TRAILL, George (1787-1871), of Castlehill, nr. Thurso, Caithness and Hobister, Orkney
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Family and Educationb. 5 Nov. 1787,1 1st s. of James Traill, adv., of Hobister and Rattar Dunnet, Caithness and Lady Janet Sinclair, da. of William, 10th earl of Caithness [S]. educ. Westminster 1801-5; Edinburgh Univ.; adv. 1811. unm. suc. fa. 1843. d. 29 Sept. 1871.
Traill’s father, the son of Dr. George Traill (d. 1785) of Hobister, minister of the north Caithness parish of Dunnet, 1751-84, was born in 1758, admitted an advocate in 1779 and became sheriff of Sutherland and Caithness. He was served as heir general to his father in the Orkney estate of Hobister, near Kirkwall, in 1787, but resided mainly in Caithness. He was not on the freeholders’ roll there, but was in Orkney, where his estate was described in 1788 as a ‘good’ one.2 His son George Traill was educated for the Scottish bar, to which he was admitted in 1811, by when he too was on the Orkney roll as George Traill junior of Hobister; but he lived chiefly in Caithness, at Castlehill.3 He and his father had been parties to the Orkney electoral pact of 1818, whereby they and a group of independent proprietors had agreed with Thomas Dundas, 1st Baron Dundas, to an alternating system of nomination for, in the first instance, the next two general elections, in order to overturn the currently dominant interest of Sir William Honyman, Lord Armadale (SCJ). At the general election of 1820, when it was the turn of the lairds to put up the Member, Traill and his father were active in promoting the candidature of the latter’s old friend, 69-year-old John Balfour of Trenabie, who had represented the county in the 1790 Parliament and now lived in and near London. Traill overcame ‘the desponding view’ of John Balfour’s nephew and Orkney man of affairs, Captain William Balfour, and the election resulted in Balfour’s defeat of Armadale’s son.4 In 1823 James Traill tried to obtain from the Liverpool ministry an exchange of his shrievalty for a commissionership of bankrupts for his younger son and namesake, but apparently did not succeed; James Traill junior later became a metropolitan police magistrate.5 The electoral pact had been renewed for the next two elections soon after the election of 1820, and in 1825 Captain George Heneage Dundas*, brother of the 2nd Baron Dundas (the 1st Baron having died in June 1820) and Member in the 1818 Parliament, announced his candidature for the anticipated general election. However, one of the signatories to the pact, the Whig Samuel Laing†, declared his intention of standing against him. According to Captain Balfour, writing to John in late September 1825, ‘a hint’ had been given to Traill soon after the 1820 election that ‘if it should prove inconvenient for any of the Dundas family to come forward’ next time, ‘their turn should be given up to him’; and he thought that Traill and ‘his friends had spoken a little unguardedly’ about this. At the same time, he felt that he himself was in honour bound to support Dundas if he persevered, and reported that Traill and his father had also promised Dundas their support.6 George Traill confirmed this to Captain Balfour, and explained ‘the views I have entertained with respect to myself’ regarding the county at the election after the next:
I have always said that if you would consent to become a candidate ... you should have my most zealous support ... but as you have heretofore declined it in so decided a manner, and having been myself encouraged by the wishes expressed in my favour by several friends connected with Orkney, I trust it will not be thought presumptuous in me to say that for some time I have looked to this situation as a desirable object, the attainment of which would probably afford me, for the active part of my life, an ample employment suited to my inclination and turn of mind ... But neither for the attainment of this nor of any personal gratification to myself will I be the cause of disunion ... still less of risking the dissolution of that intimate connection of friendship which has for so long subsisted between our families. Therefore if, when it comes to our turn to elect, you shall be disposed to bring forward another candidate ... I will at once withdraw my pretensions ... With respect to party, it being admitted that a regular opposition is essential to the existence of our system of government, it follows that provided the candidate is otherwise a proper person, his belonging to that party can be no sufficient objection to him ... but if you should object to me on this score, I shall ... give way. All I would ask in that case is that before determining against me, you would give me an opportunity of stating my sentiments at the time; because although I am a Whig in principle and cannot anticipate any change in that respect, yet it does not necessarily follow that I must always be an oppositionist, whatever may be the character and conduct of the existing administration.7
