Orkney and Shetland


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:

38 in 1790 reduced to 27 in 1811


28 July 1790JOHN BALFOUR19
 Thomas Dundas13
 William Balfour5
 Richard Bempde Johnstone Honyman12

Main Article

Although Sir Thomas Dundas* of Aske, a friend and follower of Fox, had ‘by far the most considerable estate and interest’ in Orkney, his own neglect and ‘a spirit of jealousy among the smaller proprietors’ seriously undermined his position in the late 1780s. The main threats came from the Honyman family of Graemsay whose head, Patrick, had conveyed his estates to his son William, a lawyer under obligations to Henry Dundas; and from the Balfours of Trenabie. Between the Balfours and the Dundases there was bad blood. Sir Thomas’s father had sued William Balfour, his former factor, for alleged arrears in 1780, and after William Balfour’s death in 1786, when he was succeeded by his son John, an East India civil servant, his executors carried the legal battle to Sir Thomas Dundas.1

Late in 1788 Charles Innes, Dundas’s agent, complained that the lord clerk register had been investigating the validity of votes on Dundas’s property. Behind this move he saw the machinations of Henry Dundas who, ‘willing to have a fling at you’, had responded favourably to advances from the Balfours. The following April Lawrence Hill sent William Adam an advance copy of his electoral survey of Orkney and predicted defeat at the next election, a forecast with which Innes was compelled to agree when shown the document. Innes and Malcolm Laing of Strenzie, a young lawyer of strong Foxite sympathies, prepared new qualifications to come on the roll in October 1790 and exerted heavy pressure on four former opponents whose votes were regarded as crucial. Feelers were put out to Balfour’s brother David and to Honyman, but without success, and there was a late, unavailing attempt to strike a bargain with Honyman ‘on any terms’ through Henry Erskine in March 1790. The election preliminaries were enlivened by public accusations of turpitude levelled by the sitting Member, Dundas’s cousin Col. Thomas Dundas of Fingask, against Balfour, who replied in kind and rested his pretensions on the support and encouragement of the many freeholders who had been ‘united in opposing the interest of Sir Thomas Dundas for several years’. Balfour, who received five votes from the Honyman family and their connexions, had a majority of six. Of the four key voters wooed by the Dundas party, two went with them, two against. Dundas of Fingask petitioned against Balfour’s return, 3 Dec. 1790. Five days later a petition was lodged by Innes, Laing, Sir Thomas Dundas and others alleging that infringement of the regulations concerning notification of the election had rendered it null. When the select committee sat, 16 Apr. 1791, Dundas’s petition was dropped and his case argued entirely on the failure to post notices of the election in Shetland, where there were no enrolled freeholders and where the letter of the law in this particular had been disregarded since the Union. The case was dismissed and Dundas’s personal petition deemed ‘frivolous’.2

In 1794 the Dundas party revived the question of establishing a valued rent and thereby a basis for voting qualification in Shetland, but the move foundered on the opposition of David Balfour and William Honyman.3 In the same year Sir Thomas Dundas went over to government with the Portland Whigs, was created Lord Dundas and gave up active management of his Scottish electoral interests. According to a memorandum in the Blair Adam papers prepared for Laing, 5 Nov. 1806, Dundas’s ‘friends in Orkney continued, united as formerly, under Mr [Gilbert] Meason of Moredun, and attached to Mr Fox’.

The Balfours had become increasingly disillusioned as a result of ministerial indifference to the special concerns of Orkney and failure to provide adequate patronage, particularly a reward for their supporter Robert Baikie of Tankerness, who had played a leading role in the challenge to the Dundas hegemony. They also bridled at the widespread assumption that John owed his seat to Henry Dundas, the more so as he had incurred heavy expenses in 1790. In October 1795 David Balfour declined to take any part in the management of the next election and advised his brother to reach a clear understanding with the minister before committing himself to stand again. John Balfour found Dundas evasive and inclined to press Honyman’s claim to a voice in the matter. He stated his grievances; denied being under obligation to anyone; refused to consider a compromise arrangement with Honyman, having rejected a similar proposal in 1790, and offered to stand again if Dundas would support him; but stated that otherwise he would retire altogether from the business. In further exchanges, Dundas avoided any positive commitment and urged Balfour to thrash the matter out with Honyman, whose desire to play more than an ‘auxiliary part’ he clearly considered reasonable. An inconclusive interview took place, with Honyman insisting on his right to nominate the Member at a future election in return for giving renewed support to Balfour, and the latter declining to stand again on any conditional terms. It is significant that a projected analysis of the roll for the next election in the Melville papers, based on the assumption that there would be three candidates, Balfour, Honyman and a son of Lord Dundas, predicted a majority for Honyman and included among his supporters Henry Dundas’s relatives, Robert Dundas of Arniston and Charles Ross of Balnagowan.4

