DUNDAS, Robert Adam (1804-1877), of Arniston, Edinburgh and 97 Eaton Square, Mdx.

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



23 Feb. 1827 - 1831
1831 - 1832
1835 - 10 June 1835

Family and Education

b. 9 Feb. 1804, 1st s. of Philip Dundas† of Arniston, gov. of Prince of Wales Island, and 2nd w. Margaret, da. of Sir John Wedderburn, 6th bt., of Ballendean, Perth. educ. St. Andrews Univ. 1822; adv. 1826. m. 28 Jan. 1828, Lady Mary Bruce, da. of Thomas, 7th earl of Elgin [S], 1da. Took name of Christopher by royal lic. 20 Jan. 1836, in compliance with will of Sir George Manners of Bloxham, Lincs., and additional names of Nisbet and Hamilton Aug. 1855 after w. inherited Belhaven and Direlton, Haddington. suc. fa. 1807. d. 9 June 1877.

Offices Held

PC 27 Feb. 1852; chan. of duchy of Lancaster Mar.-Dec. 1852.


Dundas was born on Prince of Wales Island and was brought to Scotland at the age of three with his younger brother Philip following the deaths of their parents. Their father’s will, proved at Prince of Wales Island, 9 May 1807, and in London, 26 Jan. 1808, was executed by their uncles and legal guardians, Francis, Robert and William Dundas (Member for Edinburgh, 1812-31). A codicil specified that Dundas was to inherit the family’s Berwickshire estates and £6,000.1 The boys grew up at Arniston, and were mainly in the care of their paternal grandmother, Jean Dundas, and their uncle William. Dundas was intended to follow in the family’s legal and political tradition, studying logic and rhetoric at St. Andrews before being admitted to the Scottish bar in April 1826. As an obituarist noted, ‘he never gave himself a chance of obtaining practice, but threw himself at once into the arena of public life’.2 At the general election in June 1826 his father’s cousin, the 2nd Viscount Melville, who turned down on his behalf an offer of Earl Fife’s* interest in Elgin Burghs, was able as first lord of the admiralty in Lord Liverpool’s ministry to create an opening for him to stand on the Blue or Tory interest at Ipswich, where he and another Scot with strong East Indian connections, Charles Mackinnon, were defeated at the poll, but returned on petition.3

Dundas had exploited the ‘No Popery’ cry at Ipswich,4 and voted against Catholic relief, 6 Mar. 1827. He divided with government for the grant to the duke of Clarence, 16 Mar. 1827. A shrewd, uncompromising observer and commentator, he shared his cousin Robert’s distrust of the pro-Catholic Canning as premier, but after aligning with Robert Peel in opposition, he advised his uncle William, then in Edinburgh, against resigning prematurely as lord clerk register, 31 May 1827:


That Canning is a rogue I am convinced ... There is not a great constitutional question on which the government is unanimous. It is quite absurd to suppose this can go on long, and I can assure you the public opinion is becoming more decided every day against the present administration. All that we desire is a question to justify fair opposition, and I have no doubt of Mr. Peel’s power in the Commons. I have not sat behind the treasury bench since the late changes.5


The formation of the duke of Wellington’s ministry, in which Melville was initially president of the India board, coincided with Dundas’s marriage in January 1828.6 Melville ‘thought of Robert Adam’, whom he considered ‘very clever, and I have no doubt will push his way in Parliament’, for the post of unsalaried commissioner at the board: indeed he applied for it, but not before it had been settled on William Peel*.7 Dundas meanwhile offered to accommodate his relations at his new home in Eaton Square and hoped that they would try to recover the Edinburghshire seat occupied since 1811 with their grudging acquiescence by Sir George Clerk.8 He did not vote on repeal of the Test Acts, 26 Feb., but divided against investigating chancery delays, 24 Apr. He presented petitions from the University of Edinburgh and the Hunterian Society for measures to facilitate the study of anatomy, and from the convener of the Synod of Glasgow and Ayr against Catholic relief, 1 May; he voted accordingly, 12 May. Heartened by the strong demonstration of support for Peel in the House following the colonial secretary Huskisson’s resignation, 2 June, and the end of the coalition, in his private letters he again denigrated Canning and his party and called for a united Tory government headed by Wellington.9 He presented a petition from the president of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh calling for an end to prohibitions on Scottish apothecaries practising in England and Wales and divided with government on the ordnance estimates, 4 July 1828. The Ipswich party’s demands for money annoyed him and he left his ‘affairs in the hands of Mr. Mackinnon (as far as concerns Ipswich politics)’.10

