ERSKINE, Sir Henry, 5th Bt. (?1710-65), of Alva, Clackmannan.

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



29 Dec. 1749 - 1754
1754 - 9 Aug. 1765

Family and Education

b. ?1710,1 2nd s. of Sir John Erskine, 3rd Bt., M.P., by Hon. Catherine St. Clair, da. of Henry, 10th Lord Sinclair [S].  educ. ?Eton 1725; L. Inn 1728.  m. 16 May 1761, Janet, da. of Peter Wedderburn, Lord Chesterhall, S.C.J., and sis. of Alexander Wedderburn, 2s. 1da.  suc. bro. as 5th Bt. 2 July 1747.

Offices Held

Ensign 22 Ft. 1735, lt. 1736; capt. 1 Ft. 1743; dismissed Jan. 1756; reinstated as maj.-gen. with effect from June 1759; col. 67 Ft. 1760-1; col. 25 Ft. 1761-2; col. 1 Ft. 1762- d.; lt.-gen. 1765.

Surveyor of the King’s private roads 1757-60; sec. of the order of the Thistle Apr. 1765- d.


Erskine was the son of a Jacobite leader in the ’15, who dissipated his fortune and was compelled to sell his estate. Erskine joined the 22nd Foot commanded by his uncle James St. Clair, on whose generosity he was largely dependent during his early career.

At the general election of 1754 he opposed Philip Anstruther, an old enemy, in Anstruther Easter Burghs. When Anstruther successfully appealed to Pelham for support, St. Clair wrote to James Oswald, 26 Jan. 1754:2

[Anstruther] has taken ample care to render both me and my nephew his implacable enemies ... he 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 ... I never will desist. I will endeavour to place my nephew in that situation where he may be able to show his zeal for the present happy establishment and his attachment to the present administration. Mr. Pelham knows I undertook to answer for him, and since he is now certain of a seat in Parliament, Mr. Pelham will find he will adhere inviolably to the engagements I entered into for him.

In the constituency Sir Harry’s lively personality and courtly manners won him great popularity,3 and when Argyll declared in his favour his success was assured.

Listed by Dupplin among Government supporters attached to Argyll, Erskine’s political attachments really lay elsewhere. While Argyll maintained good relations with Fox, Erskine fostered the alliance between Bute and Pitt, whom he greatly admired. He voted, 13 Nov. 1755, against the Address, and on 10 Dec. spoke in support of Potter’s motion against the subsidy treaties. In January 1756 he was dismissed from the army by order of the King. On 29 Jan. 1756 Pitt raised the question of his dismissal in the House:4 ‘You have just broken a brave officer, distinguished with marks of two wounds, and by the applause of the Duke [of Cumberland]; and who was cashiered for nothing but his vote in Parliament.’ After heated exchanges between Fox and Pitt, Erskine himself intervened: ‘He did not complain of his dismission: a civil or a military life was indifferent to him, yet he could wish if there were any other cause than his vote, that Mr. Fox would declare it.’ He spoke on 18 Feb. against the Swiss regiment bill, and again on 29 Mar.5 against Lord George Sackville’s motion for bringing over Hanoverian troops.

In face of the King’s hostility the Devonshire-Pitt Administration could procure no favours for Erskine. George Dempster wrote on 26 Nov. 1756:6 ‘Sir Harry Erskine never will get into the army, but he is named for some civil employment.’ He received nothing. On 2 May 1757 he voted against exonerating the Newcastle-Fox Administration for the loss of Minorca; took a considerable part, as Bute’s representative, in the negotiations for a new Administration,7 and was listed by Newcastle at the head of the six Scots attached to ‘the last ministry or Mr. Pitt.’ Shortly after the formation of the Coalition, Bute secured for him the office of surveyor of the King’s private roads—this atonement for unjust and cruel treatment, wrote Bute to J. S. Mackenzie, he had demanded by express orders of the Princess of Wales who looked upon Erskine ‘as a sacrifice for his attachment to the late Prince’.8 Erskine was now established as one of Bute’s principal confidants. He took a leading part in the Scottish militia bill, as one of the six Members nominated by the Edinburgh committee to consult on its introduction,9 spoke strongly for it, 15 Apr. 1760, and was a teller in the division. ‘All Scotland’ he declared, ‘would come and demand it at the bar of the House.’10 Subsequently he received the thanks of the convention of royal burghs for his efforts.

