Inverness Burghs


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

Background Information

Fortrose, Ross-shire (1790, 1807); Inverness (1796, 1812); Nairn (1802, 1818); Forres, Elginshire (1806)


 Sir Hector Munro2
26 Dec. 1803 GEORGE CUMMING vice Cumming Gordon, vacated his seat 
 George Cumming2
4 Nov. 1811 CHARLES GRANT II vice Baillie, deceased 
19 Jan. 1814 GRANT re-elected after appointment to office 
21 Apr. 1814 GRANT re-elected after vacating his seat 

Main Article

Sir Hector Munro of Novar, a rich nabob, had dominated and represented the district since 1768. The following anecdote was related after his death:

Baillie Mackenzie told Sir Hector that the magistrates of Fortrose were laughed at ... for having so little to say in the disposal of the borough, for that he kept a majority of the council independent of them. To which Sir Hector answered that he would be sorry that they were made the subject of jest and mirth ... but if such were the case it certainly was more agreeable to him ... than that he should expose himself to be laughed at.1

His supremacy derived largely from his wealth, which gave him command of Fortrose and Inverness, both relatively open, and had been perpetuated by the discord among his potential rivals. Francis Humberston Mackenzie* (later Lord Seaforth), a Whig, claimed a ‘natural’ interest in Fortrose. Sir James Grant* of Castle Grant, his cousin the 7th Earl of Findlater, to whom he stood heir, and his brother-in-law Alexander Penrose Cumming Gordon of Altyre were well placed between them to dominate the two eastern burghs of Forres and Nairn.

In 1788 Mackenzie told William Adam that Grant had gained control of Nairn, even though ‘Rose of the Treasury had promised (and indeed bargained for) the dominion’ of the burgh to Munro. He assumed that Henry Dundas, who had gone to considerable lengths to advance the electoral interests of the Grants as part of his scheme to secure the north east of Scotland for government at the next general election, had decided to sacrifice the nabob to provide ‘an additional sop’ to Grant, but saw little encouragement in the situation for the Whigs:

Fortrose ... is strong and invulnerable if the magistracy is legal but ... I have ... opinion clear against the legality ... Munro has not an inch of property there and is afraid to trust the townsmen. I have property and friends there who would join in a petition but I do not choose to go to any expense. Money and management may do all things at Inverness but Sir James Grant’s apostasy is the devil and makes it not worth my while to try.

Adam nevertheless asked Findlater who, having made terms with Dundas, had already told him that he would lose his current seat for Elgin Burghs at the next election, whether he might after all retain it if he (Adam) could help to secure Grant’s return for the Inverness district. Findlater admitted that ‘the council of Nairn as well as that of Forres are disposed to follow myself and Sir James Grant’, but insisted that they were ‘bound to support Sir Hector Munro or whoever else may be more acceptable to Mr Dundas’. Munro was unchallenged in 1790. At Michaelmas that year Mackenzie told Adam that he was about to ‘give the shove’ to his attack on Fortrose, but his exertions seem to have had little effect, and Munro was re-elected without opposition in 1796.2

Shortly afterwards Cumming Gordon evidently spent some £6,000 on property in Nairn: ‘not a bad speculation’, he wrote, ‘when it’s recollected that by the step, we secure a seat in Parliament for 14 years, and by management may form a lasting connection with another of the burghs’. In 1802, when Nairn had the return, he and Grant mounted an effective challenge to Munro, with the approval of Dundas, who may have considered that the old nabob, a poor attender, had outlived his usefulness. Cumming Gordon was elected delegate for Nairn and returned himself with its casting vote. Munro lodged a protest and presented a petition, in the preparation of which Whig activists were involved, but when the select committee met he failed to produce any evidence to support his case.3