In January 1829 Dundas’s name featured on the patronage secretary Planta’s list of possible movers and seconders of the address that would confirm the ministry’s decision to concede Catholic emancipation, but a second list classified him as one of those who ‘will be absent’.11 He divided resolutely against the measure, 18, 23, 26, 27, 30 Mar., and moved an amendment to prevent it applying to Scottish peerage elections, which was defeated by 158-45, 24 Mar. Speaking as a member of the select committee on Scottish entails (27 Feb. 1829), he cautioned against hurrying through the report on the tailzies relief bill, 22 May 1829. In January 1830 he wrote to warn the 5th duke of Buccleuch of Alexander Pringle of Henning’s intended opposition in Selkirkshire.12 He voted against transferring East Retford’s seats to Birmingham, 11 Feb., and Lord Blandford’s reform scheme, 18 Feb., and dismissed O’Connell’s plan as unnecessary, as the parliamentary system had ‘adapted itself admirably to the exigencies of the people in every period of our history’, 28 May. He presented petitions from Ipswich against the tobacco duties, 17 Feb., and from Edinburgh council opposing the proposed duty on surgeon’s licences, 6 May. He paired against the Jewish emancipation bill, 17 May, and for abolition of the death penalty for forgery offences, 7 June, but voted in person that day against reducing the grant for South American missions. He voted to restrict licensing for on-consumption under the sale of beer bill, 21 June 1830, in response to pressure from the Ipswich Blue brewer and banker John Chevalier Cobbold.13

He was returned for the borough after a token contest at the general election, despite allegations that he had been too mean to be popular.14 He promised his wife:


I shall endeavour to preserve my chair from the fury of the populace on Monday and preserve it carefully for you as a trifling momento of a second triumph. Four years ago I had no little nursery to take an interest in my success, consequently I was regardless of these little incidents which are now attended with more interesting associations.15


Seconding the address, 2 Nov. 1830, he ascribed the recent troubles in France and the Low Countries to internal divisions and ‘human nature’, paid tribute to the dead Huskisson as a political opponent who ‘possessed a most comprehensive mind’ and ‘unquestioned talents’ and promised that ‘the civil list is to be arranged with a strict regard to economy’. He presented Ipswich’s petition for abolition of the duty on seaborne coals, before voting in the ministerial minority on the civil list when they were brought down, 15 Nov. On 22 Nov. he received three weeks’ leave on account of his wife’s illness which, he had told her, made him consider giving up ‘all hopes of living in England and especially in London, in which I lead a life more suited to my pursuits than calculated to render the world agreeable to you’.16 He divided against the Grey ministry’s reform bill at its second reading, 22 Mar., and for Gascoyne’s wrecking amendment, 19 Apr. 1831, and stood down at Ipswich at the subsequent dissolution in order contest Edinburgh, where his uncle retired and his opponent was the lord advocate Francis Jeffrey*. He was declared elected by a majority of three, amid scenes of mob violence.17 He had informed the council, in whom the franchise was vested, that on reform


while I willingly admit, in any alteration which may take place, the propriety of an additional representative being chosen for this great city by the burgesses, or perhaps by proprietors of houses of a safe and fitting qualification, I cannot admit the justice or expediency of depriving the magistrates and corporation of the city, through whom the judicial duties, the direction of hospitals and every other labour incident to the management of this town are discharged, of the right which they have enjoyed from remote ages, of returning a representative to Parliament.18