Captain Balfour replied that he would be guided by his uncle, while he lived, and by Traill’s father thereafter, and declined to commit himself so far in advance, but said that it was ‘very improbable I shall not support you’ and ‘impossible I should oppose you’.8 In early January 1826 Captain Balfour, commenting to his uncle that Traill’s recent interest in plans for facilitating the transport to market of ‘the productions of his estate’ was out of character, observed:
He spends two or three weeks there once in the year it is true, but he is (when well) employed from morning to night rather for preparing for his expected seat in Parliament by reading Adam Smith, Ricardo* and McCulloch on political economy than in planning the improving of his estate.9
On 21 Feb. Traill informed Captain Balfour from Southampton that he had heard that the Honyman and Henderson families had coalesced with Laing, which seemed to make Dundas’s success unlikely and thus threatened their own long term prospects. He suggested trying to persuade John Balfour to stand for re-election, with the concurrence of the Dundases, which he was prepared to seek in person, on the understanding that the Dundas interest would have the nomination at the election after next. If John Balfour declined and the chance was offered to him, he would ‘try it’, though he acknowledged that his ‘chance of success at the election is nothing like so certain’ as Balfour’s and that the Dundases would be less ‘likely to put me forward, because they would not have the subsequent return’.10 To John Balfour the captain wrote, 25 Feb., that Traill’s notion of brokering such a deal with the Dundases on his behalf was ‘a mere compliment’, for, as Traill knew full well, the arithmetic of the votes was all against their beating Laing.11 Nothing came of this. On 29 Apr. Traill wrote at length to Captain Balfour, again from Southampton, confirming that he and his brother had consulted John Balfour and discovered that he had no intention of standing at the next election. He had then broached to Captain Dundas the suggestion of his family’s ‘offering us the first nomination’, but found him unreceptive and confident of his own chances. Traill was willing to assist him as best he could, in point of honour and as the best means of securing their own interests in the long run. As to his own views:
It is of course decided that when our turn comes Mr. [John] Balfour resumes his place, if he can be induced to accept. If not ... so far from considering you as under the slightest pledge to me ... I shall certainly not come forward unless it meets with your entire approbation at the time ... If it should so happen that ... you shall wish to support any other person ... I shall not stand in your way.12
Captain Balfour was satisfied with this, though he thought that some of Traill’s speculations of votes to be gained for the old coalition were optimistic and perceived that, like himself, he rather wanted Dundas to give it up, though ‘for a different reason’.13 A month before the election Captain Balfour discovered that Traill and his father had tied off with two Hendersons, so that they need not attend the election, and expressed his strong disapproval. After a flurry of correspondence it proved possible to secure their release from this arrangement.14 In the event Laing withdrew at a late hour, leaving Captain Dundas to walk over. A month after the election Traill was testing the waters for the next one.15 In May 1827, when he was trying to open a new market for kelp in America, he alerted Captain Balfour to the forthcoming sale of the Honyman estate and attached superiorities and offered to take an equal share with the Balfours in their purchase. He also suggested making ‘a general and formal offer’ of support to John Balfour at the next election. This was done, and, as Traill had presumably anticipated, Balfour signified his determination not to enter Parliament again, which left the way clear for Traill at the next election.16 In November 1827 he asked Captain Balfour for advice on how to respond to an overture from Lord Dundas, who accepted that Traill was to be the candidate at the next election, but suggested an agreement that in return for support then it was to be understood that a Dundas nominee would be put up at the election after that. Traill concurred in Balfour’s view that any such engagement should be avoided at that distance from the event, and he subsequently had a satisfactory talk with Dundas’s agent on this matter.17 He was in London in mid-June 1830, when he anticipated the king’s death and informed Captain Balfour of reports that the struggling Wellington ministry was to be ‘very materially changed by an infusion of new strength from the liberals’; in this event, he wanted to see Charles Grant, Member for Inverness-shire, made chancellor of the exchequer, which would aid his efforts to secure legislation to alleviate the problems of the kelp trade. He had already discussed the problem and possible solutions, which included a scheme for ‘commutation of the window duty’ to boost the production of glass, with Grant and James Loch*, a candidate for Tain Burghs, and they had not entirely negative talks with Goulburn, the incumbent chancellor.18 On the dissolution in July he announced his candidature for Orkney, and he was returned unopposed, 1 Sept. 1830. Returning thanks, he promised to act ‘in the most independent and conscientious manner’ and to continue his co-operation with Loch to ‘revive the kelp trade’.19