Munro died early in 1806. His interest in Inverness disintegrated, but his brother and successor Sir Alexander, a former consul at Madrid and now a commissioner of customs, continued to exercise some influence in Fortrose, of which he was provost. Cumming Gordon, who handed over the seat to his younger brother George in 1803, was created a baronet in 1804. He died shortly after Munro and was succeeded by his son Sir William. Sir James Grant evidently obtained George Cumming’s agreement to step down for his son Francis William Grant at the next general election, when Forres would have the casting vote. In July 1806 the ‘Talents’ contemplated asking Sir James to give the seat to John Peter Grant* of Rothiemurchus, a rising Whig lawyer, if Francis Grant could be brought in for Elginshire by buying off the incumbent, James Brodie, but Brodie refused to surrender the seat on the terms proposed. On the dissolution Seaforth expressed to Earl Spencer a half-hearted willingness to contribute towards an attack on Inverness and Fortrose on behalf of a ministerialist, but Spencer thought that, barring ‘unforeseen circumstances’, the Grants were impregnable, although he did refer Seaforth to Adam for further discussion of the matter. Seaforth eventually decided ‘to be quiet, as there was no prospect of doing good and showing my play might have been bad in future’. When Rothiemurchus himself approached Sir James Grant he found him professedly ‘disposed to promote my views’ if his son could be seated for Elginshire, though he claimed to be hampered regarding the burghs ‘by an expression to Cumming’ that ‘he would have preferred him to any but his own son and therefore thinks he cannot transfer them to me without Cumming’s approbation’. Rothiemurchus, who argued that Cumming could have no say in the disposal of the burghs after voluntarily agreeing to surrender them, wanted a renewed attempt to move Brodie, but Brodie stood firm. Finally, Adam asked Sir James Grant to return Rothiemurchus on the understanding that, as soon as Brodie was provided for, the seat would be handed over to his son. Sir James rejected the proposal and Francis Grant came in without opposition.4

In the last months of 1806 Evan Baillie* of Dochfour, Inverness, the wealthy head of a Bristol-based West Indian trading house, made a bargain with Sir Alexander Munro for the support of Fortrose at the next general election, when that burgh would have the return. Baillie’s nephew James Grant of Bught, his partner in local hemp and thread manufacturing concerns, was now provost of Inverness, and at the dissolution of 1807 they promoted the candidature of Baillie’s son Peter, who had visited the area the previous winter. Lord Melville, who seems to have been erroneously informed that Sir James Grant still had the final say in Inverness, directed that neither Baillie nor Rothiemurchus was to be encouraged. He wanted the seat to go to the new lord advocate, Archibald Campbell Colquhoun*, or to George Cumming, if Colquhoun could be placed elsewhere. Pressure was put on Bught to accommodate Colquhoun, but he refused to do so. Baillie’s path was still not clear. Bught considered Sir Alexander Munro to be a ‘vapouring character’ who ‘builds too much on supposed influence where in fact he has little’ and was not surprised, though disappointed, to learn from Baillie that Munro was making late difficulties about the terms of his support:

I really thought that Sir Alex, doubtful as his influence is, had been secured, but his avarice seems exceedingly foolish, for ... if he does not agree to your terms, his borough is not worth a sixpence to him, for we shall never unite with it but to support you, and it can form no union with either of the other boroughs in the least beneficial to him.

At the same time Francis Grant renewed his pretensions. Bught told Baillie that if Munro proved ‘impracticable’ Inverness council would feel obliged to support Grant; but the Baillies managed to satisfy Sir Alexander’s demands and Bught sent a rebuff to Grant, who was subsequently provided with the Elginshire seat in a deal with Brodie negotiated by Melville. Three days before the election, Bught reported that Baillie might face an opposition from a candidate with the backing of Forres and Nairn. He noted that Sir James Grant was sore at the rejection of Colquhoun and his son, but blamed him for having ‘committed himself’ regarding Inverness ‘with ministry, without the least reason’. He still expected the eastern proprietors to ‘make a merit of necessity and join us’, but in the event George Cumming stood against Baillie. The general belief was that responsibility for the disturbance lay with Sir Alexander Cumming Gordon’s widow, who had got her brother Sir James Grant to compel Francis Grant, the delegate for Forres, to join with Sir Archibald Dunbar of Northfield, the delegate for Nairn, in support of Cumming, the Grants being bound by ‘a mutual and previous engagement’ to vote for ‘any representative the Altyre family may name’. Baillie, who paid out a ‘pretty large sum’ for entertainments, was returned by the casting vote of Fortrose.5

