Aberdeen Burghs


Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1790-1820, ed. R. Thorne, 1986
Available from Boydell and Brewer

Background Information

Aberdeen (1790, 1812); Montrose (1796, 1818), Brechin (1802), Arbroath (1806), Forfarshire; Inverbervie, Kincardineshire (1807)


 Sir David Carnegie, Bt.2
18 May 1792 ALEXANDER ALLARDYCE vice Callander, deceased 
5 Jan. 1802 JAMES FARQUHAR vice Allardyce, deceased 
24 Nov. 1806HON. JOHN RAMSAY3
 James Farquhar2
 Hon. John Ramsay2
 Thomas Molison1
13 July 1818JOSEPH HUME3
 James Farquhar1

Main Article

Sir David Carnegie* of Southesk, the successful Whig candidate of 1784, told Sir Gilbert Elliot, 21 Oct. 1789, that as the burghs ‘never before had an opposition Member they are very tired of me, and have been looking for an excuse to get rid of me’. He was challenged by Alexander Callander, a wealthy nabob who was backed by Robert Barclay Allardice* of Urie and David Scott I* of Dunninald, the East India director, taking their lead from Henry Dundas. Barclay Allardice was able to guarantee the votes of Aberdeen and Inverbervie and Scott promised to exert his influence in the more open burgh of Montrose. According to Carnegie, who reflected wryly on ‘the morality that springs from the union of Indian manners and ministerial politics’, Scott thereby broke a pledge not to oppose him personally. Carnegie was initially confident, having ‘stormed’ Brechin and Arbroath—where he enjoyed the support of his fellow Whig William Maule* of Panmure—and Montrose ‘in twenty four hours’ and extracted from the councils of all three written promises of support. He tried the same tactic at Aberdeen, but was unsuccessful. By mid November 1789 he had to report that his opponents had seduced the council at Montrose, where money and a candidate’s potential access to patronage generally carried the greatest weight, to leave him in a minority of 8 to 11:

It is possible that I may reclaim some of the eleven; but besides that many of them may be secured by presents, the share that they all expect in the distribution of custom house and other places fascinates them—and they cannot be disappointed, as my opponents openly avow that it is the duty of every Member for Scotch boroughs to support the minister of the day; and that if a change were to happen, they would wheel about of course.

He asked William Adam to seek the Duke of Portland’s sanction for a declaration that if the Whigs came to power all those who had obtained local appointments at Montrose ‘by such uncommon perfidy’ would be dismissed, but Portland vetoed the idea. Barclay Allardice, writing to Pitt, 11 Dec. 1789, ascribed the change of sentiments at Montrose to the council’s sudden enlightened realization that they had been duped by ‘absolute falsehoods’ propagated by the ‘demagogues of opposition’. Carnegie stayed in the contest, but the vote of Montrose proved decisive. A petition was contemplated but never lodged.1

Callander died in 1792 and was quietly replaced by another ministerialist, Alexander Allardyce of Dunnottar, a native of Aberdeen who had made a fortune in the West Indies. In 1794 Scott told Dundas that the magistrates of Montrose were ‘at present completely yours’ and Allardyce encountered no resistance in 1796, having secured the support of all five burghs the previous Michaelmas.2

His death in November 1801 ended ten years of relative tranquillity. Lord Glenbervie*, vice-president of the Board of Trade in Addington’s ministry and a native of Aberdeenshire, had designs on the seat and was told by Hiley Addington that it would be his, even though Sir William Scott*, a high-ranking judge in the ecclesiastical courts, had recommended Allardyce’s brother-in-law James Farquhar, a proctor in Doctors’ Commons. According to Glenbervie, it soon emerged that ‘an arrangement’ had taken place between Farquhar and Scott ‘with the concurrence of Dundas’. Ministers decided to endorse Farquhar, and Glenbervie was left to ponder on the curious situation whereby ‘the management of Scotland is left entirely to Dundas and his two nephews’, and Lord Pelham, the Home secretary, ‘is left entirely out of it’. Dundas’s friend Alexander Brodie* encouraged Alexander Leith Hay of Leith Hall, currently canvassing Aberdeenshire for the next election, to consider standing for the burghs, but nothing came of it. There was an attempt to thwart Farquhar by Carnegie, Maule and George Skene* of Skene, another Foxite, who promoted a canvass by Keith Jopp of Welbeck Street, London, son of a former provost of Aberdeen, first cousin to Allardyce and Farquhar’s uncle by marriage. Jopp’s brother-in-law, John Barnes of Westminster, told Adam that Brechin and Arbroath were engaged to vote for him at the next general election, that ‘Montrose is a loose fish and will be attempted’ and that Carnegie ‘condescends to canvass the Montrose people whom he has not been amongst for many years in consequence of former misdeeds’. Jopp offered no challenge at the by-election, but came forward against Farquhar at the general election of 1802. Carnegie complained to Pelham that, contrary to an earlier assurance that Addington would not interfere, a letter from the premier had ‘been shown to certain voters in Montrose in which he expressed his sincere wishes for the success’ of Farquhar, who got the decisive backing of Montrose by one vote. There was an alleged attempt at bribery by Jopp’s supporters and an unsuccessful bid to kidnap the Inverbervie delegate, but Jopp apparently did not go through the formalities of a poll.3