Ministers listed Traill as one of their ‘friends’, but after consulting John Balfour, to whom he turned constantly for advice and guidance, he went to the Commons on 15 Nov. 1830 intending to vote against them on the civil list, only to discover that ‘the lobby was shut a few minutes before my arrival’.20 He presented petitions for the abolition of slavery from Orkney and Caithness, 16 Nov., 6, 18 Dec. 1830. He gleaned from Thomas Kennedy*, whose draft Scottish reform proposals had been taken up by the Grey ministry, that their scheme would enfranchise at least 100 £10 owners and occupiers in Orkney, exclusive of Shetland. He approved of this, and in January 1831 gave Captain Balfour the impression that his uncle’s ‘ideas on reform go rather further than his’. This surprised the captain, who was suspicious of Traill’s motives in creating the impression that he consulted John Balfour ‘most unreservedly on every point connected with our public affairs’. He thought there could be strong opposition in Orkney to a Member who was ‘inclined to carry ... [reform] so far as George Traill is supposed to do’, and foresaw trouble at the next election if the Dundases asserted their right to fill the seat, as he was sure that Traill had no intention of stepping quietly aside.21 On 5 Feb. Traill wrote at length to Captain Balfour from Edinburgh of his efforts to improve the kelp trade, which he thought had ‘favourable’ prospects of success, though he had felt unable to support Loch’s new scheme to secure a repeal of the glass duties to compensate for the reduction of those on barilla without consulting his constituents, having been mandated by them to co-operate with the glass makers for a commutation of the window tax. He also doubted the practicality of the West Highland proprietors’ proposals for a small increase in the duties on salt and barilla. He explained his controversial attempt to improve the postal service to Orkney. In his frequent communications with the treasury on these matters he had found Spring Rice, the financial secretary, and Lord Althorp, the chancellor of the exchequer, ‘very satisfactory’ to deal with. On the issue of parliamentary reform, he wrote:
That this measure will and must be carried is now admitted almost universally, but whether before or after a dissolution ... is not so certain, from there being about 30 Members representing treasury boroughs and put in by the late ministers, and from the pertinacity and blindness of some of the borough proprietors, who notwithstanding the signs of the times seem determined to cling to their patronage. If a dissolution is resorted to, there can be no question ... as to the result, but from the present state of the public mind there is no saying what disturbances this might give rise to or how they might terminate. Had it not been for the duke of Wellington’s opportune resignation, I do not think the peace of the country could have been maintained, and if the present ministry were obliged to go out on this question, the result would be still more certain. But of this I conceive there is no chance, and as it appears the ministers are quite agreed as to the measure which they are to propose, I confidently hope it will be such as to satisfy the influential and middling classes of the community and, if so, the labouring class, notwithstanding the efforts of demagogues, will very soon be reconciled.
He had been advised by John Balfour not to raise directly with Lord Grey the possibility of separating Orkney and Shetland for electoral purposes, though he calculated that reform might create barely a dozen electors in the latter. Anticipating a dissolution in May whatever happened, he sought a renewal of Captain Balfour’s support.22 In the House, 26 Feb., he presented reform petitions from Stromness and Wick, and later in the discussion said that ‘if public meetings in Scotland to petition for reform have not been numerous, it is not because the people are opposed to the question, but because they did not wish to agitate it before it had been taken up by government ... Nearly all the wealth, respectability and talent of the country are prepared to support ... ministers on this point’. On 12 Mar. he informed Captain Balfour that he had high hopes of ministers’ agreeing to abolish the glass duties, but opined that a property tax, which he favoured, could not be achieved in an unreformed Parliament. He claimed that John Balfour entirely agreed with him that the government’s English reform bill
neither should nor could be counteracted. The system of rotten boroughs in particular, by which both the government and the people are kept in subjugation, has of late been so completely exposed that no force could maintain it for two ... months. The legitimate power which the aristocracy obtain by the addition to the county Members will be a much more effectual support to their interests than the invidious possession of close boroughs, while the qualification of £10 will secure a much better class of voters than those who have lately exercised that right at Liverpool and Preston. My opinion of this plan is that it is so reasonable that it will permanently satisfy the people ... The determination to reform Scotland is so universal that even if the question was lost with respect to England it would be applied to Scotland.23