On George III’s accession Erskine was offered full restoration in the army, a regiment, a governorship, or, if he preferred it, civil employment—the King had promised ‘to restore him to his rank when he should come to the Crown’.11 Erskine chose the army, both for military honour and financial security. He wrote to Bute, 3 Nov. 1760:12

I have long looked forward to the late important event, as the only period that could restore me to it ... Officers who were younger lt.-colonels than me have been fortunate enough to have the command of armies ... and thence perhaps my Lord, my attachment to the military line of life has been increased. Nor has it been diminished by comparing that line with the line of civil employment ... Multitudes of competitors; paucity of offices; immense jealousy of those who rise ... the instability of human affairs, and my being born in North Britain, deter me from turning my eyes to that prospect ... When I was dismissed from the service, Lord Barrington told me by way of comfort, that whenever anyone was restored ... he was always restored to his former rank ... The Duke of Argyll who is conversant in army matters saw no difficulty in my being re-established.

He hoped for the rank he might have expected had he remained in the army, but was unwilling to leave the decision to Ligonier, whom he considered prejudiced against him.

Imagination flattered me with a military life, whenever his present Majesty should succeed to the Crown; in the prospect of that event I addressed myself to a young lady, assuring her that I would aspire to her hand as soon as I should be in such circumstances as to be enabled to support the expenses of a married state.

Rather than give up Janet Wedderburn he was prepared to accept less than justice.

As ‘favourite of the Favourite’ Erskine now became, as he styled himself, sous ministre to Bute,13 handling requests for favours and intervening in elections on behalf of Bute’s friends. He consulted Lord George Sackville on securing the Dorset interest for William Mayne in Canterbury, and advised Bute against antagonizing the Kent Whigs by supporting Sir Roger Twisden in the county.14 He supplied Bute with information about the Clive opposition in Penryn; recommended as election agent in Cornwall John Richmond Webb, who also consulted him on the choice of candidates for Exeter; and discussed with Pryse Campbell and his father electoral prospects in Inverness and Inverness Burghs.15 His chief concern however was the settlement of the Argyll-Bute dispute over Ayr Burghs in September 1759. He had given early warning of Argyll’s opposition to Bute’s candidate, Patrick Craufurd,16 and in the spring of 1761 was largely responsible for the compromise which led to the withdrawal of Sir Adam Fergusson in favour of Lord Frederick Campbell in the burghs, and the withdrawal of Loudoun’s candidate, Mure Campbell, in Ayrshire.

While in Scotland for his own election, Erskine reported to Bute the defeat of the Argyll party at Edinburgh, and his own intervention in Stirling Burghs on behalf of his cousin, Robert Haldane.17 When Haldane offered to transfer his interest to someone acceptable to Bute, Erskine nominated Wedderburn, but explained to Bute that he had not committed him to support Haldane in his petition against the Bridport return. Shortly after Argyll’s death Bute informed Erskine of his intention to bring home Stuart Mackenzie from Turin. Erskine replied, 21 Apr. 1761:

I was just going to sit down to entreat your Lordship to prevail on Mr. Mackenzie to return to Britain when I was honoured with your letter. Your Lordship knows too well the small extent of my abilities to be of use to you, but you know also the anxiety which I feel to do all in my poor power to endeavour to serve what it appears to me to be in your interest ... Gratitude ... and affection will ever prompt me not only to execute your orders but to prevent them by guessing at your inclinations.

When Haldane’s Bridport petition was debated, 2 Mar. 1762, Bute’s friends were committed to its support. Walpole writes:18 ‘Sir Henry Erskine, a creature of the Favourite, had the indecency and folly to call the English party in the House of Commons a profligate majority.’ This so antagonized the House that Harris, Jenkinson and North, among others, abstained from voting.19 He again roused national feeling on 26 Mar. 1762 when he moved for a Treasury grant for a bridge over the Tweed at Coldstream, ‘from this amazing argument, the use it would be to draw cannon over’. Harris commented: ‘It went. Lord Bute had issued his mandate and the Treasury obeyed. To carry a cannon into Scotland—why not to import thistles into England—a mere job.’

Still, Erskine retained Bute’s full confidence. When on 14 June 1762 he reported that an ‘association’ had been formed against Bute consisting of Cumberland, Newcastle, Devonshire, Pitt, etc., Bute at once informed the King.20 When he complained of a ‘slight’ to his brother-in-law, Major David Wedderburn, and attributed it to the machinations of Townshend or Shelburne, Bute and the King were duly incensed.21 His interest was sought by naval and military acquaintances, by ‘Ossian’ Macpherson and the poet Gray, by his friend David Hume in his claim for half pay as judge advocate at L’Orient, etc.

