Tain (Northern) Burghs


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

Tain (1708), Dingwall (1710), Ross-shire; Dornoch (1713), Sutherland; Wick, Caithness; Kirkwall, Orkney


26 May 1708WILLIAM SUTHERLAND, Ld. Strathnaver2
 Sir James Mackenzie, Bt.21
 Sir James Mackenzie, Bt. vice Sutherland, the eldest son of a peer of Scotland 
27 Oct. 1710ROBERT MUNRO 
 William Steuart 
17 Sept. 1713ROBERT MUNRO 
 William Strachan 

Main Article

The most obvious features of this district were its wide geographical spread and the diversity of electoral influences. Competition for control centred upon the bitter clan rivalry between the Rosses (with their allies the Munros) and the Mackenzies. This struggle dominated local politics in the Ross-shire towns of Tain and Dingwall. The Rosses, led by the 12th Lord Ross of Halkhead, were in the ascendant at Tain, the head burgh of the shire. Ambitious to cut a figure in national politics and keen to develop a regional power-base, Lord Ross had placed himself at the head of a self-styled Presbyterian and ‘Revolution’ interest, a coalition which included David Ross of Balnagown and Sir Robert Munro, 5th Bt., of Foulis. Together they promoted the ‘planting’ of orthodox ministers across the shire, simultaneously stigmatizing the Mackenzies as Jacobite sympathizers. The traditional leadership of clan Mackenzie lay with the earls of Seaforth, and indeed the 4th Earl (d.1701) was a Catholic and a Jacobite; but de facto leadership during Seaforth’s voluntary exile in France had devolved upon the 1st Earl of Cromarty in 1703. The subsequent return of the 5th Earl of Seaforth to Scotland, under a cloud of ministerial suspicion, did little to diminish Cromarty’s status. Although Cromarty, now in his seventies, was not a major force in post-Union politics, he remained influential in local affairs. His interest was strongest at Dingwall, where on at least one occasion before the Union he had been accorded the privilege of filling out a blank commission with the name of the parliamentary candidate of his choice. The Cromarty interest in Dingwall was not, however, without competitors. Particular importance should be accorded to the Baynes of Tulloch, leading municipal office-holders in this period. Moreover, the Munros of Foulis, whose seat lay only four miles from Dingwall, sought to ally themselves with the Baynes in order to undermine Cromarty. Clan rivalry was not the sole component of electoral conflict in the district. Dornoch was controlled by the Earl of Sutherland, an avowed supporter of the ‘Revolution interest’, who was connected, though not exclusively, with the Squadrone. His support was cultivated by the Ross and Munro camp. At Wick the waning interest of the impoverished Earl of Breadalbane was given a fillip by the activities of his eldest son, Lord Glenorchy. Yet the underlying decline of the Breadalbane interest stemmed from the sale of family lands in the vicinity of Wick to Hon. Sir James Dunbar, 1st Bt.*, who proved all too eager for a political voice. Kirkwall was influenced by the earls of Morton, former grantees under the crown who had been engaged in a protracted struggle to regain thier lost rights in Orkney and Shetland. The election of Robert Douglas (later 12th Earl of Morton) for Kirkwall in 1702 was part of a campaign to earn credit with the Court party and thereby obtain a renewal of the royal charter. Douglas allegedly made use of his office of tacksman of crown rents to influence the outcome of the election, and his exertions indicated, in the view of one Country leader, ‘that in no corner of the kingdom’ was the Scottish Court party ‘idle’. Loyalty to the Court paid dividends in 1707, when the grant was renewed as a reward for the family’s support of the Union. Thereafter the Morton interest at Kirkwall went from strength to strength, despite the emergence of opposition in the county. In practical terms Kirkwall exerted little influence within this district of burghs. Owing to difficulties of travel, on only one occasion in this period did the town’s delegate attend in time to participate at the main election.2

