GRIERSON (GRIER), William (bef.1688-1760), of Rockhall, Lag, Dumfries.

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



7 Apr. 1709 - 22 Feb. 1711

Family and Education

b. bef. 1688, 1st s. of Sir Robert Grierson, 1st Bt., MP [S], of Lag, by Lady Henrietta, da. of James Douglas, 2nd Earl of Queensberry.  m. contr. 8–12 Aug. 1720, Anne (d. 1749), da. of Sir Richard Musgrave, 2nd Bt., of Hayton, Cumb., sis. of Richard Musgrave*, s.psuc. fa. as 2nd Bt. Dec. 1733.1

Offices Held


Grierson’s father was an infamous persecutor of the Covenanters during the ‘killing times’ of the early 1680s: the laird of Lag’s misdeeds assumed such mythical proportions that he was portrayed as a demonic figure. In one popular verse, his character was analysed via the conceit of a lament by the Devil at the loss of such a faithful servant:

          To curse and swear and to blaspheme
          He gloried in, and thought no shame;
          To excess he drank beer and wine,
          And drunkenness he gloried in;
          No Sabbath day regarded he,
          But spent it in profanity;
          ’Mongst other vices, as some say,
          He ravished virgins on that day;
          But that which rais’d his fame so high,
          Was the good service done to me,
          In bearing of a deadly feud
          ’Gainst people who did pray and read.

Leaving aside apocryphal allegations that ‘Auld Lag’ rolled his victims downhill in barrels filled with knife blades and spikes, there is strong evidence that he shot, or ordered to be shot, a number of Presbyterians, the most famous being John Bell of Whiteside, a relation by marriage of the 5th Viscount Kenmure. When Kenmure subsequently remonstrated against the additional inhumanity of denying the victim a proper funeral, Lag is reported to have replied ‘take him if you will and salt him in your beer barrel’. He seems to have relished making his actions as objectionable as possible by, for example, refusing to allow the condemned any time for final prayers before execution. Controversy also surrounded his conduct towards the ‘Wigtown Martyrs’: two women staked out to drown in the tidal waters of the Solway Firth in May 1685 for refusing to abjure the Covenant. The elder of the two was reported to have been positioned farther out for the purpose of influencing the younger to recant.2

The personal repercussions on Grierson of having such a notorious father are difficult to evaluate. Little is known of his upbringing or education. One of his brothers trained as a lawyer, while another attended for two years the Scots College at Douai. William himself is recorded as having contracted a debt of £473 Scots in 1700, which may indicate that he was travelling abroad as part of his education. The formal content of his schooling may have been minimal since in later life he was reported to be in the habit of dictating his letters because ‘he was no hand with the pen’. The influence of his father on his political attitudes is, however, readily discernible. The horrors of the ‘killing times’ were not as important a factor in this respect as the punishments inflicted upon Sir Robert after the Revolution. In May 1689 Kenmure, still bearing a grudge, hastened to place Lag in custody as a suspected Jacobite. After being imprisoned in Kirkcudbright and Edinburgh, he was released on bail only to be re-arrested in July on suspicion of involvement in a plot against the convention of estates. A pattern of imprisonments, punctuated by payment of bail or fines, was repeated over the following years with damaging effects upon the Grierson estate. To add to these woes, Sir Robert was charged with false coining in 1696. Although subsequently acquitted, the prosecution must have appeared part of a continuing campaign of harassment. Youthful resentment at the treatment meted out to his father no doubt contributed to William’s later willingness to bear arms in the Jacobite cause. Despite the reversal of fortunes suffered by Sir Robert in the aftermath of the Revolution, however, the political status of his family was not completely eclipsed, partly because of a long-standing connexion with the dukes of Queensberry.3

Grierson stood unsuccessfully for Dumfriesshire as Queensberry’s nominee in 1708, and captured the seat at a by-election the following year caused by the disqualification of the Marquess of Annandale’s eldest son, Lord Johnston (James). Grierson was looked upon as a guardian of the Queensberry interest both in the shire and the county town. The council of Dumfries had been particularly concerned about any favouritism that might be shown towards the town of Annan by the Marquess and his member for the burghs, William Johnstone. Grierson was also urged by his constituents to co-operate with James Lowther’s* abortive scheme to remove the tobacco drawbacks from the Isle of Man in order to prevent Liverpool merchants from taking illegal advantage of this concession. In August 1710 Grierson was formally thanked by Dumfries for ‘his readiness to contribute his utmost endeavours for the good and welfare of the town’. Grierson, as an episcopalian and Jacobite sympathizer, naturally inclined towards the Tory opposition at Westminster, the more so after the passage of the controversial Treason Act of 1709. He was nevertheless listed as voting for the impeachment of Dr Sacheverell in 1710, despite the religious and political influences which might have swayed his vote in the opposite direction. Although Lockhart later queried Grierson’s inclusion on this list, the balance of probabilities points towards his having toed Queensberry’s line of support for ministers on this question.4

