DUNBAR, alias SUTHERLAND, Hon. Sir James, 1st Bt. (aft.1676-1724), of Hempriggs, Caithness.

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



1710 - 1713

Family and Education

b. aft. 1676, 2nd s. of James Sutherland, 2nd Ld. Duffus [S] by Lady Margaret, da. of Kenneth Mackenzie, 3rd Earl of Seaforth [S].  educ. adv. 1704.  m. c.1705, Elizabeth (d. 1756), da. and h. of Sir William Dunbar, 1st Bt. (d. 1711), MP [S], of Hempriggs, and wid. of Sir Robert Gordon, 3rd Bt., MP [S], of Gordonstoun, Elgin, 2s. 4da.  Changed name to Dunbar on marriage; cr. Bt. 21 Dec. 1706.1

Offices Held

MP [S] Caithness-shire 1706–7.

Provost, Wick 1711.2


Although Dunbar was to rescue himself by a successful marriage, the calamitous state of his family’s finances left its mark, for in some quarters he had the reputation of an unscrupulous opportunist, toadying to the powerful and oppressing the weak. His father had been rendered so desperate by debt that in 1688 he had killed a creditor and had been forced to flee to England in pursuit of a royal pardon. Presumably he obtained some guarantee of indemnity from the Prince of Orange, for he returned to Scotland to subscribe the act declaring the legality of the convention of estates, and in 1690 took the oath of allegiance. He was not a reliable supporter of the Court, despite his poverty. By the time of his death he had lost control of his estates, and his eldest son, a naval officer, inherited no more than the title. His second son, the Member, who had put himself to the law as a profession, made repeated applications to Lords Cromarty and Mar for the grant of an escheat to his family. Dunbar’s own circumstances had improved somewhat with his marriage to the daughter (and, after 1707, heir presumptive) of the laird of Hempriggs, and he had changed his surname in expectation of her succession. But he was probably not entirely comfortable financially until his father-in-law’s death in December 1711, for there were reports in 1707 that old Hempriggs and Lady Dunbar were ‘not at a good understanding’. Indeed, when Sir William was dying his daughter and son-in-law refused to visit him, ‘albeit he sent several times for them’, they ‘having been at variance of a good time’. This uncertainty may explain Dunbar’s obstructive response to his brother’s efforts to reunite the ancestral lands of Duffus with the title. It may also account for his continued courtship of Mar and his brother Lord Grange SCJ (Hon. James Erskine†). Dunbar supported the Union, though registering one or two protests, most notably against the use of troops to quell the Edinburgh mob.3

Dunbar did not find a place in the contingent of Court Members chosen to the first Parliament of Great Britain. He was reluctant to stand in 1708, even though his father-in-law’s interest at Wick was at his disposal. While prompt with professions of service to Mar and Grange, he was firm in resisting pressure to step forward himself. He still kept open his lines of communication with Cromarty, supporting his son Sir James Mackenzie as a candidate for Tain Burghs. But in 1710 his attitude was reversed and he pursued a seat eagerly. His purchases of land from Lord Breadalbane in the vicinity of Wick, and the coup he had been able to engineer in that corporation, ‘throwing out’ one council en masse and ‘packing’ another, might have given him leverage enough to challenge for the district, but instead he took the easier run offered in Caithness-shire, which had not elected in 1708 since it alternated its representation with Buteshire.4

Up early to Parliament in December 1710, Dunbar maintained throughout his first session a regular correspondence with Grange, until he was granted what seems to have been a terminal leave of absence, for six weeks, on 7 Apr. 1711. He despatched lengthy reports of Commons debates, written from a ministerial point of view. He had, indeed, been classified as an episcopal Tory in the analysis of Richard Dongworth, the Duchess of Buccleuch’s chaplain, and later he was included in the ‘white lists’ of ‘Tory patriots’ and ‘worthy patriots’, who in this session had, respectively, supported peace and exposed the mismanagements of the previous administration. His letters show him sharing Tory scruples over the place bill, which threatened to ‘unhinge our constitution’ (12 Dec. 1710); voting with the Tories over the Bewdley election (19 Dec.); approving of the speeches of Henry St. John II* in commendation of the landed qualification bill (30 Jan. 1711); and subscribing to the commonly held back-bench Tory assumption that ‘by all the examinations yet heard it appears that all in public employment’ under the outgoing ministry ‘have very much wronged the public’. He also attended the private meetings of Scots peers and Commoners to discuss what measures might be brought forward for the benefit of the Scottish episcopalian clergy. But the enduring theme of the correspondence was his professed devotion to Mar.5

