SINCLAIR, Sir John, 1st Bt. (1754-1835), of Ulbster and Thurso Castle, Caithness.

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



1780 - 1784
1784 - 1790
1790 - 1796
7 Jan. 1797 - 1802
1802 - 1806
1807 - June 1811

Family and Education

b. 10 May 1754, 3rd but 1st surv. s. of George Sinclair of Ulbster and Thurso by Janet, da. of William Sutherland. Lord Strathnaver, s. of John, 16th Earl of Sutherland [S]. educ. Edinburgh h.s. 1761-3; Edinburgh Univ. 1765-7, 1768-70; Glasgow Univ. 1773-4; Trinity, Oxf. 1775; adv. 1775; L. Inn 1774, called 1782. m. (1) 26 Mar. 1776, Sarah (d. 15 May 1785), da. of Alexander Maitland, merchant, of Stoke Newington, Mdx., 2da.; (2) 6 Mar. 1788, Hon. Diana Jane Elizabeth Macdonald, da. of Alexander, 1st Baron Macdonald [I], 7s. 6da. suc. fa. 1770; cr. Bt. 14 Feb. 1786.

Offices Held

Pres. board of agriculture 1793-8, 1806-14; PC 29 Aug. 1810; cashier of excise [S] 1811-30.

Col. Rothesay and Caithness fencibles 1794; lt.-col. commdt. Caithness vols. 1803, col. 1803.


In 1791, the farmer and journalist James Anderson wrote to Jeremy Bentham:

Of Sir John Sinclair you entertain, with justice, a high opinion, respecting his industry and application. In these respects, perhaps, I know no man who is his equal, and I believe his dispositions at bottom are very good. But as to the stretch of his parts, these are very moderate ... His foible is vanity. I do not, therefore, think he is at all an object for you to fight with; and the public will give you credit for overlooking him ... I think he has a serious desire to do good, and he has the art of picking up ideas from one and another, and then bringing them out in some measure as his own. He may thus be the means of doing much good, and ... he has, in this way, been already of much use, and may be of more.

It was fair comment. Sinclair, who was blessed with an iron constitution, was formidably energetic and industrious, full of good intentions and generally inspired, except on occasions when his pride had been wounded, by worthy motives. From the mid 1780s he devoted himself to the ‘promotion of improvement’, particularly in agriculture. He put his ideas into practice on his own estates, was a prolific author on economic, financial and political subjects and was the indefatigable promoter of a multitude of schemes which, even when not initiated by him, somehow acquired his exclusive stamp. Yet he was absurdly optimistic and almost totally lacking in judgment, while his tactless habit of intruding his advice where it was not wanted, his enormous self-conceit and his unbending seriousness gained him a not undeserved reputation as a meddlesome bore.1

At the bottom of his breach with Pitt in the late 1780s was the minister’s indifference to his notions of and schemes for economic development under the aegis of government, as expounded in his History of the Public Revenue (1785-9). The rift was completed by Sinclair’s defection on Hastings’s impeachment and the Regency question when, for the third time in his parliamentary career, he involved himself with a political ‘armed neutrality’. His personal relations with Henry Dundas were always good, but in 1789 Dundas encouraged attempts to attack him in Caithness, where he planned to come in on his own interest, dominant since 1780, at the next general election. Sinclair emerged from the crucial Michaelmas head court of 1789 with a narrow but decisive majority and an intensified bitterness towards that ‘political charlatan’ Pitt. On his return to Edinburgh he submitted to the Prince of Wales’s secretary a plan guaranteed, he said, to secure the minister’s overthrow before Parliament was dissolved. It was based on the premise that all that was required to make a sustained onslaught on the ministry irresistible was public proof of the supposed new ‘good understanding’ between the King and the Prince in the form of Christmas grants of a marquessate for Earl Fitzwilliam or a blue ribbon for the Duke of Norfolk. Early in 1790 he complained that while Pitt and Dundas ‘affect a wish to abolish slavery in the West Indies, they can bear no man in this country who is not their tool or sycophant’; but three months later, before Parliament was dissolved, he confidentially told Dundas that if he were appointed a baron of Exchequer in place of the dying David Moncrieffe he would ‘quit the field’ and give up politics, with which he was ‘not a little sickened’. Although nothing came of this, it seems that he and Dundas reached an understanding. Its exact terms are not clear, but it apparently involved Sinclair’s agreeing to give up the seat in mid term in return for a suitable paid office. He told Dundas in May 1792 that he had now changed his mind about retiring from politics in a year’s time, because of his involvement ‘in a variety of pursuits which cannot soon be brought to a conclusion’, and promised to secure a seat elsewhere for a friend at the end of the 1793 session or, failing that, to put the vote of Wick in the Tain district of burghs at Dundas’s disposal at the next general election.2

