NISBET (NESBIT), William (c.1666-1724), of Dirleton, Haddington.

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



1707 - 1708

Family and Education

b. c.1666, 1st s. of Alexander Nisbet of Craigentinny, nr. Edinburgh, by Katherine, da. of Walter Porterfield.  educ. ?Edinburgh Univ. MA 1683.  m. (1) 29 Mar. 1688 (with 10,000 merks), he aged 22, Jean, da. of Sir William Bennet of Grubbet, 1st Bt., sis. of William Bennet*, 2s. 1da. (d.v.p.) ?7 other ch. (4 d.v.p.); (2) 23 Apr. 1711, Jean, da. of Robert Bennet, dean of the faculty of advocates, 1s. (d.v.p.) 3da.  suc. his relative Sir John Nisbet, Ld. Dirleton SCJ, April 1688.1

Offices Held

MP [S] Haddingtonshire 1703–7.

Burgess, Cannongate 1719.2


In 1688 William Nisbet inherited Dirleton from his kinsman Sir John Nisbet. They were by no means close relations, merely sharing a common ancestor in Henry Nisbet, provost of Edinburgh 1597–8. But Sir John had been prevailed upon by his last wife ‘to convey not only all his real estate of about £3,000 sterling p.a., but likewise to assign all his personal estate of a very considerable value’ to William Nisbet ‘in prejudice of Lady Scot [of Harden], the said Sir John Nisbet’s only child’. If the inheritance had passed without any restrictions to Sir John’s daughter, who was the child of a previous marriage, then her stepmother would have been left without a secure income. Recognizing the advantages of this uncertainty, William had bribed Lady Nisbet with an offer of a bond of 40,000 merks, which would carry with it the financial security of an annual rent. Not content with gaining Dirleton by this underhand method, William, ‘thinking the gratification too large’, subsequently persuaded the widow to accept a new bond for 30,000 merks. The re-assignment of the bond, moreover, altered its status in law, making it difficult for Lady Nisbet’s executor, her brother William Morison*, to lay claim to it after her death. In 1697 Morison took his case to the court of session and, after losing there, made an appeal to the House of Lords, where his claim was finally rejected over 20 years later. These proceedings resulted from the three parties (Morison, Nisbet and Lady Scot of Harden) ‘failing to debate their several interests in this bond’, Lady Harden claiming it ‘as executor to her father’. Sir John’s daughter was not only successful in respect of the bond, she was also returned as heir to her father in June 1697, obtaining a third of the Dirleton estates as well as properties in the counties of Berwick, Clackmannan, Forfar and Stirling. It may be no coincidence that soon afterwards William Nisbet began legal proceedings of his own in pursuit of a bad debt of Sir John’s which he had inherited, relating to a wadset in the baronies of Innerwick and Thornton. A litigious streak seems to have run in the Nisbet family. William’s father had brought an action against his own mother in 1681 for ‘an aliment out of her exorbitant jointure of 3,600 merks p.a.’, complaining that as heir he was burdened with ‘great debt . . . not of his contracting, or by his luxury, and she had married again and did not apply any part of her excessive life-rent and jointure to the children of the first marriage’. The Scottish privy council declined to interfere in the ‘solemn stipulations’ of a matrimonial contract and the Nisbets of Craigentinny were left short of funds. Judging by the status of William’s six brothers (one pursuing a military career and four going to sea), there had been no great prospects facing the eldest son. With the Dirleton inheritance, however, Nisbet’s fortune was sufficiently large that, following the death of his father in 1694, he did not need to claim the Craigentinny properties and allowed these to pass to his younger brother Walter.3