The outcome of the 1708 election was determined by a local alliance between Lords Ross and Sutherland. In 1706 Ross had engineered the election of his distant kinsman David Ross of Balnagown to the provostship of Tain. Thereafter the Rosses sought to pack the council in their own favour, taking care in October 1707 to include among its new members William Sutherland, Lord Strathnaver, Sutherland’s eldest son. Strathnaver was subsequently proposed as the district’s first parliamentary representative; he was opposed by a younger son of Cromarty, Sir James Mackenzie, 1st Bt., of Royston. An active episcopalian, Mackenzie noted that the Presbyterian ‘ministers of the names of Ross and Munro are all busy against us in the elections’. This made little difference at Dingwall, where his elder brother, Lord Macleod, had used his influence as provost to secure the unanimous election of a favourable delegate. Sir James also had some hopes of gaining Tain through the interest of Aeneas Macleod of Cadboll, a connexion of the Mackenzies by marriage. Cadboll was well placed ‘to make use of a certain prevalent argument’, in other words to engage in small-scale bribery. Mackenzie asked his father to ‘empower Cadboll to do it: victual will do it, and not much . . . and if we carry Tain it is entirely owing to him’. Two days before the election Sir James was still unsure of the inclinations of the two northernmost burghs: ‘I hardly think the commissioners of Kirkwall or Wick will be here’, he admitted, ‘I know not if they come for whom they will be.’ In the event, Mackenzie was supported by Wick’s delegate, Sir James Dunbar, but the commissioner from Kirkwall failed to arrive in time. The Ross interest at Tain proved too strong for Cadboll, and Balnagown secured the delegacy in order to vote for Strathnaver. This vote, together with that of Sir William Gordon, 1st Bt.*, for Dornoch, was sufficient to carry the election because Tain enjoyed the casting vote as presiding burgh. The unfortunate commissioner from Kirkwall arrived on 15 June. ‘He called for the town clerk’, reported Mackenzie, ‘and intimated to him that he came . . . to choose a Member of Parliament so soon as the writs were intimated to the town, which was not until 5 June, and that though the election was over he was ordered to sign one of the commissions.’ The commissioner, who was denied access to the council house by one of Balnagown’s supporters, therefore

took instruments against him and then went with the clerk and signed my commission, with a short narrative . . . so that I hope either my commission will be sustained or at least the election declared null. I have protested against Strath[nave]r’s minority, and shall endeavour to get all the proof that can be had . . . Tain’s going against us . . . was occasioned by a very unwarrantable practice and trick of Balna[gown], who by his own authority added nine new councillors . . . of which Lord R[oss] was one, who sat and voted when Balnagown was chosen commissioner, upon which we protested against the validity of the commission . . . for there is nothing more illegal than that a peer should vote in these matters.

The addition of Lord Ross to Tain council may be traced to an earlier bargain struck with Balnagown. The latter was not only the titular head of the Ross clan, but also owned an estate that was traditionally associated with the chieftaincy. In financial straits and lacking a male heir, Balnagown had readily fallen in with Lord Ross’s long-term objective of re-uniting the various branches of the family. To this end Ross purchased in the name of his brother Hon. Charles Rosse* the reversion of Balnagown’s estate and set about a vigorous petitioning campaign at court for a regrant of the ancient earldom of Ross. Ever since the last general election to the Scottish parliament in 1702, Balnagown had assumed a high profile in local affairs, and his acquisition of the provostship of Tain marked a further stage in what Cromarty was to describe as a bid by Lord Ross ‘to require the whole shire to choose Members of Parliament for shire and burgh at his prescription’.3

The struggle for control of Tain continued in June 1708, when two rival commissioners were returned to the royal convention of burghs: John Ross of Achnacloich, elected by the packed council, and Macleod of Cadboll, chosen by a splinter-group of nine or ten council members who objected to the recent additions. Holding a separate election, this body had emphasized the traditional requirement that commissioners to the convention should be burgh residents actively engaged in trade. Their choice of Cadboll also marked a clear attempt to avenge the defeat of the Mackenzie interest at the parliamentary election. There were solid grounds for complaint against the Rosses. Prior to Balnagown’s election as provost the council had never exceeded 15 members; by 1708 it had risen to a nominal total of 26. Some of the additions replaced absentees, such as Lord Ross, who had been added to the council in October 1707 but was often unable to play an active role because of ‘living at such a distance’. Nor had all the additions been straightforward: at the same time as Ross had been admitted to council, so had Cromarty’s eldest son Lord Macleod. The inclusion of a prominent Mackenzie was mere window-dressing, contrived to mitigate complaints against Ross and Strathnaver. Ross and his allies defended their actions on the grounds that ‘though there be small additions to the council’ there was no prejudice to the town’s liberties in ‘men of quality and substance’ becoming members and thereby giving ‘encouragement to that place which occasions the consumption of their victual and is the harbour for the export of all their effects’.4