In May 1790 Sinclair set on foot the Statistical Account of Scotland, a survey of the whole country compiled from material supplied by parish clergy. This, perhaps his most valuable and lasting achievement, appeared in 21 volumes between 1791 and 1799. In 1791, he founded the British Wool Society to promote the improvement of sheep farming in Scotland. In the House, he questioned ministers on the Spanish armament, 3 Dec. 1790, opposed bounties on Irish corn exports, 16 Mar., suggested the extension of franking privileges to Scottish judges, 9 May, and moved an unsuccessful amendment to the Quebec bill to prevent the division of the province, 11 May 1791. He voted against government on Oczakov, 12 Apr. 1791 and 1 Mar. 1792, but welcomed their proposals to improve the conditions of naval service, 19 May 1791. He voted, as anticipated, for the relief of Scotsmen from the Test Act, 10 May 1791. He told Wilberforce in March 1791 that he saw great difficulties in immediate abolition of the slave trade3 and pressed ministers to clarify their attitude to the question, 1 May 1792. Shortly afterwards he recommended opposition leaders to move in both Houses addresses for a mark of royal favour for the disgraced lord chancellor, Thurlow, deluding himself that ‘if the motion was carried, which is not impossible, there is an end of the minister’.4

Sinclair, who was loosely associated with Windham’s ‘third party’ and attended their meeting of 17 Feb. 1793, rallied to government on the outbreak of war, though he privately warned Pitt that he intended to draw the House’s attention to the inadequate state of the navy. At Pitt’s request, he gave up the idea, but he took the opportunity to submit a memorandum of his own nostrums. To meet the commercial crisis caused by the war, he persuaded Pitt to issue small value Exchequer bills to credit-worthy traders, and he would be personally responsible for ensuring speedy execution by persuading his associates in the banking community to advance £70,000 immediate credit. He used the claim on government which this gave him to obtain Pitt’s agreement to the establishment of a board of agriculture, though the minister would offer an annual grant of no more than £3,000 and left it to Sinclair to secure the consent of Parliament. His address for that purpose met only slight Whig resistance and was carried, 17 May 1793, by 101 votes to 26. The board, of which he became the first president, had no executive power and was an unhappy amalgam of government agency and voluntary body. Sinclair’s post was unsalaried; he had to lend the board £1,000 out of his own pocket before it could start to function and it was to cost him a good deal more during its troubled life. In October 1793 he told Pitt that he wished to devote all his time to its business and asked, in vain, to be made head of the proposed crown lands commission as a means of covering his expenses.5

In 1794, Sinclair raised a battalion of fencibles and the following year added a second, which later saw service in Ireland. He was a teller for the majority against Adam’s attempt to give the right of appeal to the Lords from Scottish courts, 4 Feb., but is not known to have spoken in the House during 1794. He may have expected office on the junction of the Portland Whigs with government, but there seems to be no truth in his story that he was passed over because Windham’s letter inviting him to a crucial meeting failed to reach him in time. If his claims were considered at all, they were probably quickly dismissed. In December 1794 he wrote to Dundas, confessing that he and Pitt were ‘not on very intimate terms at present’ and asking to be made a privy councillor as president of the board which, ‘if put on a proper footing’, might ‘be of use in many respects besides matters of husbandry’.6

