Scottish County

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1690-1715, ed. D. Hayton, E. Cruickshanks, S. Handley, 2002
Available from Boydell and Brewer

Background Information

Number of voters:



1 June 1708WILLIAM GORDON, Ld. Haddo 
18 Jan. 1709SIR ALEXANDER CUMMING, Bt. vice Gordon, eldest son of a peer of Scotland35
 Sir Robert Forbes211
 William Keith202
 Alexander Reid233

Main Article

Unlike the majority of Scottish counties, there was no hereditary sheriff in Aberdeenshire, the 1st Marquess of Huntly having resigned his grant under pressure from the crown in 1629. Thereafter appointment had been made either at pleasure or for life. In 1705 the Earl of Mar, a rising star of the Scottish Court party, obtained a grant of the sheriffdom during pleasure, but as reward for successfully managing the Union this was converted into tenure for life in April 1707. The fact that a reversion to his son was included in the new terms of office indicated, in the opinion of one local historian, the restoration ‘of something like the old heritable sheriffship’, but Mar’s subsequent attainder for leading the Fifteen put paid to this development. Although Mar’s conversion to overt Jacobitism did not take place until after the Hanoverian succession, Aberdeenshire itself had long been reputed a bastion of cavalier loyalism because of the power wielded by such magnates as the Duke of Gordon, the Earl of Aberdeen, the earls Marischal and the earls of Erroll, all in varying degrees sympathetic to the Jacobite cause, and also to the strength of episcopalianism among the population at large. (Catholics were also numerous but concentrated in the western highlands of the county and therefore less significant politically.) Most parish incumbents were episcopalian, making their voices heard loudly in 1712 when the county’s clergy formally thanked the Queen both for the communication of peace terms and for the passage of the Scottish Toleration Act. The city of Aberdeen itself, one commentator observed, ‘minds to be the metropolis of the episcopal party’. The university, where an Anglican liturgy had recently been introduced, provided intellectual leadership. On the other side, Presbyterians were making steady, if slow, progress in extending control over congregations and making discipline more effective, particularly in the towns, where cliques of godly merchants carried influence, but the most important political counterweight to the cavaliers was still the 13th Lord Forbes, whose clan headed the minority ‘Revolution interest’ among the lairds.4

A Jacobite agent described the Aberdeenshire members elected in 1702 as ‘loyal, honest men’, adducing this as ‘good evidence of the loyalty of the barons there’. All but one remained attached to the Country party throughout the last Scottish parliament, the exception being William Seton*, who transferred his allegiance to the Court in return for a minor office. He took trouble, nevertheless, to justify supporting the Union on principle, and was rewarded with inclusion on the Court slate for the first Parliament of Great Britain. This placed him in a strong position to claim Mar’s interest at the 1708 election for the single seat to which Aberdeenshire was now entitled. The Earl found himself in the embarrassing situation of deciding between Seton and two other competitors, namely Sir Robert Forbes of Learney (former member for Inverurie, a disconsolate Court supporter who had lost office after the Union) and Sir Alexander Cumming (one of the defeated candidates from 1702, currently abroad in connexion with official duties in the Low Countries). Having refused to answer repeated solicitations from Forbes, Mar instructed his own brother Lord Grange SCJ (Hon. James Erskine†) in late April to have the election ‘put off as long as conveniently and lawfully can be that so I might be in Scotland and concert it’. In the meantime, he trusted that the rivals ‘should all join’ in supporting the one ‘that has the greatest interest or else a fourth will come in and carry it from them all’. Mar confided, moreover, that if their kinsman, Thomas Erskyne of Pittodrie, were to enter the fray, he intended to ‘be for him before anybody’. It seemed to Mar that Forbes had ‘made the strongest interest’ and he trusted that ‘the rest will yield to him’ with the proviso that ‘if any of the others be stronger than he . . . Sir Robert will do the like’. After receiving from Mar an invitation to stand, Erskyne declined because ‘most if not all’ the qualified freeholders were already engaged. In the event, the election was decided without any further involvement by Mar. As a consequence of the sheriff’s diffidence, Forbes had surrendered his own interest to another candidate entirely, the Earl of Aberdeen’s eldest son, Lord Haddo. Forbes’ decision was perhaps prompted by Cumming having already given way to Haddo. Erskyne explained to Mar on 14 May that neither Seton nor ‘any [who] will set up’ now stood any chance of defeating Haddo ‘except your lordship’s presence made an alteration’. Mar declined to make any further effort in a lost cause, much to the dissatisfaction of Seton, who threatened to make it a ‘controverted election’. As one of the principal managers of the Union, Mar was well aware that ambiguity remained over the eligibility of the eldest sons of Scottish peers to sit at Westminster. Although they had been barred from sitting in the unicameral Scottish parliament, some Scottish peers hoped for a change in status because of the Union. The threatened petition, noted Mar, would ‘bring that affair of the peers’ sons in controversy, which we should avoid, so if [Seton of] Pitmedden cannot carry it I wish he may make no struggle’.5