These events gave rise to an inquiry in the convention of burghs, resulting in a formal request on 15 July 1708 that ‘each royal burgh . . . send up their sett . . . to be recorded in a particular book . . . to the end any question about their respective setts may be quickly discussed’. This general appeal flowed directly from preliminary investigation of the controverted commissionership from Tain. A committee had suggested on the 13th that representatives from nine neighbouring burghs (with a quorum of five) should be sent to Tain ‘to make exact inquiry into the ancient constitution, use and wont of the election of magistrates and town council . . . with full power to make a new sett and constitution’. Achnacloich challenged the legality of the powers given by the royal convention to its investigative committee. He entered a bill of advocation in the court of session on the grounds that ‘though our old laws permitted the royal burghs to meet once a year, yet the subject of their meeting was only for the regulation of trade and merchandise, but not to overrule elections, which belonged to the sovereign legislative capacity, and now to the Parliament of Great Britain’. The defence offered by Cadboll was that the convention ‘being the third estate of parliament, the lords [of session] have never meddled in these questions’. But the judges ruled in favour of the principle of Achnacloich’s bill, declaring that since the Union the convention was ‘no more a third estate, and that the affair became a civil right cognoscible by the lords, as the supreme civil judicatory next to the Parliament’. They were unwilling to pass the bill outright, and ‘fell on a medium, to declare they would hear the . . . respective rights in November’. The session judge Lord Fountainhall was in no doubt over the origin of the current dispute, which ‘arose first on their choosing a commissioner to send up to the Parliament of Great Britain’. A further appeal from Cadboll called for the postponement of the Michaelmas municipal election at Tain. This request, rejected by the court, was partly motivated by the continuing dispute over Strathnaver’s election to the Commons. Sir James Mackenzie was determined to petition and was confident of success. It was therefore advisable to prepare for a by-election in case the House should declare the election void.5

The royal convention’s committee, presided over by Alexander Duff*, made its inquiries in August 1708, subsequently reporting that, after scrutinizing council records from the previous 40 years, it had drawn up ‘a new sett’ in accordance with Tain’s ‘ancient constitution’. Although the records were found ‘defective in several particulars’, it was nevertheless beyond reasonable doubt that the council had never exceeded 15 members. The committee declared that the Michaelmas elections of 1706 and 1707, and the additions of councillors in October 1707 and June 1708 were ‘palpable encroachments upon the constitution . . . of Tain’ and contrary to ‘the setts of other well governed burghs’. In future the council was to be limited to 15 members, all of whom should be merchants or tradesmen involved in local business. The Rosses offered no challenge to this recommendation, accepting also that there should be time limits for municipal office-holding and that each year four councillors should be replaced. The reform of Tain’s sett did not undermine existing power structures. Balnagown took care to defend his tenure of the provostship with physical force, thus making the ratification of the committee’s recommendation a means of perpetuating the Ross stranglehold.6

This dispute formed part of wider political turmoil in Ross-shire. As one memorialist expressed it, ‘two things . . . made much noise at that time . . . mobs and rabbles against the clergy, and convocating men in arms at the election for barons in Parliament and at the election of magistrates for the burgh of Tain’. These last events also featured in petitions which had as their main focus a dispute over rival commissions of the peace. The Rosses and Munros, deriving their authority from instructions issued at the height of the Jacobite invasion scare, questioned whether the Mackenzies and their allies were to be trusted to defend the Revolution settlement in Church and State. They refused to acknowledge a subsequent creation of local justices and portrayed the Mackenzies in a thoroughly unflattering light, raking up allegations from 1689 and their conduct after Killicrankie. Of more pressing relevance were accusations that local courts under Mackenzie guidance were failing to prosecute those guilty of ‘rabbling’ Presbyterian ministers. These aspersions were described by Cromarty as an ‘infamous libel’ which had himself as ‘the real object of the secret spell’. He took care to inform Lord Treasurer Godolphin (Sidney†) that the root of the matter lay in the overweening ambition of Lord Ross, who ‘on a little purchase made by him in Ross-shire fancied that he should be Earl of Ross’. As a counter-measure to the petitions from the Ross-Munro faction, Cromarty and his allies emphasized the violent tactics used by Balnagown at the election of Tain council on 29 Sept. 1708. The provost was accused of employing an armed force of 200 men, an assertion which Cromarty claimed could ‘be proved by 40 witnesses’. In particular, Cadboll had been forcibly prevented from participating in the election, and had therefore commenced legal proceedings against Balnagown. The Ross version of events was slanted differently:

The justices . . . add a new charge against Balnagown, viz. an unlawful convocation made by him at Tain . . . The very accusation was groundless, there having nothing happened but what is ordinary in such places and upon such occasions . . . [They] adduce two infamous fellows, spontaneous witnesses against him . . . but their depositions being so false and full of contradiction were suppressed or altered . . . These very gentlemen that charge Balnagown with an unlawful convocation at the election in Tain sent hither the sheriff depute to the same elections with about 60 Highlanders completely armed . . . It’s said indeed that Cadboll . . . was violently thrust from the door . . . The plain truth was that a few burgesses standing without as a guard and Cadboll coming with a backing of several country gentlemen some of the guard[s] crossed their arms to know what the matter mean’d, which Cadboll presently took to be a force and took instruments. And though afterwards desired to come to the town council, yet he refused, nay farther he was instrumented by one of the bailies to come and attend, yet he still declined, which sufficiently verifies that the design was only an occasion and pretence.