Property purchases gave Farquhar a strong personal interest in Inverbervie, but in February 1806 Adam believed Maule’s to be ‘the prevailing interest’ in the district. On 18 Apr. 1806 David Scott II* of Dunninald, who had succeeded his father the previous year, wrote to Lord Grenville:

When I had the honour of seeing your lordship I mentioned my intention of supporting my friend Mr Farquhar ... From two of the towns having ... declared themselves in his favour and having great reason to suppose that two of the others will follow their example I concluded that no person would attempt an opposition. Having yesterday understood that Mr Maule had arrived in Montrose for the purpose of ascertaining its political views I conceived that much inconvenience and perhaps expense might be avoided by applying to your lordship ... [Due to] the natural interest which I possess in ... Montrose from its joining my paternal estate and from the intimate connection which has so long existed between my family and the members of the council ... little apprehension arises in my mind ... but ... a knowledge of your lordship’s friendly disposition towards Mr Farquhar would at once produce a declaration in his favour ... I need not inform your lordship how dangerous any delay might be to the interests we have in view.

The new ministers were still largely ignorant of the political situation in Aberdeen Burghs and in his reply, 19 Apr., Grenville declined to commit himself, although he confessed that he would be unwilling to oppose Maule. At the same time, he wrote to Lord Lauderdale, 23 Apr. 1806, that ‘unless the boroughs were quite decided in Mr Maule’s favour, it would surely be by no means proper for me to countenance and promote an opposition to the interest now in possession and actually supporting government’.4 Skene later claimed that at about this time he was preparing to stand for the burghs at Maule’s invitation, but that he soon afterwards transferred his attention to Elgin Burghs.5 Maule began to canvass for his brother John Ramsay, and Scott pressed Grenville to state categorically whether, in the event of a contest, he would remain neutral or oppose Farquhar. The premier assured him that he would not interfere ‘if circumstances remain as they now are’, and he repeated the promise of neutrality some six weeks before the dissolution. On 17 Sept. 1806 Lord Aberdeen, a follower of Lord Melville, was told by his agent Alexander Crombie that Farquhar’s prospects of carrying Montrose were very much in the balance and that ‘every exertion must be used, and neither money nor labour spared, otherwise Mr Maule may have command of the district in future’. Aberdeen passed on the letter to Melville. Another week elapsed before Maule, who claimed to have acted ‘in consequence of an arrangement which I understood from Lord Lauderdale to have been made between your lordship and him regarding the patronage of the boroughs’, solicited Grenville’s support for his brother. His intermediary Henry Erskine, the lord advocate, strongly endorsed his claims to ministerial backing. Grenville did not break his promise of neutrality, but the Scottish Whigs evidently worked strenuously against Farquhar, on the progress of whose canvass Crombie reported directly to Melville, and Montrose eventually declared in Ramsay’s favour.6

The tables were turned in 1807 when, in what Adam described as a ‘corrupt desertion’ from Maule, the council of Montrose opted for Farquhar, whose ministerial sympathies and connexions made him a better investment than Ramsay. On the day of election Farquhar’s protest against the Brechin delegate was overruled, as were Ramsay’s against the Inverbervie delegate and Farquhar’s eligibility. Ramsay threatened to seek redress at law, but no action was taken.7 In 1811 it was rumoured that Farquhar would stand for Kincardine at the next election and that James Hadden, provost of Aberdeen, would replace him in the burghs; but in the event it was Farquhar who was returned in 1812 against the token opposition of Thomas Molison, provost of and delegate for Brechin.8

