Dysart Burghs

Scottish burgh

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

Dysart (1708), Kirkcaldy (1710), Burntisland (1713), Kinghorn, all in Fife


 Sir John Weymss, Bt.21
31 Oct. 1710JAMES OSWALD 
22 Sept. 1713JAMES OSWALD 

Main Article

These Fifeshire coastal towns, although impressive from a distance, on closer inspection struck contemporaries as ‘much decayed’. Dysart was celebrated for its buildings, but had ‘hardly a glass window or any furniture in any of the houses’. Only Kirkcaldy escaped the general reproach that there was ‘nothing but poverty in palaces’, being ‘a town of better air’ with ‘several ships and a good trade’. Its relative prosperity was of recent origin, for in 1689 the burgh had petitioned for discharge of arrears of taxes and a reduction in future assessments, citing the town’s ‘great loss by war, storms at sea and decay of trade’. A discharge of £1,000 Scots was obtained, together with a recommendation to the convention of royal burghs in favour of an abatement of cess. This successful initiative was presented by James Oswald, whose personal commercial prosperity was reflected in electoral successes, both before and after the Union. Eventually, his local influence outmatched the magnate interests of Lords Sinclair, Rothes and Leven.2

Dysart enjoyed right of precedence, by the narrowest of margins, over Kirkcaldy at the first election after the Union. This favoured Lord Sinclair, for his residence lay within Dysart, and the burgh’s inhabitants were mostly his feuars. In a four-burgh district, the presiding burgh only required the addition of a single vote to guarantee a return by right of its casting vote. With the aid of Burntisland, this election was carried in favour of Sinclair’s eldest son, John, who remained abroad on active service during the election. Kirkcaldy and Kinghorn voted for a local worthy, Sir John Weymss, 2nd Bt., of Bogie, who enjoyed the support of the Court peer Lord Leven. Little show was made by the Squadrone magnate Rothes, despite his activity in the Fife burghs at the 1702 election, when he had been influential in overturning Leven’s interest at Kirkcaldy and Burntisland. Oswald had been returned with the aid of Rothes in 1702, but did not join his connexion, remaining with the Country party in the last Scottish parliament, and declining to stand in 1708. At Burntisland in 1702 Rothes had secured the return of Sir John Erskine, 3rd Bt.*, but he was looking elsewhere for a seat in 1708. That Rothes did not sponsor a Squadrone candidate happened partly by default, but was conceivably linked to the electoral compact of the Junto and Squadrone with the Duke of Hamilton. Certainly, this was how the election was portrayed in an anonymous squib, which castigated the Squadrone for supporting the interest of Lord Sinclair, one of those arrested on suspicion of Jacobitism during the recent invasion scare.3

A two-way split at the election gave hope to Weymss of being seated on petition. He claimed that Burntisland’s vote was invalidated by the manner in which its commissioner had been chosen, namely an election by ‘a few of the commonalty’ rather than a properly constituted council. Proceedings on the petition, however, were deferred for five months, and superseded by a ruling of 3 Dec. that Sinclair was incapable of election as the eldest son of a Scottish peer (see ABERDEENSHIRE). Contemporaries were unsure whether a new writ would be issued immediately, or only in the event of the failure of the petition. Neither scenario took place, for the petition never received a hearing, and no writ was forthcoming until 17 Dec. 1709, several weeks into the second session. In the meantime a canvass was started on behalf of one of the Marquess of Tweeddale’s younger sons, Lord William Hay, a defeated candidate for Haddington Burghs in 1708. Rothes wrote immediately to Tweeddale of the possibility of a by-election at Dysart, advising him to write to Lord Sinclair and to send Hay to Dysart so that he might ‘take a bottle’ with Sinclair’s associates. Within a few days Rothes had drafted a letter to Sinclair, which he sent to be forwarded by Tweeddale. Lord Yester, Tweeddale’s eldest son, also wrote to the clerks of Burntisland and Kirkcaldy (who ‘have business with me’), instructing them to wait upon Tweeddale at his Haddingtonshire estate. Rothes believed that the ‘united interest’ of himself and Sinclair, together with a candidate of Lord William’s aristocratic status, could guarantee the election. Sure that he had secured Sinclair’s support, Rothes rejected out of hand a proposal in favour of James Abercromby, illegitimate half-brother of the Duke of Hamilton. It was later reported that Hamilton responded to Rothes’ refusal to support Abercromby with a threat to ‘do it over his body’.4

