Stirling Burghs


Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1820-1832, ed. D.R. Fisher, 2009
Available from Cambridge University Press

Background Information

Dunfermline (1820), Fifeshire; Culross (1826), Perthshire; Queensferry (1830),

Linlithgowshire; Stirling (1831); Inverkeithing (no return in this period), Fifeshire


31 Mar. 1820ROBERT DOWNIE 
 Hon. John Maitland2
 Robert Downie2

Main Article

Dunfermline, the largest of these burghs and the burial place of Robert the Bruce, was in south-west Fifeshire, five miles from the northern shore of the Firth of Forth. A thriving and busy place, it had a population (burgh and parish) of 13,681 in 1821 and 17,068 in 1831. Its staple industry was the manufacture of fine linen goods, especially table linen. This was done mostly on hand-looms, but there were six steam powered spinning mills in operation by 1831. It also contained four breweries, four tobacco factories and an iron foundry. There were a number of collieries in the neighbourhood.1 Its council numbered 22, all resident. The Commons select committee of 1819 on the royal burghs took evidence on Dunfermline, and reported that its council was ‘constructed on the purest principle of self-election’, that the guildry and trades had only a nominal influence on its composition and that ‘the whole power and control of the council’ were ‘centred in one leading party’, dominated by the Beveridge family, who filled vacancies with their creatures and summarily got rid of any ‘refractory’ elements. Major David Wilson, the long-serving provost, was related to the Beveridges, as were a number of the other councillors. The committee discovered a municipal debt of over £20,000, a lax system of accounting and corruption in the leasing of town property. An attempt by the guild brethren and burgesses to promote reform of the sett had been frustrated by the council.2 Culross was a small, decayed place, six miles west of Dunfermline on the north shore of the Firth. It had some coal and salt mining, but they were in decline in this period. Its population (burgh and parish) was 1,434 in 1821 and 1,488 in 1831. Its council had 19 members, all but one resident, and its affairs were reckoned in 1835 to have been ‘well managed’.3 Queensferry was eight miles south of Dunfermline on the southern shore of the Firth, at its narrowest point, nine miles north-west of Edinburgh. Its sole importance was as the crossing point, though the main ferry pier was at Newhalls, half a mile to the east. It had a modest coasting trade and a small fleet of fishing boats. Its population (burgh and parish) was 690 in 1821 and 684 in 1831. The council of 21 was elected under what the municipal corporations commissioners called a ‘nearly unintelligible’ system.4 Inverkeithing lay four miles south-east of Dunfermline at the head of Inverkeithing Bay. It was a quarantine station, with a lazaretto. Its good harbour was used to export coal, which was brought from the local mines by a railway. The town also had salt pans, a distillery and a brewery. Its population (burgh and parish) was 2,512 in 1821 and 3,189 in 1831. The council had no fewer than 42 members, of whom 27 were resident in 1823.5 Stirling, the gateway to the Highlands from central Scotland and once a royal residence, was on the River Forth, 30 miles north-west of Dunfermline and 29 north-east of Glasgow. It had a flourishing manufacture of tartans, shawls, carpets, yarns and cotton goods, together with leather, malt, soap, candles and rope, and a considerable river trade. It had a population (burgh and parish) of 7,214 in 1821 and 8,340 in 1831. Under the new and more ‘popular’ sett of 1781, it had a council of 21, of whom 11 were elected annually by the members of the guildry and trades.6

