DOWNIE, Robert (1771-1841), of Appin House, Loch Linnhe, Argyll.

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



1820 - 1830

Family and Education

b. 10 June 1771, 2nd s. of Robert Downie (d. 1805), distiller, of Spittletown, Monteith and Kilmadock, Perth and his w. Margaret Morison of Spillodon, Doune, Perth. m. 8 Oct. 1804, at Calcutta, Mary, da. of Joseph Barnard Smith, high ct. judge, Bombay, 2s. (1 d.v.p.) 5da. (1 d.v.p.); at least 1s. 1da. illegit.1 d. 10 Sept. 1841.

Offices Held

Chairman, Edinburgh and Glasgow Union Canal Co.; gov. Edinburgh Gaslight Co.


Downie’s grandfather was the George Downie of Kilmadock whose second wife (m. 27 Oct. 1843) was Mary Murdoch, and his uncle was John Downie of Authentie. He had at least eight sisters, not all of whom survived childhood. His father, who was born in 1735, was in business as a distiller. His elder brother George, who was baptized on 14 Feb. 1762, became a cadet in the East India Company’s Bengal army in 1783. He reached the rank of major before his death at Allipore, 14 Dec. 1808, in command of the Calcutta native militia. Downie was educated in Stirling, about 12 miles from Kilmadock, and in 1788 followed his brother to Bengal, where he joined the agency house of Patrick Maitland in Bankshall Street, Calcutta. He was in partnership with Maitland by 1800. He fathered an illegitimate daughter, Margaret, who married Dr. William Barwell Carter, assistant surgeon of the 8th Dragoons, in 1823, when Downie settled £4,000 on her. He also had an illegitimate son, Robert, who was born on 15 July 1803 and baptized on 16 Sept. 1808; what became of him subsequently is not known, but he probably died in India. Downie married and began to produce legitimate children in 1804. The agency was for a time styled Downie and Company, but it later became Downie, Cruttenden and Company, Downie’s chief partner now being George Cruttenden, who died in 1822. When Downie left India with ‘an ample fortune’ in 1811 it became Cruttenden, Mackillop and Company, as his own role was taken over by his nephews George and James Mackillop* (the son of his eldest sister Mary and John Mackillop). Downie’s infant son George died at sea and was buried at St. Helena, 22 June 1811.2 He and his wife and daughters arrived in England on 28 Aug., and on 27 Sept. 1811 Mary Downie gave birth in London to Marion Agatha (d . 1881), who in 1829 married James Macalpine-Leny of Dalswinton, Dumfriesshire.

In 1813, when he was living at Newton House, Perthshire, Downie lost his eldest legitimate daughter, Mary Cordelia, at the age of seven.3 The following year was born his only legitimate son, Robert, who was educated at Oxford, but proved to be a complete waster. Downie now bought from the trustees of the 8th marquess of Tweeddale ‘one of the largest estates in the Highlands’ (about 35,000 acres) with the mansion of Appin House, on the eastern shore of Loch Linnhe, 12 miles north-east of Oban. He also acquired property in and around Dunfermline, where he owned the Appin colliery; some of this land, which included East End Park, later the home of Dunfermline Athletic Football Club, was sold to him by the council of Dunfermline in 1828 in payment of a debt. He had a stake in property in Edinburgh and Glasgow and at Mid Calder.4 In 1816 he bought 20 of the shares issued to subsidize the building of St. John’s church, Princes Street, Edinburgh. He was chairman of the Edinburgh and Glasgow Union Canal Company and governor of the Edinburgh Gaslight Company, and had interests in railway development. His wife died in Edinburgh, 6 Mar. 1819. Three months later he wrote to the premier Lord Liverpool from Appin urging him to ‘look further into the laws for the protection of the corn as well as the wool grower’:

The prohibitory laws are assuredly defective, since our farmers generally seem afraid of too good crops ... Though I had the ability, I could not presume to suggest ... what would be the best mode of keeping grain at such a price as would enable the nation generally to live in comfort and prosperity; but this I can confidently say, that something is most defective in the present protecting laws, and the ship loads of people that are constantly leaving this neighbourhood for America, from their inability to live at home, seems to me very alarming.5