His loyalty unrewarded by even a crumb of patronage, it seems unlikely that Dunbar ever came back to Westminster. He was absent in Scotland on 7 Feb. 1712 for the vote on the Scottish toleration bill, and the following year was again absent at both recorded divisions on the French commerce bill (4 and 18 June 1713). Instead, his attention was taken up by the local difficulties he was encountering in Wick, where the Breadalbane interest had reasserted itself. In 1711 there were competing elections for the provostship of the burgh. Dunbar was chosen by one faction; Breadalbane’s eldest son, Lord Glenorchy, by another and also with the support of ‘the gentlemen of the country’, whom Dunbar had in some way alienated. Townsmen then proceeded to bring forward complaints against the ‘oppressions’ they had suffered at the hands of Dunbar and his wife, who had enclosed common land and encroached on vital harbour and fishing rights. Allegedly the baronet was ‘wife-ridden’, and observers assumed that it was Lady Dunbar’s vindictiveness that drove on the dispute, until her husband found himself the subject of a legal process in the court of session, and a petition to the convention of royal burghs. He did not stand in 1713, when there was no opportunity in the county and the prospect unclear in the burghs district. At least five years later his conflict with the inhabitants of Wick was still simmering, his election as commissioner to the convention controverted, and further complaints being preferred against him for persistent and systematic encroachment on the privileges of the burgh.6

While his two brothers and stepson, Sir Robert Gordon, 4th Bt.†, were all ‘out’ in the Fifteen, Lord Duffus forfeiting the peerage on attainder, Dunbar himself kept a low profile, and little is known of him until his death, presumably at Hempriggs, in 1724. He was succeeded by his second son, William.7

Ref Volumes: 1690-1715

Author: D. W. Hayton


  • 1. Scots Peerage ed. Paul, iii. 210–11; J. Henderson, Caithness Fam. Hist. 222–3; Scot. Rec. Soc. lxxvi. 204.
  • 2. SRO, Breadalbane mss GD112/39/258/13, (Sir) Robert Dunbar (2nd Bt.) to Glenorchy, 22 Oct. 1711.
  • 3. Scots Peerage, 209–10; info. from Dr P. W. J. Riley on members of Scot. parl.; P. W. J. Riley, King Wm. and Scot. Politicians, 166; P. W. J. Riley, Union, 93, 109, 330–1; Seafield Letters, 104; Cromartie Corresp. ii. 10–11, 77; HMC Mar and Kellie, i. 470; APS, xi. app. 130; SRO, Breadalbane mss GD112/39/210/5, Duncan Toshach to Breadalbane, 10 Dec. 1707; GD112/39/262/4/1, same to [same], 7 Jan. 1712; Lockhart Pprs. i. 166.
  • 4. SRO, Mar and Kellie mss GD124/15/754/1, Mar to Grange, 6 Jan. 1707–8; GD124/15/768/2, Grange to Mar, 24 June 1708; Cromartie Corresp. 75, 77; SRO, Cromartie mss GD305 addit./bdle. 12, Royston to [Cromarty], 7 Dec. 1708; bdle. 14, same to [same], 21 Nov. 1710; Breadalbane mss GD112/39/244/18, Toshach to Breadalbane, 19 Sept. 1710; GD112/39/259/6, Glenorchy to Dunbar, 10 Nov. 1711.
  • 5. SHR, lx. 64; Mar and Kellie mss GD124/15/1020/1–2, 4–5, 8, 12 14, Dunbar to Grange, 5, 12, 19, 21 Dec. 1710, 30 Jan., 17 Feb., 1 Mar. 1711; HMC Mar and Kellie, 485–6.
  • 6. NLS, ms 1392, f. 80; Parlty. Hist. i. 69; Breadalbane mss GD112/39/258/13, Robert Dunbar to [Glenorchy], 22 Oct. 1711; GD112/39/259/5–7, 22–3, Glenorchy to Robert Dunbar, 10 Nov. 1711, same to Sir James Dunbar, 10 Nov. 1711, same to [Colin Campbell], 10 Nov. 1711, same to Sir William Dunbar, 26 Nov. 1711, Duncan Toshach to [?Breadalbane], 26 Nov. 1711; GD112/39/260/4, Glenorchy to Campbell, 3 Dec. [1711]; GD112/39/269/22, Sir Robert Dunbar to [?Glenorchy], 26 Oct. 1713; Recs. R. Burghs Scotland, v. 92, 189, 172–3, 192–3.
  • 7. Douglas, iii. 211; Scot. Rec. Soc. xxxi. 15.