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

Background Information

Number of voters:

188 in 1790, 156 in 1806, 206 in 1811


 William Wemyss72

Main Article

As there were few great estates and a large number of ‘individuals’ in Fifeshire, none of them commanding more than seven votes, the opposition survey of the county in 1788 concluded that ‘the minister must have great weight’: but there were also many contenders for the county seat. William Wemyss, the sitting Member since 1787, had been chosen by Henry Dundas as a suitable convert to Pitt’s government to replace the deceased opposition Member Skene, thereby disappointing Sir John Henderson, a former Member, who had hoped to fight the government’s battle.1 Henderson never forgave Dundas and now allied himself with opposition. The latter’s nominal candidate was Sir James St. Clair Erskine*, heir to the former Member James St. Clair and nephew of Lord Loughborough, who was ambitious for him to represent the county; but the moving force was provided by Henry Erskine* who was careful to canvass ‘indefinitely, not for any particular candidate’, and informed Sir Thomas Dundas privately, 14 Dec. 1788, ‘I think we must carry the county. But not for Sir J[ames] E[rskine] ... mum is the word.’2 In February 1789 Erskine reported that it was impossible to carry Sir James, though he did not doubt that he himself would succeed, and wished a gentle hint to be conveyed to Sir James, or else he must himself be compensated with the Anstruther Easter Burghs seat if he gave up the county to Sir James, as this alone would secure the transfer of the votes he had gained on his own account to Sir James and enable him to represent Fife in some sense into the bargain. Not a word could be obtained from Sir James on the subject and Erskine, who had been obliged to ‘dip into promises’ to gain straggling votes, declared on 21 Feb. 1789:

If Sir James Erskine does not either say he will stand or get his friends to support me we shall lose the county of Fife with the cards in our hands ... If he thinks he can carry it I will transfer to him every vote I can. If he don’t choose to stand and does the same to me, I will undertake to carry it.3

Henry Erskine duly took over from Sir James, who fell back on his borough seat, but on the eve of the election, 8 July 1790, informed the freeholders that he was satisfied from the state of his canvass that he could not succeed against ‘a most respectable candidate, who, besides the advantage of residing amongst you, has been aided by the whole of ministerial influence’.4 Henry Dundas, who had the disposal of the interest of the heiresses of Gen. John Scott of Balcomie, a former Member, as well as many old school ties in the county, and put the screws on Sir John Anstruther* by hinting at opposition to him in the burghs, had certainly not been inactive on Wemyss’s behalf. Sir Robert Anstruther subsequently reminded Dundas:

When Mr H. Erskine stood for the county of Fife and as matters then were I sincerely do believe could have carried it, I, at Mr Dundas’s particular request engaged my own, and what votes I could bring for Mr Wemyss with whom I had hardly any acquaintance, against the other, with whom I had lived twenty years in the most convivial intimacy.5

In October 1795 Wemyss proposed to withdraw in favour of his brother-in-law, Sir William Erskine of Torrie, to which Dundas assented. Erskine was not present for his election in 1796, but Wemyss canvassed for him and there was no opposition.6 On the change of ministry in 1801, Sir William Erskine espoused the Addington administration and secured their support against Dundas’s scheme to strengthen his ‘family confederacy’ in Scotland by putting up John Hope for Fife. This occasioned a brusque exchange of letters between the premier and Dundas on 31 Jan. and 5 Feb. 1802, in which the latter stated that if Addington chose ‘to proceed in the line of conduct your letter points at, the consequences must rest with you, not with me’. On 5 Feb. Dundas informed Pitt, ‘I cannot submit to be told, when I am supporting my own brother-in-law, the most respectable and popular man in the county, that I am intruding upon an old established interest which it is the duty of administration to interfere to protect’. On 7 Feb. he wrote again, having got the better of such ‘unpleasant sensations’:

If Mr Addington had committed himself in the manner he menaced against Col. Hope’s popularity and just pretensions in the county of Fife, he would have given a stroke to the character of his administration he is not aware of ... If John Hope on his return can be induced to accept the representation of the county of Fife, Sir William Erskine will immediately withdraw.