Sinclair recommended attention to the growth of timber for the naval effort, having in mind the role which his board could play, 7 Jan., and secured by 34 votes to 10 a grant to Elkington for his work on drainage techniques, 19 June 1795. He apparently applied to Pitt for an Irish peerage later in the year. He expressed concern at the proposed stoppage of the distilleries, 2 Nov. 1795, but supported the government’s repressive legislation and on 26 Nov. denied Sheridan’s allegations that the board’s secretary, Arthur Young, was promoting ministerial propaganda. He continued to bombard Pitt with advice on a variety of subjects and early in 1796 suggested to him the idea of a loyalty loan, which was taken up in desperation at the end of the year. During the last session of the 1790 Parliament Sinclair was preoccupied with the board’s scheme for a general enclosure bill, designed to meet the current scarcity and to prevent its recurrence. He secured a select committee of inquiry, 11 Dec. 1795, and obtained leave to introduce a bill, 2 Feb. 1796, but it had made little progress when Parliament was dissolved in May.7

Caithness had no return at that general election. Sinclair had no immediate prospect of another seat and his application to the King for a peerage was ignored. He made the long journey to Orkney, but failed to muster any significant support. On his return to Edinburgh he wrote to Pitt, stating that he must either find a seat or give up the board, and asking for a seat or a peerage to enable him to carry it on. This bluff made no impression and Sinclair’s anger was increased when, as he scoured Scotland in vain for an opening, Pitt rejected his plan for a ‘general contribution’ in the form of a forced loan on incomes over £500, with the interest to be paid by taxes on the ‘middling poor’. The Duke of Northumberland, to whom he evidently complained that he had been ‘jockeyed out’ of a seat, was unable or unwilling to accommodate him at Launceston. In December 1796 he accused Pitt of breaking his word, claiming that he had ‘promised me last spring, when I gave up the idea of standing for Westminster, that I might depend upon a quieter seat’. He blustered on:

It would be hard indeed if a person so anxious to promote the improvement and interests of the country should be deprived of the means of doing it by the want of a seat, which he might have had from various quarters had he applied early but which, relying on your promise, he declined. I am persuaded you will find ... that excluding me from Parliament is not a very popular measure and would be still less so were the circumstances attending it explained.8

Shortly afterwards he told an unknown correspondent:

There is a plan for erecting a third party, and I am solicited to take an active part in it. I wish to abstract myself from politics and to adhere to the agricultural line ... unless compelled to change it.

In fact he re-entered the House in January 1797 by persuading the Jolliffes to seat him for Petersfield. The day after the issue of the order in council suspending cash payments, 26 Feb., he submitted to Pitt a plan for their immediate resumption. On 28 Feb. he added his voice to Whig criticism of the secret committee on the Bank and voted for Sheridan’s amendment. He quibbled with Pitt over the scope of the Bank indemnity bill, 9 Mar., and the same day ‘assembled about 30 Members of Parliament as an armed neutrality’, dedicated to promoting economy and peace, to opposing the Bank bill and to supporting the coercive legislation of 1795, with the general object of ‘contributing our united exertions to extricate the kingdom from the difficulties in which it is involved’. His enemies readily attributed his defection to baser motives. To The Times, he was the ‘great Scotch rat’ who had ‘crossed the area of the House’ out of ‘vanity’; Farington described him as ‘a dirty Scotsman who, angry at not having a peerage, or a seat in Parliament given him, or some of his Utopian schemes supported, wishes to distress administration’; and his cousin Lady Sutherland, with whose family he had quarrelled over electoral matters, produced the less convincing story that he ‘went into opposition because ministry the week before had refused to make him a major-general and a privy councillor’.9

Sinclair voted to add Fox to the finance committee, and for economy, 13 Mar.; spoke against the Bank indemnity bill, 22 Mar., and was a teller for the minority in a division on it, 5 Apr. 1797. He objected to Pitt’s proposal to make an extra payment on the loyalty loan, 1 June, and, after the subsequent abandonment of the plan, boasted that he had saved the country £500,000.10 He condemned the bill to prevent intercourse with the naval mutineers, 5 June, and advocated the combination of ‘terror and conciliation’ by the appointment of commissioners with powers to suspend punishment as the seamen recanted, but expressed satisfaction with Pitt’s explanation of the measure. He objected to the canal tax, 3 July, and suggested the alternative of an annual one guinea duty on gold watches. He had meanwhile revived another select committee, 22 Mar., and brought up its report on 3 May when, to his surprise, the solicitor general declared his opposition to the proposal. Sinclair brought in two bills, one to effect enclosure by agreement, the other, which he withdrew for that session, to promote enclosure in cases where the parties involved were at odds. The bill passed the Commons on 7 July, but foundered in the Lords a week later.11