The Rosses stressed that the Highland force had been armed with ‘gun, sword, pistol and dirk . . . and came within three miles of Tain the night before the elections on purpose to divert several of the council from their duty and giving voice at the elections and support the party of their own kidney’. To counteract this threat, Balnagown had sent a last-minute warning to the commander, Alexander Mackenzie of Davochmaluack, informing him that ‘the burgh has its own territories appointed with ample jurisdiction’ and that the burgesses would ‘assert their privileges, and I will call a quorum of the justices of the peace . . . [who] are your judges by law’. This was sufficient to deter the force from approaching nearer the town on election day. The sheriff depute later disclaimed any intention of influencing the election:

The truth . . . is that the laird of Balnagown, being owing to Dingwall of Cambuscurrie a considerable sum of money, which he could not procure the payment of, he was obliged to use personal diligence against him, and understanding that . . . [Balnagown] had a considerable number of armed men about him, so as a messenger with an ordinary party could not apprehend him, he . . . charged me, in the terms of the Queen’s letter . . . to execute the same.

When confronted outside the town by Balnagown’s representatives, Mackenzie had declined to go any further, which ‘were I to overawe the election of the magistrates of Tain . . . I would not have done’. According to Cadboll, the opposing side had employed equally underhand tactics. The ringleaders were: John Ross of Achnacloich, who had ‘raised horn against my Lord Macleod . . . to hinder his presence’; William Ross of Aldie, one of the recent additions to Tain council; and William Ross of Easter Fearn, likewise a new council-member, but also a former representative of the burgh in the Scottish parliament. All three had a vested interest in retaining their positions. Balnagown and ‘his busy friends’, through a combination of intimidation and physical force, ratified the new sett and elected a council which contained no fewer than 13 individuals with the surname Ross, including the three who had been added in June. The subsequent report of the committee that the town’s sett had been revised ‘to the satisfaction of the inhabitants’ was true only insofar as this applied to Balnagown’s supporters. Achnacloich, having no further need for legal action in the court of session, quietly dropped his suit against Cadboll.7

Although the Rosses retained control of Tain, the outcome of the parliamentary election remained undetermined. Sir James Mackenzie presented his petition to the House, specifying Strathnaver’s minority and complaining of ‘diverse illegal methods’, such as Lord Ross’s involvement in the election. It was, moreover, noted that under pre-Union Scottish practice, Strathnaver would have been incapable of election as the eldest son of a peer. As a result of the ministerial decision not to appoint a committee of elections this session, Mackenzie’s petition was ordered to be heard on 26 Mar. 1709. Although this Parliament later became notorious for Whig bias in election cases, Mackenzie noted that the Commons ‘acted very impartially. They took the petitions in order and appointed them days without favour.’ On 3 Dec. the ineligibility of the eldest sons of Scottish peers was determined in the case of Lord Haddo (William Gordon*), setting a precedent for Strathnaver’s fate and providing Mackenzie with the option of simply awaiting the inevitable by-election. As he explained to Cromarty on 7 Dec.,

I beg your lordship’s advice, whether I should withdraw my petition, and so let it go to a new election, or wait; in my humble opinion the first will bring me sooner in and I hope I may depend upon my former friends; Morton assures me of Kirkwall, and I expect as much of Sir James Dunbar [at Wick]. The only fear I am in if the election be this season of the year [is] that the commissioner from Kirkwall may chance to be detained by contrary winds or rough, stormy weather, which would spoil all; and therefore . . . I would incline not to withdraw my petition till March, and then to get a long day for the election.

Mackenzie delayed until 2 Apr., when the new writ was issued immediately upon his withdrawal.8

Although confident that Morton would support him, Mackenzie lost the by-election to Hon. Robert Douglas, who secured Kirkwall’s delegacy and voted in his own favour. Douglas had been persuaded to stand by the leading Scottish Court peer the Duke of Queensberry, who asked him to ‘serve the Queen and your country’, promising to lend his ‘assistance in whatever can be for your interest’. According to an incomplete minute of the election, Douglas was unanimously returned, but it is clear that Mackenzie regarded himself as a candidate. Cromarty’s loyal supporter, Simon Mackenzie of Allangrange, apologized shortly afterwards for the mismanagement:

I’m sorry I came not speed in Sir James’ affair . . . yet, I feel I must blame himself and Lord Macleod, for had not Sir James withdrawn his petition at London, and Lord Macleod not given too much credit to Robert Ross’ parole and promise, we had carried the election in spite of them . . . [William] Ross of Easter Fearn, I suspect, debauched his brother Robert that day . . . and has his yearly pension from Lord Ross for that end . . . He with Ross of Achnacloich are the main agents.