The district was notoriously venal and difficult to manage. At the by-election of March 1819 which followed the voiding of the 1818 return of the Tory John Campbell of Blairhall, near Dunfermline, a London East India merchant, on the ground of his bribery, Francis Ward Primrose, younger brother of the 4th earl of Rosebery, who lived at Dalmeny Park, near Queensferry, had scored a rare success for the Whig opposition to the Liverpool ministry. The Tory John McTaggart, a London banker, was unwell, and failed to canvass in person.7 In September 1819 William Dallas, an Edinburgh solicitor, sent to Lord Melville, the government’s Scottish manager, a communication from friendly magistrates in Stirling to the effect that ‘a little exertion at present’ would win that burgh for the interest of government; otherwise, it might be ‘many years before government could secure a majority’. After the Michaelmas council elections Colonel John Macleod of Colbechie told Melville that despite his financial problems, his friend Campbell had not abandoned his pretensions to the seat and that in Dunfermline, Queensferry and Stirling ‘his friends have been most active and successful in admitting his supporters and in turning out ... the supporters and adherents of Mr. Primrose’. He added that Campbell had ‘received a most flattering invitation from those burghs to hold himself in readiness to represent them again’, and urged Melville to do all possible to secure them for a friend.8 A week after the death of George III in late January 1820 Campbell Innes, the chief magistrate of Queensferry, anxious to secure the return of a ministerialist, wrote to Melville:

No time should be lost in nominating a proper candidate ... A communication that such a person will in due time present himself should without delay be made to the chief magistrates of Stirling and Dunfermline, that they (along with me) may take such steps as may be necessary to prevent the voters from committing themselves with one party, whose zeal and activity should not be despised. I must ... also express my hope that a candidate of family and known respectability in this part of the country, or else a high public character, may be found ... for although I am aware that a commercial man would make us the most useful Member, yet, from the recent misfortunes of Mr. Campbell, and the non-appearance of Mr. McTaggart, I am afraid a person of this description, unless very eminent indeed, will not take. I ... [have] had a letter from Mr. Primrose asking the support of our burgh which I must ... communicate to the town council, but it will have no effect, and if such a candidate as I have described presents himself I am decidedly of opinion he will carry this election with little expense.9

Melville told Innes that he could not ‘personally interfere’ and expressed his fear that ‘the extravagant expense which for a great many years has notoriously attended a contested election in your burghs would deter any respectable candidate of such political sentiments as you might prefer from embarking in it’. Likewise, he refused Macleod’s request for government to assist Campbell financially, and commented that he was sure that ‘neither Mr. Campbell nor any other person not usually resident in Scotland and known in those burghs would be likely to succeed’ against Primrose.10 George Abercromby informed Melville that the burghs ‘may be had at an easier rate than for many years past, but they are a sad set and I pity the man who has anything to do with them’.11 The lord advocate, Sir William Rae*, was ‘in despair about the Stirling Burghs’, but in the last week of February he asked the wealthy Glasgow cotton master Kirkman Finlay* if he was interested in standing. On 22 Feb. Finlay authorized Rae to ‘start him if I think he could succeed’, but that day Rae heard from one of the ministerial election agents that Robert Downie, a fat and ‘uncouth’ native of Perthshire who had prospered as a merchant in India and had acquired property in and near Dunfermline as well as a vast Argyllshire estate at Appin since his return home in 1812, ‘had been feeling his way at Stirling with the intention of starting’. Rae invited Downie to meet him in Edinburgh so that he might ‘know his real intention’. On 26 Feb., having heard from Finlay that he had changed his mind, Rae told Melville:

One of the bailies on whom Abercromby says we can best rely has just been with me. He had been through the council before leaving Stirling and assures me that they stand 12 for government, six against, three neuter, of whom at least one may be expected to be with us. He had mentioned Downie of Appin’s name to them and they are all disposed to support him. In these circumstances and believing that Dunfermline and Queensferry will be with us, and that Downie will not be disagreeable to them, I have agreed to give him our support. He is quite resolved not to be beat.12

Downie canvassed the burghs and made good headway: at Queensferry, as Innes reported, ‘all our electors (two worthless deacons excepted) pledged themselves to support him’.13 The delegates chosen for Queensferry (by 19-2) and Dunfermline (by 13-8), Innes and Wilson, were mandated to back Downie, and when he carried Stirling with the election of Provost John Buchan by 13-8 he was reckoned to be home and dry. Melville hoped he might secure Culross also, but Primrose prevailed there by a majority of two. Primrose won Inverkeithing by 18-8, but a local man told Melville that Downie had ‘paid very little attention’ to that burgh, even though it would not have taken much to win it:

Five of the friends of Primrose left him ... but for the want of about £140 or £150 to relieve their embarrassments, they fell back to him. I believe I could have managed the matter for about £100. Primrose all along seemed very cold upon the subject, and was as coldly received. There was no chairing or carrying him upon shoulders or drawing him in his carriage through the streets this time. Some days after leaving here, he wrote the council, saying it would be very inconvenient for him to attend the election of the Member, so I take this to be his farewell.

Downie was ‘unanimously elected’ when the election was held at Dunfermline.14

On 3 May 1820 the Commons received a petition from several magistrates and members of the guildry of Stirling complaining that some ‘unthinking and inexperienced’ inhabitants, ‘dissatisfied with its constitution’, had petitioned in support of ‘chimerical ideas of reform’. The same day were brought up petitions from the incorporation of fleshers denouncing the magistrates’ petition as a libel on them and from some members of the trades asking the House to maintain the existing sett ‘with such amendment as they may think proper’. On 19 May the trades petitioned for reform, especially of the ‘evil’ by which the administrators of ‘most’ burghs had the power to continue the ascendancy enjoyed by themselves and their partisans.15 The linen manufacturers of Dunfermline petitioned for continuance of the bounties on the export of their products, 8 June.16 The leading ministerialists at Inverkeithing had harboured hopes of breaking Primrose’s hold and preventing his re-election as provost at Michaelmas 1820, but they were unsuccessful.17 Dunfermline was illuminated to celebrate the abandonment of the bill of pains and penalties against Queen Caroline in mid-November 1820; and there was almost certainly a similar response in the other burghs.18 The council of Culross petitioned the Commons for restoration of her name to the liturgy, 26 Jan. 1821.19 The council and inhabitants of Stirling and the councils of Queensferry and Dunfermline petitioned both Houses against Catholic relief, which Downie opposed, in March and April 1821.20 Petitions for the abolition of slavery were sent to both Houses from the inhabitants of Inverkeithing, the magistrates, ministers and inhabitants of Dunfermline and the ministers and inhabitants of Stirling in 1823, 1824 and 1825.21 Clerks and law apprentices of Stirling and procurators of Dunfermline petitioned the Commons for repeal of the duty on notaries’ licences, 30 Mar., 8 Apr. 1824.22 Dunfermline council, the manufacturers of table linen and the operative weavers petitioned the Commons for protection against the importation of foreign goods, 15 Apr. 1825.23 Anti-Catholic petitions were sent to both Houses by the council, inhabitants and presbytery of Stirling in 1825.24 The following year the councils of Culross and Stirling and the inhabitants of the latter petitioned Parliament against interference with the Scottish banking system.25

Downie stood again at the general election of 1826, and secured the continued and unanimous support of Stirling and Dunfermline. He also got Queensferry, where Innes was chosen as delegate, but there was some doubt about the right of that burgh to participate on account of supposed irregularities in its last council elections, a matter which was the subject of ongoing litigation. Culross (the returning burgh), whose delegate was the chief magistrate, James Gibson Craig of Riccarton, and Inverkeithing, represented by another Whig, James Stuart of Dunearn, were hostile to Downie, and backed one Horrocks of Tillyhewan. He subsequently withdrew and was replaced by Colonel John Maitland, a younger son of the 8th earl of Lauderdale, who, after his younger days as one of Fox’s cronies, was now aligned with government.26 He petitioned against Downie’s return on the ground that the votes of the delegates for Queensferry, Dunfermline and Stirling were invalid, but the election committee confirmed the result, 7 Mar. 1827.27