Although there was no contest, Haddo being elected ‘nemine opponente’, according to one Scottish newspaper, there was a partial boycott of the election. Haddo’s voters may be identified from a list compiled several years later, and his opponents signed petitions against the election. It is apparent that Haddo’s support was far from uniform in complexion. He received 38 votes, 13 of which had favoured Country candidates in 1702, whereas 12 voters had either split their votes or supported the Court. The remainder were new voters, and included two freeholds belonging to the corporation of Aberdeen. Staunch Jacobites and notable Hanoverians voted for Haddo. Indeed, a number of families hedged their bets, doubtless with an eye to a by-election if Haddo was to be unseated by the Commons. Forbes and some of his supporters voted for Haddo, but his nephew, Sir William Forbes, 2nd Bt., of Craigievar petitioned against the return. Seton’s conduct was similar, voting himself for Haddo, whereas his father was a petitioner. Two petitions were presented to the Commons. The first was signed by Alexander Irvine of Drum (a Jacobite laird), Alexander Gordon of Pitlurg and James Moir of Stonywood (both former members for the county) and by Erskyne of Pittodrie (clearly a potential candidate himself). It set out Scottish precedents for the disqualification of the peers’ eldest sons, and argued that their admission to Westminster would ‘in a very short time, sensibly affect the very being of a British House of Commons, by bringing our small representation into the hands of a numerous and powerful peerage; the consequences whereof they have but too great cause to fear’. The second petition ‘set forth the aforesaid matter, in the same words’, and was in fact signed by the same four individuals, plus another 17 freeholders. First named on this petition was the Squadrone Member, Sir Thomas Burnett, 3rd Bt.*, whose presence indicated that the compact between the Duke of Hamilton, the parliamentary chieftain of the cavaliers, and the Squadrone did not extend to this election (despite the fact that Haddo’s father was one of those arrested on suspicion of complicity in the recent invasion attempt). The 21 petitioners against the election were as mixed a bag as Haddo’s supporters: Jacobites and Hanoverians were present in this group, and there is no significant correlation with the pattern of votes cast in the previous election in 1702. Indeed, more than half the petitioners had not voted on that occasion. The Commons ruled against Haddo on 3 Dec. 1708, and his disqualification acted as a precedent in all similar cases.6