At the 1710 election Grierson refused a request that he stand down in favour of Hon. James Murray, and succeeded in carrying the seat against Murray only to lose it on petition. Grierson was classified as an episcopal Tory in the electoral analysis of Richard Dongworth, the Duchess of Buccleuch’s chaplain. In some quarters, however, Grierson had been presented to the electors as a staunch defender of the very Kirk which his father had so resolutely persecuted. The contest was also notable for the flagrant manufacturing of extra votes by Queensberry. Disapproval of such tactics, together with Scottish resentment against the ‘Union Duke’, contributed to Grierson’s defeat in the Commons on 22 Feb. 1711. The death of Queensberry in July 1711 left him without hope of reviving his Westminster career: a confused succession left the Queensberry electoral interest in abeyance and the Griersons had neither the wealth nor the inclination to cultivate one in their own right.5

By 1713 Grierson’s father had handed over the family estates in return for a life rent, with a proviso that property might still be sold to pay off debts. The son was not at liberty to make any sales for his own purposes, but was legally bound to give financial aid to his father within six months of formal notification. Failure to comply with this stipulation rendered the infeftment null and void. An additional clause sought to protect the estate from the consequences of any crime committed by William, including that of treason. These provisos proved contentious. Disputes soon arose over the management of the estates: Sir Robert wished to sell some land to pay debts, but his prospective purchasers refused to complete any sale without the concurrence of the heir to the estate. William was so obstructive that by April 1714 Sir Robert had taken legal action to recover the entire estate in accordance with the original agreement. Ironically, this breakdown in the relationship between father and son actually preserved the estate from being permanently lost by the family in the years following the Fifteen.6

The initial reaction of the Griersons, father and son, to the Hanoverian succession was to take the oaths declaring George I ‘rightful and lawful King’. The insincerity of this declaration was proved the following year, when William joined the Jacobite rising. Together with his younger brother Gilbert, he accompanied Lord Kenmure, the son of his father’s old foe, on the ill-fated expedition which ended in defeat at Preston. Grierson was imprisoned in Newgate and indicted for treason in May 1716. If the account contained in one contemporary pamphlet is to be believed, the incarceration of the rebels was more akin to farce than noble tragedy. The prisoners indulged in ‘profane swearing, drunkenness, gluttony, gaming and whoring, especially on Sundays, when they had most of their female visitors’. Grierson was specifically named as one of those who was ‘always backward and troublesome’. He subjected his gaolers ‘to very ill language’ when required to retire to his room and often quarrelled with his fellow prisoners. He was released on 18 July 1717, only to be immediately taken up by the officers of St. Andrew’s, Holborn ‘to give security, for getting a wench with child, while in prison’. Once this minor inconvenience had been dealt with, Grierson was able to set about the task of recovering the family’s forfeited estates.7

Sir Robert had taken no part in the rebellion and by virtue of the legal proceedings which he had initiated against his son had strong grounds for arguing that William was not in legal possession of the estate at the time of the rising. An appeals procedure had been set up, whereby the decisions of the commissioners for forfeited estates could be referred to the court of delegates, a special tribunal comprised of members of the court of session. The intrinsic merits of the case, together with understandable resentment in Scotland against the commissioners, led to a successful appeal on 23 Feb. 1722. In a report presented to the House on 17 Apr. 1725 the estates of ‘William Grier, late of Lag’ (valued at £424 15s. a year) were listed by the commissioners among the many that had been ‘taken out of their possession’. Father and son were thoroughly reunited by the common cause of retrieving their property. One well-wisher had therefore cautioned against the danger of their campaign appearing ‘to be a collusive contrivance between the father and the son’. Once the major obstacle of reversing the forfeiture had been achieved, all that stood between William and his inheritance was the ‘corruption of his blood’ which had not been purged by the Act of Indemnity of 1717. Until he was pardoned, Grierson remained incapable of holding any real estate. Following a petition, a warrant was issued for a pardon on 11 May 1725. This did not entirely reverse the attainder, but permitted Grierson to hold any property which he might subsequently acquire. Sir Robert was therefore able to transfer the estate back to his son. Grierson’s marriage, which had taken place in 1720, was apparently influenced by financial considerations. Although his wife brought a ‘good fortune’, she was already in her mid-forties and unable to provide him with any children to inherit the estate.8