He played a prominent part in the opposition’s attack on the ministry’s handling of Scottish affairs, asking for information on the £2,000 bounty paid for Highland clergy, 25 June, and defending the conduct of the sheriff of Lanarkshire, 29 June 1831. On the reintroduced English reform bill’s second reading, 5 July, he stressed the danger of ‘tampering’ with the constitution, and turning to the Scottish measure, he asked why the population criteria used to determine borough disfranchisement in England and Wales were not applied to Scotland.19 He divided against it, 6 July, for an adjournment, 12 July, to use the 1831 instead of the 1821 census to determine disfranchisements, 19 July, and against the third reading, 19 Sept., and passage, 21 Sept. 1831. In time-wasting interventions to delay its progress, he said that he did not think the work of election committees would be adversely affected by Saturday sittings, 30 July, tried to prolong the debate on the Linlithgow reform petition, 4 Aug., spoke against Gateshead’s receiving a separate Member as none was given to Perth, 5 Aug., and criticized Members who failed to apply the same standards to English and Scottish representation, 16 Aug. Opposing the Scottish reform bill at its second reading, 23 Sept., he pressed for the creation of a Scottish universities constituency. On the 27th he had a petition for compensation for loss of superiorities referred to the committee on the bill. He was a minority teller against the Scottish exchequer court bill, 8 Oct. He voted with opposition to censure the Irish government for electoral interference in Dublin, 23 Aug., and to suspend the Liverpool writ, 5 Sept. 1831. A meeting outside the Waterloo hotel in Edinburgh, 22 Sept., had demonstrated the continued strength of reformers in the city and, pragmatically, he announced in the House, 4 Oct., that he would be voting for particular clauses and amendments to increase Scottish representation.20 The Whig publisher John Murray informed Lord Holland, 2 Nov., that ‘the hatred against the retainers of the Melville party [in Edinburgh] ... was greatly increased from the joy many of them expressed when the [news of the hostile] vote of the Lords arrived’.21 Dundas did not vote on the revised reform bill at its second reading, 17 Dec. 1831. Attending assiduously but dividing sparingly, he voted against the enfranchisement of Tower Hamlets, 28 Feb., and the third reading, 22 Mar. 1832. He argued for increased Scottish county representation, 27 Jan., spoke against the Glasgow Political Union’s petition, 30 Mar., and presented petitions and made a case for compensation for the loss of superiorities, 2 Apr., 21 May. He recognized the strength of the reformers in the cities, but highlighted the role of the Unions in preparing the Edinburgh and Glasgow reform petitions during the ‘days of May’, when the English bill’s defeat in the Lords had briefly put a ministry led by Wellington in contemplation, 23 May, 1 June. Supporting the Conservative amendment for increased Scottish county representation, 1 June, he said that he was still ‘at a loss to understand on what principle ... ministers have proceeded in their enfranchisement of places in Scotland’, and now tried to explain that he had voted for Gascoyne’s amendment (to retain the balance) in 1831, ‘because I was unwilling to disturb the settled institutions of the country, or to interfere with the existing proportions of the representation of Scotland and England’. The Edinburgh Evening Courant noted that Dundas was ‘as opposed as ever to the principle of reform’.22 He pressed for equal representation for Scotland when his amendment adding Stonehaven to the Montrose district was defeated by 62-42, 15 June, and again when a Banffshire petition for inquiry with a view to improving municipal government in Scottish burghs was received, 6 July. Deeming it ‘a waste of time’, he offered no opposition to the Scottish reform bill at its third reading, 27 June. He voted against the second reading of the Irish measure, 25 May, and when petitions calling for increased Irish representation were presented, 25 June, he criticized Irish Members for failing to support similar ones from Scotland. He expressed regret when Alexander Baring’s bribery bill was dropped for that Parliament, 9 July 1832.