In May and June 1797 Sinclair was involved in the ineffectual attempts to bring about a change of ministry. Lord Moira rejected his initial request for his personal intervention with the King; and the Duke of Northumberland, though professing agreement on the immediate ‘necessity of a change’, pleaded ill health as his excuse for not leaving Bath in response to his summons. Sinclair replied to the duke, 29 May:

We are making great progress in the House, but nothing decisive can be effected unless some impression were made on the King. If ... [he] could only be prevailed upon to send for Lord Thurlow or Lord Moira to ask their opinion on the state of public matters the object of saving the country might be obtained. Nothing but peace can allay the irritation and ferment in the minds of the people. The French would make peace with a new administration in three weeks’ time ... nothing can keep ... [Pitt] under but turning him out when he is unfortunate ... Six months hence it will be necessary to deliver up the government to Charles Fox, who would not then be very easy to treat with. But if the present ministers continue for twelve months a revolution ... seems to be inevitable.

Sinclair was unaware of the King’s extreme reluctance to consent to peace negotiations, which made all this speculation academic. Moira did eventually petition the King when (Sir) William Pulteney*, who was involved with another and more formidable group of malcontents, added his voice to those of Sinclair and four leading members of the ‘armed neutrality’. Even after the collapse of negotiations for a new administration in mid June, Sinclair continued to delude himself that ‘the ministers, with little difficulty, but some management, might now be turned out and the country still saved from the certainty of being ruined by their ignorance and incapacity’.12

Before the meeting of Parliament in November 1797 Sinclair sent Pitt a draft proposal for a conciliatory address on the failure of the Lille peace negotiations, urging him ‘not to throw away the scabbard’, but the premier flatly rejected it. In the House, 10 Nov., he attacked ‘the mean and degrading manner in which ministers had carried on the negotiation’ and moved an amendment calling for renewed peace efforts. Pitt’s brilliant reply so completely captured the sense of the House that Sinclair was forced to drop his amendment.13 He pressed Pitt to continue the finance committee, 15 Nov., and on the 27th gave notice of a motion to call in the tax commissioners before the House considered the proposed triple assessment, but suffered more humiliation two days later, when he announced its withdrawal for the sake of national unity, in view of the declared intention of France of invading the country, and was baited by a scornful Pitt. He opposed the assessed taxes augmentation bill, 4, 5, 14 and 18 Dec., deploring government’s abandonment of the funding system. When he wrote to the lord president to propose the exemption of puisne judges from the assessment, his letter was contemptuously passed on via the lord advocate, Robert Dundas, to his uncle Henry, ‘that you may see what an officious, conceited gentleman this soldier, farmer and statesman is’.14

In January 1798 Sinclair was in correspondence with Thurlow, to whom the following month he addressed his Letters on the State of the Nation, in which he attacked the government and advocated its replacement by a broad-bottomed administration. He repeated these arguments in his Hints on the present alarming crisis. He secured the adoption of an amendment to the supplementary militia bill, 15 Feb., castigated Pitt’s financial plans, 21 Feb., opposed the public offices holiday bill, 16 Mar., and attacked the land tax redemption bill at length, 9 May, contending that it deprived the Commons of its check on the annual grant of supplies. He divided the House against it, voted against it twice on 18 May and was a teller for the minority of 13 against its third reading, 31 May. In February he had told Pitt that if he intended, as was rumoured, to oppose the renewal of the board of agriculture’s grant, he would donate to the board the voluntary contribution which he had planned to give to the war effort. Pitt replied that no decision had yet been taken and Sinclair secured the grant in the House, 5 Mar.; but the premier subsequently worked behind his back to have him removed from the presidency, and at the annual election he was voted out, to his surprise and anger, by a majority of one in favour of Lord Somerville.15

