SINCLAIR, John (1754-1835), of Ulbster and Thurso Castle, Caithness.

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



1780 - 1784
1784 - 1790
1790 - 1796
7 Jan. 1797 - 1802
1802 - 1806
1807 - Aug. 1811

Family and Education

b. 10 May 1754, 1st surv. s. of George Sinclair of Ulbster by Lady Janet Sutherland, da. of William Lord Strathnaver, sis. of William 17th Earl of Sutherland [S].  educ. Edin. h.s.; Edin. Univ. 1765-7, 1768-1770; Glasgow Univ. 1773-4; Trinity, Oxf. 1775; adv. 1775; L. Inn 1774, called 1782.  m. (1) 26 Mar. 1776, Sarah (d. 15 May 1785), da. of Alexander Maitland, London merchant, 2da., (2) 6 Mar. 1788, Diana, da. of Alexander, 1st Baron Macdonald of Slate [1] 7s. 6da.  suc. fa. 3 Aug. 1770; cr. Bt. 16 Feb. 1786.

Offices Held

Pres. Board of Agriculture 1793-8, 1806-14; member of board of trustees for manufactures from 1808; cashier of excise in Scotland Aug. 1811- d.; P.C. 29 Aug. 1810.


Sinclair, according to his own estimate made in 1794, inherited estates worth about £3,000 p.a., and a controlling influence in the borough of Wick. In 1774, when still a minor, he made a bid for the Northern (Tain) Burghs with Sir Adam Fergusson, his cousin and one of his trustees, as ostensible candidate, against the sitting Member, Governor James Grant of Ballindalloch. Fergusson was defeated; and Sinclair resented the backing given to Grant by the Sutherland interest after his family ‘had supported the family of Sutherland for above thirty years ... receiving the most positive written assurances of a friendly return’.1 He entered the House for Caithness unopposed in 1780.

In Parliament he was an independent and associated with other independents, particularly those with mercantile or banking interests. His maiden speech, 24 Jan. 1781, was a cheerful and ignorant support of the North Government on the Dutch entry into the war, urging a vigorous naval campaign.2 He asked Sandwich to make him an unpaid member of the Admiralty Board, and in November 1781 brashly offered to second the Address.3 But soon he began to wish for a settlement with America, and tried to put the ministry in touch with the captured president of the American Congress, Henry Laurens. Rebuffed, he made plans for coalition governments and did his best to organize other independents at the St. Alban’s Tavern meetings, which he later claimed to have initiated. He still supported Sandwich in January 1782, though with doubts as to whether ‘his gay and dissipated character’ was ‘fit for presiding at the head of a public board’;4 but on 27 Feb., during the crucial debate on Conway’s second motion to end the war, he left the House. His renewed support on 8 Mar. did not efface the impression left by his earlier, conspicuous defection.

From a common interest in economics he was an early associate of Pitt, and welcomed his appointment as chancellor of the Exchequer in July 1782, while lecturing him on policy on behalf of the St. Alban’s group. He paired in favour of Fox’s East India bill, and applied to North for a baronetcy.5 But next, he became an ardent supporter of Pitt, and before 10 Jan. 1784 had compiled for him a list of 39 independents who had voted for Fox’s bill, but whom he thought he could influence to support the new Government. Sinclair also attended the St. Alban’s meetings of February 1784, but as a partisan of the ministry. At the general election the Government provided him with a seat at Lostwithiel for £3,000;6 but he also unsuccessfully contested the Northern Burghs against Fox.

After his wife’s death in May 1785 Sinclair wrote to Pitt that he could no longer attend the House that session, but ‘if a single vote can be of any consequence, in the farther progress of these Irish propositions, I will very readily resign my seat’.7 He talked of retiring altogether from Parliament, though he understood that Pitt had promised him office if he stayed on.8 To distract his mind he undertook, 1786-7, a long journey through half Europe. This journey stimulated his interest in economic development, which became the dominant concern of his life.

On his return he found himself less in Pitt’s confidence, and began to revert to independence. He opposed Pitt over the trial of Warren Hastings and tried to organize support for the defence.9In the Regency debates of 1788-9, he helped to gather the ‘armed neutrality’ party with Lord Rawdon and J. P. Bastard: they objected to the constitutional inconsistencies of the ministerial position and supported the right of the Prince to the Regency, though not in the terms of Fox. But Sinclair’s widening breach with Pitt was mainly the result of disillusionment over his economic policy; he had come to feel that the Government should have a policy of economic development for agriculture, fisheries, and transport, based on systematic investigation. With official help he was willing to undertake much of the research; wished for a ‘real patriotic minister’ with the ‘judgment to foresee the advantages which may be derived, both to himself and to the public, from such investigation’; and criticized Pitt for failing to take advantage of his ‘great opportunities of proposing and of carrying into effect beneficial public measures’.10 So it was on his own, and in Opposition, that Sinclair started in 1790 on his most famous work, the Statistical Account of Scotland.

He died 21 Dec. 1835.

Ref Volumes: 1754-1790

Author: Rosemary Mitchison


  • 1. Sinclair to Fergusson, 6 Apr. 1780, Fergusson mss.
  • 2. Almon, i. 368.
  • 3. Sinclair Corresp. i. 75; Sandwich mss.
  • 4. Corresp. i. 77.
  • 5. Sinclair mss, 5 ff. 6, 25; Add. 38567, f. 165.
  • 6. Laprade, 83, 124.
  • 7. Sinclair mss, iv. f. 33.
  • 8. Sinclair, Memoir, i. 126.
  • 9. Add. 29172, ff. 4-7.
  • 10. Advertisements in his Hist. Public Revenue, 1789-90.