On 3 Jan. 1832 Dundas wrote to Peel suggesting that the Scottish practice of taxing landowners rather than occupiers to provide for the clergy should be adopted in Ireland to counter O’Connell’s agitation.23 He voted against government on the Russian-Dutch loan, 26 Jan., 12 July. He called for additional funds to fight cholera, 14 Feb., and presented petitions for the Scottish Life Insurance Company bill, 20 Mar. He brought up others favourable to the contentious Edinburgh police bill, 20 Mar., 17, 24 May, and carried its third reading, 5 June. As requested, he presented petitions both for and against the Edinburgh and Glasgow railway bill, 8 Mar., 17, 23 May.24 He tried to justify the £6,000 grant for works at the University of Edinburgh, 3 Apr., and when Hume presented a petition alleging misappropriation of funds from the Edinburgh six per cent annuities, 9 July 1832, he promised to demonstrate that there had been no malpractice. Dundas had voted to end the Maynooth grant, 26 Sept. 1831, and his political views and judgement were severely tested on the question of funding interdenominational education in Ireland. Hume disputed his claim that the people of Scotland shared his belief that Catholic children should be educated ‘without compromising the Protestant religion’, 7 May 1832; but he repeated it, 23 May, adding, ‘I believe that a large proportion of the Dissenters in Scotland are not opposed to this scheme, but I know the majority of the Presbyterians are’. He proceeded to infuriate Melville by belittling his kinsman, the eminent Whig Presbyterian Sir John Dalrymple†, and insinuating that the presbyteries of Hamilton and Edinburgh disagreed on the matter.25 On 8 June he said that ‘the Church of Scotland are most anxious to promote national education and to see the same system followed up in Ireland which is adopted in Scotland’, but on the 28th he denied that the Church was for the bill. He admitted that he was anti-Catholic on presenting petitions against funding Catholic education from St. Andrews and Dunfermline, 2 July, and spoke in favour of printing a similar Glasgow petition, 10 July 1832.

Dundas was already certain that Jeffrey would succeed at Edinburgh at the next election and justifiably sceptical about his own chances of being returned as the second Member.26 He informed Robert Dundas, 13 June 1832:


If the party in Edinburgh are willing to conduct the contest and professional men be ready to lend their gratuitous services so that I shall be liable only for my own personal expenses, then I am willing to place myself at the disposal of the party whether the struggle be successful or not.27


He refused to trust any Edinburgh agent with ‘the use of my purse’, and by 16 June, when he and his wife hosted a dinner for leading members of the Carlton Club in Eaton Square, he was investigating the possibility of standing for Ipswich, which he thought might prove cheaper.28 Nevertheless, on 5 July he notified another likely Conservative candidate for Edinburgh, Forbes Hunter Blair:


If a large proportion of the banking interest and the most influential householders and merchants of the city will condescend to invite me to represent their interests in Parliament and be satisfied with one representative I shall afford them the benefit of my experience in popular elections to attain their object and if I should succeed, to maintain their interests in the House of Commons.29


By late August he had decided against both Edinburgh and Ipswich.30 Wellington was ‘delighted to hear’ in November of his ‘prospect at Worcester’ on Lord Strangford’s interest, but success was not assured despite the formation of a local Carlton Club to assist him, and he did not stand.31 He was mentioned for Worcester in 1834, but contested Ipswich, where he succeeded at the poll in January 1835 but was unseated on petition.32 He had declined Peel’s offer of a junior treasury post. From 1835, Benjamin Disraeli’s† ‘strange existences styled Christophers’ resided at Bloxholm, the 1,332-acre Lincolnshire estate which Lady Mary inherited by her great-uncle Sir George Manners’s will, in conformity with which Dundas took the name of Christopher.33 In July 1837 he was returned for Lincolnshire North, which he held for the Conservatives for the next 20 years, enjoying a brief taste of cabinet office in 1852 as chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster in Lord Derby’s Protectionist ministry.34 He assumed the additional names of Nisbet and Hamilton when Lady Mary inherited the 22,000-acre Belhaven and Dirleton estates in Haddingtonshire in 1855. Thereafter he divided his time between Lincolnshire, Scotland and his London house in Chesham Place, where he died in June 1877, recalled as a ‘Tory of the Tories’, able, but of a ‘somewhat brusque and repellent manner’.35 Apart from a £2,000 bequest to his brother Philip, his co-executor and trustee of William Dundas’s estate, he left everything to his wife (d. 1883) as ‘guardian to my beloved child Mary Georgina Constance’. In 1888 she married her kinsman Henry Thomas Nisbet Hamilton Ogilvy, younger son of Sir John Ogilvy of Inverqharity.36