The House ‘only laughed’ at Sinclair’s ‘very absurd and ill-judged’ speech on the address, 20 Nov. 1798, when he accused ministers of almost throwing away Nelson’s victory at the Nile, demanded inquiry into the evacuation of St. Domingo, urged an alliance with America, attacked the income tax and land tax proposals, but approved the prospects of tithe redemption and union with Ireland.16 He called for a reduction in the naval establishment, 26 and 27 Nov., and unsuccessfully moved for a call of the House before the income tax was considered, 5 Dec., when he declared that if it passed, the Commons would be seen as ‘a degraded chamber of commerce and finance’. He opposed the extension of the time limit for redemption of the land tax, 19 Dec. 1798. He had little to say for himself in the House in 1799, but there survives from that year a draft of a letter and accompanying notes, probably addressed to George Tierney*, in which he expounded a ‘slow but infallible’ scheme for removing Pitt. It had little basis in reality.17 He voted for a call of the House, 22 Jan. 1800, and on 25 Feb. announced that, although he would not now press the question of general enclosure, he would propose compromise regulations. He secured the appointment of a inquiry into the cultivation of waste lands, 18 Mar., when he conceded the impracticability of general enclosure, but the resolutions founded on its report, 6 May, got nowhere. Sinclair, who resented Pitt’s failure to use the board of agriculture to collect information for the income tax, made a bid to regain the presidency in March 1800, when Somerville wished to retire, but Dundas replied that ‘nothing could be so uncreditable for either yourself or government as to be parties to a barter of your politics for the chair’. He approved the Union, but tried to interest Dundas in his scheme to secure an additional number of parliamentary seats for Scotland on the strength of it.18 He voted against government on the address, 2 Feb. 1801.

Sinclair welcomed Addington’s accession to power and the conclusion of peace, and late in 1801 advanced a proposal, which came to nothing, for the ministry to strengthen itself by taking in Moira and thereby winning over the Carlton House party. He was inconspicuous in the House in 1802 and 1803, when he suffered a rare bout of bad health. After his unopposed return for Caithness in 1802 Charles Innes listed him as ‘totally independent’, while the Melvillites described him as being ‘opposition at heart’. On the renewal of war he came to see the need for its vigorous prosecution under Pitt’s aegis, and, taking instructions from Canning, he mustered his friends to vote against Addington in the decisive divisions of 16, 23 and 25 Apr. 1804.19

Canning told Pitt, 9 May 1804:

I cannot say I seduced him—he se obtulit ultro. But ... he has objects, and I apprehend if you ever come to want votes, you will not keep his without some consideration, what, he never explicitly said.

Pitt’s head-counters considered him ‘doubtful’ and he opposed the additional force bill in June. He handled the report of the committee on malt production, 14 and 15 June, 2 July. In September he was again listed among the ‘doubtful’, having been initially placed under ‘Fox and Grenville’ and then with ‘persons in opposition not quite certain’. Yet by 1805 he had realized that if he was to regain the presidency of the board—the only way in which he could hope to influence its work and arrest its decline into a private club—he must give up his independent political ways. He voted with government in all the principal divisions of that session, including that on the censure of Melville, 8 Apr., and Pitt informed him that he could expect to be reappointed to the presidency on condition of continued ‘good behaviour’. He opposed further naval inquiries, 10 May, supported the corn bill as a temporary measure, 1 July, and was listed under ‘Pitt’ later in the month. In August he solicited a pension, unsuccessfully, in the name of his wife as indemnification for his past expenses in the service of the board. When he resumed the presidency in 1806 he had two main schemes in mind, a new survey of the kingdom and revival of the general enclosure plan, but neither had been fulfilled by the time he resigned, though Scotland was surveyed.20

On the formation of the ‘Talents’ ministry, William Adam listed Sinclair under the ‘Whig interest’ and he voted with government for the repeal of the Additional Force Act, 30 Apr. 1806. He moved for information on the Scottish forfeited estates fund, 21 Mar., obtained and chaired a committee on the subject, 17 Apr., and secured the application of some of the money to improvement projects in northern Scotland, 2 and 9 July. He also spoke on the augmentation of Scottish judicial salaries, 2 May, highways, 5 June, stage coach safety regulations, 18 June and 16 July, and expiring statutes, 1 July 1806.