At the general election nine months later he came forward for the venal and volatile Stirling district of burghs, of which Dunfermline was one. He was encouraged and endorsed by the lord advocate, Sir William Rae*, who told Lord Melville, the government’s Scottish manager, that he ‘will rather be an uncouth sort of Member, but he is a sensible man and will be more easily managed than others who might be named’.6 He secured the votes of Dunfermline, Queensferry and Stirling and, thus assured of victory, modestly told Melville that

I appear to have accomplished what few men would have attempted and perhaps still fewer succeeded in, that is, destroyed for the present at least the Whig interest in the Stirling district ... Three short weeks ago I certainly had not the most distant intention of appearing as a candidate for this honour.7

Downie did nothing to distinguish himself in the House, but he became one of its minor characters, and was regarded with affectionate amusement by such political opponents as Henry Cockburn and Thomas Kennedy*, who thought him ‘an extraordinary man’.8 He successfully moved that the Stirling trades’ petition against reform of the burgh’s government be printed, 5 May 1820. He was granted a month’s leave on account of illness in his family, 30 June 1820. He divided with government on the Queen Caroline affair, 6 Feb., the army estimates, 11 Apr., and against parliamentary reform, 9, 10 May 1821. He voted against Catholic claims, 28 Feb., and presented a petition from Queensferry council against the relief bill, 2 Apr.9 He was in the minority of 23 against committing Cooper of John Bull to Newgate for breach of privilege, 11 May, and voted against the abolition of capital punishment for forgery, 23 May 1821. He divided against more extensive tax reductions to relieve distress, 11, 21 Feb., and abolition of one of the joint-postmasterships, 13 Mar. 1822. On 30 Apr. 1822 he brought up a Stirling council petition against further concessions to Catholics and voted against the Catholic peers bill.10 He voted with ministers on the assessed taxes, 10 Mar., the sinking fund, 13 Mar., and the Foreign Enlistment Act, 16 Apr. 1823. He was in the minority for Barry’s call for information on the alleged Orange plot against the Irish viceroy, 24 Mar. (to the distress of the Whig James Abercromby, who felt ‘the pain of finding myself in a division with dirty Downie’),11 but divided with government against inquiry into the prosecution of the offenders, 22 Apr. He voted against them for equalization of the East and West Indian sugar duties, 22 May, but was in their majority against Scottish parliamentary reform, 2 June 1823. Kennedy told the following anecdote of Downie:

When in 1822 or 1823, I had my jury bill passing through the Commons, on one occasion when it stood as an order of the day and I expected it to come on, and that a division would take place late at night, I happened to pass along one of the back benches on which R. Downie was sitting. He stopped me and said, ‘Maister Kennedy, that’s an excellent bill o’ yours, that jury bill’. I replied, ‘I am happy to hear you say so, Mr. Downie. I had not hoped to have your support, but I think it will come on tonight, and I hope you will stay in the House that I may have your vote’. ‘Na, na, Maistre Kennedy, that’s a very different thing - it’s an excellent bill, and I wish you may succeed, but if I was to vote wi’ you and gang against the government, hoo could I gang to the treasury next day, beggin’ for eight and twenty thoosand damned scoondrels’ (the people of the boroughs he represented), ‘that would never do, Maistre Kennedy; but persevaire, Maistre Kennedy, and never mind me’.12

