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:

22 in 1708 and 1713; 41 in 17101


17 June 1708HON. JOHN STEWART 
 Andrew Agnew 
10 Nov. 1710PATRICK VANS21
 Hon. John Stewart20
 HON. JOHN STEWART vice Vans, on petition, 3 Mar. 1711 
29 Oct. 1713HON. JOHN STEWART 

Main Article

Electoral influence in Wigtownshire was divided among the Agnews of Lochnaw, the Dalrymples of Stair, and the Stewarts, Earls of Galloway, with the lesser freeholders providing a volatile fourth element in an already unstable situation. At a by-election to the Scottish parliament in October 1700, the county even proved vulnerable to a challenge from the Duke of Hamilton’s brother, Lord Basil Hamilton, who built a strong Country platform out of local disaffection with the Galloway-Stair interest and the national campaign for redress of grievances over the Darien episode. A confused and potentially violent election resulted in a double return of Lord Basil Hamilton and William Stewart of Castlestewart, uncle to the 5th Earl of Galloway. In Edinburgh this affair made ‘a mighty noise’ and provided an early focus for the parliamentary struggle between the Country opposition, headed by the Duke of Hamilton, and the Court party of the Duke of Queensberry. Following proceedings in committee, the election was declared void; but Lord Basil Hamilton declined a second contest, despite strong encouragement from his local supporters. Although nothing transpired at this juncture to prevent Castlestewart’s re-election, the local quest for an alternative candidate to Galloway’s nominee was merely suspended rather than abandoned. No advantage, however, was derived from the by-election of June 1702 caused by the death of Sir James Agnew, since Galloway took care to cultivate support for his brother, Hon. John Stewart of Sorbie. After he had successfully ‘engaged all the small barons’ the seat was secured without apparent difficulty. At the election to Queen Anne’s first Scottish parliament in 1702, Castlestewart and Sorbie were rechosen, but only after an all-night sitting.2

The first election to the British Parliament in 1708 witnessed a revival of opposition to Galloway, which had its roots in the earlier discontent but was also a consequence of new circumstances. The reduction in available seats caused by the Union generated greater competition, not simply because the county’s representation was halved, but also owing to the creation of a local district of burghs, in which the Dalrymples’ safe seat at Stranraer was now subsumed. Moreover, the succession of John Dalrymple as 2nd Earl of Stair, following his father’s sudden death in January 1707, gave a new slant to magnate rivalry in the county. There was also the possibility that Galloway’s denunciation of the Union, as contrasted with Stewart of Sorbie’s support, might have electoral repercussions. Indeed, the threat of a rival candidate supported by Stair may well have served to prevent a public breach between the brothers. Galloway certainly relented from his earlier refusal to support Stewart, and their combined influence was sufficient to secure an overwhelming victory. Stair, in any case, had not chosen a particularly strong candidate: Colonel Andrew Agnew, an officer from his own regiment, lacking credibility in the eyes of the other freeholders, and whose only other pretension to be taken seriously, apart from Stair’s patronage, was that he was a cousin of the sheriff, Sir James Agnew, 4th Bt. According to the electoral minutes, Stewart was chosen unanimously by 22 votes. Agnew’s failure to record a single vote may indicate that he had withdrawn before the actual poll. That there had been a contest of some description, however, was noted in an Edinburgh newspaper.3

After such a poor showing, Stair’s uncle Sir Hew Dalrymple, 1st Bt., became convinced prior to the election of 1710, that ‘Colonel Agnew will never be acceptable to the shire’ and that there was ‘nobody to propose’. In an attempt to protect the family’s interest on behalf of Stair, who was abroad on military service, Sir Hew had written a joint letter with his brother Hon. Sir David Dalrymple, 1st Bt.*, to Galloway, ‘proposing that there should be no interfering between his lordship and you [Stair] during your absence, but that the representation of both the shire and burghs should be adjusted by common consent’. As was anticipated, Galloway rebuffed this offer. Stair returned to Scotland for the general election, but was too preoccupied with the peerage election in Edinburgh to attend to Wigtownshire affairs in person, deputizing this task to his brother Hon. William Dalrymple*, who was not himself a viable candidate because he lacked property in the county. The family now favoured the candidacy of Colonel Patrick Vans, heir apparent to the ancient but impoverished barony of Barnbarroch, who at least had the advantage of an impressive local lineage (an important factor owing to the local custom of ranking baronies in order of creation), but whose property qualification was open to question. Stair readily endorsed Vans, even though he had not been his first choice, and posed as a champion of the freeholders against aristocratic interference in elections by cultivating the support of Sir Charles Hay, 2nd Bt., of Park, one of the leading lights in Lord Basil Hamilton’s earlier campaign. ‘I think myself obliged to be your servant’, wrote Stair to Hay on 16 Oct. 1710,

for joining with the other gentlemen in the shire who are my friends to oppose my Lord Galloway’s unneighbourly pretension of imposing commissioners upon the shire and introducing strangers every Parliament to represent the towns. I can easily see your endeavour will have the success you desire if you do but agree upon the person . . . I understood by my wife there were some gentlemen unwilling to agree to Sir Robert Adair, so upon that I wrote immediately to Colonel Vans to come down because I heard no objection against him but as to his having a good vote. Now I have made inquiry into that point and there is nothing to be found in the register here to take it away . . . I own I see Colonel Vans can be of more use to us because of the interest he may have with some of his relations who are of the other side.4