It is unclear whether the election was in fact unanimous. The return was marked ‘by plurality’, which perhaps indicates that some dissent was registered. Dingwall’s delegate, Kenneth Bayne of Tulloch, may well have deserted Mackenzie and voted for Douglas once it became clear that he would be victorious. There was an understandable reluctance to throw away a vote in a lost cause, it being deemed more useful for a burgh’s own interest to support the successful candidate. If this was indeed the case, it marked the first stage in the defection of the Baynes of Tulloch from the Mackenzies. The increasing influence of the family is incontestable. In 1708 Sir Donald Bayne succeeded Lord Macleod as provost (a post which Cromarty himself had held before the Union); and Sir Donald’s son Kenneth followed up his role as delegate in 1709 by taking a leading part in the revision of Dingwall’s sett shortly before the 1710 election. This change was prompted by the earlier round-robin from the royal convention, but was also undertaken with an eye to recent developments at Tain. Previously the size of Dingwall council had not been fixed, rising sometimes as high as 21. It was now limited to 15 members, with two replacements every year. The narrowing of the council made it easier for the Baynes to resist Cromarty’s influence. Although the family, on behalf of the burgh, still occasionally sought financial assistance from the Earl, these requests were not met and deference to his political will dwindled.9

Neither Mackenzie nor Douglas stood in 1710. The former had succeeded his uncle Lord Prestonhall as a session judge in June, a development which had been first mooted two years previously. Douglas gave his interest to William Steuart (or Stewart)*, whose candidacy had been suggested independently by one Arthur Brown of Edinburgh. Brown had written on 27 July 1710 to his cousin, John Covingtree, a member of Kirkwall council:

The great talk here is of a new Parliament. If such a thing happen[s] I would fain recommend to you my best friend William Stewart, one of the clerks of exchequer . . . I think it’s [a] pity to neglect the opportunity of making a gentleman of the same town, a burgess[’s] son, Member of the Parliament, when probably it may be in your power . . . The doing of this . . . will be an honour put on yourselves and enable you to do what you can reasonably demand for the weal of the burgh, he being I am sure the best friend of the Duke of Argyll, Earl of Ilay and the most topping men . . . the government hath . . . He has never spoke[n] to me on this subject, nobody for his behalf, and therefore if you contribute to the doing of this you will not only oblige yourself, but add much to my own interest on a certain occasion which may fall in his hands to do me much service, and without his interest I must infallibly lose it.

The unnamed favour from Steuart probably related to a pending legal dispute.10

By late September Douglas had endorsed Steuart’s candidacy. John Ewing, Morton’s agent, reported from Edinburgh that Douglas ‘has so far engaged the town of Kirkwall to be for Mr Stewart that it cannot be well retrieved’. It was now impossible for Douglas to stand ‘unless my lord Duke [Queensberry] or your lordship prevail with the earls of Cromarty and Ilay to write to Mr Stewart that it’s their desire that Mr Robert should be continued’. Such a reversal proved impracticable, not least because Douglas was far from eager to continue in Parliament. It had been reported in August that Cromarty was keen to ‘manage’ the election but had not yet found a suitable candidate. Steuart, who was well connected with the new Tory ministry, seemed ideal. It was also expected that Breadalbane, an episcopalian Tory, would bring his influence to bear on Wick. These plans were thwarted by Captain Robert Munro of Foulis, eldest son of the 5th Bt. Munro was supported by the Ross interest at Tain and that of Sutherland at Dornoch. According to Lord Royston (formerly Sir James Mackenzie), the election was lost by the defection of Wick, specifically Sir James Dunbar ‘betraying Mr Stewart, that he might get himself chosen [for Caithness] to serve [the Earl of] Mar’. No evidence of Kenneth Bayne’s vote for Dingwall has been discovered, but as before the return was marked ‘by plurality’. Kirkwall failed to attend; not until 27 Oct. 1710, the day of the election itself, was a delegate appointed. An unusual decision was recorded in the minutes of Kirkwall council:

Considering this burgh is to send a commissioner to the burgh of Dingwall . . . for choosing a commissioner to the . . . ensuing Parliament, therefore they have nominate[d] Mr William Stewart, advocate, to be commissioner for this burgh . . . and admits [sic] the said Mr William Stewart burgess . . . with his commission and instructions and have delivered the same to the provost his care to be remitted to Dingwall upon his charges.