Notwithstanding all the jockeying for position that had taken place, the ensuing by-election in January 1709 resolved itself into a clear-cut contest between Cumming and Forbes. As previously, Mar sought to arbitrate by using his brother as an intermediary. Lord Grange reported on 5 Feb. that

the difference betwixt Sir Alexander Cumming and Sir Robert Forbes ran to too great a height. Sir Robert objected against Sir Alexander that he was denuded of all his estate in that shire . . . Sir Alexander objected against Sir Robert that he was judge in a supreme court without power of deputation, and that he endeavoured to draw all business before that court though not competent to its jurisdiction, and that for his own profit he made undue exactions . . . This was a high charge, amounting to little less than bribery; and except Sir Alexander intend[s] to prosecute Sir Robert for such malversations I think he was fool to mention them . . . Sir James Elphinstone complained to me a while before the election that Sir Robert was likely to be disappointed by the influence of great men at court. I desired him to name them, and among the rest he named you. His son John was present, who had been with me all the times I met Sir Alexander and Sir Robert, and was witness to the pains I took to adjust matters betwixt them . . . I told him that he ought not to suspect . . . that you was [sic] taking underhand ways to undermine Sir Robert, that had you been against him you had never written so as you did, nor given these orders which his son had been witness how exactly I obeyed.

This even-handedness was ostensible rather than genuine, for Grange not only complained privately that Forbes had set up without Mar’s prior consent, but also made a point of informing his brother that Cumming’s co-operation with their own plans for the Clackmannanshire election was now assured. He noted, moreover, that ‘Mr Innes and the rest of your people did vote for Sir Alexander, or were absent, and Sir Alexander pretends to have a great sense of his obligations to you’.7

The uncertainties surrounding Aberdeenshire elections are apparent in the discrepancies between Cumming’s predictions about voting behaviour with the record of votes cast. His 35 voters included only 18 who were listed as supporters on his own canvassing list, and almost half of the 76 freeholders expected to attend the election failed to register a vote. A few of these absentees were listed as supporters of ‘M’, presumably Urquhart of Meldrum, who appears at some stage to have considered standing. Meldrum himself and five of his supporters actually voted for Cumming, who managed also to poach three of Forbes’ predicted voters. Cumming’s support bore little relation to that which he had received when he last stood, only 5 voters registering votes for him both in 1702 and 1709; nor is any pattern evident in Jacobite or Hanoverian sympathies on either side. The personal bitterness which accompanied the election does not appear to have had a marked effect on future voting patterns. Admittedly six of Forbes’ voters did not vote again in this period, but only three later opposed Cumming, and 12 cast one or more votes in his favour.8

There were at least five potential candidates in 1710, and the sitting Member appears to have been a little slow off the mark, perhaps because he initially contemplated standing for the burghs district instead. The candidates who made the best early showing were Urquhart of Meldrum and William Keith of Ludquharn, the latter being the eldest son of a Jacobite, Sir William, 3rd Bt., and a distant kinsman of the earls Marischal. Canvassing began immediately after the prorogation, but Mar did not declare in favour of Cumming until the second half of August, ‘some six weeks since all have been solicited and many engaged’, as Erskyne of Pittodrie reported. Erskyne informed Mar that neither his own father nor John Farquharson of Invercauld would qualify to vote, ‘it being generally talked [that] Meldrum is to propose the Abjuration’. A danger also existed that if these Jacobite lairds were prevailed upon to qualify they might vote for Keith out of loyalty to the ‘nobility and gentry in his seniors’. Moreover, Sir Thomas Burnett of Leys, recognizing a lost cause in Kincardineshire, had ‘appeared of late here’ and with the endorsement of Lord Seafield, Lord Kintore and Sir William Forbes of Craigievar, was pushing himself forward as a defender of ‘the Presbyterian government and Revolution’. It was difficult to predict how events would turn out, since Burnett was making ground in the town of Aberdeen, whereas ‘Meldrum and Keith have been very active throughout the shire’. There was a possibility that Moir of Stonywood would also step forward as a candidate, but this eventuality was quashed by indirect pressure from Mar via the Duke of Hamilton. Burnett’s challenge also petered out; he attended the election but refused to vote. Meldrum, as in the last election, eventually ceded his interest to Cumming. The Duke of Argyll’s brother Lord Ilay had indirectly influenced events by writing to Cumming on 12 Aug. with the reassuring endorsement that

Meldrum will rather assist you than any other person, especially considering he cannot but know how much my brother and I are concerned to have you succeed. I don’t know whether it is proper for me to write to him, but you let him know that any service he does will be taken kindly by my brother and me.