At the electoral court on 10 Nov. considerable controversy arose over the qualification of voters. The dubious entitlement of Vans, in particular, was highlighted. The question of whether Vans had ‘a good vote’, which Stair had so lightly glossed over, ultimately provided Stewart with grounds for unseating him on petition. The precise order of events during the election meeting is impossible to discern because of the counter-claims in the rival petitions presented to Parliament. It is clear, however, that Stewart, by right of his previous service as the MP for the county, assumed the role of praeses for the initial business of validating the freeholders’ roll. In his version of events, which is borne out by the official minutes of the election, he complained that Vans was eight of his supporters were not entitled to vote. Vans was to be disqualified, it was asserted, because the lands which belonged to him and his father had been granted to Sir Alexander Maxwell, 2nd Bt.*, of Monreith as a consequence of legal action for debt. Several supporters of Vans were also deemed ineligible for failing to meet the property qualification or not possessing the type of tenure required by Scottish electoral law. Understandably, Stewart also protested against a commissioner from Stranraer registering to vote, since, in the words of his petition, ‘that being a royal burgh, and having their [sic] own representative in Parliament, he . . . can’t have a vote in the election of commissioners for shires’. By the time Stewart presented his petition at Westminster he was ready to challenge 12 votes, having reserved the option of questioning any of the votes by registering objections in the minutes and requesting that the final determination of all qualifications be left to the Commons.5

Vans did not deny that some objections had been raised by Stewart during the enrolment, but asserted that ‘at length the objections being yielded, and their answers acquiesced in, it was agreed by the meeting, whereof the petitioner [Stewart] himself was praeses, that the sitting Member [Vans] and the other freeholders named should be enrolled’. Thereupon, the meeting proceeded to choose the praeses and clerk for the election proper. Only when Robert McDowall of Loyan, a supporter of Vans, was elected praeses did Stewart enter an official protest, after ‘discovering that the majority of the poll would go’ to Vans. Stewart lodged a protest with the clerk to ensure a faithful return of all who offered themselves as voters, insisting that he did ‘not pretend to exclude any of them upon the pretence of the illegality of their titles to vote, in respect the said matter is to be determined by the House of Commons’. It was at this point that Stewart, according to Vans, revived his complaint about his opponents’ qualifications, despite having already signed the roll. Moreover, ‘the protest against the clerk was most irregular, and done to disturb the meeting, which accordingly fell out; everybody thronging in and calling and protesting for their vote, though they had no manner of title to show for it’. This disruption did not rescue Stewart, who still found ‘that there would be a majority for the sitting Member [Vans], even numbering all that would come in and claim their vote’ and therefore he pretended ‘that he, and the other gentlemen for him, signed the roll under protestation, but this protestation is neither mentioned in the doquet, nor in the minutes, till the roll was made up and signed’. Vans calculated that, by the poll of enrolled freeholders, he had a majority of 13 to 12 (with 4 not voting) and, in the combined total of enrolled and claimant voters, he had a majority of 21 to 20. For good measure, however, Vans disqualified seven of Stewart’s voters as ‘tenants of the bishop of Galloway, and not of the crown’. Stewart in his own petition rebutted this latter allegation on the grounds that

these were formerly tenants to the bishops of Galloway, but after the Revolution when episcopacy was abolished in Scotland all such as formerly held their lands immediately of the bishops, are by 24th act of parliament 1690, declared to hold them immediately of the crown and are entitled to all the other privileges of other tenants in capite to the crown, especially that of voting in elections.6

From this conflicting evidence, some credence should be given to the account by Vans of Stewart’s procedural manoeuvres, which are certainly not out of character with strategies employed by the Galloway interest at previous elections. That Stewart at first attempted to win the election outright, without having disqualified the questionable votes on the other side, may also be attributable to overconfidence stemming from two previous successes. Once the election of the praeses was lost, it became likely that some of his supporters would be disqualified. Stewart’s tactic of disrupting the meeting (if that is indeed what occurred), by getting the clerk to record all those who claimed a vote, was an astute one. The worst consequence would have been the Commons declaring the election void. But, on the other hand, there had been a real possibility of snatching victory.

