FERGUSSON, Sir Adam, 3rd Bt. (1733-1813), of Kilkerran, Ayr.

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



1774 - 1780
2 Apr. 1781 - 1784
31 Aug. 1784 - 1790
1790 - 1796

Family and Education

b. 7 May 1733, 1st surv. s. of Sir James Fergusson, 2nd Bt., M.P., of Kilkerran, S.C.J. (Lord Kilkerran), by Jean, da. of James, Visct. Maitland and gd.-da. of John, 5th Earl of Lauderdale [S]. educ. Maybole sch.; Edinburgh Univ.; adv. 1755; Brussels 1756-7; Grand Tour 1757-8. unm. suc. fa. 20 Jan. 1759.

Offices Held

Ld. of Trade July 1781-May 1782.


Fergusson was an able, sober, scholarly young man of high moral character and attractive, if somewhat humourless, personality. On succeeding to his paternal estates he, like his close friend George Dempster, became ambitious of entering Parliament, and by the end of 1759 was the Argyll candidate for Ayr Burghs in opposition to Patrick Craufurd, supported by Bute. His success seemed assured until, in the new reign, Argyll and Bute composed their quarrel and agreed to sponsor a candidate acceptable to them both. Fergusson’s refusal to withdraw embarrassed Argyll, and enraged Eglintoun and other Bute supporters against ‘that absurd boy’,1 who, despite strong pressure and the persuasions of his friend Lord Loudoun, did not give way until ten days before the election.2 Mortified by this experience, Fergusson for some years abandoned political ambitions, devoted himself to his estates and to his bar practice in which he gained great reputation as counsel for the Hamiltons in the Douglas cause and for his ward, the young Countess of Sutherland, in her claim to the peerage. Although ‘talked of’ as a candidate for Ayrshire at the 1768 election,3 Fergusson made no attempt to stand, but from 1770 launched a vigorous campaign in the county and ‘began beating about for an independent party’.4 Loudoun’s alliance with Eglintoun and Cassillis offended many freeholders, and Fergusson now stood forth as ‘a champion of the county against aristocratic influence’.5 He was backed by Lord President Robert Dundas and his brother Henry Dundas who, to provide his friend with a seat in any event, negotiated an agreement between Buccleuch and the Hamilton interest to bring him in for Linlithgow Burghs if defeated in Ayrshire.6 Fergusson also stood for Wick Burghs; but these precautions proved unnecessary. He was triumphantly returned for Ayrshire on the votes of his independent ‘democratical coalition’.

In Parliament Fergusson, although in general a Government supporter, showed a certain independence. In his first recorded speech, 26 Oct. 1775, he advocated strong measures against America, urging that in defence of the authority of Parliament all party divisions should be laid aside; but on 24 Nov., as a strict constitutionalist, insisted that the Government must seek indemnity for sending Hanoverian troops to Gibraltar and Minorca without consent of Parliament.7 Although an infrequent speaker, Fergusson acquired a reputation as an active and industrious committee man and, closely allied with Dundas, was mentioned in 1776 as a member of the group who ‘were called or called themselves’ the Scotch ministry.8 A consistent advocate since 1759 of a Scottish militia, he with Dundas and William Pulteney revised the draft of Mountstuart’s bill,9 and in the debates of 5 and 12 Mar. 1776 vigorously opposed the suggestion that Scotland should pay for her own militia, urging the abolition of all national distinctions.10

Fergusson voted against Administration, 12 Feb. 1779, on the contractors bill, and also on 3 Mar. over Keppel. He spoke on 8 Mar. in support of the bill for the relief of Protestant Dissenters, contrasting the toleration allowed Episcopalians in Scotland with that of Presbyterians in England. Thereafter he intervened more frequently in debate; opposed, 26 Mar., Hartley’s motion to refuse money for army extraordinaries, while advocating a committee to consider better methods of dealing with public accounts; supported the bill to prevent adultery, 4 May 1779; and caused the Government some embarrassment on 2 July 1779 by raising the constitutional issue of whether the Lords had any right to amend a militia bill which, he maintained, was essentially a money bill.11

In a rare intervention in a major American debate he opposed on 17 June 1779 Cavendish’s motion for concentrating all available forces against France and thereafter does not appear to have wavered in his loyalty to Administration. He spoke on 22 Mar. 1780 in defence of William Fullarton after his duel with Shelburne, opposed Crewe’s bill for disfranchising revenue officers, 13 Apr., and warmly justified concessions to Scotland on the malt tax.12

At the general election Fergusson’s claim to independence was scorned by Sir Lawrence Dundas, who asserted he was ‘as hackney a ministerial Member as ever went from Scotland’.13 Although invited to stand for Glasgow Burghs,14 Fergusson remained faithful to Ayrshire where the peers’ coalition had set up Hugh Montgomerie against him. Despite the friendship of North and Dundas he was defeated, but returned on petition.

Having already shown concern about the government of India and submitted plans to North for its reform,15 he was nominated a member of the secret committee appointed under the chairmanship of Dundas to inquire into the causes of the war in the Carnatic. When in July Dundas secured his appointment to the Board of Trade, Sir Adam was again faced with a contested election, which was only averted by the direct intervention of North, who wrote to Loudoun, 19 July:16

I thought it my duty to the King to acquire for his service so able and respectable a man as Sir Adam Fergusson, and I think it my duty to Sir Adam to do everything in my power to prevent his being involved in difficulties ... I should therefore feel it as the most sensible obligation if you and your noble friends will permit Sir Adam to be re-elected upon this occasion without opposition.