The effective disfranchisement of Kirkwall for a second successive general election provided some basis for a petition. The London Gazette reported in early November that the election was controverted, but no case was brought before the House, Steuart apparently deciding that any hope of having the election declared void was illusory.11

In December 1712 Munro was confident that he would retain Dornoch’s vote at the next election, Sutherland having promised to ‘support me with all his interest against any that should oppose me’ because ‘I had during this Parliament (though contrary to my interest) acted such a satisfactory part to him’. Strathnaver opposed his father over this matter, however, and favoured the candidacy of Charles Rosse, who had succeeded to the estate of Balnagown in 1711. Hon. George Douglas* informed his brother Lord Morton in August 1713 that Rosse had secured ‘two of the northern towns’, by inference Tain and Dornoch, whereas two of the others were to support Munro, presumably Dingwall and Wick. This, he argued, gave Kirkwall the ‘casting vote and I am sure in this case it will be for your service to prefer Munro, who will be as firm to your interest as any man’. In order to prevent any repetition of former delay, Douglas visited the Scottish solicitor-general Sir James Stewart, 1st Bt.*, ‘desiring that the writs for Orkney might be directed for your lordship [Morton] or your depute, or in absence to your clerk at Kirkwall’. Ewing was equally keen on this score, writing to Morton on the 27th that official notification was

hourly expected . . . and therefore because the writs being already tested it will bring the election of the burghs suddenly on, I thought proper to hire the bearer to go forward which otherwise he would not [have] done, that your lordship may cause your town of Kirkwall [to] have their commissioner ready to send to the election.

Despite these efforts, there was no success, as a subsequent petition made clear:

Kirkwall . . . lies a considerable distance from the rest of Scotland so that for the two former Parliaments writs from the clerks of the crown did not come to Orkney in time so as the sheriffs could issue precepts . . . till after the day of the election was over . . . Your petitioners to prevent the like disappointment in the election for this Parliament did take care so soon as the writs . . . arrived at Edinburgh to cause intimate [sic] to the messenger who brought down the writs, as likewise to one James Adam a person employed by the said messenger for dispatching them, that they might take care that the writs might be forwarded by an express . . . Nevertheless, without regard for the said intimation, the matter was so managed as that the writs did not arrive at Kirkwall till the 14th of September, which was 14 days after they had been sent from Edinburgh, although they might have gone in eight days if they had been sent the direct way . . . It was impossible . . . to have made choice of a commissioner and for him to have repaired to the place of election, there being three ferries to pass and one of them a very long and dangerous passage.

It had occurred to Rosse’s supporters that the absence of Kirkwall might prove crucial. Alexander Ross, a writer to the signet in Edinburgh, informed Strathnaver on 20 Aug. that the election would take place on 17 Sept., that is ‘30 days after the teste of the writ, in which time I hope it will scarce be possible for Kirkwall to hear of it and consequently that your lordship and any other burgh has it at your foot to be disposed of as your lordship pleases’. The following week he asserted that Munro ‘has no reason to expect that Kirkwall will be present and that I hope Tain will be right . . . I make no doubt . . . Captain Ross will have something to say, nor do I fear the Earl of Sutherland will oppose what your lordship has so fully declared for’. It was later claimed that Munro’s opponents were guilty of tampering with the sending of the writs, ‘which went up timely, but were delayed by the other party’. The emergence of a third candidate, however, renders this accusation ambiguous.12

William Strachan, a London-based Scot and eminent civil lawyer, had approached Breadalbane via an intermediary in August and was assured that the Earl ‘was pleased to seem favourable, and to promise . . . assistance in the town of Wick’. An outright Tory, known to Cromarty since Lord Royston’s days at Oxford, Strachan was also hopeful of the Mackenzie interest at Dingwall. Munro was faced with the prospect of losing both of the towns he thought safe, and was by no means certain that Kirkwall would arrive in time. A pact was therefore made, under which the Munros supported Rosse in the county in return for his withdrawal from the burghs district. Thus Rosse, a Court Tory at Westminster, was elected on a local Whig interest because he was prepared to surrender his interest in the burghs to a Whig competing against a ministerial Tory. It would seem likely that government influence on behalf of Strachan caused the delay to the writs for Kirkwall; but in other respects his canvass was bungled, one of his supporters admitting that in the constituent burghs the ‘election was so managed for him that they did not so much know his Christian name’.13