A subscriber of £1,000 to the Darien Company, Nisbet entered the Scottish parliament in 1702 and joined the Country party. Unlike many oppositionists, however, he was a firm supporter of union. In London at the time of the abortive negotiations of 1702–3, he thought that unnecessary secrecy was maintained. ‘Apart from two or three of the commissioners, who managed it behind the curtain’, he complained to his brother-in-law William Bennet, ‘all the rest know as little of the matter as you or I.’ In December 1703 Nisbet was introduced to the Queen by the Duke of Atholl. His habit of going ‘sometimes to court’ allowed him to ‘hear part of the news which relates to us’, and he was optimistic ‘that all may be concluded for the prosperity of the ancient kingdom’. He recognized the limits of his influence with the Scottish grandees, and despaired of furthering a patronage request on behalf of Bennet’s brother, since this would require the support of Queensberry. ‘I have no power with him’, he admitted. The future settlement of constitutional issues was anticipated by Nisbet at the end of March 1704, when the imminent termination of the English parliamentary session led him to hope for the ‘longing desires of the nation’ being satisfied by the Queen giving consideration to ‘a plan for Scottish affairs’. He was fascinated by the speculation rife in London about Scottish politics in May and reported that some believed Lord Tweeddale would accept appointment as commissioner to the Scottish parliament in order to ‘use his endeavours to settle the succession, providing a few limitations be granted’. Nisbet added that ‘others threaten to leave him if he accepts these terms’. He did not dare to entrust his own sentiments upon this subject to a letter, but his subsequent conduct reveals the extent of his disapproval of the ‘New Party’ experiment. Bennet, anticipating Nisbet’s support for the new Scottish ministry, urged him to come to parliament in June 1704. When Nisbet actually appeared, he disappointed expectations by remaining with opposition and voting in favour of the Duke of Hamilton’s motion to postpone a decision on the succession. The motives of those who divided with Nisbet were mixed: some were Jacobites, others disgruntled ex-courtiers. Nisbet himself appears to have been moved by tactical considerations for future union negotiations. He believed that Scotland would obtain better terms from England if the settlement of the succession was left open and could therefore be used as a bargaining counter.4

Nisbet remained on friendly terms with leading figures in the ‘New Party’, his future Squadrone colleagues. Back in London in early 1705 he dined with the Duke of Roxburghe, from whom he sought assistance for Bennet upon a personal matter. Nisbet was understandably alarmed by the Aliens Act of 1705, which he asserted would need to be repealed before union negotiations stood any chance of success; but he did not expect the English to remove this obstacle, since it would ‘look sneaking like to revoke what their last Parliament enacted’. He was uncertain whether the Court had devised the best means of bringing the question of union before Parliament, but was in no doubt at all that there were ‘some in both kingdoms (in power too), who under specious pretence of befriending it design to cut its throat in the dark’. In April 1706 he was sounded out by ‘two of our grandees’ on Bennet’s attitude towards union and his favourable response on his brother-in-law’s behalf elicited approval. Nisbet’s own attitude, of being ‘heartily for it’, was reported by Lord Seafield in August. The assertion of the Jacobite agent Scot that Nisbet was ‘well affected’ to the Pretender should be dismissed out of hand.5

In the Scottish parliament Nisbet consistently followed the Squadrone line over the Union with very few absences or abstentions, and was chosen as one of the Scottish representatives to the first parliament of Great Britain. He should undoubtedly be classed as a Squadrone Member, though modern historians have sometimes debated this point. No speech by him is known, and his attendance was patchy. He did not arrive in time for the opening of the session in October 1707, since as late as 11 Dec. he was writing from Cannongate to Bennet on estate matters. His preoccupation with this subject may explain his poor level of participation in national politics. He was not a leading member of the Squadrone and his desire to maintain a degree of independence is hinted at in a comment made by his wife that a stay with Lord Teviot (an independent-minded Country peer) in late 1707 would guarantee being ‘pressed to nothing there against your inclination’. He stood for Haddingtonshire in 1708, and was opposed by a senior member of the Squadrone, John Cockburn*. The English Whig, Grey Neville*, lamented this clash, but was heartened by reports that any ill-feeling had been ‘made up’. In reality the Nisbet and Cockburn interests remained at best in a state of truce and were by no means fully reconciled. Nisbet, who had been unwell in the summer of 1710, did not stand at the general election later that year, nor upon any subsequent occasion. Described by Hon. William Kerr* in 1711 as ‘more bashful than any man alive’, Nisbet maintained an interest in political affairs and, judging by his comments to Bennet, retained a consistently Whiggish viewpoint. Roxburghe’s complimentary verdict was that Nisbet had ‘never . . . been reckoned a Tory’.6