The deacon of the Dunfermline weavers and the dean of the guildry of Stirling petitioned the Commons for repeal of the corn laws, 27 Feb., 23 Mar. 1827.28 Stirling council petitioned both Houses against Catholic relief in June 1827.29 Maltsters of Stirling petitioned the Commons for repeal of the Malt Act, 11 Mar. 1828.30 Petitions for repeal of the Test Acts belatedly reached both Houses from Dunfermline and Stirling in April 1828.31 In 1829 the council, the presbytery and the burgesses and inhabitants of Stirling and the incorporated trades of Inverkeithing petitioned both Houses against Catholic emancipation, which Downie opposed; and some inhabitants of Stirling petitioned the Lords in its support, 27 Mar.32 That year Dunfermline council sold some of the burgh lands to Downie for £14,105 in an attempt to reduce the escalating municipal debt of £20,339, which had produced legal actions by their creditors in 1827. A compromise was reached, and from 1829, according to the corporations commissioners, the financial affairs of the burgh were better regulated and accounted than for many years previously.33 The guildry and incorporated trades of Stirling petitioned both Houses against renewal of the East India Company’s trade monopoly in 1830, when a Baptist congregation of Dunfermline petitioned the Commons for the abolition of slavery, 13 July.34

In March 1828 Lauderdale had written to Melville, a member of the duke of Wellington’s new cabinet, claiming that Downie was likely to ‘give way’ because of poor health, in which case he thought that with ministerial backing he would be able to secure the seat for his son for a few hundred pounds: ‘Perhaps it is a foolish thing to wish it, but as [the burghs] have already cost me a pretty large sum ... sending a little more after what is lost is at least a folly which I am not singular in committing’. Melville told Wellington that as the burghs were ‘as corrupt and profligate as any in the kingdom I should be sorry to recommend any friend of mine to meddle with them’, but he thought that Maitland ‘no doubt’ could be ‘brought in without opposition, with the aid of government’.35 Nothing came of this, as Downie not only stayed put, but offered again at the 1830 general election. He was challenged by the Tory Archibald Campbell* of Blythswood, Renfrewshire, and James Johnston of Straiton, Midlothian, a 29-year-old laird who also owned an estate near Linlithgow and whose politics were not entirely clear. Blythswood soon dropped out, and Downie, who dined the councillors of Stirling and subscribed £10 towards the cost of deepening the fords in the Forth, was initially expected to prevail.36 However, Johnston made great headway at Dunfermline, where he was reported to be so popular with the weavers and operatives that they ‘threatened to withdraw their employment from any member of the council who votes against him’. He liberally entertained the council there and at Inverkeithing, but at Queensferry ‘found the tide rather against him’. According to one report, when Downie gave a dinner to the deacons of Dunfermline, ‘the populace indicated their hostility to his pretensions by smashing the windows of the inn’. Johnston won Dunfermline, where John Russell was chosen delegate by 12-9, and secured the traditionally Whig-inclined burghs of Culross (Gibson Craig as delegate) and Inverkeithing (Provost George Andrew Haig). Downie was left with Queensferry (Innes) and Stirling (Provost James Forman). At the election at Queensferry several hours were spent in hearing and recording protests and counter-protests against the election of all the delegates. Downie claimed to be the legally elected delegate for Dunfermline and cast a vote for himself, but Johnston was declared elected, to the delight of the majority of the audience in the chamber and the crowd in the street. He promised to enter Parliament as an ‘independent man’, determined to act as his conscience dictated.37 On 16 Nov. 1830 Downie lodged a petition alleging that Johnston had been returned by ‘illegal’ votes and bribery, but he did not pursue it.38