The Commons did not investigate the petitions until 3 Mar. 1711. This delay was initially caused by a technical flaw in the return, attributable to an oversight by the sheriff Sir James Agnew. After Stewart’s petition had been first read on 5 Dec. 1710, the clerk of the crown was ordered to attend the following day to explain ‘why there is no return for Wigtownshire’. His answer was that ‘an indenture had been tendered to him, but without the writ; and that therefore he could not receive it’. The sheriff was instructed to supply this deficiency with all convenient speed, but when nothing had been done by 20 Dec. he was ordered to attend in person on 20 Jan. 1711. In the intervening period an attempt to discharge him from attendance was defeated and the merits of the election ordered to be heard subsequently at the bar. On the day of Agnew’s attendance, William Cochrane presented a petition from the freeholders of Wigtownshire, which was highly critical of the sheriff’s conduct. Despite this intimidating prelude, Agnew acquitted himself well, according to reports by Sir James Dunbar, 1st Bt.*, and Mungo Graham*. He made a fulsome apology for the clerical error which had caused such delay, while maintaining ‘that he had no design of prejudice to the sitting Member’. A motion by George Lockhart requiring Agnew’s attendance for the hearings at the bar was then carried, despite opposition from George Baillie, John Cockburn and John Smith I.7

These proceedings were repeatedly deferred until 3 Mar. when counsel for Stewart opened by attacking the qualification of Vans to vote in the election; the latter’s counsel rested their defence upon the weak ground that Stewart ‘ought not now to be permitted to make the said objection, the petitioner (who was the praeses) having signed the freeholders’ roll’. This denial of Stewart’s right of appeal received short shrift. The Commons resolved that ‘the petitioner, having signed the freeholders’ roll, in which the sitting Member was inserted with a protestation, was at liberty at any time to renew his objection’. The right of Vans to a vote was then negated. Immediately afterwards, the lame argument that Stewart’s voters had not taken ‘the oaths and assurance, required by law’ was also rejected and Vans was unseated. There are some grounds for detecting party motivation in these proceedings, for the earlier defence of Agnew by an English Whig and two members of the Squadrone can be contrasted with the seemingly Tory attack upon him by Lockhart and Cochrane. But the latter pair were both related to Galloway: Lockhart was his brother-in-law and Cochrane his uncle by marriage. Both owed electoral debts to Galloway, a bolt-hole having been provided for Lockhart in Wigtown Burghs in 1708 (in case Edinburghshire miscarried) and Cochrane currently representing the district as Galloway’s nominee. Party antagonism against Stewart, who had been a Queensberryite in the Scottish parliament, may explain the hostility of the Squadrone. Also, in the immediate political context, Stewart might have been seen as a likely supporter of the Harley ministry: either because of continuing loyalty to Queensberry, or in the hope of professional advancement. Conversely, the same reasoning may have attracted Tory support for Stewart and secured his success. This hard-won victory for the Galloway interest established a control of the county that proved unstoppable for the next three elections, with Stewart successively returned without any significant challenge.

Author: David Wilkinson


  • 1. SRO, Wigtown sheriff ct. recs. SC19/63/6, 8, 10, electoral ct. mins. 1708, 1710, 1713; L. Inn Lib. MP 100/202, Wigtownshire Election, Petitioner’s Case (1710).
  • 2. SRO, Hay of Park mss GD72/647, Ld. Basil Hamilton to Sir Charles Hay, 29 Aug., 1, 22 Sept., 18 Oct., 13, 24 Dec. 1700; SRO, Hamilton mss GD406/1/4617, Ld. Archibald Hamilton to Duke of Hamilton, 11 Nov. 1700; GD406/1/4942, Hay to [same], 3 June 1702; P. W. J. Riley, Wm. III and Scot. Politicians, 134, 150; A. Agnew, Hereditary Sheriffs of Galloway (1893), ii. 179; Buccleuch mss at Drumlanrig Castle, bdle. 1166, memorials, 7 Nov. 1700, n.d. [1700]; APS, x. 203, 224-5; SRO, Clerk of Penicuik mss GD18/5246/1/13, Galloway to John Clerk*, 3 Nov. 1702.
  • 3. Clerk of Penicuik mss GD18/3140/22, Clerk to fa. 2, 4 Mar. 1708; Wigtown sheriff ct. recs. SC19/63/6, electoral ct. mins. 1708; Edinburgh Courant, 21-23 June 1708.
  • 4. Stair Annals, i. 246; Agnew, 125; Hay of Park mss GD72/651, Stair to Hay, 16 Oct. [1710].
  • 5. Wigtown sheriff ct. recs. SC19/63/8, electoral ct. mins. 1710; Petitioner’s Case.
  • 6. Wigtownshire Election, Sitting Member’s Case (1710); Petitioner’s Case.
  • 7. SRO, Mar and Kellie mss GD124/15/1020/7, Dunbar to Ld. Grange (Hon. James Erskine†), 20 Jan. 1711; SRO, Montrose mss GD220/5/808/9, Graham to Montrose, 20 Jan. 1711.