As a parent Nisbet took a keen interest in the education of his children, detailing, for example, a rigorous programme of Latin grammar and translations from Virgil and Caesar for one of his sons. Having remarried in 1711, he also recognized his responsibility to provide for the children of both marriages and made his will in July 1718, specifying William, his eldest son by the first marriage, as his heir. The following June he was ‘rudely shaken with an ague’ and thought to be in mortal danger. He recovered from this illness and in September 1722 disponed lands worth upwards of £100,000 Scots to David, his only son by his second marriage, at the same time making provision, via a bond of £12,000 Scots, for his first daughter by the second marriage. This sum was duplicated for his second daughter, but not for the third, who was born after William’s death, which had taken place in October 1724. This inadvertent shortcoming in the settlement, together with David’s early death having caused a reversion of property to a younger son of the first marriage, gave rise to a complex legal dispute. No direct descendant followed Nisbet in a parliamentary career until his great-grandson was returned for Haddingtonshire in 1777.7

Ref Volumes: 1690-1715

Author: David Wilkinson


  • 1. Hist. Scot. Parl. 543; Scot. Rec. Soc. xxvii. 520; xxxi. 43; xxxiv. 18; xxxv. 413; xxvi. 493; Edinburgh Graduates, 122; mss sold at Sothebys, 14 Dec. 1976, lot 20, marriage contr. 27 Mar. 1688; R. C. Nesbitt, Nisbet of that Ilk, 21–3, 25–43; Add. 36148, ff. 282–93.
  • 2. Scot. Rec. Soc. lxxxiii. 50.
  • 3. Sir John’s possibly fourth and last wife was referred to in the legal proceedings as his second wife. Scot. Rec. Soc. lxxvi. 165; xxvi. 493; Morison v. Nisbet (1718); Morison v. Scot, Scot, Nisbet et al. (1719); HMC Lords, n.s. x. 302–4; Lauder of Fountainhall, Decisions of Ct. of Session, i. 771; ii. 160, 234, 407; W. Morison, Decisions of Ct. of Session, 1768, 3809–13, 8181, 8185; Bk. of Old Edinburgh Club, i. 109, 111; Retours of Heirs, i. Haddington, 380; i. Berwick, 469; Clackmannan, 59, Forfar, 547, Stirling, 335; ii. Inquisitiones Gen. 7727, 7857; Lauder of Fountainhall, Hist. Notices (Bannatyne Club, lxxxvii), 285–6; DNB (Nisbet, Sir John); Hist. Scot. Parl. 454; Nesbitt, 21–23; Scots Peerage, ed. Paul, vii. 78; Trans. E. Lothian Antiq. and Naturalists’ Soc. xv. 18–19.
  • 4. Darien Pprs. (Bannatyne Club, xc), 379; Roxburghe mss at Floors Castle, bdle. 762, Ralph Hay to Countess of Roxburghe, 24 Sept. 1702; NLS, ms 14498 ff. 82–83; APS, xi. 72, 102; SRO, Ogilvy of Inverquharity mss, Bennet to Nisbet, 28 Jan. 1703, 10 June 1704, ex inf. Dr P. W. J. Riley; info. from Dr Riley on members of Scot. parl.; mss sold at Sothebys, Nisbet to Bennet, 24 Dec. 1702, 3 Feb., 8 Dec., 28 Dec. 1703, 29 Mar., 9 May 1704; Crossrigg Diary, 139–40; Boyer, Anne Annals, app. 41; P. W. J. Riley, Union, 98.
  • 5. Mss sold at Sothebys, Nisbet to Bennet, 6 Jan., 15 Feb., 13 Nov. 1705, 6 Apr. 1706; HMC Mar and Kellie, i. 273; Orig. Pprs. ed. Macpherson, ii. 9–10.
  • 6. Riley, Union, 327, 329, 334; R. Walcott, Pol. Early 18th Cent. 235; P. W. J. Riley, Eng. Ministers and Scotland, 33; EHR, lxxxiv. 521; mss sold at Sothebys, Nisbet to Bennet, 11, 25 Dec. 1707, 22 Jan., 21 Feb. 1708, 24 Sept. 1712, 19 Aug. 1714; Nesbitt, 36, 40–1; Ogilvy of Inverquharity mss GD205/36/6, Grey Neville to Bennet, 11 July 1708; Roxburghe mss, bdle. 785, Kerr to Countess of Roxburghe, 31 Aug. 1711; bdle. 784, Roxburghe to [same], 1 Dec. [1712].
  • 7. Nesbitt, 41–43; Roxburghe mss, bdle. 193, Bennet to [Countess of Roxburghe], 29 June 1719; Services of Heirs (ser. 1) i. 1720–29, p. 23; i. 1730–39, p. 27; Nisbet v. Nisbets (1726); Add. 36148, ff. 282–93.