A report that ministers were going to permit the use of sugar instead of barley grain in distilling sent him scurrying in protest to the treasury, where he found Spring Rice willing to allow the argument against this to be fully aired.24 On 21 Mar. Traill presented 50 Scottish petitions in support of the ministerial reform scheme, drawing attention to one from merchants, bankers, manufacturers, traders and other inhabitants of Glasgow with 24,000 signatures and another from Glasgow town council. Next day he divided for the second reading of the English reform bill. He took up the case for giving Orkney and Shetland a Member each, the more urgently when he discovered that the Scottish reform bill would enfranchise around 110 Shetlanders; he had an interview with Lord John Russell, who promised to lay the case before Grey.25 Laing now told him that if Parliament was dissolved before reform was carried, he would not oppose his re-election, but that he would definitely stand as an enthusiastic reformer at the first election under reformed conditions. Captain Balfour’s view, vouchsafed to his uncle, was that in the latter case Laing would be unbeatable and it might be advisable to make terms with him to ensure a share in the future representation, or, less appealingly, to strike an alliance with the Shetlanders; James Baikie was of the same opinion.26 Nevertheless, they began a canvass for Traill. When Balfour, who was privately at a loss to understand why the ‘ambitious’ Traill ‘took it into his head to be a reformer’, when Laing’s credentials as such were far more convincing, explained their views to him, Traill replied on 8 Apr. that he had decided not to seek re-election, even in the event of a dissolution before reform was secured (which he did not expect), for in that case he would be a lame duck Member, and recommended George Dundas as the man to put up against Laing. On a more positive note, he had established from Spring Rice that the proposal to allow distilling from sugar was ‘at a stand’ for the moment.27 He authorized some of his friends in Caithness, where he had earned popularity through his attention to local interests and some reformers were keen to see him returned, to start a preliminary canvass and put him up for that county.28 Captain Balfour had many objections to Dundas’s candidature, as he told his uncle, 21 Apr., and he wrote to Traill in an attempt to persuade him not to retire and continued the canvass for him.29 He was unaware of the ministerial defeat on Gascoyne’s wrecking amendment to the reform bill, 19 Apr. (when Traill was in their minority), which precipitated a dissolution four days later. On 21 Apr., anticipating this, Traill informed Captain Balfour and Baikie that he had extricated himself from Caithness and, having discovered that George Dundas had no wish to come in at present, had decided to offer again for Orkney, though he professed willingness to step aside if they strongly preferred another man.30 Captain Balfour decided to support him as the least objectionable candidate in the circumstances, though his dalliance with Caithness, which had done better from the reform scheme than had Orkney, laid him open to local resentment. He reasoned also that the slim chance of obtaining separate representation for Orkney and Shetland might be enhanced by returning ‘a thick and thin supporter’ of the reform scheme.31 Traill broke his ‘unpleasant journey [north], arising from the extreme cold of the weather, and the state of my health not being well adapted for travelling’, with a discussion in Newcastle with his kelp agent, who told him that the glass manufacturers wanted a repeal or significant reduction of the window duties, which Traill knew ministers would not concede. In Edinburgh he tackled the lord advocate Francis Jeffrey* for the third time on the Orkney case against the junction with Shetland, but was told that there was not ‘the slightest hope’ of succeeding in it; he felt that ‘our only remaining chance is by bringing our case directly under the cognisance of Lord Grey, which ... may be accomplished through the medium of Lord Dundas’.32 He was returned unopposed, but Laing wanted the freeholders to instruct him to oppose the Scottish reform bill ‘in every stage’ unless the separation of Orkney and Shetland was conceded. He was persuaded by Baikie to substitute a request that Traill should use his best endeavours to secure this.33