Rumours of a dissolution in August faced him with the prospect of finding another seat and he asked Lord Grenville either to intervene for him in Tain Burghs or provide him with a government seat in England. Early in October he made the improbable claim that he could wrest Edinburgh from the Dundases and sought Grenville’s endorsement of his pretensions, only to find that government were already engaged to support another candidate. When Parliament was dissolved he renewed his request for a government seat, but Grenville replied that ‘my means of that sort are extremely limited and rendered more so by the number of official claims’. Sinclair, who was willing to pay the going rate, protested vainly that his exclusion would be ‘a great disappointment to the farming interest’, and Moira’s intervention on his behalf at the Treasury was of no avail. In desperation, he stood for Tain Burghs against the ministerial candidate of the combined Seaforth and Stafford interests, with the connivance of Melville’s kinsman Sir Charles Lockhart Ross*, but he was beaten by three votes to two. He lodged a petition, but in February 1807 told Grenville that he had received an offer of a seat, subject to the premier’s approval, and that if this were forthcoming he would drop the petition, which, he boasted, was sure of success. Nothing came of this, or of a plan to put up £40,000 with Lord Breadalbane to buy Sir Mark Wood’s electoral interest at Shaftesbury. The Tain Burghs petition failed, but the sudden dissolution in April enabled Sinclair to come in again for Caithness.21

The first part of his projected ‘Code of Useful Knowledge’, on health and longevity, appeared in 1807, and was pilloried in the Edinburgh Review. His Code of Agriculture, a much better work, was published in 1817, but the others were never completed. In December 1807, Sinclair sent Melville details of a proposed fishery board in Edinburgh, of which he wished to become head. Melville referred the matter to his son, observing that while he knew nothing of the plan or the reasonableness of the request

you know in general that with all the faults which have been imputed to him, I consider Sir John very far from being destitute of political merit: and in point of political weight in the corner of the country with which he is connected, he is fully of as much importance as any of our northern Members.

Sinclair gave general support to the Portland ministry and became a keen advocate of vigorous prosecution of the war in the Peninsula. He objected to the ban on distillation from grain, 13 Apr. 1808, and divided the House against it, 19 May. According to Lady Holland, he was also active behind the scenes on this question, for when on 23 May Joseph Foster Barham, a champion of the West Indian sugar interest, produced a circular note to prove his allegation, denied by Whig leaders, that opposition had made it a party issue:

All persons disclaimed having any knowledge that such notes had been issued ... [but] upon enquiry the transaction was traced to Sir John Sinclair, who had underhand engaged the person usually employed ... to distribute them to the opposition Members.22

Sinclair greatly admired Perceval and voted with his ministry on the address, 23 Jan., and the Scheldt inquiry, 26 Jan. and 23 Feb. 1810. The Whigs listed him under ‘Government’ in mid March and he paired with ministers for the crucial clash on the Scheldt on the 30th. He voted against sinecure reductions, 17 May. In June he asked Perceval to make him a privy councillor, ‘not only as a compliment to the landed interest’ but ‘also to enable me to bring agricultural matters more effectually under the consideration of the board of trade’, and the minister complied. When the report of the bullion committee recommended the resumption of cash payments Sinclair, who had changed his mind on the question since 1797, published his Observations(September 1810), in which he argued that an abundant paper currency had proved to be ‘a mine of national prosperity’. He sent a copy to every Member of the Commons. Lord Auckland thought that his ‘axioms’ were ‘propositions containing neither truth nor falsehood, the true definition of nonsense’, and Huskisson replied in print for the bullionists. Sinclair, who issued a rejoinder in Remarks (1810-11), was the victim of scathing attacks in the Quarterly Review, which had little but arguments ad hominem to add to the debate and have done an unwarranted degree of damage to his reputation as an economist.23

He voted with government on the Regency, 1 Jan. 1811, but spoke against the continuation of the ban on grain distillation, 8 and 12 Mar., 9 Apr. He was a member of the committee on commercial credit, 1 Mar. On 14 Feb. 1811 he challenged Horner to bring forward his motion on the currency question and in his last reported speech, 15 May, defended the prevailing system at length. In reply to taunts that he had changed his mind since 1797, conveniently enough in time to be made a privy councillor, he retorted that it was

absurd ... to contend that the opinions of men, like the law of the Medes and Persians, should be perfectly unalterable and that no change of circumstances, no further experience, no new and decisive facts should make any impression on the mind of one anxious to ascertain the truth, and open to conviction.