There was heavy petitioning of the 1830 Parliament for the abolition of slavery from Dunfermline and Stirling;39 but landed proprietors, merchants, bankers and lawyers of Stirling petitioned the Commons for the protection of West India planters’ property, 6 Dec. 1830.40 Between 8 Dec. 1830 and 4 Mar. 1831 Parliament received petitions for reform of the Scottish electoral system and the municipal government of the royal burghs from the council, guildry trades, burgesses and inhabitants of Stirling; the council, guildry, trades, heritors, burgesses and householders of Dunfermline; the council of Culross; the provost, council, guildry, burgesses and householders of Inverkeithing, and the trades, burgesses and inhabitants of Queensferry.41 On 21 Dec. 1830 the Lords received a petition from Stirling council for general reform, including triennial parliaments.42 The councils of all five burghs, the inhabitants of Dunfermline, Inverkeithing and Queensferry, various trades of Dunfermline and the guildry and trades of Stirling petitioned in support of the Grey ministry’s reform scheme, which Johnston, an independent supporter of the government with radical inclinations, welcomed, in March and April 1831.43 The carrying of the second reading of the English reform bill by one vote, 22 Mar. 1831, was enthusiastically celebrated in Dunfermline.44 On the dissolution which followed the bill’s defeat Johnston offered again as its supporter. No serious opposition emerged, although it was reported that the anti-reformer Lord Loughborough, son of the 2nd earl of Rosslyn, who had been turned out of his seat for Dysart Burghs, unsuccessfully canvassed the Stirling district. Johnston was fêted at Inverkeithing, and ‘unanimously’ returned when the election took place at Stirling.45

All the burghs petitioned the Lords in support of the English reform bill, 29 Sept.-5 Oct. 1831.46 During the crisis of May 1832, an outdoor meeting in Stirling, attended by the provost and magistrates, resolved to address and petition in support of the reform ministry. The council, the dean of guild and the inhabitants petitioned the Commons to withhold supplies until reform was secured.47 The presbyteries of Dunfermline and Stirling petitioned Parliament against the government’s Irish education scheme in May and June, and the latter petitioned the Lords to end the Maynooth grant, 14 May 1832.48 The composition of the district remained unaltered under the Scottish Reform Act, but the electorate was dramatically increased to 1,182 for the 1832 general election. Johnston seemed to have every chance of success until he enraged ministerialists in November by joining publicly in the Conservatives’ condemnation of the government’s bellicose stance on the independence of Belgium. The local Liberals put up Rosebery’s son Lord Dalmeny, who had come of age in October 1830, against him; and his strong support among the ‘radicals’ of Dunfermline was not enough to prevent his defeat by 127 votes in a poll of 816.49 The seat remained in Liberal hands for the rest of the century and beyond, and was the constituency of the Glaswegian premier, Sir Henry Campbell Bannerman, 1868-1908.50

