MCDOWALL, William (c.1719-84), of Castle Semple, Renfrew and Garthland, Wigtown.

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



1768 - 1774

Family and Education

b. c.1719, 1st. s. of Col. William McDowall of St. Kitts and Castle Semple by his 1st w. Mary, da. of Thomas Tovey of Nevis.  educ. Glasgow Univ. 1735.  m. 1748, Elizabeth, da. of James Graham of Airth, Stirling, dean of the faculty of advocates, 6s. 4da.  suc. fa. 27 Oct. 1748.

Offices Held


McDowall’s father, a younger son of the Garthland family, emigrated to Nevis about 1700, purchased plantations there, and took a prominent part in the island’s affairs. In 1724 he returned to Scotland, established himself in Glasgow as a West India merchant in partnership with James Milliken, and purchased neighbouring estates in Renfrewshire. Young McDowall, an Anglican in Presbyterian Glasgow,1 inherited a vast commercial empire in the sugar, rum and slave trade, together with extensive property in the West Indies and Glasgow. To his Castle Semple estate he soon added the ancestral lands of Garthland and smaller estates in Lanarkshire and Ayrshire, and thus became possessed of considerable electoral interest in four counties.

In 1766 McDowall announced his candidature for Renfrewshire and proceeded to barter his interest in the three other counties for Renfrew votes.2 The sitting Member, Patrick Craufurd, in alarm consulted his friend William Mure who, after prolonged negotiation, proposed that McDowall should contest Wigtownshire against the Galloway interest. McDowall replied, 27 Jan. 1768:3

I make no doubt but that there may be a probability of succeeding in Wigtownshire, but I am afraid we are too late ... I have had a great deal of trouble and expense already in my own county; I am not able to run so soon again a second heat ... I should wish to carry Wigtownshire, but I should make but a bad job of it to attack and be foiled.

Pretty sure of success in Renfrewshire, with or without an alliance with the third candidate, John Shaw Stewart, McDowall nevertheless agreed to a conference with Mure, who reported to John Craufurd, Patrick’s son, 22 Feb. 1768:4

I first proposed to him his giving up the county of Renfrew to your father for this Parliament, upon assurances of our joint support for the next; and in the meantime he should take his chance of the county of Galloway for this election. This he did not at all relish. I then mentioned to him the arrangement we had proposed of your having Renfrewshire and his having your borough [Old Sarum] in England. This he liked much better and, under certain conditions, agreed to ...
That you should now be candidate for the county of Renfrew in place of your father, and that Mr. McDowall should support you with his vote and all his interest, not only at the next but also at the subsequent general election ...
That you should secure Mr. McDowall in being elected, without trouble or expense for the borough of Old Sarum at the general election ...
That in the event of his being chosen for the county of Galloway, he is to have it in his power to transfer the borough of Old Sarum to any friend he shall name ... The clause ... is reasonable. His views upon that county are chiefly against the Parliament after next, when he stands engaged to you for the county of Renfrew, and ’tis thought an attempt made now, whether with or without success, may be of use to promote that purpose.

This agreement was conditional upon Craufurd’s procuring the assent of Thomas Pitt, patron of Old Sarum. But Craufurd replied to Mure, 1 Mar.:

It is not possible for me to propose to Mr. Pitt to give Mr. McDowall the nomination to his borough. I know it would be to no purpose, as I am sure he would not consent to it. The only agreement that can be made with Mr. McDowall is that I should be returned for Mr. Pitt’s borough and the county; and that if he should not succeed in Galloway, and I cannot effectuate the resigning the borough to him, I should resign the county. It is to be understood, however, that my father’s retiring is only upon the condition of my being secured in the county at the next general election after this.

In the event McDowall did not contest Wigtownshire but, under a revised agreement with the Craufurds and Mure, was returned for Renfrewshire against John Shaw Stewart, on the understanding that at the end of the Parliament he should retire and give his interest to John Craufurd.5

In Parliament he was a consistent but silent Government supporter, regular in attendance, sending to his wife ‘by every post’ reports of the debates in the House.6 John Craufurd did not conceal his contempt for McDowall’s parliamentary ineptitude. In March 1774, at the behest of the Renfrewshire freeholders, McDowall and Craufurd took the lead in opposing the Glasgow bill for increased tolls to pay for new bridges over the Clyde. On 7 Apr. Craufurd reported to Mure their ignominious defeat by 101 to 12:7

Never was anything so blundered ... Mr. McDowall who had the conduct of this affair, did not divide the House at the proper time, and afterwards repenting that he had not made a division, made it when everybody supposed that the matter was ended and when people were going away. This proceeded from ignorance and blundering in him, but carried such an appearance of unfairness along with it as made almost all our own friends go against it ... All I can say is that I will engage in no other business along with McDowall, who is perfectly absurd and wrong-headed.

As the general election of 1774 approached McDowall’s interest was assiduously courted: in Ayrshire by Sir Adam Fergusson and in Lanarkshire by the Hamilton interest. Having reluctantly fulfilled his obligations to Craufurd and secured his return for Renfrewshire, McDowall seems to have abandoned his own ambitions in Wigtownshire,8 and did not seek another seat. In 1780 he was induced by his dislike of Craufurd to make a bargain with Shaw Stewart for dividing the representation of the county between them. As a result he had the satisfaction of seeing his son returned for Renfrewshire in 1783.  He died 29 Nov. 1784.

Ref Volumes: 1754-1790

Author: Edith Lady Haden-Guest


  • 1. Glasgow Burgh Recs. vi. 586.
  • 2. Chas. Dalrymple of Orangefield to Loudoun, 10 July, 10 Aug. 1766, 8 Jan. 1768, Loudoun mss.
  • 3. Caldwell Pprs. ii (2), pp. 94-95, 131-2.
  • 4. Ibid. 135-7.
  • 5. Laprade, 18.
  • 6. Caldwell Pprs. ii (2), p. 170.
  • 7. Ibid. 231-2.
  • 8. W. Maxwell to Keith Stewart, 8 Aug. 1773, Seaforth mss.