This announced a compromise which Dundas could the more readily accede to without losing face because he had canvassed support for Hope ‘after his military duties are suspended by the return of peace’, and had declined any pact with ‘the freeholders hostile to the late and present administration’. Erskine, on the other hand, could count on the support of those most hostile to Dundas. The arrangement was a secret one, an ostensible canvass on both sides proceeding for the sake of appearances, but Erskine was returned unopposed.7

Had there been a contest, it would have been a close one: both sides predicted victory. In February 1802, for instance, Hope’s side claimed over 80 ‘positive engagements’ after their opponents had conceded ‘that whichever party could bring 70 effective votes into the field would carry the election’. On 23 Feb. the prediction was Hope 81, Erskine 55, 17 doubtful and new claimants nearly equal for both.8 Erskine’s keenness to acquire Whig votes is thus easily explained, but he eventually disappointed their hopes of political concessions to their viewpoint. In 1803 he was reported to be supporting the Melvillite nominee for sheriff against the Whig one. Erskine did not realize then that John Hope had no wish to be county Member, Hope having assured Dundas on his return that he had no illusions on the score of whose interest he was serving if he consented to take the seat, though he reluctantly agreed to take it if really necessary. On Pitt’s return to power, Erskine offered to resign in Hope’s favour, and Hope, with the same reluctance as before, agreed to step into his shoes, but the substitution did not take place. Erskine’s support for the government doubtless rendered it superfluous; but, given that Hope had no wish for a contest, he thereby spoilt his prospects for the future, as the private compromise would cease at the dissolution. His brother-in-law had in fact admonished him, 10 July 1804: ‘the county of Fife is too important a part of Scotland to be left to chance and a straggling contest. Your appearance would certainly prevent any contest and upon that and every other ground be highly pleasant to government.’ But Melville added that he did not even require Hope to attend his election or Parliament if military duties prevented it, except in an emergency.9

On the change of ministry in 1806, Hope did not come forward, but a Whig candidature for the county was canvassed. Brig.-Gen. James Durham, then in Ireland on duty, was offered by his father in February 1806, but a stronger claimant had already emerged in Robert Ferguson of Raith, a devoted Foxite, whose most obvious handicap was that he was a détenu on parole from France. His prospects were further hindered by William Wemyss’s decision to substitute himself for Sir William Erskine by ostensible reference to the latter’s rheumatism, but really ‘to preserve his own interest’, from the fear that Erskine would not prove strong enough for Ferguson and the hope that he might outbid Ferguson for government favour through his relationship to Lady Stafford, whom Lord Grenville could scarcely wish to alienate. That supposition was true, and Grenville would have been content, as previously agreed with Fox and Lauderdale, to preserve neutrality ‘even in the case of Wemyss opposing’, but he was set upon by the Scottish Foxites through William Adam, who insisted that Wemyss was only shamming support for the ministry and that his real connexion was with Lord Melville. This intervention was crucial in securing Ferguson’s election which, despite a majority on paper, was a near enough thing. Wemyss, defeated by ten votes in a poll in which only two voters, one on each side, were absent, challenged some of Ferguson’s votes and argued that Ferguson was disqualified by being a prisoner-of-war on parole: to counter this, Ferguson cited two precedents to carry William Adam as praeses. Francis Horner reported apropos of the Scottish elections, 5 Dec. 1806: ‘The success in Fife, the only election that has a semblance of popularity, is signal and dear to the heart of a Whig’.10

The success was short lived: when the Portland ministry took over in 1807 Sir John Henderson, thinking Ferguson’s prospects ‘considerably less than on the last occasion’, declined to stand himself, but suggested his own nominee, Thomson (presumably John Anstruther Thomson of Charlton, William Adam’s son-in-law) as having a better chance. Nothing came of this: Ferguson retired and Wemyss was returned unopposed. Sir John Anstruther assured his deposed chieftain Lord Grenville that had he got to Fife ‘a week sooner’ he would have defeated Wemyss. The only Whig gesture was a violent attack by Lord Rosslyn on the ‘milk and water’ loyal address carried by the vice-lieutenant Lord Kellie.11 The latter, whose ‘only ambition’ was to be lord lieutenant, begged Lord Melville to consider, 16 Mar. 1808, ‘the opposition families and gentlemen whom I have had to combat with: Lord Rosslyn, Fergusons of Raith, the Anstruthers, Sir John Henderson, Wemyss of Cuttlehill and his adherents, and now Mr Adam and Lord Elgin’. Kellie was disappointed in his ambition, but Wemyss agreed with him about William Adam’s growing influence in the county. Despite this, and although Wemyss contemplated retirement early in 1811, there was no opposition to him in 1812.12