By now Sinclair was in deep financial trouble, with debts of between £40,000 and £60,000. He had a large family and had been overspending on the board of agriculture and on improvements to his estates for some 20 years, trusting to a legacy of £60,000, bequeathed by a grateful beneficiary in 1791 in the form of a claim on the nawab of Arcot’s debts, which he was never to get. Forced to retrench, he secured from Perceval the vacant sinecure post of Scottish cashier of excise, now worth only £2,000 a year, which was untenable with a seat in Parliament, and handed over Caithness to his eldest son. Auckland commented that the appointment ‘may be a just homage to his abilities, but, in other respects, it will not strengthen government’.24

Sinclair did not regard it as enough for his immediate needs or adequate reward for his public services, and in 1813 he made several applications to ministers and the Regent for something more. His requests included a parliamentary grant of £18,000, a foreign appointment, a seat at the board of trade or the India Board and a pension of £450 a year for his wife with reversion to her two elder daughters, but nothing was forthcoming. In 1814, he resigned from the chair of the board of agriculture and moved from Edinburgh to a villa near Richmond, Surrey. His Scottish estates were put into the hands of trustees. Some lands were sold, but Sinclair managed to hold on to his patrimony. He made himself a laughing-stock by opening a public subscription for himself which raised promises of only £1,750 and cost him the friendship of Sir Joseph Banks. Joseph Jekyll had ‘seldom seen a more foolish or impudent application’ and Horner thought that his testimonial of self-advertisement

borders upon lunacy ... as for the grave and pleasant enumeration of his merits ... the only public service he has forgot to insert is the most real of all, the sport which he has afforded the world so many years.

Sinclair, who moved back to Edinburgh in 1819 and made several unsuccessful applications for a peerage in his later years, continued to churn out pamphlets on a wide range of subjects. He also continued to interfere in other people’s business, and his most notorious and tactless piece of meddling was his attempt in 1826 to provide the recently widowed Sir Walter Scott with a second wife. Scott, who complained of Sinclair and his son George’s ‘trade of boring’, privately condemned him as a ‘tuphead’, a ‘booby’ and an ‘unutterable idiot’.25

The American envoy Richard Rush, who met Sinclair in 1818, wrote that his ‘conversation was instructive and entertaining’, as ‘he had the double fund of a large mixture with the world and books, to draw from’. But Henry Cockburn, after reading the Life of Sinclair by his son John in 1837, recorded a harsh verdict:

Nothing was necessary to raise him in the estimation of anyone who knew him, especially in domestic life, for worth and industry; but his biographer ... tries to make him out to have been a great man, guiding the age, and acknowledged as their leader by most persons of contemporary eminence. This is not a mere filial error, it is one under which Sir John himself lived ... A meddling active man, especially of respectable character and station, may easily thrust himself into everything ... Sir John’s reputation never stood so high as it probably would have done had his virtues been left to themselves, unobstructed by an ostentatiousness of patriotism and a profession of universal influence and usefulness, which made the world as unanimous in laughing at his weakness as in esteeming his amiableness. The mere multiplicity of his projects would have made a much stronger man ridiculous ... Yet, not content with his own fecundity, there was something ludicrous in the innocent vanity with which ... he ... set himself up as the patron of every other man’s proposal ... and people’s disposition to laugh was not repressed by the ponderous formality and the solemn lecturing manner with which his discoveries were propounded. With a whole life devoted to what appeared to him to be public and especially Scotch improvement, he accomplished very little, led no party, had no weight.26

It is hard to take Sinclair as seriously as he took himself. He died 21 Dec. 1835.