The Breadalbane interest at Wick was not only weak but divided against itself. Having sold off local property to Sir James Dunbar, the family somewhat unreasonably expected this change to be devoid of political consequence. At the Michaelmas elections of 1711 Sir James had been elected provost ‘by five of a packed council he had last year chosen after throwing out the first’; but this gambit had been countered by the ‘lawfully chosen’ councillors electing Glenorchy to the provostship. Sir James eventually backed down, to the tune of Glenorchy’s pompous declarations that ‘we are the only persons concerned in the affairs of that town, and so have our authors [i.e. ancestors] been these hundred years’. But Breadalbane took a dim view of his son’s acceptance of an elective office, which put the family in the power ‘of our servants there, to be chosen or not as they please, whereas I am heritable provost, having power to choose bailies, so that thereby they are at our discretion, and not we at theirs’. More alarmingly, Glenorchy recommended the Whiggish Munro for the parliamentary seat at the 1713 election, whereas Breadalbane himself was due to be elected on the Tory slate as a representative peer. ‘Judge what opinion persons will have of us’, he remonstrated, ‘I concurring to elect Tories and you concurring to elect Whigs.’ He summoned his son to Edinburgh in order to retrieve the situation. The family’s closest ally at Wick, Sir Robert Dunbar, 2nd Bt., of Northfields, had already promised, at Glenorchy’s bidding, to endorse Munro. ‘The only way to take him off’, explained one observer,

is to prevail with him to procure from the town the nomination of their elector to be given to the Lord Glenorchy, and then persuade Lord Glenorchy, their provost, to name one who will be for Dr William Strachan . . . Sir Robert Dunbar may be persuaded to do this, it not being a direct breach of promise, . . . and Sir Robert may promise to [Munro of] Foulis to use all his interest with Glenorchy for him.

Sophistry of this kind was employed, Dunbar agreeing to ‘be passive in the matter’, which was ‘running now between Whig and Tory’. The ruse failed, nevertheless, as he later explained to Glenorchy:

The magistrates of Wick . . . were engaged to Foulis and yet their delegate was instructed, if without a bare-faced contradiction of their engagements, upon the least ground of hope Mr Strachan could be got carried, to go for him. This suited their inclinations and mine to serve your lordship . . . but when Dornoch joined with Tain for Foulis . . . both Wick and Dingwall subscribed his commission . . . and you may believe if Kirkwall had come up the vote of Kirkwall had gone Foulis[’s] way.

Sir Robert declined to press the magistrates of Wick to petition against the return, refusing to ‘impose on them to contradict themselves’. He also predicted, albeit incorrectly, that ‘since Foulis has carried the election, Kirkwall will not complain’. In fact, Mar was anxious for petitions. As manager of the Scottish Tory interest, he was keen to unseat Munro, and hoped that Morton would change his mind and support Strachan if a fresh election was called. On 5 Mar. 1714 petitions were received from Kirkwall and Dingwall. These were referred to the committee of elections, but the case was never reported. George Douglas was therefore disappointed in his expectation of ‘a method to be laid down for sending the writs to Orkney in election time’. The councillors of Kirkwall took matters into their own hands at the next election. On 10 Feb. 1715, ‘being creditably informed that the writs . . . were tested’, they appointed a delegate ‘to go to Wick with all dispatch and there to vote for Captain Munro’. He was re-elected without difficulty. The death of Cromarty in August 1714 had caused difficulties for Strachan and his Tory allies, who only mounted a feeble challenge. The Jacobite rising of 1715 severely damaged the Mackenzie interest and the following year the Munros consolidated their position through a power-sharing agreement at Dingwall with the Baynes of Tulloch. Munro retained the seat until 1741, evincing a willingness to resort to violence and intimidation when necessary.14