Downie’s only known votes in the 1824 session were against reform of Edinburgh’s representative system, 26 Feb., and with the minorities for George Lamb’s bill to allow defence by counsel in felony cases, 6 Apr., and against the export of long wool, 21 May. He presented petitions from Dunfermline for the abolition of slavery, 16 Mar., from Perthshire distillers for the right to export whisky to England, which he said would benefit both countries and largely suppress ‘the immoral and disgraceful practice of smuggling’, 19 Mar., and from Stirling brewers against the beer bill, 7 May 1824.13 His application in October 1824 for a royal chaplaincy for his brother-in-law, the Rev. John Brown, minister of Glendovan, was unsuccessful.14 He voted against repeal of the usury laws, 17 Feb. 1825. He divided for the Irish unlawful societies bill, 25 Feb., and against Catholic relief, 1 Mar., 21 Apr., 10 May (as a pair), and presented a hostile petition from Stirling, 18 Apr.15 He voted for the duke of Cumberland’s grant, 30 May 1825. He presented Scottish petitions for the abolition of slavery, 10 Mar., 21, 25 Apr., 2 May 1826.16 He brought up constituency petitions against interference with the Scottish banking system, 13, 21 Mar.17 On 17 May 1826 John Smith, Whig Member for Midhurst, told Kennedy that in ‘the Scotch £1 note enquiry’, Downie, ‘in reply to a question from Canning, whether the one pound notes were not very dirty, replied, "Very, and if you meddle with them, you’ll foul your fingers"’. No verification of this story has been found, and Downie neither sat on nor gave evidence to the select committee of 16 Mar. 1826 on the subject. Nor do his votes with ministers on the Jamaican slave trials, 2 Mar., the salary of the president of the board of trade, 10 Apr., and parliamentary reform, 13 Apr., 26 May 1826, seem to warrant Smith’s description of him as ‘this once strenuous but now doubtful adherent of the government’.18

When he stood again for Stirling Burghs at the general election of 1826 Downie told his guests at a dinner in Stirling, 14 June, that

his political opinions were always founded on conviction and principle ... No Member could be returned ... more free or unshackled; for being independent in fortune as he was independent in principle, he was beyond the reach of ministerial influence. So it was that he never received any place, pension or consideration from government ... Nor did he desire them. With regard to the government ... the members of it were most anxious to promote the general interests of the community; and if, on any occasion, they had erred, it was in judgement, not in intention. They could not ... lay claims to infallibility, but he had no hesitation in assuring those around him, that ... ministers had the true interests of their country at heart.19

He was opposed by one of Lord Lauderdale’s sons on the strength of doubts as to the legality of the last municipal elections for Queensferry. A petition against his return was duly lodged, but it was rejected, 7 Mar. 1827.20 According to Cockburn

Master Robert Downie declares that when the result ... was announced to the House, ‘It was most affecting to hear the report. There were shoots of approbation from all quarters of the Hoose’.21

Downie presented petitions against Catholic relief, 13 Dec. 1826, 8 June 1827, and a Stirling council petition against the salmon fisheries bill, 10 May 1827.22 He was credited with a vote for the disfranchisement of Penryn for electoral corruption, 28 May 1827. He was barely in evidence in 1828, but he presented petitions against the Scottish justiciary courts bill, 5 May, and Catholic relief, 12 May, when he paired against the proposal. He brought up petitions against the duke of Wellington’s ministry’s concession of Catholic emancipation, 6 Feb., 16 Mar., but only paired with the hostile minority in the division of 6 Mar. 1829. Cockburn, relishing his discomfiture, urged Kennedy to ‘ask Robin Downie to publish an account of his conversion, or to explain to his enquiring friends how he feels in a minority’.23 He voted in person against the measure, 18, 30 Mar., and presented more hostile petitions, 20, 24, 27 Mar. He made a fool of himself, 24 Mar., when, after presenting a petition from Stirling, he wondered how Abercromby felt qualified to comment on the nature of its signatories, ‘as it has been locked up in my desk ... ever since I received it’. Abercromby explained that he had been referring to the pro-Catholic petition which was in his own hands. Downie voted in the minority of 16 to raise the revised Irish county voting qualification to £20, 26 Mar. He presented petitions against the Scottish gaols bill, 4, 18, 25 May, and was a teller for the minority for an attempt to prevent bull-baiting, 12 May 1829. He voted against Lord Blandford’s parliamentary reform scheme, 18 Feb., the enfranchisement of Birmingham, Leeds and Manchester, 23 Feb., and Jewish emancipation, 17 May 1830. He presented petitions against the Glasgow and Kilmarnock roads bill, 12 Mar., 4 May, renewal of the East India Company’s charter, 30 Mar., the proposed additional spirit duty, 4 May, and the Queensferry passage improvement bill, 6 May 1830.