Traill voted for the second reading of the reintroduced English reform bill, 6 July, steadily for its details and for its passage, 21 Sept. 1831. Before voting for the second reading of the Scottish bill, 23 Sept., he presented the petition of Shetland proprietors for separate representation. He also brought up a Caithness malt distillers’ petition against the use of molasses in distilling, having been named to the select committee on that subject, 30 June. He voted in defence of the conduct of the Irish administration during the Dublin election, 23 Aug. On 1 Oct. he told John Balfour that, pursuing his so far fruitless attempt to ‘preserve our political independence’ by persuading ministers to separate Orkney and Shetland, he was to have that day another interview with Althorp. He had given notice of an appropriate amendment to the Scottish bill, but expected the English one to be thrown out by the Lords, which ‘will give us some breathing space’. A week later he asked Captain Balfour to send him ‘without delay’ Orkney petitions to both Houses for separate representation and reported that his earlier interview with Grey had been inconclusive, but that the one with Althorp (when he had been supported by Sir Francis Burdett*) had been slightly more encouraging, in that Althorp had conceded that he had made out a strong case, though he held out no hope of a concession. He claimed to have the support of Joseph Hume*, Daniel O’Connell*, Lord Dundas and others, as well as Burdett, and affirmed: ‘If I had been striving for my life I could not have done more and Lord Althorp volunteered to give me a certificate that I had left no means untried. I know it is unnecessary to say this to you, but I wish it to be known by others’. He divided for Lord Ebrington’s motion of confidence in the Grey ministry, 10 Oct. 1831, having attended the meeting of their supporters two days earlier, when this course was decided on as ‘the only means by which the country can be saved from a tremendous convulsion’.34 He subsequently enlisted the active support of Lord Dundas, to whom in mid-November he sent a digest of statistical and other information on Orkney and Shetland designed to show their divergent interests, which Dundas transmitted to Althorp for consideration by the cabinet.35 Laing, however, remained dissatisfied with his efforts and urged Captain Balfour to call a county meeting to instruct Traill ‘not to vote away the political existence of his constituents’:
It is a delicate situation in which Mr. Traill stands. He is bound to support the measure of reform by principle and in acting with a party he must support all the details even to the extent of voting away the political existence of his constituents, unless his constituents ... by the most decided instruction put it in his power to show his party that he is not free to vote away the political existence of ... Orkney.36
Detained in Scotland by his concern for his poorly father, Traill got permission from the whips to pair off with James Balfour until Christmas, and he was thus in Edinburgh at the time of the division on the second reading of the revised English reform bill, 17 Dec. 1831.37 He was present to vote for schedule A, 20 Jan. 1832. On the 25th he was elected a member of Brooks’s Club, sponsored by Burdett and Sir Ronald Ferguson*. He was in the ministerial majorities on clause 27 of the reform bill, 3 Feb., the disfranchisement of Appleby, 21 Feb., the enfranchisement of Tower Hamlets, 28 Feb., and Gateshead, 5 Mar., and the third reading, 22 Mar. He divided with government on the Russian-Dutch loan, 26 Jan., and relations with Portugal, 9 Feb., but was one of the Scottish Members who voted against the third reading of the malt drawback bill, 2 Apr. He presented petitions against the Edinburgh police bill, 16 Apr. His last recorded vote in this period was for the address calling on the king to appoint only ministers who would carry reform unimpaired, 10 May. Four days later he informed Captain Balfour that the duke of Wellington’s attempt to form a Conservative reform ministry was on the verge of collapse.38 On 6 June, to register his protest against the junction of Orkney and Shetland, he argued the case for separating them, but acknowledged that there was no hope of persuading ministers to concede this. (As he later told Captain Balfour, ‘everyone knows that I might as well expect to add a cubit to my height as to add a Member’ to the Commons.) He thought that should be the end of the matter for the time being, but was pressured by others to move a technically dubious amendment to the third reading, 27 June, the effect of which would be to give Orkney and Shetland a Member each by the expedient of disfranchising one of the burgh districts. Ministers of course would not have it, and he withdrew, satisfied that he had made out a case ‘consistent with the claims of justice’. He told Captain Balfour that the question was now ‘placed in a better position for being taken up in the next Parliament’ and that he was ‘so satisfied that I have done my utmost that I am not afraid of any strictures on that head’.39 He was given a month’s leave to attend to urgent business, 29 June 1832.
John Balfour thought that Traill, who was unwell in the autumn, might have done more to protect the interests of Orkney as against those of Shetland and Caithness, and Laing publicly condemned him as a charlatan and party hack; but there was no opposition to his return for the county as a Liberal at the 1832 general election.40 He was defeated by Captain Balfour’s son in 1835, unsuccessfully contested Caithness in 1837, was returned unopposed there as a Liberal in 1841 and sat for 27 years.41 He died in September 1871.