Ref Volumes: 1820-1832

Author: Margaret Escott


  • 1. Gent. Mag. (1807), ii. 1075; PROB 11/1472/21.
  • 2. Jnl. of Jurisprudence, xxi (1877), 401.
  • 3. M. Fry, Dundas Despotism, 369; NAS GD248/824/6/6-10; Suff. Chron. 27 May, 3, 10, 17, 24 June 1826, 24 Feb., 21 Apr. 1827; Suff. RO (Ipswich), Broke of Nacton mss HA93/7/38; HA73/9/221, A.J. Hammond to Sir P. Broke, 11 June 1826, 3 July 1827.
  • 4. Ipswich Jnl. 10, 17 June 1826.
  • 5. Arniston Mems. 333.
  • 6. See S.G. Checkland, The Elgins; S. Bunyan, Two Ladies of Direlton.
  • 7. Arniston Mems. 338; Add. 40317, f. 204.
  • 8. Arniston Mems. 342; Hopetoun mss 167, f. 159.
  • 9. Arniston Mems. 347-8.
  • 10. Suff. RO (Ipswich), J. Glyde, ‘Materials for Parl. Hist. Ipswich’, ff. 101-2.
  • 11. Add. 40398, f. 87.
  • 12. NAS GD224/581/4.
  • 13. Wellington mss WP1/112/3.
  • 14. Lincs. AO, Ancaster mss, W. May to G.J. Heathcote, 5 Aug.; Ipswich Jnl. 10, 24 July, 7 Aug. 1830; NAS GD205/45/15/3/7.
  • 15. NAS GD205/45/15/3/6.
  • 16. NAS GD205/45/15/3/8.
  • 17. Edinburgh Evening Courant, 28 Apr., 2, 5 May 1831; J. Anderson, Hist. Edinburgh, 413; Wellington mss WP1/1184/8; NAS GD205/45/15/3/16; GD224/510/17/13; 580/3/1/3/9.
  • 18. Edinburgh Evening Courant, 30 Apr. 1831.
  • 19. Ibid. 9 July 1831.
  • 20. Anderson, 415.
  • 21. Add. 51644.
  • 22. Edinburgh Evening Courant, 4 June 1832.
  • 23. Add. 40402, ff. 163-7.
  • 24. Edinburgh Evening Courant, 12 May 1832.
  • 25. Ibid. 12, 28 May; Add. 51575, Abercromby to Holland, 28 May; 51644, Murray to same, 5 June 1832.
  • 26. Edinburgh Election Broadsides; NAS GD224/580/3/2/13.
  • 27. Arniston Mems. 352-3.
  • 28. Ibid.; NLW, Ormathwaite mss FG1/6, p. 92.
  • 29. NAS GD205/45/15/3/31.
  • 30. Edinburgh Evening Courant, 23, 30 Aug.; Ipswich Jnl. 15 Nov. 1832.
  • 31. Wellington mss WP1/1238/20; NAS GD205/45/15/3/9.
  • 32. N. Gash, Politics in Age of Peel, 156.
  • 33. Disraeli Letters, iv. 891, 956; PROB 11/1737/220; Gent. Mag. (1834), i. 515, 670.
  • 34. R.J. Olney, Lincs. Politics, 1832-1885, pp. 16, 99, 111, 115, 122-32, 240-1; NAS GD205/45/13/3/18-20.
  • 35. Scotsman, 12 July 1877.
  • 36. PROB 11/2029/19; R.C. Nesbitt, Nisbet of that Ilk, 35, 47-48.