Downie, a vice-president of the London branch of the Society for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge in the Highlands and Islands, sought re-election for Stirling Burghs in 1830. He was again opposed and, though initially optimistic, he crucially lost control of Dunfermline by 12 votes to nine, partly because of the recent appointment of a hostile interim provost and partly as a result of his involvement, as purchaser, in the council’s alienation of burgh lands. At the election he lodged various objections to the delegates for Culross, Dunfermline and Inverkeithing and personally claimed the right to vote as the legally chosen delegate for Dunfermline. He was magnanimous in defeat, and did not pursue the election petition which he submitted.24 At the general election of 1835 he stood as a Conservative for the Kilmarnock district of burghs, but came a distant third.25 He died at Appin in September 1841. An obituarist wrote that ‘though he did not speak often in the House, his business habits and general knowledge of the affairs of the country rendered him an efficient and useful Member’.26 On 9 June 1834 he had bequeathed his three unmarried daughters annuities of £420 until their marriages or his own death, whereon they were to receive £12,000 each, and his son Robert an annuity of £440 during his own lifetime. In a general disposition of his property, dated 11 Apr. 1840, he entailed the Appin estate on his son, provided for a host of sisters, nephews and nieces, confirmed his daughter Marion’s marriage settlement and increased her three sisters’ portions to £15,000. He also directed the continued payment of 30 rupees a month to Miseree Beeby of Calcutta, who was probably the mother of his bastards. His personalty was sworn under £14,000 within the province of Canterbury; his Scottish estate was valued at £31,758.27 His worthless son, whom he barred from inheriting Appin until he turned 30, conveniently died unmarried, aged 29, in 1843, and the estate passed to Downie’s daughter Georgina Frances, who devised it to her great-nephew, Colonel James Robert Macalpine-Downie.

Ref Volumes: 1820-1832

Author: David R. Fisher


Ian Macalpine-Leny, Downie’s great-great-great grandson, very kindly supplied copious information on his family background, business interests and property.

  • 1. BL OIOC N/1/7, ff. 37, 85, 247; 8, ff. 13.
  • 2. V.C.P. Hodson, Officers of Bengal Army, i. 81; Bengal Obit. (1848), 93; Gent. Mag. (1809), i. 478; (1823), ii. 80; (1841), ii. 547; Hickey Mems. ed. A. Spencer, iv. 419; PROB 11/1957/85; OIOC N/1/8, f. 11.
  • 3. Gent. Mag. (1813), i. 594.
  • 4. PROB 11/1957/85.
  • 5. Add. 38278, f. 19.
  • 6. NLS mss 11, ff. 14, 17, 24
  • 7. Edinburgh Evening Courant, 4, 13, 16 Mar., 3 Apr. 1820; NAS GD51/1/198/26/40, 42-44, 46; NLS mss 11, ff. 41, 55.
  • 8. Cockburn Letters, 122, 196.
  • 9. The Times, 3 Apr. 1821.
  • 10. Ibid. 1 May 1822.
  • 11. Brougham mss, Abercromby to Brougham, 26 Mar. [1823].
  • 12. Cockburn Letters, 196-7.
  • 13. The Times, 17, 20 Mar., 5 May 1824.
  • 14. Add. 40369, ff. 12, 13.
  • 15. The Times, 19 Apr. 1825.
  • 16. Ibid. 11 Mar., 22, 26 Apr., 3 May 1826.
  • 17. Ibid. 14, 22 Mar.1826.
  • 18. Cockburn Letters, 140.
  • 19. Stirling Jnl. 15 June 1826.
  • 20. Edinburgh Evening Courant, 12, 17, 19, 24 June, 6 July 1826.
  • 21. Cockburn Letters, 165.
  • 22. The Times, 14 Dec. 1826, 11 May, 9 June 1827.
  • 23. Cockburn Letters, 210.
  • 24. Edinburgh Evening Courant, 8, 15, 24, 31 July, 7, 26 Aug. 1830.
  • 25. Ibid. 12, 15, 17, 19 Jan. 1835; Scottish Electoral Politics, 226.
  • 26. Gent. Mag. (1841), ii. 547.
  • 27. PROB 8/235 (21 Feb. 1842); 11/1957/85.