Haddingtonshire (East Lothian)

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:

about 40


24 May 1708JOHN COCKBURN20
 William Nisbet17
12 Oct. 1710JOHN COCKBURN 
15 Oct. 1713JOHN COCKBURN23
 James Hamilton15

Main Article

Elections in Haddingtonshire were sometimes strongly contested in this period, even though there was little in the way of an episcopalian or cavalier interest to challenge the prevailing ‘Whig’ consensus, and despite the close political co-operation at national level between three of the magnates possessing local influence, the Earl of Haddington, the Marquess of Tweeddale and the Duke of Roxburghe, all of whom were closely linked in the Squadrone. An explanation could be sought in the tendency of the Squadrone lords to pursue separate courses in local politics; in the presence of other significant interests, especially among the lesser barons; and, more generally, in the sharpness of the competition for the one available county seat in the Parliament of Great Britain.1

There had in fact been a contest at the last election to the Scottish parliament. Two vigorous patriots, Andrew Fletcher of Saltoun and Sir John Lauder of Fountainhall, had shared the representation with two future members of the Squadrone, William Nisbet* of Dirleton and the young John Cockburn of Ormiston, son of the lord justice clerk. The vehement opposition to the Union shown subsequently by Fletcher and Lauder might suggest that in 1702 each may have enjoyed the backing of the other considerable magnate in the shire, the violently anti-unionist 2nd Lord Belhaven. Nisbet was elected without difficulty, but Cockburn only scraped through at the second attempt, having been doubly returned in fourth place with Sir George Suttie of Balgown. On 1 June 1703 Cockburn was chosen at a new election to decide this outstanding commissionership. Party configurations are hard to trace in this period, but it seems unlikely that before the splitting of the Country opposition in 1704, there had been any animosity, or even so much as a political differentiation between Cockburn and Nisbet on the one hand, and Fletcher and Lauder on the other. Roxburghe’s mother, the dowager Countess, was informed in December 1702 that her ‘friends’ in the locality were united in their opposition to a union, and that Fletcher was only the most outspoken critic. The record of proceedings in the electoral court in 1702 suggests that Fletcher and Cockburn may have been acting together on that occasion, for they joined in protesting against the qualifications of three claimants to vote. The more important distinction may still have been between ‘Country’ and ‘Court’, the latter represented by the praeses Sir Hew Dalrymple of North Berwick, brother of the Earl of Stair and lord president of the court of session.2

By 1708 a clear distinction had emerged between local ‘Whig’ interests. Fletcher, indeed, had raged against the Squadrone desertions from opposition in 1704 and in his deep disgust seems to have broken with all former associates. Subsequently, the opposition given to the Union by Lauder and Fletcher had been such that both were thoroughly alienated from the new order and seem to have been excluded, or to have excluded themselves, from participation in elections. Belhaven’s was a slightly different case. He was in official custody at the time of the electoral court, having been arrested on (unfounded) suspicion of involvement with the Jacobite invasion in 1708, and then died immediately after his release in June. However, there was still an active rivalry between the Squadrone and the Duke of Queensberry’s Court party, which may well have manifested itself at this election, when John Cockburn and William Nisbet surprised and distressed some of their Squadrone colleagues by facing each other in direct opposition. Both Sir Hew Dalrymple and his brother Hon. Sir David, 1st Bt.*, the Scottish solicitor-general, gave their votes to Nisbet. The Dalrymples’ opposition to Cockburn stemmed in part from the longstanding rivalry between the two families and in part from hostility to the Squadrone, and their support may well have underpinned Nisbet’s candidacy. Nisbet also drew support from some unexpected quarters: for example, Belhaven’s younger son, James Hamilton, attended the court and voted for him. Cockburn, by contrast, might be described as the ‘official’ Squadrone candidate, since he now enjoyed the favour of Tweeddale as well as Haddington and Roxburghe. Combined with his own family interest, this proved decisive: even though Nisbet was chosen as praeses of the court, it was Cockburn who secured the parliamentary seat in a closely fought contest, by a majority of three votes out of 37. A squib on the Scottish elections cited Haddingtonshire as an illustration of the Squadrone’s tactic of ‘opposing the election of Whigs with Whigs, merely as those Whigs fell in with their party’.3

At the next election Cockburn was unopposed. Although some reports in 1708 had suggested that Nisbet and Cockburn had made up their differences, it was noticeable that only four of Nisbet’s voters from the previous court attended this time, in comparison with 15 of Cockburn’s. In the run-up to the election there had been some anxiety among Cockburn’s friends, notably Roxburghe, as to possible opposition, though it is hard to see where this threat would have originated. The Dalrymples seem to have been willing to countenance his election in the altered political circumstances contingent upon the downfall of Lord Godolphin (Sidney†); certainly, if the presence at the election of Sir David Dalrymple (as praeses) is anything to go by. The only hint of discontent concerns Lord Alexander Hay, one of Tweeddale’s younger brothers, who had voted for Cockburn in 1708 but was now ‘not much inclined’ to him.4

A year later the temporary truce between Cockburn and Nisbet was showing signs of fracture. Roxburghe’s brother, Hon. William Kerr*, was alarmed by reports that Cockburn was suspicious of Nisbet, and therefore cautioned his mother about the influence of an unnamed third party, whom he characterized as a ‘malicious toad’. The danger came from another direction, however. In October 1712 it was reported that Sir Hew Dalrymple was ‘setting up one in opposition to Mr Cockburn’. This turned out to be James Hamilton, brother of the 3rd Lord Belhaven and younger son of the great campaigner against the Union, whose sponsors were hoping to secure the votes of Nisbet’s former supporters, together with Tweeddale’s interest, in an anti-Cockburn alliance. They may also have hoped to present their candidate as a ‘Tory’, and thus attract some episcopalian or cavalier lairds; this at any rate was how an alarmed Roxburghe sought to present the contest. He wrote to his mother to secure the family interest:

Mr Hamilton is setting [up] for East Lothian . . . If he should carry it I know not anything that . . . could be more vexatious. The M[arquess] of Tweeddale may remember that the gentlemen of that shire were never so civil to him as to propose any of his bro[thers] to represent them when the number of its representatives were four, and now to have my Lord Belhaven’s brother set up against one related to us all, and who has always been sturdy on our side, would be such an affront to all Squa[drone] should he carry it, that I am confident it will raise your ladyship’s indignation; and indeed I beg that your ladyship would be most earnest with both Sandilands and Oswall, for I am sure I shall never think ’em my friends again should they be for Mr Ham[ilton] against Mr Cockburn, and indeed, since Dirleton don’t stand I should hope for the same friendship from Thurston, nor do I see why Dirleton himself should not be for Mr Co[ckburn] at this time, he having never, I think, been reckoned a Tory, and I am confident is well intentioned in the main . . . it would truly be to push a pet too far to be for Mr Ham[ilton] against Mr Cockburn at this time, and pets are always childish. In short, I hope your ladyship will do all you can in this matter for Mr Co[ckburn] and should hope that Mr Rob[ert] Bennet should be a great instrument with Dirleton . . . I have not taken upon me to mention Lord Alex[ander] to your ladyship, being confident that the consideration of his friends in this case, as also of the times, will get the better of any other thought in him.5

The proceedings of the electoral court, at which Cockburn himself was chosen praeses, show that not only the Dalrymple interest, as represented by Sir Hew and his son, Sir Robert, but the other elements in Nisbet’s former party, including Nisbet himself, were continuing to oppose Cockburn five years later. This time 38 freeholders attended, 25 of whom had been present in 1708, when they had divided 15 to 10 in Cockburn’s favour. The subsequent voting record of this cohort is instructive. Only one of Cockburn’s 15 voters had stayed away from the 1710 election; and this freeholder had evidently defected permanently, since he was now to be found on Hamilton’s side. The remaining 14 had attended in 1710 and returned in 1713 to cast yet another vote for Cockburn. On the other side Hamilton retained eight of Nisbet’s former voters from 1708, while two had crossed over to Cockburn. Both the cross-voters had attended in 1710, and presumably had agreed to Cockburn’s unopposed return on that occasion. Voting patterns had thus remained remarkably consistent, assuming a continuity between Nisbet’s party in 1708 and Hamilton’s in 1713. Cockburn had lost five voters, through non-availability or non-attendance, but had gained two from his opponents, while Hamilton had lost slightly more votes through ‘natural wastage’ or absenteeism, seven in all, and a further two who had changed sides. The six electors who had appeared in 1710 without having registered a vote two years before (only two of whom had been newly enrolled), were in 1713 divided equally between Cockburn and Hamilton. Since the latter included James Hamilton of Pencaitland and his son, a family loyalty - or even a new ‘Tory’ partisan loyalty - may be inferred. Finally, the new electors in 1713 provided an additional advantage to Cockburn of two votes: he could claim four, two of whom had been newly enrolled despite Hamilton’s protests, while his opponent secured only two, one of whom was new, and against whom Cockburn had protested. A further applicant, Edward Jossie of Westpans, had been refused, but neither his inclusion, nor the allowance of any of the failed protests against previously enrolled voters (three of Cockburn’s and two of Hamilton’s) would materially have altered the outcome. No adjudication by the court was decisive. It appears that Cockburn had already made enough gains since 1708 to guarantee a wider margin of victory. His election as praeses had been an illustration rather than a cause of his numerical superiority, which was due to the greater strength of his own and his friends’ interest in the county when acting together, a combination which continued to return Cockburn unopposed until the general election of 1741.6

Author: D. W. Hayton


  • 1. Trans. E. Lothian Antiq. and Naturalists’ Soc. viii. 78-82; xxi. 53-57; Christ Church, Oxf. Wake mss 5, f. 13; Orig. Pprs. ed. Macpherson, ii. 9-10.
  • 2. NLS, ms 14498, f. 82; Roxburghe mss at Floors castle, bdle. 762, Ralph Hay to Countess of Roxburghe, 24 Sept. 1702; 787, same to same, 16 Dec. 1702; 1071, Kerr to same, n.d. [1702]; SRO, Haddington sheriff ct. recs. SC40/68/3, pp. 1-4, electoral ct. mins. 1702; Sir W. Fraser, Earls of Haddington, 249; Lockhart Pprs. i. 112.
  • 3. Roxburghe mss, bdle. 1068, Hon. William Kerr to Countess of Roxburghe, 28 July 1704; SRO, Ogilvy of Inverquharity mss GD205/36/6, Grey Neville* to William Bennet*, 11 July 1708; Haddington sheriff ct. recs. SC40/68/3, pp. 5-6, poll, 24 May 1708; SRO, Montrose mss GD220/6/1778/1-3, ‘Brief Acct. Elections in N. Britain’, [1708].
  • 4. Scots Courant, 11-13 Oct. 1710; Haddington sheriff ct. recs. SC40/68/3, pp. 10-15, electoral ct. mins. 12 Oct. 1710; Roxburghe mss, bdle. 756, Roxburghe to [his mother], 15 June 1710; 1074, Kerr to same, 11 Aug. 1710.
  • 5. Roxburghe mss, bdle. 785, Kerr to his mother, 31 Aug. 1711; 767, Roxburghe to same, 20 Oct. [1712]; 784, same to [same], 1 Dec. [1712].
  • 6. Haddington sheriff ct. recs. SC40/68/3, pp. 10-34, electoral ct. mins. 1713-41.