Tain (Northern) 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

Kirkwall (1754, ‘84), Orkney; Tain (1761), Dingwall (1768), Ross; Dornoch (1774), Sutherland; Wick (1780), Caithness


9 May 1754Sir Harry Munro 
20 Apr. 1761John Scott of Balcomie 
11 Apr. 1768Alexander Mackay 
26 Apr. 1773James Grant vice Mackay, vacated his seat 
31 Oct. 1774James Grant3
 Sir Adam Fergusson2
2 Oct. 1780Charles Ross of Morangie 
26 Apr. 1784Charles James Fox3
 Sir John Sinclair2
15 Mar. 1786George Ross vice Fox, chose to sit for Westminster3
 Sir James Liddell2
30 June 1786Charles Ross of Balnagown, vice George Ross, deceased3
 Charles Ross of Morangie2

Main Article

The burghs of Wick and Dornoch were at the beginning of the period under the control of the Sutherlands; until 1766 Kirkwall was commanded by Lord Morton, and thereafter by Sir Lawrence Dundas and his son Thomas; Tain was for most of the period in the hands of the Rosses of Inverchasley; while in Dingwall, which was very open, the Davidsons of Tulloch had influence.

Sir Harry Munro, returned unopposed in 1754, was soon challenged by two Members representing counties that would not elect in 1761—John Scott of Balcomie sitting for Caithness, and Sir John Gordon sitting for Cromarty. Scott, through his friendship with the Sutherland family, could rely on the burghs of Dornoch and Wick; Gordon had a strong interest at Tain. Munro soon abandoned hope of re-election, and the struggle between Scott and Gordon was fought out over Dingwall. By weight of purse, Scott secured a majority on the Dingwall council in 1758, but the council election was declared void the following year, and a long legal battle developed. Though it was still continuing at the time of the general election, it did not prevent Scott being returned unopposed.1

Before the next election Scott had lost the support of the Sutherland interest, which was given to Alexander Mackay, in exchange for a free hand in the county of Sutherland. He was returned unopposed, and when he left Parliament in 1773 was succeeded by General James Grant, who had been tutor to the 17th Earl of Sutherland.

The election of 1774 was contested. Grant stood with the support of the Sutherland interest and that of Sir Lawrence Dundas, who had acquired control of Kirkwall. His opponent, Sir Adam Fergusson, was standing on behalf of young Sir John Sinclair of Ulbster, who was under age. At the poll Grant took Kirkwall, Dornoch, and Dingwall, where the control had passed to Henry Davidson of Tulloch: Fergusson took Tain, where the Ross family had an interest, and Wick, which Sinclair had seized from the Sutherlands. Fergusson’s petition, alleging undue influence, was soon abandoned.2

Before the 1780 election, Fergusson urged Sinclair to unite with the Sutherland family, suggesting that he should offer his interest at Wick in exchange for a promise of their interest at Dornoch for the following Parliament. Sinclair replied:3

The usage I met with at the last general election from Mr. Wemyss, who acted for the Sutherland family, you know well, and the consequence was my entering into a correspondence with Lord Ankerville [David Ross] and Mr. Henry Davidson, who had the boroughs of Tain and Dingwall at their commands. We fixed upon no plan and came under no engagement but a general idea of co-operating together in the Northern District of burghs. I cannot say that my associates have been so attentive to the general interest of the triumvirate as I expected. On the contrary they have each of them laid plans for their own particular benefit, rather than for the common advantage, and Lord Ankerville is at present canvassing all the boroughs for his brother Colonel Ross, without attending much to the views of Wick and Dingwall.

Sir Lawrence Dundas, he went on, had promised Kirkwall to George Ross of Cromarty, while Davidson was so ill that the future of Dingwall was very uncertain. Sinclair’s aim was to secure his election for the next Parliament but one, when Caithness would not be represented: his hope was that Grant could have the seat for the first three years, Charles Ross for the second, and that at the subsequent general election both the Sutherlands and the Rosses would support him. But Lord Ankerville rejected the suggestion, and Sinclair explained to Fergusson:4

As Lord Ankerville supported me at the last general election, and has promised me his assistance when I may again have occasion for it, I cannot insist on my plan, with which Mr. Ross and he would be dissatisfied.

Negotiations having broken down, both sides prepared for a contest. ‘Whether General Grant or Colonel Ross, either way a friend’, wrote John Robinson philosophically.5 In the event Grant declined, and Charles Ross, Ankerville’s brother, was returned unanimously.6

By 1784 there was a complete re-alignment of interests. The Sinclair-Ross understanding broke down: the Rosses were followers of Fox, Sinclair a devoted Pittite. Sinclair now formed the alliance previously mooted with the Sutherland interest, enabling them to control Dornoch and Wick. Sir Thomas Dundas, who had succeeded his father in 1781, was a Foxite, and joined forces with Lord Ankerville, commanding Kirkwall, Tain, and Dingwall. Their original intention was to put up Charles Ross once more, but when Fox’s election at Westminster was seen to be in doubt, he was hastily declared a candidate, sworn in as a burgess of Kirkwall, and elected by three votes to two, against Sinclair.7 Sinclair petitioned against the return, complaining that Fox was not properly qualified as a burgess, and that the delegation from Kirkwall was irregular, but without success.8 In March 1786, after the prolonged Westminster scrutiny had been decided in Fox’s favour and he relinquished Tain Burghs, George Ross of Cromarty was brought in against Sir James Liddell, standing on the Sinclair-Sutherland interest, by 3 votes to 2. George Ross died within three months, before Liddell’s petition could be heard, and the Coalitionists put forward Charles Ross of Morangie, who had represented the Burghs 1780-4, against Charles Lockhart Ross of Balnagown. But this time the burgh of Tain changed sides, giving victory to the Administration candidate. General Ross’s petition, asserting that his opponent had been returned by a ‘corrupt agreement’ between Sinclair and the Sutherland family, was withdrawn unheard in 1787.9 The shift in power was the result of a deterioration in Lord Ankerville’s affairs, which had forced him in 1786 to part with much property, and cost the family its control over the burgh of Tain.10

Author: J. A. Cannon


  • 1. W. Ferguson, ‘Dingwall burgh politics’, Scot. Hist. Review, Oct. 1959; Add. 36169, f. 1; Old Ross Documents, ed. MacGill, 108.
  • 2. CJ, xxv. 45.
  • 3. 6 Apr. 1780, Kilkerran mss.
  • 4. 8 May 1780, ibid.
  • 5. Survey for the general election of 1780, Royal archives, Windsor.
  • 6. Aberdeen Jnl. 16 Oct. 1780.
  • 7. A. Luders, Controverted Election.
  • 8. CJ, xl. 18, 857.
  • 9. CJ, xlii. 288.
  • 10. Old Ross Documents, 119.