Soon after the election Sir Alexander Munro ‘unequivocally transferred the borough of Fortrose’ to Baillie, who was elected to the council at Michaelmas 1807, when Sir Alexander was replaced as provost by Duncan Munro of Culcairn. Yet Bught, who took effective counter-measures against an attempted rebellion in Inverness at their council election, considered his cousin’s hold on Fortrose to be very precarious, and feared that if Sir Alexander died before Michaelmas 1808 the town was ‘in a fair way of getting into other hands’. Munro was to survive until August 1810, but Bught remained unhappy with the state of affairs in Fortrose where, when acting on Baillie’s behalf at the council elections of 1809, he had trouble with a group of resident magistrates. He warned Baillie, whom he continually but unsuccessfully pressed to put in a personal appearance at Fortrose, that he would need ‘to use all your vigilance to prevent the residing councillors getting the command of a majority, for depend upon it if they do they will disappoint you’. In 1810, when Baillie’s vote for parliamentary reform, 21 May, caused some alarm in the councils of both Inverness and Fortrose, Bught, who shared these misgivings, urged him to authorize strong measures at the Fortrose Michaelmas elections; but the outcome was a severe disappointment, as Bught reported to his cousin a few weeks later:

I understand there was a meeting of the magistrates ... since I was there, but what its object was ... I have not been able to learn ... I have lost all confidence in them and do not wish to have much intercourse with them, as I cannot help thinking they have used you and your friends very ill, at the same time that I must acknowledge I foresaw the evil and pressed the prevention of it ... I have been accused here of not having made you and your father fully acquainted with the risk you ran, which however I think lightly of, as I really believe that on that subject you might well think I had gone too far. Some personal attentions by you to a few of the people of the town with your own presence would have unquestionably prevented the disappointment.6

Sir James Grant died early in 1811 and management of the family’s affairs passed to Francis Grant. At about the same time Baillie became critically ill and Charles Grant of Waternish, the East India director and Member for Inverness-shire, began to discuss with Bught the possibility of procuring the seat for his eldest son and namesake in the event of his death. Always an infinitely cautious man and acutely sensitive about his humble origins in Inverness-shire, he proceeded circumspectly, being anxious not to alienate Castle Grant and unsure of the disposition of Sir William Cumming Gordon, who was thought to have his own parliamentary ambitions. He was aware, also, that Rothiemurchus, the Baillies and Seaforth might assert claims which, though less strong than those of the eastern proprietors, would have to be considered. Grant was about to make discreet soundings in Fortrose when Baillie rallied and the project was set aside. When Baillie’s health finally collapsed in the summer, Grant made a tentative approach to Cumming Gordon, resting his claim to support on the premise that

the two eastern boroughs could not of themselves command the election. It seemed also certain that the patrons of those boroughs could influence neither Inverness nor Fortrose. Upon these premises the best part those gentlemen had to act was to throw their weight into a scale not alien but friendly to them, and which would not incline to disturb their choice when the casting vote came to be in their hands.

Although Cumming Gordon was willing to come to an arrangement, Francis Grant would not discuss the matter, but in August 1811 Cumming Gordon persuaded him to agree to ‘the general principle’ of young Charles Grant’s standing with their support. After Baillie’s death, 1 Sept. 1811, they both submitted to the elder Grant’s insistence that, in view of the proximity of a dissolution, his son should be supported also at the next general election, with absolutely no conditions. Grant’s policy of keeping Inverness independently committed to his son and avoiding a crude assault on Fortrose, which might have thrown the district into turmoil, had paid off. Although Seaforth, who had designs on the seat for a relative, claimed in October to have taken Fortrose, he was powerless to prevent Grant’s return at the by-election and again in 1812.7