Hamilton quietly secured Leven’s interest at Kinghorn for Abercromby, leaving only Sinclair’s at Dysart required to carry the election. The influence which Hamilton could bring to bear on Sinclair was impressive: his second son, Hon. James Sinclair†, was a junior officer in the regiment of Hamilton’s brother Lord Orkney, and Sinclair’s eldest son (the former Member) was now a fugitive from justice, having been convicted of murdering a fellow officer. Hamilton could therefore raise the hopes of promotion for the one, and pardon for the other. On 10 Nov. 1709, Sinclair reported to Hamilton that Rothes ‘remained obstinate’ and was ready to support any candidate other than Abercromby. All thought of Hay’s candidacy was laid aside, but Rothes contemplated setting up Oswald or uniting with Leven. It was even reported by William Cochrane* that Rothes had suggested the candidacy of James Sinclair, ‘not out of kindness, but opposition to your Grace’. Unaware of Hamilton’s strategy, Lord Sinclair himself was pessimistic about Abercromby’s prospects:

I told your lordship from the beginning that without Rothes . . . it would be almost impracticable . . . for I must at least have the assistance of one town to my own town. Kirkcaldy I cannot trust after what they did to my son last year, and [as] for Kinghorn I will not meddle nor make with them, [n]or with Leven, so there is a necessity for me to have Burntisland, and he [Rothes] hath lately obliged them in getting them a magistracy, which they have wanted for a long time, and the thing that makes it most difficult is that Rothes is not [to] go for London till after Christmas at soonest, and consequently will be here at the election.5

Hamilton continued with his scheme, and by mid-December 1709 he had secured Leven’s interest at Kinghorn. On 14 Dec. Rothes admitted that a junction with Leven was unattainable, adding that it would in any case have been insufficient: ‘for perhaps though I might get Kirkcaldy and Burntisland to join with me, yet it might be difficult to get them to join with Leven against Sinclair and the Duke of Hamilton, whose name jingles yet . . . since the old huzzas’. Mungo Graham* decried the conduct of Sinclair, who ‘will look to his interest, and have no regard to his promise’. For his part, Sinclair denied ever having made any engagement with Rothes, and jeered at his empty threat of joining with Leven, who ‘would serve him with the same sauce that the Court served his brethren the Squadrone . . . which was to pish [sic] on them after they had served their turn’. Rothes wrote a diatribe to Tweeddale, venting his spleen against Sinclair, while contemplating using his position as hereditary sheriff of Fife to deny Dysart its right of precedence:

Our friends at London have advised me to make no breach with Sinclair, but rather yield . . . I went . . . this day with a design to make him ask it as a favour, and to see if I could get off handsomely by causing him [to] own that he owed it to me . . . But he is I believe entirely with Leven . . . I can see no harm in making a breach with a man [Sinclair] whom I can never trust and who does every day twenty things that are below a gentleman . . . On the other hand I cannot propose to carry an election in opposition to Kinghorn and Dysart because that Dysart pretends to the casting vote for the first three years (although I’m not very clear in that after looking [at] the Act of Parliament, but have wrote to take the advice of a lawyer or two). If Kirkcaldy could pretend to the casting vote, then I might perhaps be able to carry one of themselves, having I think Burntisland, and it pretty sure, but these towns are not much to be relied on . . . If my lord Sinclair had been as much a man of honour as he ought then I could have depended on it that Lord William should have been the man, but I shall never expose his name where I have such a game to play.

Speculations about gaining the casting vote for Kirkcaldy proved idle, though Rothes was rightly concerned that the writ came via Sinclair, ‘which is an odd way of transmitting papers to the sheriff’. It had also been mildly doctored, the name of Dysart being underlined in a different ink from the writ itself, thereby clumsily marking its precedence. This may have been the work of Sinclair or Hamilton’s agent (or perhaps even the Duke, who had been responsible for sending the writ to Sinclair in the first instance). Rothes remained uncertain over the rules governing this by-election: ‘the plain state of the question is this, whether the sheriff of Fife can appoint the election any other place than Dysart, the act of Parliament bearing that the election shall be where her Majesty shall appoint and the writ which is sent me appoints no determined place’. Wisely, he chose not to chance his reputation on such dubious ground, having also received a warning from Sinclair ‘that if he treated me after that manner it would make too wide a breach, and . . . would render me and my friends in the shire incapable of ever serving him hereafter’. Sinclair took the additional precaution of obtaining legal advice, by courtesy of Hamilton’s agents. After this acrimonious prelude the election itself was uneventful, Abercromby being returned unanimously, though perhaps with the aid of some belated sweeteners, for Sinclair had hinted to Hamilton that money might be ‘very necessary if things come in cupping scales’. Afterwards Sinclair conveyed to Hamilton the ‘humble and hearty thanks’ of the ‘whole towns’, asserting that ‘there never was a set of men better pleased with their representative’. The Duke had endeared himself to Sinclair by recommending another of his sons for a naval commission, and had pleased his Kirkcaldy friends with assistance over a shipping matter (see OSWALD, James).6