Ref Volumes: 1790-1820

Author: David R. Fisher


  • 1. Bentham Corresp. iv. 296; Mitchison, 21, 25-28, 83.
  • 2. Prince of Wales Corresp. ii. 472, 478, 490; Add. 29172, f. 4; SRO GD51/1/198/6/1, 9, 10, 12; NLS mss 6, ff. 27, 29; Mitchison, 68-82; see CAITHNESS.
  • 3. Sinclair, i. 216.
  • 4. Prince of Wales Corresp. ii. 669.
  • 5. Add. 34448, f. 296; PRO 30/8/178, ff. 132, 134, 136; Sinclair, i. 231-45, 252-5; Mitchison, 137-52.
  • 6. Sinclair, i. 229-31; Sinclair Corresp. i. 140-1; Mitchison, 162-3; SRO GD1/1/28.
  • 7. Reading Univ. Lib. Sinclair mss CAI 1/1, f. 50 (NRA [S] 189); PRO 30/8/178, ff. 152-202; Mitchison, 154-8, 163-4.
  • 8. Geo. III Corresp. ii. 1400; Farington, i. 248; PRO 30/8/178, ff. 206, 210, 219, 225; Sinclair, i. 295-6; Wilberforce Corresp. i. 149; Mitchison, 165-7.
  • 9. Sinclair mss (Reading) CAI 1/1, ff. 61, 63; Prince of Wales Corresp. iii. 1243; PRO 30/8/178, ff. 227-34; 30/9/32, Abbot diary, 9 Mar.; 30/29/5/4, f. 808; Colchester, i. 91; The Times, 13, 20 Mar. 1797; Farington, i. 205.
  • 10. Sinclair, i. 274-9; Sinclair Corresp. i. 106.
  • 11. PRO 30/8/178, ff. 235, 237.
  • 12. Sinclair, i. 291-5, 296-7; Alnwick mss 58, ff. 182, 186, 206, 208, 230, 231; Geo. III Corresp. ii. 1565.
  • 13. Sinclair, i. 298-300; PRO 30/8/178, f. 244; 30/8/195, f. 177; Geo. III Corresp. ii. 1643; Colchester, i. 119.
  • 14. SRO GD51/5/417.
  • 15. Sinclair, i. 301-9; ii. 132-3; PRO 30/8/178, f. 257; 30/8/195, f. 184; Mitchison, 173-4.
  • 16. Colchester, i. 163; Geo. III Corresp. iii. 1881; Farington, i. 248.
  • 17. Mitchison, 176-7.
  • 18. Ibid. 178-80; Sinclair mss (Reading) CAI 1/1, ff. 77, 79; Sinclair, i. 319.
  • 19. Sinclair, i. 325; ii. 146-58; Prince of Wales Corresp. iv. 1842, 1862.
  • 20. PRO 30/8/120, f. 197; 30/8/178, f. 263; Add. 47564, f. 250; Mitchison, 204-5.
  • 21. Fortescue mss, Sinclair to Grenville, 24 Aug., 5, 18, 28 Oct. 1806, [8 Feb. 1807], replies 9, 29 Oct., Lady Stafford to Grenville [16 Dec.]; Blair Adam mss, Gibson to Lauderdale, 16 Dec.; Sinclair mss, Moira to Sinclair, 30 Dec. 1806; Mitchison, 206.
  • 22. Sinclair, ii. 183-207, 242; Mitchison, 216-22; SRO GD51/1/195/31, 34; Add. 51549, Lady Holland to Grey [May 1808].
  • 23. SRO GD51/1/144; D. Gray, Perceval, 364, 376-8; HMC Fortescue, x. 73; Horner Mems. ii. 68-69; Sinclair, ii. 256-71; Mitchison, 238-45.
  • 24. Mitchison, 225-7; HMC Fortescue, x. 153.
  • 25. Add. 38253, ff. 180, 182; 38410, f. 267; 38572, ff. 28, 30, 79; Mitchison, 228-30, 249-58; Dorset RO, Bond mss D367, Jekyll to Bond, 23 Jan. 1815; Horner mss 6, f. 130; Scott Letters (1932), x. 103; Scott Jnl. i. 229.
  • 26. Rush, Residence at Court of London, 285; Cockburn Jnl. (1874), i. 143-5.