Ref Volumes: 1820-1832
Author: David R. Fisher
- 1. W. Traill, Traills of Orkney, 66.
- 2. Ibid. pp. xi-xii, 65; Pol. State of Scotland 1788, p. 247.
- 3. Pol. State of Scotland 1811, pp. 112-13.
- 4. Orkney Archives D14/1, Traill to J.T. Urquhart, 19 Jan., 16 Feb.; Inverness Courier, 20 Apr. 1820.
- 5. Orkney Archives, Balfour mss D2/25/4, W. to J. Balfour, 6 Feb. ; Traill, 66.
- 6. Balfour mss D2/24/1, W. to J. Balfour, 23 Sept. 1830.
- 7. Ibid. D2/8/13, Traill to W. Balfour, 3 Oct. 1825.
- 8. Ibid. D2/28/11, W. Balfour to Traill, 10 Oct. 1825.
- 9. Ibid. D2/3/10.
- 10. Ibid. D2/28/11.
- 11. Ibid. D2/3/10.
- 12. Ibid. D2/8/13.
- 13. Ibid. D2/3/10, W. to J. Balfour [May]; D2/28/11, to Traill, 23 May 1826.
- 14. Ibid. D2/28/11, W. Balfour to Traill, 9 June; D2/23/11, J. Ker to A. Dallas, 12 June, to Traill, 21 June 1826.
- 15. Ibid. D2/3/10, W. to J. Balfour, 29 Aug. 1826.
- 16. Ibid. D2/8/13, Traill to W. Balfour, 19 May 1827.
- 17. Ibid. D2/8/24, Traill to W. Balfour, 2, 10 Nov. 1827, 18 Mar. 1828.
- 18. Ibid. D2/8/9, Traill to W. Balfour, 11 June 1830.
- 19. Ibid. D2/8/9, Traill’s address, 1 July, Traill to W. Balfour, 16 July; Inverness Courier, 8 Sept. 1830.
- 20. Balfour mss D2/8/9, Traill to W. Balfour, 16 Nov. 1830.
- 21. Ibid. D2/3/14, W. to J. Balfour, 13 Dec. 1830, 3, 31 Jan., 11 Feb. 1831.
- 22. Ibid. D2/8/9.
- 23. Ibid.
- 24. Ibid. Traill to W. Balfour, 16 Mar. 1831.
- 25. Ibid. Traill to W. Balfour, 28 Mar. 1831.
- 26. Ibid. D2/3/14, W. to J. Balfour, 30 Mar., Baikie to same, 1 Apr.; Scotsman, 30 Apr. 1831.
- 27. Ibid. D2/31/26, Traill to W. Balfour, 8 Apr. 1831.
- 28. Ibid. D2/23/11, Traill to Baikie, 21 Apr. 1831; NAS GD136/536/8.
- 29. Ibid. D2/3/14, W. to J. Balfour, 21 Apr. 1831.
- 30. Ibid. D2/23/11.
- 31. Ibid. D2/3/14, W. to J. Balfour, 11 May 1831.
- 32. Ibid. Traill to Balfour, 13 May 1831.
- 33. Caledonian Mercury, 30 Apr., 11 June; Wellington mss WP1/1185/35; Balfour mss D2/3/14, W. to J. Balfour, 1 June 1831.
- 34. Balfour mss D2/3/14, Traill to J. Balfour, 1 Oct.; D2/8/13, to W. Balfour, 8 Oct. .
- 35. Ibid. D2/3/14, Traill to Dundas, 19 Nov., reply, 23 Nov. 1831.
- 36. Ibid. D2/35/19, Laing to W. Balfour, 19 Nov. 1831.
- 37. Ibid. D2/3/14, Traill to J. Balfour, 8 Dec. 1831; Cockburn Letters, 359, 363.
- 38. Balfour mss D2/8/9.
- 39. Ibid. D2/37/6.
- 40. Ibid. D2/20/11, J. to W. Balfour, 20 July, 1 Oct.; D2/28/11, Laing’s address to the electors, 22 Dec. 1832.
- 41. Dod’s Parl. Companion (1861), 297.