Similar letters to Eglintoun and Cassillis resulted in the reluctant withdrawal of Montgomerie, and on 16 Aug. Sir Adam was returned unopposed. His tenure of office was brief, but from 25 Jan. 1782 he was assiduous in attendance at the Board until its last meeting on 1 May.

A silent supporter of North until his fall, Fergusson under the Rockingham Administration confined his contributions in debate to such matters as the effect on Scotland of the turnpike tax bill, the prohibition of home grown tobacco, and the new soap duties. In Indian affairs he continued active on the secret committee, unsuccessfully opposed on 24 Apr., with his friends Dempster and Pulteney, the select committee’s resolution to censure Laurence Sulivan; and was righteously indignant when the East India Company rejected the Commons resolution for the recall of Warren Hastings.17

Under the Shelburne Administration he took a line over the peace treaty independent of Dundas; pleaded the cause of the loyalists and supported the motion for copies of the instructions given to Richard Oswald concerning them. He did not vote in the division of 18 Feb. but on 21 Feb. declared his view that the King had gone further than he had any authority to do by ceding part of Quebec and Nova Scotia to the Americans.18 In March Robinson listed him as attached to North, but ‘doubtful’.

Under the Coalition he remained for a time apparently uncommitted; spoke frequently in the budget debates in support of Scottish interests, and while professing impartiality on the question of the tellership of the Exchequer granted to Dundas’s friend Chancellor Thurlow, ‘reasoned shrewdly’ on 7 July 1783 that it was unjust to include his office in the projected Exchequer reforms. He supported Lord John Cavendish’s motion for a new commission to inquire into loyalist claims, but feared lest if Parliament gave relief the Americans might evade their obligations under the peace treaty.19

His views were undoubtedly influenced by his friendship with Dundas, whom he eventually followed into opposition, voting against Fox’s East India bill, 27 Nov. 1783. On the dismissal of the Coalition he supported Pitt; condemned on 27 Feb. the obstructive tactics of the Opposition, and on 5 Mar. attacked Fox for delaying the passage of the mutiny bill.20

At the general election Fergusson was again opposed by Montgomerie and, after negotiations between Dundas and the Ayrshire peers, decided to withdraw under an agreement that he should represent the county in the following Parliament and meanwhile be returned for a safe seat. Dundas duly arranged the retirement of James Hunter Blair from Edinburgh City and secured the seat for Fergusson in August 1784.

While his connexion with Dundas gave him a certain importance, he received no office. He voted 18 Apr. 1785 for parliamentary reform, and for Pitt’s Irish propositions; but his rare speeches were concerned mainly with questions of parliamentary procedure, election and Scottish affairs. His legal arguments in favour of hawkers and pedlars, of a reduction in the coal tax, of the Scottish malt distillery, were ‘able and ingenious’, but only on such questions did he venture to disagree with Administration.21 From the formation of the British Fishery Society in 1786 he was active in furthering the establishment of settlements in the Hebrides and increased his reputation as an astute businessman and practical humanitarian.22

On the Regency question he voted, 16 Dec. 1788, with Administration, but in January 1789 on at least one occasion divided with Opposition. His bitter enemy, James Boswell, wrote, 23 Jan.:23 ‘Sir Adam Fergusson’s having gone against Pitt is capital as the phrase is. He means to prevent the regency ministry from being against him in Ayrshire.’ Fergusson however redeemed this aberration by his vote of 11 Feb., and remained a consistent Government supporter until the end of the Parliament.

He died 25 Sept 1813.

Ref Volumes: 1754-1790

Author: Edith Lady Haden-Guest


  • 1. W. Mure to Bute, 1 Apr. 1761, Bute mss.
  • 2. Sir Harry Erskine, Eglintoun, Mure, Loudoun, Argyll to Bute, February-April 1761, Bute mss; Loudoun’s corresp. with Fergusson, Frederick Campbell, and others, Loudoun mss.
  • 3. Loudoun to Bute, 28 Aug. 1766, Bute mss; Fergusson to Loudoun, 14 Nov. 1767, Loudoun mss.
  • 4. Stair to Loudoun, 28 July 1771, ibid.
  • 5. Boswell, Johnson, v. 354; James Fergusson, ‘Making Interest in Scottish County Elections’, SHR 1947, pp. 128-9.
  • 6. Corresp. on Linlithgow Burghs 1774, Buccleuch mss.
  • 7. Almon, iii. 10-14.
  • 8. Boswell, Private Pprs. xi. 163.
  • 9. Dempster to Carlyle, undated (early 1776), Carlyle mss, Edin. Univ. Lib.
  • 10. Almon, iii. 397, 413.
  • 11. Ibid. xii. 107-8, 256, 398; xiv. 539, 549.
  • 12. Fortescue, iv. 360; Almon, xvii. 409, 507, 522, 642, 693.
  • 13. Boswell, Private Pprs. xiv. 132-3.
  • 14. Letters of G. Dempster, 110.
  • 15. S. Weitzman, Warren Hastings Philip Francis, 138.
  • 16. Loudoun mss.
  • 17. Debrett, vii. 75, 229, 244, 264, 279.
  • 18. Ibid. ix. 210, 316.
  • 19. Ibid. 124, 231, 267; x. 206, 308.
  • 20. Ibid. xii. 222, 257.
  • 21. Stockdale, viii. 360-70; ix. 137; xiii. 133, 180; xv. 52.
  • 22. Letters of G. Dempster, 153, 163, 169-71, 176-8.
  • 23. Private Pprs. xvii. 139.