Anstruther Easter Burghs

Single Member Scottish burgh

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1754-1790, ed. L. Namier, J. Brooke., 1964
Available from Boydell and Brewer

Background Information

Kilrenny (1754, ’84), Anstruther Easter (1761), Pittenweem (1768), Anstruther Wester (1774), Crail (1780), all in Fife


10 May 1754Sir Henry Erskine 
 Philip Anstruther 
30 July 1757Erskine re-elected after appointment to office 
20 Apr. 1761Sir Henry Erskine 
5 June 1765Erskine re-elected after appointment to office 
17 Jan. 1766Sir John Anstruther vice Erskine, deceased 
 Robert Alexander 
11 Apr. 1768Sir John Anstruther 
1 Nov. 1774Philip Anstruther 
9 Jan. 1778George Damer vice Anstruther vacated is seat 
6 Oct. 1780Sir John Anstruther 
21 Jan. 1783John Anstruther vice Sir John Anstruther, vacated his seat 
30 Apr. 1784John Anstruther4
 James Moncrief1

Main Article

These five small coastal burghs, much decayed since the Union, were in effect at the disposal of the highest bidder among the local magnates. The Anstruthers of Anstruther controlled the adjoining burghs of Anstruther Easter and Wester; and had great influence in Crail, where their chief rivals were the Scotts of Scotstarvit, the Moncriefs of Sauchope, and the Erskines of Cambo. In Kilrenny, the Anstruthers and Scotts contended for control; and in Pittenweem, the Erskines of Kellie could not without assistance challenge the Anstruthers.

The sitting Member in 1754 was General Philip Anstruther of Airdrie, a man hated throughout Scotland as the only Scots M.P. who had voted for the punishment of Edinburgh after the Porteous riots. Sir Henry Erskine, the other candidate in 1754, was the bitter enemy of Anstruther, both politically and personally. Erskine, backed by his kinsmen and the Scotts, and supported by Argyll, secured the burghs of Crail, Pittenweem, and Kilrenny. Anstruther appealed to Pelham, who tried to persuade Erskine to drop his candidature. James St. Clair, Erskine’s uncle, wrote on 26 Jan. 1754:

’Tis not from the vote against the Gate of Edinburgh that this attack has taken its rise; ’tis from the General’s behaviour towards us; ’tis from the insolence and neglect he has shown ... to his constituents. Fired with his oppression, haughtiness, and ill-usage, they called loudly for a candidate to oppose him; we received invitations from them; we went and we succeeded; and thereby prevented others from entering the lists against him ... He has taken ample care to render both me and my nephew his implacable enemies ... he has sent his agents to insinuate that as we were descended from Jacobite families we must be looked on as disaffected to his Majesty and his government. This malicious insinuation ... I never will forgive and ... I never will desist ... I have given the strongest assurances to our friends in the Eastern burghs that I never will abandon them.

Erskine was victorious and the Anstruther interest for a time was in eclipse.1

As one of Bute’s closest friends, Erskine’s position after 1761 was unassailable, but on his death in 1765 the Anstruthers made a determined attempt to re-establish their interest. Sir John Anstruther, 2nd Bt., now the head of the family, stood himself, and secured the support of the Rockingham Administration. His opponent Robert Alexander, son of William Alexander, was backed by Alexander Wedderburn on behalf of his sister, Sir Henry Erskine’s widow, and the Bute connexion. Though Bute himself did not interfere in the election, it seemed to the leaders of the Rockingham Administration that Alexander’s candidature was inspired by Bute through political motives.2

Each burgh put itself up for auction to the highest bidder, with the object of paying off its municipal debts. In Anstruther Easter, where the Anstruther family had lost favour by demanding the repayment of former loans, John Scott of Balcomie, an ally of Anstruther, outbid Alexander, who began a lawsuit against the council. Anstruther secured Crail and Alexander Kilrenny. In Anstruther Wester, Alexander outbid Anstruther, whose party then began an action in the court of session for bribery. Alexander also gained an advantage at Pittenweem by promising to pay the town’s debts, but Anstruther, his position in this burgh strengthened by his purchase of the estates of the Erskines of Kellie, began an action to break Alexander’s control of the council. On 30 Dec. 1765 Alexander was chosen delegate for Pittenweem, but the pro-Anstruther town clerk refused to seal his commission and made off with the burgh’s seal. The council then dismissed him and eventually recovered the seal, but there were grave doubts as to the validity of Alexander’s commission as delegate.3

When the delegates met at Anstruther Easter for the parliamentary election, the town clerk as returning officer refused to accept Pittenweem’s commission. Kilrenny and Anstruther Wester voted for Alexander, Crail and Anstruther Easter for Anstruther, who was returned on the casting vote of Anstruther Easter. Both sides had been guilty of flagrant corruption, and there were actions for reduction of three of the burgh councils before the court of session. On 31 Jan. 1766 Alexander’s petition was presented to the House of Commons by Wedderburn; Anstruther’s case was managed by George Dempster, a supporter of the Rockingham Administration; and the issue became a trial of strength between Opposition and Administration. When, on a division over the date of the hearing, Anstruther’s supporters won by only 148 votes to 137, Conway sent a report to the King naming those office holders who were ‘particularly remarked’ as having voted against Government. In the end, through the intervention of Charles Yorke, Sir Alexander Gilmour, and Thomas Walpole, a compromise was arranged by which Alexander withdrew his petition ‘upon an assurance from Lord Rockingham of being brought in without any conditions upon the first opportunity’.4

Meanwhile the affairs of the burghs continued before the courts. By a decision of the court of session, upheld by the House of Lords on 27 Mar. 1767, Pittenweem was disfranchised. The election for the new council took place in July 1767; complaints that Sir John Anstruther had illegally intervened were dismissed as frivolous by the supervising commissioners, and a pro-Anstruther council was elected. The House of Lords also found in favour of the Anstruther party in Kilrenny, Anstruther Wester, and Anstruther Easter.5 Anstruther had now vindicated his claims in every burgh, and his interest was restored to its former dominance.

It was not again challenged until 1784. Anstruther and his son supported Fox, and the opposition to them was led by Henry Dundas, who now controlled the Scott interest on behalf of his great-nieces, the heirs of John Scott of Balcomie. Dundas’s candidate was James Moncrief, son of James Moncrief of Sauchope, who had purchased the estate of Airdrie near Crail from the Anstruthers. And at the election only Crail voted for Moncrief.6

Author: Edith Lady Haden-Guest


  • 1. D. Cook, Annals of Pittenweem, 143; Oswald Memorials, 334; Erskine to St. Clair, 28 Mar. 1754, Oswald mss; Letters of David Hume, i. 181, 190.
  • 2. Add. 32969, f. 209; 32973, f. 168; Whately to Grenville, 10 Oct. 1765, Grenville mss (JM); Oswald Memorials, 418; letters from John Home and Jas. Oswald, Bute mss; Letters and Memorials of Mrs. Alison Cockburn, 44.
  • 3. Add. 36172, f. 57; 36173, f. 82; Annals of Pittenweem, 145-7.
  • 4. Harris’s ‘Debates’, 31 Jan. 1766; Caldwell Pprs. ii (2), pp. 66-67; Fortescue, i. 249-50; Wedderburn to Bute [?17 Mar. 1766], Bute mss.
  • 5. Annals of Pittenweem, 147-9.
  • 6. Scots Mag. 1778, p. 56; H. Furber, Hen. Dundas, 244-5; CJ, 28 May 1784.