MCDOWALL, William (c.1749-1810), of Castle Semple, Renfrew and Garthland, Wigtown.

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



21 Aug. 1783 - June 1786
3 Aug. 1789 - 1790
1790 - 1802
1802 - 3 Apr. 1810

Family and Education

b. c.1749, 1st s. of William McDowall of Castle Semple and Garthland by Elizabeth, da. of James Graham of Airth, Stirling, dean of faculty of advocates; bro. of David McDowall Grant*. educ. Glasgow Univ. 1761; adv. 1771; Grand Tour. unm. suc. fa. 1784.

Offices Held

Ld. lt. Renfrew 1794-d.; rector, Glasgow Univ. 1795-7.

Gov. British linen board.

Lt. R. Glasgow vols. 1797, capt. 1797, 1803; capt. Greenock sharpshooters 1806.


McDowall was heir to a vast commercial empire in the sugar, rum and slave trade incorporated in the firm of Alexander Houston & Co. of Glasgow, and to estates in the West Indies, as well as to extensive properties in the west of Scotland. In 1797 he assured government that his political interest in Scotland was second only to Henry Dundas’s and that he had exerted himself in favour of Pitt’s ministry from its outset. It was not easy for him to fix on a seat: his father had arranged his first return for Renfrewshire by a pact, but McDowall broke it in 1786 after coming into his inheritance by unsuccessfully attempting to retain the seat for the duration of the Parliament. In 1788, when he was expected to contest Renfrewshire again though inferior in strength to John Shaw Stewart*, it was reported of him:

Mr McDowall of Garthland ... is a man universally well liked, and has great industry and good sense. Mr Pitt’s ministry are surely under obligations to him; he maintained a most expensive contest in this county, another in Ayrshire, and a third against Captain Elphinstone in the Glasgow district of burghs. He has a good estate in this country, another in Wigtown and a very large one in the West Indies; no children of his own; but a number of brothers in the navy, India, etc., to all of whom he is attached.1

In 1789 he came in for Ayrshire as a stopgap for his friend Sir Adam Fergusson, during which time the Glasgow council made him their mediator with government, their Member John Craufurd being in opposition. In 1790, accordingly, McDowall regained Glasgow Burghs for government, putting up his brother-in-law for Renfrewshire where his own prospects were somewhat doubtful. With his business connexions, the support of his brother James the bailie and the interest of the Dukes of Argyll and Hamilton in the other burghs, endorsed by Henry Dundas, he was strongly placed, but was put to considerable expense. He later informed government that he had bought off his opponent and placed himself under an obligation to Col. Spens for buying the support of Rutherglen. He was confident of success in Renfrewshire at the next election, his brother-in-law having been defeated by one vote only, and planned to bring in his brother in India, Hay McDowall, for whom he sought military promotion from ministers.2 In 1794 he became lord lieutenant of Renfrew. In the event it was his friend Boyd Alexander whom he brought in for the county in 1796; he himself was returned unopposed.

McDowall, predicted favourable to the motion, apparently did not vote for the exemption of Scotland from the Test Act, 10 May 1791. After 1795 he was often detained there by the shipwreck of his extensive concerns. On 11 Feb. 1800, no longer able to lean on Walter Boyd*, he successfully petitioned the House for more time to repay the £240,000 advanced to him by government as a Grenada merchant in need of relief.3 He gave a generally silent support to Pitt’s ministry, voting for the assessed taxes, 4 Jan. 1798. On 14 Mar. 1797 he brought in a Scottish small bank-notes bill and on 20 Feb. 1798 objected to the duties on Scottish distilleries.

In 1802, rather than face a contest with Alexander Houstoun for Glasgow Burghs, he switched places with Boyd Alexander, coming in unopposed for Renfrewshire. He and Alexander were publicly thanked in January 1802 for their promotion of the Greenock harbour and police bill. McDowall was described at that time as one of those ‘invariably attached as partisans to the politics of Mr Pitt and Mr Dundas’, but it was also thought that even if Dundas went into opposition, he would adhere to ministers, as he was ‘entirely dependent on government’ and ‘indebted to them near £300,000 as a West India merchant’. He was accordingly a spokesman for the relief of the West India interest and also keenly interested in Exchequer loan facilities.4 On 25 Mar. 1803 he introduced the Glasgow theatre bill. He supported both Addington’s and Pitt’s second ministries, dividing with the government minority against the censure of Melville, 8 Apr. 1805. In June he secured an amendment to the corn bill, on the grounds that the averages fixed were disadvantageous to Scotland.