At the election Cumming retained 17 former voters and added five new ones. He also obtained the two votes belonging to Aberdeen. Keith made a poor showing of only 25 votes, and towards the end of proceedings so far conceded defeat as to give his own vote to Cumming.9

As the political atmosphere of the county became more febrile, and cavalier and episcopalian interests more vociferous and even physically violent, in the ‘rabbling’ of a Presbyterian minister, Cumming’s Toryism and his identification with the episcopalian campaign seem also to have become more pronounced. In the 1713 election, held in the aftermath of the abortive campaign to dissolve the Union, and with a gathering crisis over the succession, when Jacobites in Aberdeen were allegedly recruiting publicly for the Pretender, he narrowly held onto the seat. Cumming could not automatically rely on support from Mar because Erskyne of Pittodrie was determined ‘to stand to the last’, vowing that ‘if pains and money can defeat him I’ll bestow both’. In fact, Erskyne’s property qualification appeared increasingly dubious (requiring a new infeftment from his father that could not be processed in time) and he set his sights instead on Elgin Burghs, receiving advice from its former representative, Alexander Reid of Barra, who now aspired to represent the county. Reid, a client of the Earl of Findlater, was unable to persuade his patron to endorse Erskyne’s candidacy and ended by contesting both seats himself. There were also rumours that Meldrum and Colonel John Buchan of Cairnbulg (both Hanoverians) might stand, but neither did so. Meanwhile, Lord Grange sought an alternative candidate who might be more acceptable to Mar, but was informed that Sir William Forbes was ‘not willing to stand for the shire’. Mar and Grange briefly considered supporting Reid, but decided against this course of action both because of uncertainty about Erskyne’s co-operation and because Cumming’s friends had already ‘cunningly engaged’ several of his supporters.10

Proceedings at the electoral court on 22 Oct. 1713 were protracted and acrimonious. Cumming won the initial exchanges by securing the election of Hon. Alexander Maitland* as praeses. Cumming thereafter entered ten protests against voters for Reid, who countered with nine objections of his own. Cumming’s 35 votes comprised 25 freeholders who had supported him either in 1709 or 1710, and four votes derived from landholdings of the corporation of Aberdeen and the university. Only three were voters who had supported Keith at the last election, and he succeeded in persuading two Jacobite sympathizers, Sir George Innes of Coxton and Captain John Stewart of Dens, to vote for the first time since the Union. Another ten of his voters may be distinguished as prominent Jacobites, but this situation is counterbalanced by the presence of eight Hanoverians. Reid himself had little sympathy for the Jacobite cause, but his father was apparently more inclined in that direction. Reid certainly picked up six Jacobite votes, and three Hanoverian ones, out of a total of 23 votes. Thus, despite political polarization within the shire generally, electoral behaviour cannot be reduced to straightforward ideological criteria. Reid did not have great success in persuading voters who had supported Cumming at the last election to defect, but managed to collect seven votes of this type (largely because his own family and friends had previously voted that way). The remainder of his support came from 11 freeholders who had either voted for Keith or abstained at the last election, together with five new voters. Given the size of Cumming’s majority and the number of objections recorded at the electoral court, Reid declined to petition.11

Cumming retained the seat in 1715, securing an unopposed return at a thinly attended election. His 16 voters included only two who had opposed him at the last election, and he also enjoyed the by now customary support of Aberdeen and the university.12