In June 1817 Montrose was disfranchised by the court of session because of illegalities in the conduct of the 1816 election of magistrates; but on the petition of the burgesses and inhabitants the Privy Council authorized a poll election for Michaelmas 1817 and the establishment of a more liberal sett, which gave popular elements a greater share in municipal affairs. The declared bankruptcy of the treasury of Aberdeen in February 1817 precipitated a power struggle between the largely self-perpetuating council, the burgesses and the incorporated trades. Of the 19 magistrates elected at Michaelmas 1817, 13 refused to serve. In March 1818 the court of session annulled the election and appointed an interim government of nine officials. The Privy Council ruled, 3 Aug. 1818, that the retiring council of 1816-17 should elect their successors on 23 Sept. 1818, and that the sett of the borough should remain unaltered. Aberdeen was therefore disfranchised at the time of the 1818 general election.9

Although the conflict in Aberdeen ended in victory for the ruling oligarchy, the district made a striking departure from tradition in its choice of Member. In March 1818 Maule, replying to an inquiry from Lord Holland, wrote:

I am certain that Lord Lauderdale has overrated my influence at present in the boroughs. Certainly much might be done and I should he very ready to aid the cause of a proper candidate, but at best ... it is dirty work.

Maule was subsequently approached on Holland’s recommendation by Joseph Hume, a native of Montrose who, after a brief period in the House as a supporter of government in 1812, had become intimate with Francis Place and developed an aggressive brand of radicalism. Maule promised his assistance, provided Hume took ‘the drudgery of the work upon himself’. By mid April Hume had obtained the nominal support of Aberdeen and carried Arbroath, Brechin and Montrose where, on the motion of Maule, the guildry resolved to return only a Member who would pledge himself to support retrenchment and reform. Whether financial inducement or a spontaneous surge of reforming sentiment was responsible for Hume’s success is not clear, but Maule claimed that ‘the spirit of independence shown is beyond my most sanguine expectations’. Farquhar was left with only the dependable vote of Inverbervie.10

The case of Aberdeen was used by Lord Archibald Hamilton in 1819 as the centre-piece of his argument for Scottish burgh reform. The Commons select committee on the subject reported that the complaints of those who sought a more open system of government were justified, but passed no judgment on the legality of the Privy Council warrant reinstating the old council, and the constitution of Aberdeen remained unchanged until the Act of 1833.11

Author: David R. Fisher


  • 1. NLS mss 11196, f. 42; Ginter, Whig Organization, 110-11, 126-9, 137-8, 203; N. Riding RO, Zetland mss ZNK X2/1/945; PRO 30/8/111, f. 135; Edinburgh Advertiser, 13-16 July 1790.
  • 2. SRO GD51/1/198/1/6; GD51/5/364/6, Scott to Dundas, 23 Feb. 1794.
  • 3. Glenbervie Diaries, i. 283, 288, 290; SRO GD225/34/24, Brodie to Hay, 5, 9, 12 Nov., 2 Dec. 1801, 15 Mar. 1802; Blair Adam mss, Barnes to Adam, 14 Dec. 1801, Jopp to same, 27 June; The Times, 23 July, 5 Aug.; Edinburgh Advertiser, 30 July-2 Aug., 3-6 Aug. 1802.
  • 4. Fortescue mss.
  • 5. Ibid. Skene to Grenville, 18 Apr. 1807.
  • 6. Ibid. Scott to same, 27 Apr., 30 Aug., replies 2 May, 4 Sept., Maule to same, 24 Sept., Erskine to same, 26 Sept.; SRO GD51/1/198/1/12, 13; GD51/1/198/12/26; Blair Adam mss, Orr to Adam, 28 Aug., 25 Oct., Adam to Gibson, 1 Oct. 1806.
  • 7. Blair Adam mss, Orr to Adam, 6 May, 1 June; Fortescue mss, Adam to Grenville, 30 May 1807.
  • 8. Blair Adam mss, Ramsay to Adam, 24 July 1811; Edinburgh Advertiser, 9 Oct., 3 Nov. 1812.
  • 9. W. Kennedy, Annals of Aberdeen, i. 347-74, 425-35.
  • 10. Add. 51829, Maule to Holland, 13, 29 Mar., 12 Apr.; Edinburgh Advertiser, 17 Apr., 17 July; Morning Chron. 22 Apr. 1818; The Late Elections (1818), 430.
  • 11. Parl. Deb. xxxix. 1275-1353; xl. 178-98; PP (1819), vi. 20-28, 271-373.