss, Mulgrave to Lonsdale, 10, 15 Oct., Long to same, 22 Oct. [1809]; SRO GD51/1/112/5, 6; 51/1/1/154.
  • 33. Perceval (Holland) mss 9, ff. 19a, b.
  • 34. Lonsdale mss, Long to Lonsdale, 21 Mar. 1810.
  • 35. Perceval (Holland) mss 9, ff. 20-24; HMC Bathurst, 141; Add. 37295, f. 272; Richmond mss 73/1687; George III Corresp. iv. 4142.
  • 36. NLS mss 1, f. 193.
  • 37. Harewood mss, Canning to his wife, 28 Aug. 1810; Camden mss C90/2/4.
  • 38. SRO GD51/1/169/1, 2, 5, 13; 51/1/195/115.
  • 39. Lonsdale mss, Ward to Lonsdale, 15 Mar. 1810.