Author: D. W. Hayton


  • 1. Aberdeen Univ. Lib. Duff House (Montcoffer) mss 3175/Z174, ‘A List of the Barons Enrolled and that Voted in the Elections in the Shire of Aberdeen since the Union’ [aft. 22 Oct. 1713].
  • 2. Ibid. 3175/Z174, ‘List of Barons . . . since the Union’; copy of sederunt, 25 Oct. 1710.
  • 3. Ibid. 3175/Z174, ‘List of Barons . . . since the Union’; extract of sederunt, 22 Oct. 1713.
  • 4. Sheriff Ct. Recs. Aberdeen (New Spalding Club), ii. 521; iii. 95-96; W. Watt, Aberdeen and Banff, 274-7; HMC Portland, x. 393-5; Defoe, Tour ed. Cole, ii. 809; Innes Review, xviii. 96-101; xx. 71-72; Ideology and Conspiracy ed. Cruickshanks, 44-46; Seafield Corresp. 142; Add. 61629, ff. 142, 145; 61632, ff. 77-78.
  • 5. Orig. Pprs. ed. Macpherson, ii. 17; Riley, Union, 329, 333, 335; SRO, Mar and Kellie mss GD124/15/763/3-5, Forbes to Mar, 4 Mar., 8, 16 Apr. 1708; GD124/15/754/21, 25, Mar to Grange, 27 Apr., 11 May 1708; GD124/851/1-2, Erskyne to Mar, 8, 14 May 1708; Jacobite Cess Roll of Aberdeen. (3rd Spalding Club), 19, 31, 42, 47, 52, 54, 59, 78-79, 81-84, 99, 100-2, 110, 106-7, 117-18, 154, 171, 228, 230, 236, 238, 247; A. and H. Tayler, Jacobites of Aberdeen and Banff in 1715, 22-27, 42, 56-57, 132, 136, 138, 160-1, 197.
  • 6. Edinburgh Courant, 4-7 June 1708; Duff House (Montcoffer) mss 3175/Z174, ‘List of Barons . . . since the Union’.
  • 7. Mar and Kellie mss GD124/15/763/6, 7, Forbes to Mar, 11, 14 Dec. 1708; GD124/15/928, Sir Hew Dalrymple to same, 9 Dec. 1708; GD124/15/943/5, Grange to same, 5 Feb. 1709.
  • 8. Duff House (Montcoffer) mss 3175/Z174, ‘List of Voters [sic] in Three Columns, Jan. 1709’; ‘List of Barons . . . since the Union’.
  • 9. GD124/15/975/15, Grange to Mar, 26 Aug. 1710; GD124/15/1003, Thomas Erskyne to Grange, n.d. [Aug. 1710]; Recs. Old Aberdeen (New Spalding Club), i. 177; Duff House (Montcoffer) mss, 3175/2377, Ilay to Cumming, 12 Aug. [1710]; 3175/Z174, ‘List of Barons . . . since the Union’; copy of sederunt, 25 Oct. 1710. Scots Courant, 27-30 Oct. 1710; Post Boy, 9-11 Nov. 1710.
  • 10. Watt, 278, 282, HMC Portland, v. 351; x. 193, 211-12, 309, 398-9, 403; Wodrow, Analecta, i. 328-9; ii. 276; Wodrow Letters ed. McCrie, i. 218; Mar and Kellie mss GD124/15/1099/2, Erskyne to Grange, 24 June 1713; GD124/15/1106, Patrick Sandilands to same, 7 Sept. 1713.
  • 11. Duff House (Montcoffer) mss 3175/Z174, ‘List of Barons . . . since the Union’; extract of sederunt, 22 Oct. 1713; Jacobite Cess Roll, 31, 52, 54, 57, 67, 78, 81, 83-84, 86, 99, 106-7, 117-18, 154, 157, 171, 188, 228, 230, 236, 238, 247; A. and H. Tayler, 42, 91, 101, 132-6, 138, 144-5, 155-6, 160-1, 193.
  • 12. Duff House (Montcoffer) mss 3175/Z174, ‘List of the Barons Who Voted for Sir Alexander Cumming, 1715’.