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

Right of Election:

in the extraordinary council

Number of voters:



25 Nov. 1709SIR PATRICK JOHNSTON vice MacClellan, deceased
 Henry Hamilton
9 Sept. 1713SIR JAMES STEWART, Bt.

Main Article

The Scottish capital escaped the fate that befell other Scottish burghs at the Union, of being placed within an electoral district, but nevertheless suffered a reduction in its representation. Previously Edinburgh had returned two members to the Scottish parliament, by tradition a merchant and a tradesman. In the Union parliament the commissioner for the merchants was a Court supporter, Sir Patrick Johnston, who thrice served as provost, whereas the trades were represented by an anti-Unionist, Robert Inglis. Johnston, who sat as one of the Scottish representatives to the first Parliament of Great Britain, did not stand at the 1708 election. Instead, the sitting provost Sir Samuel MacClellan was returned unanimously and unopposed. There was no direct challenge from the trades, but the deacon convenor made a point of arguing that the pre-Union sharing of the representation should become a system of alternation in the single-member seat. MacClellan was given a detailed set of instructions from his constituents. In addition to supporting the ministry in its efforts to prosecute the war against France, he was enjoined to promote the Scottish case for fair treatment in various matters of trade and judicature. Moreover, he was asked to further the city’s particular interests by seeking tax relief on wines imported via Edinburgh, together with the establishment of a victualling office and the construction of a new dock, both at nearby Leith. He was accorded £300 to cover his costs of attendance, a sum that was supplemented by a further payment of over £100 in September 1709. Shortly after receiving this payment, however, MacClellan died and was succeeded by Provost Johnston.1

Johnston remained the merchants’ candidate in 1710. He was opposed by Henry Hamilton, deacon of the surgeons, who stood as a representative of the trades. Hamilton was the younger brother of the 2nd Lord Belhaven (d. 1708), who had been a prominent anti-unionist and a suspected Jacobite. Richard Dongworth, the Duchess of Buccleuch’s chaplain, classified Hamilton as a ‘Court Tory’, by which he meant one who was ‘episcopal or Presbyterian upon occasion, who depend on or are moved by Court ministers’. At the election Hamilton argued that Edinburgh’s provost was equivalent to a sheriff and therefore ineligible to stand, adding for good measure that the town’s bailies were akin to sheriff’s deputies and should be denied a vote. This objection was overruled and Hamilton was defeated at the poll. He petitioned on the different ground that Johnston was ‘incapable of serving because, by the constitution of the said burgh, one of the merchants and one of the trades ought to be chose[n] by turns’. The irregularity of the election had been compounded by the exclusion of the eight deacons of the trades who were entitled to vote as part of a specially constituted body known as the ‘extraordinary council’, which was responsible for elections both to the magistracy and Parliament. Johnston ridiculed the main proposition in Hamilton’s petition by pointing out that ‘by the same parity of reason’ a strict rotation might be expected in each Scottish electoral district, whereas it was ‘evident that the district may choose their [sic] Members a thousand times out of one and the same burgh without regard to any pretence of equality’. The Scottish act settling the post-Union representation simply stated that Edinburgh was to return one Member by holding elections in the same manner as previously; ‘and where the law distinguishes not’, ran Johnston’s case, ‘no distinction can be made.’ Hamilton’s petition was not reported in this session. Although not a Member, Hamilton was listed as one of the ‘Tory patriots’ who opposed the continuance of the war. His petition was renewed on 18 Dec. 1711 and finally rejected on 13 Mar. 1712. The report from the committee of elections declined to comment on the alleged exclusion of the deacons, but unequivocally endorsed Johnston’s argument that the Union had altered ‘the constitutions of the royal burghs as to their elections to Parliament’ and that the voters of Edinburgh were ‘at liberty to choose who they please’.2

The celebrated case of James Greenshields, the episcopalian minister wrongfully imprisoned by the Edinburgh magistracy, and the subsequent passage of the Scottish Toleration Act in 1712, added fuel to party-political strife in Edinburgh. William Nisbet*, a Squadrone supporter, reported in September that ‘there is not more keenness in all Britain as to Whig and Tory as in this ancient city’. He expected the forthcoming election of magistrates to be a trial of strength from which the Whigs would emerge victorious. Certainly, the choice of candidate at the next parliamentary election signalled the council’s adherence to the causes of Whiggery and Presbyterianism. It also marked a departure from tradition in that the successful candidate, Sir James Stewart, 1st Bt., of Goodtrees, was neither a merchant nor a tradesman. Stewart was known to be a stalwart defender of the Kirk and the Hanoverian succession, which provided one reason for choosing him, and also his influence as Scottish solicitor-general was presumably deemed an advantage, perhaps the more so because he was a candidate to succeed his late father in the vacant office of lord advocate. Although Stewart enjoyed the support of most of the council, the provost, Sir Robert Blackwood of Pitreaves, tried to maintain the principle that only bona fide merchants or tradesmen were capable of election. Blackwood seems to have been motivated by self-interest rather than party feeling against Stewart. According to one report of the election, Blackwood intended to set up one of the bailies, John Campbell, and hoped by calling a snap election to secure his return before Stewart arrived in Edinburgh. On the day of election, however, it was apparent that Stewart’s support was overwhelming, so Blackwood tried instead to postpone any decision. The provost argued that before electing an outsider the dangers of establishing such a precedent should be carefully weighed. This was sufficient to persuade four deacons of trade and three council members to support an adjournment. But ‘the rest of the council sat still and voted that the provost could not adjourn them without the consent of the majority, they having met by virtue of an act of council to choose a commissioner to Parliament’. Stewart was therefore elected nem. con. by the 23 voters who remained behind. At the next meeting the provost declared the return illegal and set a date for a fresh election. He failed to carry his point, despite storming out with ‘the minutes in his pocket’. His position became impossible once the tradesmen had elected new deacons who refused to back him. Shortly afterwards Blackwood lost the provostship to George Warrender, a Whig who was returned unopposed to Westminster in 1715. The Whiggism of the council had been strongly in evidence at the succession: the town’s loyal address to George I denounced the Tories as crypto-Jacobites. The issue of alternating the representation between merchants and tradesmen continued to bubble under the surface, however, providing the basis for a petition as late as 1741.3

Author: David Wilkinson


  • 1. Hist. Scot. Parl. 384, 667; P. W. J. Riley, Union, 331-2; Bk. of Old Edinburgh Club, n.s. ii. 120-1; Extracts Edinburgh Recs. 1701-18, pp. viii, 153; C219/106.
  • 2. Scots Peerage ed. Paul, ii. 44; Edinburgh Recs. 200, 202; Christ Church, Oxf. Wake mss 17, f. 268; L. Inn Lib. MP 100/148, The Case of Sir Patrick Johnston [1710]; Add. 70421, Dyer’s newsletter 2 Nov. 1710; HMC Portland, x. 159.
  • 3. Edinburgh Recs. 206, 253-5; Nicolson Diaries ed. Jones and Holmes, 49-51, 553; Studs. in Church Hist. xxi. 281-3; mss sold at Sotheby’s, 14 Dec. 1976, lot 20, Nisbet to William Bennet*, 24 Sept. 1712; C219/114; NLS, Advocates’ mss, Wodrow pprs. letters Quarto 7, ff. 181-2; London Gazette, 28 Sept.-2 Oct. 1714.