Author: David R. Fisher


  • 1. Ordnance Gazetteer of Scotland (1895), ii. 428-30; A. Stewart, Reminiscences of Dunfermline, 269-72; PP (1830-1), x. 169; (1831-2), xlii. 89, 90; (1835), xxix. 353.
  • 2. PP (1819), vi. 32-35, 429-64; (1823), xv. 721; (1835), xxix. 365.
  • 3. Ordnance Gazetteer of Scotland, ii. 323; PP (1823), xv. 722; (1830-1), x. 158; (1831-2), xlii. 87; (1835), xxix. 269-71.
  • 4. Ordnance Gazetteer of Scotland, v. 230, 231; PP (1823), xv. 722; (1830-1), x. 182; (1831-2), xlii. 93; (1836), xxiii. 453, 454.
  • 5. Ordnance Gazetteer of Scotland, iv. 298, 299; W. Stephen, Hist. Inverkeithing, 6-7, 17, 228; PP (1823), xv. 720; (1830-1), x. 169; (1831-2), xlii. 91; (1836), xxiii. 195, 196.
  • 6. Ordnance Gazetteer of Scotland, vi. 379-83, 390; PP (1823), xv. 704; (1830-1), x. 189, 190; (1831-2), xlii. 95, 96; (1836), xxiii. 507-9, 517.
  • 7. HP Commons, 1790-1820, ii. 618, 619; NAS GD51/1/198/26/37.
  • 8. NAS GD51/1/198/26/35, 36, 38.
  • 9. NAS GD51/1/198/26/40.
  • 10. NAS GD51/1/198/26/40; 198/27/12, 13.
  • 11. NAS GD51/1/198/26/42.
  • 12. NLS mss 11, ff. 14, 17.
  • 13. Caledonian Mercury, 2 Mar., Edinburgh Evening Courant, 4 Mar. 1820; NLS mss 11, ff. 24, 32; NAS GD51/1/198/26/41.
  • 14. NAS GD51/1/198/26/41, 43, 44, 46; NLS mss 11, f. 55; Edinburgh Evening Courant, 3 Apr. 1820.
  • 15. CJ, lxxv. 136, 230.
  • 16. Ibid. 292.
  • 17. NAS GD51/1/198/26/45, 46; Caledonian Mercury, 7 Oct. 1820.
  • 18. Stewart, 269.
  • 19. CJ, lxxvi. 12.
  • 20. Ibid. 172, 224; LJ, liv. 114, 115, 171, 321.
  • 21. CJ, lxxviii. 434; lxxix. 161, 167, 365; lxxxi. 151, 262; LJ, lvi. 117; lviii. 221.
  • 22. CJ, lxxix. 230, 265.
  • 23. Ibid. lxxx. 309.
  • 24. Ibid. 314; LJ, lvii. 578, 793, 794, 825, 826.
  • 25. CJ, lxxxi. 125, 159, 193; LJ, lviii. 72, 109, 119, 234.
  • 26. Edinburgh Evening Courant, 9, 12, 17, 24 June, 6 July; Caledonian Mercury, 15, 26 June 1826; NAS GD51/1/198/26/56.
  • 27. CJ, lxxxii. 38, 126, 127, 161, 241, 244, 289, 290; Northants. RO, Agar Ellis diary, 1 Mar. [1827].
  • 28. CJ, lxxxii. 238, 350.
  • 29. Ibid. 534; LJ, lix. 392.
  • 30. CJ, lxxxiii. 154.
  • 31. Ibid. 220, 231; LJ, lx. 154, 155, 207.
  • 32. CJ, lxxxiv. 8, 41, 154, 165; LJ, lxi. 26, 250, 256, 297, 356.
  • 33. Stewart, 272; PP (1835), xxix. 354-7.
  • 34. CJ, lxxxv. 282, 643; LJ, lxii. 176, 228.
  • 35. Wellington mss WP1/921/1.
  • 36. Edinburgh Evening Courant, 8, 15 July; Glasgow Herald, 9, 16 July 1830.
  • 37. Glasgow Herald, 26 July, 27 Aug.; Edinburgh Evening Courant, 7, 26 Aug. 1830.
  • 38. CJ, lxxxvi. 103, 104, 142.
  • 39. Ibid. 74, 133, 155, 175, 176, 202, 326, 487; LJ, lxiii. 48, 133, 153, 165177, 178, 186, 255.
  • 40. CJ, lxxxvi. 147.
  • 41. Ibid. 159, 167, 179, 188, 237, 255, 269; LJ, lxiii. 166, 203, 220, 264, 289.
  • 42. LJ, lxiii. 189.
  • 43. CJ, lxxxvi. 367, 372, 395, 402, 415, 419, 435; LJ, lxiii. 337, 345-7, 363, 369, 378, 440; Caledonian Mercury, 12 Mar. 1831.
  • 44. Stewart, 273.
  • 45. Caledonian Mercury, 23, 28, 30 Apr., 2, 7, 26 May 1831.
  • 46. LJ, lxiii. 1018, 1019, 1022, 1023, 1047, 1050, 1062; Caledonian Mercury, 24 Sept. 1831.
  • 47. Caledonian Mercury, 19 May 1832; CJ, lxxxvii. 364.
  • 48. CJ, lxxxvii. 297, 370, 448; LJ, lxiv. 186, 205.
  • 49. Caledonian Mercury, 22, 24, 26, 29 Nov., 1, 17, 22 Dec. 1832.
  • 50. Scottish Electoral Politics, 226, 232, 244, 271.