After 1761 Erskine had little direct contact with electoral affairs, but was always ready to recruit new ‘friends’ for his patron. In November 1761 he urged George Dempster to attach himself to Bute; in August 1762 he recommended Locke, a neighbour’s son, to Jenkinson as candidate for the Grimsby by-election; and in February 1763 passed on to Jenkinson a long letter from a correspondent on the management of the Isle of Wight boroughs.22

In November 1762 General St. Clair died, leaving his entailed estates to his heir, but ‘his ready money to Sir Harry Erskine’,23 who in fulfilment of the King’s long-standing promise succeeded his uncle as colonel of the Royals.

Violently partisan in support of Bute’s Administration, he went so far as to oppose on 7 Mar. 1763 an address to the King on providing for half pay officers, on the ground that it implied ‘a sort of reflection upon the King’. He was called to order and ‘Mr. Pitt managed the point very properly and strongly against him’.24 Shortly before Bute’s resignation Erskine made a strong plea for the rehabilitation of his friend George Sackville.

Erskine supported the Grenville Administration throughout the debates on Wilkes and general warrants, but deplored the breach between Bute and Grenville. In ill-health during the summer of 1764 he wrote from Spa to Jenkinson, 23 Sept.:25

I wished that your attempts for thorough conciliation had been attended with more success ... ’Tis with regret I perceive we are to open the next campaign in the same situation in which we were the last. There has been so much time for conciliation ’tis pity it has elapsed in so fruitless a manner.

Before leaving England he had asked Grenville for any military governorship that should become vacant, and on 3 Jan. 1765 applied without success for the governorship of the ports of the north of Scotland.

Prevented by illness from regular attendance at the House, Erskine again wrote to Grenville, 25 Mar. 1765, asking for the vacant office of secretary of the Thistle: ‘As it is a Scotch office ... my obtaining it cannot produce the least murmur from anyone back in England.’26 Grenville, who intended the office for Lord Fife’s brother, had a long talk on the subject with Stuart Mackenzie, with whom he was already at odds over Scottish patronage. When Mackenzie refused to commit himself, and when the King ‘spoke kindly of Sir Harry Erskine’ and gave him the appointment over Grenville’s protests, ‘a very improper and passionate conversation’ took place between Grenville and the King.27 This incident, which still further embittered Grenville’s relations with the King and Mackenzie, played a part in the Government crisis of April-May 1765.

Erskine died at York 9 Aug. 1765 when returning from Scotland after his re-election consequent upon his appointment. Remembered as a faithful friend, a wit and a minor poet,28 ‘he was’, wrote Alexander Carlyle, ‘a truly honest man, but his views were not extensive nor his talents great’.

Ref Volumes: 1754-1790

Author: Edith Lady Haden-Guest


  • 1. His e. bro. Charles was b. 7 May 1709, Sc. Hist. Soc. Misc. ii. 400.
  • 2. Memorials of James Oswald, 330.
  • 3. Letters of D. Hume, i. 190.
  • 4. Walpole, Mems. Geo. II, ii. 159-63.
  • 5. Newdigate’s ‘Debates’.
  • 6. James Fergusson, Letters of G. Dempster to Sir Adam Fergusson, 13-14.
  • 7. Letters from Erskine in Add. 36796 and Bute mss.
  • 8. Undated (1757), Bute mss.
  • 9. Andrew Fletcher, Lord Milton to C. Townshend, 23 Feb. 1760, Buccleuch mss.
  • 10. Walpole, Mems. Geo. II, iii. 280.
  • 11. Dodington, Diary, 502.
  • 12. Bute mss.
  • 13. HMC Var. vi. 267.
  • 14. HMC Stopford-Sackville, i. 45; Erskine to Bute, February 1761, Bute mss.
  • 15. Namier, Structure, 311; letters from Campbell, Webb and Erskine, Bute mss.
  • 16. Caldwell Pprs. ii(1), p. 120.
  • 17. Erskine to Bute, 7, 13, 18 Apr. 1761, Bute mss.
  • 18. Mems. Geo. III, i. 110.
  • 19. Harris’s ‘Debates’.
  • 20. Sedgwick, 160.
  • 21. Erskine to Bute, 22 Aug. 1762, Bute mss; Sedgwick, 162-3.
  • 22. Add. 38199, f. 187; Jenkinson Pprs. 126-9.
  • 23. Oswald Memorials, 271.
  • 24. Harris’s ‘Debates’.
  • 25. Jenkinson Pprs. 153.
  • 26. Grenville mss (JM).
  • 27. Jenkinson Pprs. 398; Grenville Pprs. ii. 126.
  • 28. Boswell, Private Pprs. xii. 27; xviii. 23.