Wemyss was virtually incapacitated by an apoplexy in March 1817. Lord Kellie, informing Lord Melville of this, explained that it was unfortunate as Wemyss’s son had no wish to enter Parliament and young Lindsay of Balcarres or, better, Sir John Oswald were the only potential candidates to hold the Fergusons at bay, in which Kellie was sure his 20 votes would help. Despite this Wemyss assured his constituents in February 1818 that there was nothing in the reports ‘industriously circulated’ of his retirement. He was again returned unopposed, though too unwell to attend the election. Sir John Oswald, who had had hopes of replacing Wemyss, was disappointed and claimed to Wemyss’s son that his father had acquiesced in such an arrangement. Capt. Wemyss denied it and pointed out, 6 July 1818, that ‘should this family (including of course Sir James Erskine) cease to return a Member for the county ... it is my determination to cease taking an active part in Fife politics’. This put out Oswald and paved the way for Wemyss to replace his father in 1820, it being understood that Ferguson of Raith, the only potential opponent, would ‘have no chance’.13

Author: R. G. Thorne


  • 1. SRO GD51/1/198/10/9.
  • 2. N. Riding RO, Zetland mss ZNK X2/1/730.
  • 3. Ibid. X2/1/878; Ginter, Whig Organization, 48.
  • 4. Edinburgh Advertiser, 2-6, 6-9 July 1790.
  • 5. SRO GD51/1/198/10/11; H. Furber, Henry Dundas, 276; NLS mss 6, ff. 105-8.
  • 6. NLS mss 5, f. 69; 3835, f. 37; Edinburgh Advertiser, 27-31 May 1796.
  • 7. Sidmouth mss, Addington to Dundas, 31 Jan., A. Hope to Addington, 15 Feb.; NLS mss 1, f. 105; Furber, 276; PRO 30/8/157, f. 290; Earl of Dundee mss, Dundas to Scrymgeour Wedderburn, 1 Feb; Blair Adam mss, Erskine to Adam, 13 Feb., Adam to Erskine, 18 Feb., Syme to Adam, 21 Feb., A. Hope to same, 21 Feb., reply 21 Feb., MacLean Clephane to Adam, 23 Apr.; Edinburgh Advertiser, 13-16, 27-30 July 1802.
  • 8. Blair Adam mss, Erskine to Adam, 1 Apr., 28 June 1802; Add. 33049, f. 354; Brougham and his Early Friends, i. 306, 313; Earl of Dundee mss, C. Hope to Scrymgeour Wedderburn, 20 Feb., Dundas to same, 23 Feb. 1802.
  • 9. Blair Adam mss, MacLean Clephane to Adam, 31 May 1802, Syme to same, 11 July 1803; SRO GD51/1/198/10/57-59; NLS mss 9370, f. 81.
  • 10. SRO GD51/1/195/11; Edinburgh Advertiser, 14-18 Feb.; Spencer mss, Scottish list, 1806; HMC Fortescue, viii. 59; Blair Adam mss, Adam to Gibson, 1, 12 Oct., H. Erskine to Adam, 27 Oct., Ferguson to Adam, Sunday [Oct.], Loch to Adam, 16 Nov.; Fortescue mss, Mackenzie to Grenville, 31 Oct.; Add. 51595, Adam to Holland, 28 Nov.; Edinburgh Advertiser, 2-5 Dec., 5-9 Dec. 1806; Horner mss 3, f. 122.
  • 11. Blair Adam mss, Sir J. Henderson to Adam, Tues. 28 [Mar.], Mon. 27 [Apr.], Innes to same, 5 May; Edinburgh Advertiser, 29 May-2 June, 2-5 June; Fortescue mss, Anstruther to Grenville, 14 May 1807; SRO GD51/1/195/27.
  • 12. SRO GD51/5/67/1-4; 51/1/198/10/64; St. Andrews Univ. Lib. Melville mss 4504, Kellie to Melville, 6 Feb. 1811.
  • 13. SRO GD51/1/198/10/70, 75, 78, 84; Edinburgh Advertiser, 3 Mar., 16 June, 3 July 1818.