MURRAY KEITH, Sir Robert (1730-95), of Murrayshall, Peebles.
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Family and Education
b. 30 Sept. 1730, 1st surv. s. of Robert Keith of Craig, Kincardine by Margaret, da. of Sir William Cuninghame, 2nd Bt., of Caprington, Ayr. educ. Edinburgh h.s.; Edinburgh Univ.; military acad. in London 1745-6. unm., 1 da. suc. gt.-uncle Robert Murray in the Murrayshall estate 1743, and assumed name of Murray before Keith;1 suc. fa. 21 Sept. 1774. cr. K.B. 29 Feb. 1772.
Cornet 6 Drag. 1747; capt. Scots Brigade in Holland, Drumlanrig’s Regt. June 1747-52; Halkett’s 1755-7; capt. 73 Ft. Sept. 1757; maj. commdt. Highland Volunteers Aug. 1759; lt.-col. commdt. 87 Ft. May 1760; half-pay 1763; col. 1772; maj.-gen. 1777; col. 10 Ft. 1781- d.; lt.-gen. 1782.
Envoy to Saxony 1769-71, to Denmark 1771-2, to Austria 1772-92.
P.C. 29 Apr. 1789
Keith’s father was ambassador to Vienna, 1748-1757, and to St. Petersburg, 1758-1762. In 1747 Keith obtained a cornet’s commission which he resigned for a captaincy in the Scots Dutch Brigade. On the reduction of his regiment in 1752 he returned home on a meagre pension and, disappointed of a British commission, went abroad with Lord Frederick Campbell to visit his father and seek military employment in Germany. Recalled to Holland in 1755, he re-entered the British army in 1757. Serving with distinction in Germany, he owed his first preferment to his friend Henry Seymour Conway who, when temporarily in command during Lord George Sackville’s absence (December 1758), appointed Keith his secretary. Sackville retained him on his staff as aide-de-camp and after Minden sent him home as the bearer of his resignation. In 1759 Pitt appointed him to command the Highland Volunteers (subsequently the 87th Foot), with whom he served in Germany. On their disbandment in 1763 Keith was again unemployed, went to France, and thereafter, finding Edinburgh society uncongenial, settled in London.2
Keith became a leading member of ‘the Gang’, a social club which included Lord Frederick Campbell, Anthony Chamier, Thomas Bradshaw, Richard Rigby, Thomas Harley, and Henry Drummond. He also maintained his intimacy with Conway, who obtained Keith’s appointment as envoy to Dresden. Able, industrious, and an excellent linguist, Keith proved a popular and competent ambassador. Transferred to Denmark in June 1771, Keith, during the revolution of 1772, by his bold action in demanding, under threat of war, the release of Queen Caroline Matilda, earned the gratitude of her brother, George III, and was rewarded with the K.B. and the appointment to Vienna. Keith now felt he had attained his life’s ambition, his only complaint being the financial strain of providing hospitality for the scores of ‘young John Bulls’ on the Grand Tour. On intimate terms with Lord Suffolk, Keith maintained a frequent correspondence with Thomas Bradshaw who, in the winter of 1773, proposed that he should be brought into Parliament, preferably for Peeblesshire, by agreement with Lord March. Keith replied, 7 Jan. 1774:
You know ... that Lord Suffolk’s friendship is my plight anchor in life ... But I cannot think of employing so good a man’s friendship in hammering a nail which will not drive ... Lord March is probably pre-engaged and Lord North has many better men to employ than one whose vocation ... may detain him for some years abroad ... But if the King’s servants think that I ought to represent my own paltry county or any boroughs of Scotland, to which I am entitled by my small property, I shall undertake that service with cheerfulness ... I have not a shilling to bestow ... upon acquiring a seat in Parliament. Ergo ... we shall do well to keep Lord Suffolk’s friendship for a better purpose. Tell my Lord so from me.
Eventually Keith left the affair to Bradshaw’s discretion, ‘with this only stipulation that neither the Duke of Grafton, Lord North nor the Earl of Earls [Suffolk] be teased or plagued to make of me ... a lawgiver’.
Whether it shall be my lot for seven years to come, to get into the chapel of St. Stephen by the great door, or to tip the old man for a peep into politics from the gallery, I shall feel myself equally honoured by the good opinion of my patrons.
And when March proved unco-operative Keith did not ‘break his heart about the matter’.3
In August 1774 Keith travelled in Hungary with his old patron Conway for whom, despite conflicting views on America, he retained a warm affection. Deeply distressed by his father’s death in September, Keith obtained leave to return home. In November 1775, while preparing to depart for Vienna, he learned of the death of Adam Hay, Member for Peeblesshire. Backed by North and Suffolk, Keith set off for Scotland, but, finding Lord March’s terms unacceptable and unwilling to humiliate North and Suffolk by an overwhelming defeat, proposed to retire. March, after conferring with Suffolk, eventually agreed to sponsor Keith’s candidature. George Selwyn wrote to Lord Carlisle, 25 Nov. 1775:4
March has received expresses from Scotland which have convinced Administration that no recommendation of theirs is of weight against his nomination ... but having shown that the election was in his hands and in nobody else’s he has complimented ... Lord Suffolk with choosing Sir Robert Keith.
Keith returned to Vienna in June 1776 and henceforth his membership of the House was purely nominal. He wrote to Suffolk, 2 Oct. 1778, with reference to the next general election:
Do you wish that I should or should not continue to represent the county of Peebles? ... If your answer be in the affirmative, I shall immediately declare myself ... and rely entirely upon your Lordship’s interposition with Lord March to prevent a contested election. If ... you shall think it more advisable for me to decline ... I beg you will tell me when I ought to make known that determination.
Deeply in debt and disappointed both of a regiment and a supplementary grant, Keith thought of selling Murrayshall, and, after Suffolk’s death in 1779, decided not to seek re-election. He wrote to Philip Yorke, 3 Mar. 1780:
I have in justice to my constituents let them know that I shall not expose them at the general election to the continuance of the inconvenience they have felt for several years past by the absence of their representative.
In October 1781 Keith was appointed to a regiment, but North’s fall made his position at Vienna uncertain. He wrote to Andrew Drummond, 3 Apr. 1782:
Let us but have an efficient and a vigorous ministry ... whether my friends, or the men I have seen in opposition to all their measures, provided old England is a ... gainer by the change. Let us but save the honour and interests ... of the country that bred us; and let me be placed in the most obscure corner of it, I care not a button.
He retained his post under successive Administrations, in 1789 received a ‘handsome addition’ to his salary, retired in 1792, and settled in London with a substantial pension. He died 21 June 1795.5
Ref Volumes: 1754-1790
Author: Edith Lady Haden-Guest
- 1. J. W. Buchan & H. Paton, Hist. Peebles, iii. 37.
- 2. Add. 32854, ff. 141-3; Scots Brigade in Holland, ii. 412, 421; Mems. and Corresp. of Keith, i. 94-99; HMC Stopford-Sackville, i. 318.
- 3. Keith Mems. i. 251, 449-50, 457, 466-7.
- 4. Add. 35509, ff. 246, 266; HMC Carlisle, 749.
- 5. Add. 35515, f. 53; Keith Mems. ii. 96, 106-9, 119-22, 124-5, 127, 129, 218-32, 238-46, 515.