Grierson is not known to have taken any prominent part in later Jacobite activities, though his underlying sympathies probably remained constant. After the vicissitudes of the Fifteen, it is not surprising that he did not come out in the Forty-Five, by which time he was in any case an old man. The tendency of the family to fight shy of any overt connexion with the Jacobite cause had been signalled many years earlier by his brother John, who expressed concern that any agitation on his part to alleviate the sufferings of the exiles in Holland might bring ‘reproach upon the family’. Grierson likewise remained cautious, and his reputation as an aged Jacobite laird excited little more than idle curiosity. In later years he was variously described as a dotard who was completely under the thumb of an unscrupulous servant or, alternatively, as a quick-witted miser. He did not die until 1760, when he was succeeded in the baronetcy, but not the estates, by his nephew Robert, who had previously been removed from the series of heirs after a dispute with William and the elder Sir Robert. The property passed to the youngest of William’s brothers, Gilbert, who succeeded as 4th Bt. in 1765.9

Ref Volumes: 1690-1715

Author: David Wilkinson


  • 1. Hist. Scot. Parl. 302–3; Scots Peerage ed. Paul, vii. 137; Scot. Rec. Soc. lxxxviii. 58; Scots Mag. 1749, p. 606; Fergusson, Laird of Lag, 140.
  • 2. Fergusson, 23–25, 51; Scot. Rec. Soc. lxxxviii. 3; Trans. Dumfries and Galloway Natural Hist. and Antiquarian Soc. ser. 3, iv. 38; Black, Surnames of Scot. (Grierson, Greer); DNB (Grierson, Sir Robert); Lag’s Elegy (1795); Wodrow, Hist. Sufferings Church of Scotland (1829), iv. 246–9; Dictionary of Scot. Church Hist. and Theology ed. Wright (Wigtown martyrs).
  • 3. Ewart Lib. Dumfries, Grierson mss, 14D/GroupB9/63,74, C[harles] R[ow] to Sir Robert Grierson, 13 July 1695, William Stewart to [same], 10 Feb. 1698; 14B/324, 329, acts for releasing Sir Robert Grierson, 12 July 1692, 11 Nov. 1693; 14B/345, Charles Row to same, 12 Nov. 1696; Fergusson, 88–106, 123.
  • 4. Grierson mss 14D/GroupB9/2, 18–19, J. Montgomerie to Sir Robert Grierson, 19 Apr. 1709, Queensberry to same, 5 Mar. 1685, J. Richardson to same, 6 Mar. 1685; Dumfries Arch. Centre, Dumfries burgh recs. RB2/2/030, town council to Grierson, 9 Feb. 1709; WA2/8, council bk. 17 Aug. 1710; Cumbria RO (Carlisle), Lonsdale mss D/Lons/W2/1/43, Lowther to William Gilpin, 21 Mar. 1709[–10]; Lockhart Pprs. i. 300–1; Lockhart Mems. ed. Szechi, 287; P. W. J. Riley, Eng. Ministers and Scotland, 144.
  • 5. Grierson mss 14D/GroupB9/3, William Alves to William Grierson, 2 Aug. 1710; Mansfield mss at Scone Palace, bdle. 1248, Stormont to Andrew Barclay, 10 Sept. 1710; Christ Church Oxf. Wake mss 17, ff. 268–9; Lockhart Pprs. 325.
  • 6. Grierson mss, 14C/419, deposition by Sir Robert to William Grierson, 1706; Fergusson, 128–32.
  • 7. Buccleuch mss at Drumlanrig Castle, bdle. 1198, sederunt of Dumfries j.p.s, oath of abjuration, 2 Sept. 1714; [P. Rae], Hist. Late Rebellion (1718), 325; Grierson mss 14D/GroupB9/4, A[nthony] Cracherode† to William Grierson, 24 May 1716; Secret Hist. Newgate (1717), 15–17, 20, 25, 42–48.
  • 8. Grierson mss 14C/523, 543, reversal of forfeiture, 23 Feb. 1722, agreement between Sir Robert and William Grierson, 1728; 14D/GroupB8/103, Charles Cathcart to Sir Robert Grierson, 7 Ja[n.]; 14D/GroupB9/10, 11, Sir Robert Grierson to [Anne Musgrave], 29 June, 5 Oct. 1719; W. Morison, Decisions Ct. of Session, 7272; Final Report Commrs. for Forfeited Estates in Scotland (1725); Add. 36125, ff. 284–5; Fergusson, 133.
  • 9. NRA List 10799, John to Sir Robert Grierson, 25 Feb. [?1725]; Fergusson, 228, 231; Services of Heirs (ser. 1) i. 13, 16; ii. 17.