In 1818, when the casting vote lay with Nairn, the initiative passed back to the eastern proprietors and Francis Grant agreed to support Cumming Gordon’s nominee in return for a quid pro quo at the following general election. Charles Grant, who stepped down from the county seat for his son, bowed to the inevitable, but was careful to maintain his interest in Inverness and Fortrose and his good relations with Castle Grant. It was generally expected that Cumming Gordon himself would come in, but in the event it was his uncle George, the former Member, who did so.8

Meanwhile, the movement for Scottish burgh reform had had an impact in Inverness where, after the Michaelmas elections of 1817, a number of the guild-brethren, led by one James Lyon, a member of the council, petitioned the provost for an end to council self-election. When rebuffed, they began to campaign for an entire reform of the constitution and the introduction of poll elections and took the matter to the court of session, aiming to have the burgh disfranchised on the grounds of technical irregularities in the 1817 council election. The court of session referred the case for a jury trial, and when Lyon won the argument to have it heard in Edinburgh rather than in Inverness the council decided to abandon their defence in order to avoid the expense. Inverness was accordingly pronounced disfranchised in December 1818, but on the petition of the former council the court of session vested interim management of the town in them. The dispute was eventually settled by a Privy Council warrant of August 1822 authorizing the election of a new council according to the forms of the old constitution of the burgh.9

Author: David R. Fisher


  • 1. Bristol Univ. Lib. Pinney mss, Grant to Baillie, 28 Sept. 1809.
  • 2. Blair Adam mss, Mackenzie to Adam, 15 Oct., 3 Nov. 1788, 17 Sept. [1790], Adam to Findlater [Oct.], reply 16 Dec. 1788.
  • 3. NLS mss 1053, ff. 98-102; NLS, Gordon Cumming mss, box 77/4192; Edinburgh Advertiser, 13-17 Aug.; Blair Adam mss, Fraser to Adam, 4 Aug., Mackintosh to same, 5 Aug. 1802; CJ, lviii. 25, 203, 209; R. H. Peckwell, Controverted Elections, i. 109.
  • 4. Spencer mss, memo, 16 July, Seaforth to Spencer, 21 Oct., reply 22 Oct.; Blair Adam mss, J. P. Grant to Gillies, 23 Oct., 9 Nov.; Armadale to Adam, 30 Oct., Adam to Sir J. Grant, 1 Nov.; Fortescue mss, Seaforth to Carysfort, 25 Dec. 1806.
  • 5. NLS, Melville mss (Acc. 6409), Melville to Saunders Dundas, 1 May; Pinney mss, Bught to Baillie, 3 May, 13 July, John Grant to same, 27 May, Gordon to same, 14 July; SRO GD23/6/364, Bught to F. Grant, 4 May, to E. Baillie, 27 May; 23/6/432, A. Grant to Bught, 2 May 1807; GD51/1/198/11/2; Pol. State of Scotland 1811, p. 301.
  • 6. Pinney mss, Bught to Baillie, 21 July, 26 Sept., 18 Oct. 1807, 14 Jan., 1, 8 Apr. 1808, 12, 28 Sept. 1809, 16 Aug., 16 Oct. 1810, Fowler to same, 4 Oct. 1807, 10 Sept. 1809.
  • 7. SRO GD23/6/745, C. Grant I to Bught, 20, 22 Feb., 29 May, 17, 20 July, 16 Aug., 9, 16, 17, 26 Sept., 7 Oct.; Blair Adam mss, Seaforth to Adam, 3 Oct. 1811.
  • 8. SRO GD23/6/745, C. Grant I to Bught, 16 May; Edinburgh Advertiser, 30 June, 7 July 1818; St. Andrews Univ. Lib. Melville mss 4614.
  • 9. J. Barron, Northern Highlands in 19th Cent. i. 126, 129-30, 138-9, 143-4, 148-9, 157-8; SRO GD51/5/91/1, 2; PP (1836), xxiii. 207, 220.