McDowall supported the Grenville ministry, particularly after July 1806. In that month he complained to the premier that Archibald Speirs had come forward as a candidate for Renfrewshire claiming government support and patronage. In his view Speirs stood no chance and, scotching a rumour that he meant to retire, he obtained Grenville’s written assurance of support. The rumour was doubtless based on his financial difficulties. He had long been trying to dispose of Scottish estates to redeem his debts to government. On 11 July 1806 a controversial private bill, enabling him to do so and guaranteeing him an annuity of £1,500, was introduced in the House. According to Speirs, who dropped his challenge in Renfrewshire, McDowall was indebted to the partiality of the lord advocate Henry Erskine both for the pledge of ministerial support and for assistance with his relief bill. In short, he was ‘not only courted, but purchased’.5

Despite a further rumour of his retirement in December 1806, he offered at the ensuing election. The lord advocate had urged the final settlement of McDowall’s annuity before the Grenville ministry went out, lest he fall into the hands of ‘the new Treasury who will make the arrangement a condition of his supporting them’. Speirs offered again and Lord Lauderdale, to whom McDowall complained of it, thought he was justified ‘considering how steadily he has acted with us’. He had voted for Brand’s motion following the dismissal of the Grenville ministry, 9 Apr. 1807. Yet other Whigs were less sure of him: he was ‘adverse’ to the abolition of the slave trade; William Adam thought he had ‘gone over’ to the new ministry in May 1807, after having in February described him as a friend of government unconnected with Lord Melville, and when McDowall defeated Speirs, Adam thought there was ‘good ground of petitioning’ against him.6

This was not pursued; on the other hand, McDowall seems to have been inactive in his last Parliament. William Maxwell of Carriden informed Lord Howick in June 1807 that it would probably not be safe to make any application to McDowall for support. He was in financial straits, anyway: Castle Semple was put up for sale in December 1808. Although in the year of his death the Whigs perhaps too confidently listed him one of their ‘thick and thin’ supporters, he did not appear in a contemporary list of the Melville party.7 His political situation was in fact impossible for a man now in reduced circumstances who, ‘with his influence and connexions in Renfrew and also at Glasgow, used to swallow the whole patronage of the Clyde as quick as a bottle of claret’. He died 3 Apr. 1810, having led ‘the life of Dives’.8

Ref Volumes: 1790-1820

Authors: D. G. Henry / R. G. Thorne


  • 1. PRO 30/8/154, ff. 166-9; Pol. State of Scotland 1788, p. 278.
  • 2. PRO 30/8/154, ff. 154, 156, 166-9.
  • 3. Ibid.; CJ, li. 103; Debrett (ser. 3), x. 463, 513; Grey mss, McDowall to Howick, 1 Jan. 1807.
  • 4. Edinburgh Advertiser, 12-15 Jan. 1802; Argyll mss, McDowall to Argyll, 29 May 1801, 21 June 1802; NLS mss 9370, f. 197; Add. 33049, f. 350; PRO 30/8/154, ff. 160, 170, 178.
  • 5. See RENFREWSHIRE; Add. 38737, f. 135; N. Riding RO, Zetland mss ZNK X2/1/1530.
  • 6. Add. 58953, f. 164; Fortescue mss, Lauderdale to Grenville, Thurs. [May], Adam to same, 30 May; Grey mss, Adam to Howick, 7 Feb. 1807.
  • 7. Grey mss, Maxwell to Howick, 11 June [1807]; SRO GD51/1/198/29.
  • 8. Dundas of Arniston mss, Melville to Dundas, 11 Aug. 1811; Letters of John Ramsay (Scottish Hist. Soc. ser. 4), iii. 250.