The belated by-election made Abercromby’s tenure brief, and he did not stand in 1710. Overawed by the recent election of Oswald as provost of Kirkcaldy, he calculated that only a voluntary renunciation in his favour would serve. This was not forthcoming, and Oswald was elected unanimously without a contest. At one stage Erskine had contemplated approaching Rothes for his interest, but in view of their recent political separation, and the complex history of the previous election, decided not to pursue this option. After the election Oswald departed from Kirkcaldy with some pomp, being accompanied by ‘upwards of 150 gentlemen and burgesses’. The district, at Oswald’s behest, sent a loyal address in favour of the peace in July 1712, and the following May, when notified by him of the proclamation of the peace terms, a solemn procession was held in Kirkcaldy, followed by the customary celebrations. Oswald was re-elected in 1713, the death of Hamilton having ended any prospect of a challenge from Abercromby, who complained six months before the election about the lack of respect shown by Lord Sinclair and his family for ‘the memory, obligations and promises they lay under to a person I will not name’ (presumably the late Duke). No contest is known to have taken place, yet Oswald’s return was noted as ‘by plurality’. His advancing age prompted retirement at the next election. The Hanoverian succession brought about a revival of the Rothes interest, but the Oswald and Sinclair families retained their electoral influence.7

Author: David Wilkinson


Unless otherwise stated, this article draws on the account of elections given in Sunter thesis, 1-22.

  • 1. Carried by the casting vote of Dysart as presiding burgh.
  • 2. Macky, Journey through GB, iii. 81-82; R. Sibbald, Hist. Sheriffdoms of Fife and Kinross (1710), 124-6; Reg. PC Scotland 1689, pp. 487-9.
  • 3. Sibbald, 125-6; Buccleuch mss at Drumlanrig Castle, bdle. 1155, Seafield to Queensberry, 17 Sept. 1702; SRO, Hamilton mss GD406/1/4962, Rothes to Hamilton, 8 Oct. 1702; Atholl mss at Blair Atholl, box 45, bdle. II, no. 209, Patrick Scott to Tullibardine, 1 Oct. 1702; P. W. J. Riley, Union, 333-4; SRO, Montrose mss GD220/6/1778/1-3, ‘Brief Acct. Elections in N. Britain’ [1708].
  • 4. Edinburgh Courant, 28-31 May 1708; NLS, ms 14415, ff. 165, 167; 7021, ff. 167, 142; Hamilton mss GD406/1/5564, Sinclair to Hamilton, 10 Nov. 1709.
  • 5. Hamilton mss GD406/1/5552-3, 5558, 5582, 5560, 5564, 5562, John Hamilton to Duke of Hamilton, 3 Oct., 17 Nov., 1, 3 Dec. 1709, Cochrane to same, 19 Nov. 1709, Sinclair to same, 10 Nov., 27 Dec. 1709.
  • 6. NLS, ms 14415, ff. 194, 196-7; Montrose mss GD220/5/805/9, Graham to Montrose, 15 Dec. 1709; Hamilton mss GD406/1/5552-3, 5558, 5585, 5560, 5562, 5606, John Hamilton to Duke of Hamilton, 3 Oct., 17 Nov., 1, 8 Dec. 1709, Cochrane to same, 19 Nov. 1709, Sinclair to same, 27 Dec. 1709, 11 Apr. 1710.
  • 7. Hamilton mss GD406/1/5645-6, 5793, [Abercromby] to Duke of Hamilton, 3 Oct. 1710, John Hamilton to same, 3 Oct. 1710, John Paterson to same, 4 Nov. 1712; C219/110, 114; Scots Courant, 20-22 Nov. 1710, 18-20 May 1713; SRO, Mar and Kellie mss GD124/15/989/2-3, Sir John Erskine to Ld. Grange (Hon. James Erskine†), [17], 21 Aug. 1710; Post Boy, 17-19 July 1712; Hamilton mss at Lennoxlove, C3/9, Abercromby to Duchess of Hamilton, 14 Mar. 1713; Master of Sinclair, Mems. Insurrection in Scotland (Abbotsford Club xxx), 12-13; SRO, Kennedy of Dalquharran mss GD27/3/14/7, Rothes to Cornelius Kennedy, 5 Feb. 1715.