Author: David Wilkinson


  • 1. Carried, in the absence of Kirkwall’s delegate, by the casting vote of the presiding burgh, Tain.
  • 2. Add. 61631, ff. 185-6; SRO, Cromartie mss GD305 addit./bdle. 37, Sir Kenneth Mackenzie to Cromarty, 2 May [n.y.]; N. Macrae, Dingwall’s Thousand Years, 110-11, 123-4, 377; Ferguson thesis, 295-300; Atholl mss at Blair Atholl, box 45, bdle. 2, items 169, 240, Duke of Hamilton to [Earl of Tullibardine], 20 Aug. 1702, John Flemyng to same, 22 Oct. 1702.
  • 3. Cromartie mss GD305 addit./bdle. 12, Sir James Mackenzie to Cromarty, 24 May, 24 June 1708; C219/106; Orkney Lib. Kirkwall burgh recs. K1/1/4, council mins. 9 June 1708; W. Fraser, Earls of Cromartie, ii. 99.
  • 4. R. Burghs Rec. Soc. Misc. 214; MacGill, Old Ross-shire and Scotland, 281.
  • 5. Recs. Convention R. Burghs, iv. 451, 458; MacGill, 386; Lauder of Fountainhall, Decisions of Court of Session, ii. 460; Cromartie mss GD305/1/165/20, petition of Aeneas Macleod, [July] 1708; R. W. and J. Munro, Tain through the Centuries, 75-9.
  • 6. Recs. Convention R. Burghs, 481, 493-4; R. Burghs Rec. Soc. Misc. 159, 213-15; Cromarty mss GD305/1/168/11, memorandum on Tain [c.1708-9].
  • 7. Cromartie mss GD305/1/168/25, petition on behalf of the Mackenzies, [1709]; GD305/1/159/7, 8, 121, ‘Representation for . . . Balnagown and Sir Robert Munro . . . [on] the Public Peace and Quiet’, [1709], ‘Representation [of] . . . Balnagown and Sir Robert Munro . . . in behalf of Several of the Justices of Peace’, 12 Mar. 1709, ‘A Memorial of What the Justices of Peace . . . Are to Present to the Queen’s Most Excellent Majesty’, [1709]; GD305/1/160/93, ‘Answers to Foulis and Balnagown’s Calumnious Representation’, [1709]; GD305 addit./bdle. 36, Sir James Mackenzie to [Cromarty], [n.d. 1709]; GD305 addit./bdle. 12, David Ross to Alexander Mackenzie, 29 Sept. 1708; GD305 addit./bdle. 13, Alexander Mackenzie to [Cromarty], 29 Aug. 1709; GD305 addit./bdle. 12, Aeneas Macleod to [same], n.d. [bef. 29 Sept. 1708]; Fraser, 99; Hist. Scot. Parl. 559; R. Burghs Rec. Soc. Misc. 159, 213-15; Recs. Convention R. Burghs, 481.
  • 8. Cromartie mss GD305 addit./bdle. 12, Sir James Mackenzie to [Cromarty], 7 Dec. 1708; Fraser, 75, 78.
  • 9. SRO, Morton mss GD150/3459/12, Queensberry to Robert Douglas, 12 Apr. 1709; MacGill, 105; Cromartie mss GD305 addit./bdle. 38, Simon Mackenzie of Allangrange to [Cromarty], 26 May [1709]; GD305 addit./bdle. 14, bailies of Dingwall to [Cromarty], 20 June 1702; GD305 addit./bdle. 1415, Bayne to [same], 4 Nov. 1713; C219/110; Macrae, 203-7, 377; Ferguson thesis, 298-300; R. Burghs Rec. Soc. Misc. 230.
  • 10. Brunton and Haig, Senators Coll. of Justice, 490-1; Fraser, 17; Orkney Lib. Balfour mss D2/11/8, Arthur Brown to John Covingtree, 27 July 1710.
  • 11. SRO, Morton mss GD150/3464/10, Ewing to Morton, 21 Sept. 1710; Breadalbane mss GD112/39/244/18, Duncan Toshach to Breadalbane, 26 Aug. 1710; Cromartie mss GD305 addit./bdle. 15, Royston to Cromarty, 21 Nov. 1710; C219/110; Kirkwall burgh recs. K1/1/4, council mins. 27 Oct. 1710; London Gazette, 7-9 Nov. 1710.
  • 12. NLS, Sutherland mss, Dep. 313/529, Robert Munro to Strathnaver, 20 Dec. 1712; Dep. 313/572, Alexander Ross to same, 20, 29 Aug. 1713; Morton mss GD150/3461/12, George Douglas to Morton, 27 Aug. 1713; GD150/3464/13, Ewing to Morton, 27 Aug. 1713; Kirkwall burgh recs. K1/1/4, council mins. 2 Nov. 1713; Breadalbane mss GD112/39/270/3, Sir Robert Dunbar to Glenorchy, 9 Nov. 1713.
  • 13. SRO, Balnagown mss GD129/29/106/15, Ross-shire freeholders’ roll, 2 Oct. 1713; Scot. Hist. Soc. ser. 1, xxxiv(2), 274; Al. Oxon. 1500-1714, p. 1433; Fraser, 153, 420.
  • 14. Breadalbane mss GD112/39/258/13, Sir Robert Dunbar to Glenorchy, 22 Oct. 1711; GD112/39/259/5-6 Glenorchy to Sir Robert Dunbar, 10 Nov. 1711, same to Sir James Dunbar, 10 Nov. 1711; GD112/39/269/11, 14, 16, William Moncrieff to Breadalbane, 31 Aug. 1713, Duncan Toshach to Glenorchy, 8 Sept. 1713, Breadalbane to same, 19 Sept. 1713; D. Szechi, Jacobitism and Tory Pol. 150, 158, 202-3; Morton mss GD150/3461/14-15, George Douglas to Morton, 16 Oct. 1713; Fraser, 153; Cromartie mss GD305 addit./bdle. 15, Strachan to [2nd Earl of Cromarty], 2 Sept. 1714; SHR, xxxviii. 89-108.