After more indecisive bartering with Honyman early in 1796 John Balfour, concluding that ‘plans were in agitation to which I was not to be a party’, told his friends that he would retire. When he saw Honyman in London on 15 Apr. he pressed him to stand himself, but Honyman apparently told him that Dundas was willing to support him and offered his own support at the next election provided Balfour would ‘engage to support him or his friend at the second general election from this time’. Balfour again declined these terms. Honyman repeated them in writing later in the day, but added that even if Balfour found them unacceptable he was willing to support him at the next election, and Balfour evidently requested time to consult his brothers. Their opinion was that Balfour should insist on a promise from Dundas of payment of any expenses ‘posterior to the return’ or in excess of £500, a discharge of the debt to Robert Baikie and the unreserved exertion of ministerial and Honyman interest to guarantee a clear majority. Balfour put these terms to Honyman, but had received no satisfactory answer by the dissolution, 19 May, when he laid his case and conditions before Dundas. The minister avoided any explicit promise of support and declined to ‘involve myself in engagements public or private which I do not clearly ascertain to myself that I am in the way of fulfilling’. On 31 May Honyman, who had been sounding freeholders of the Meason and Laing party, saw Henry Dundas in Scotland and the following day told David Balfour that either he or his half-brother Robert, a naval officer, would stand, with the backing of government, Laing and Meason. He solicited the Balfours’ active support. While David Balfour, discounting the possibility of successful resistance by the ‘independent interest’, was inclined to support Honyman with a good grace, arguing that ostentatious neutrality might damage their future prospects and would ‘also afford matter of triumph to Lord Dundas’s party’, John flatly refused to do so. Robert Honyman came in unopposed, although Sir John Sinclair* of Ulbster made a late bid for the seat on his own initiative.5

According to the memorandum of 5 Nov. 1806, William Honyman secured from Dundas a promise of the sheriffship of Orkney for Laing, but the minister broke it in 1801, whereupon Honyman promised Laing that he would return him when the Whigs took office, or whenever he expressed a wish to come in. Honyman and Dundas clearly became politically estranged and it is unlikely that they were reconciled during the latter’s lifetime.6 Robert Honyman, who hardly ever attended the House, was returned in absentia in 1802.

When the ‘Talents’ came to power Lord Dundas, back in the Whig fold, planned to revive his electoral interests; and early in 1806 Adam noted that he and Honyman, now Lord Armadale (SCJ), who declared his support for the new ministry, ‘ought to return a Whig Member’ for Orkney. Armadale decided to replace his brother with his eldest son, a soldier, but on the eve of the election of 1806 it became apparent that he and Laing were at loggerheads. By Laing’s account, he had agreed earlier in the year to Armadale’s plan partly because Meason ‘did not then approve of his going into Parliament’ and partly because the Foxite ministers, prompted by Armadale, had it in mind to appoint him a baron of exchequer on the first vacancy. Nothing came of this and on the dissolution Armadale informed Laing that his son was to come in for Orkney and that Laing might, if he wished, be provided with a seat for a district of burghs. On coming to London in early November Laing, rejecting this notion, ‘stated his claim, and his expectation of having had it in his option at least to represent the county’, but acquiesced in the nomination of Col. Honyman on the express condition that his own right to take over the seat, if he decided to do so, should be recognized. The following day, however, Laing received from Meason a letter expressing a strong desire that he should come in and he called on Armadale for ‘the immediate performance’ of his engagement. Armadale would not comply and Adam was called on to arbitrate. Adam was in Scotland at the time and it is not clear that he passed judgment on the matter; but Laing in any case renounced his pretensions on this occasion ‘for the interests and convenience of the friends of administration’, with the proviso that

I hereby expressly reserve to myself, my claim upon Lord Armadale ... which it is my determination to bring forward when the election is over, and to require his lordship to get his son to resign in my favour.7

In March 1807 James Loch told Adam that Armadale was ‘at last completely disgraced’, having failed to attend a meeting with Laing and Lauderdale to settle their differences; but at the dissolution, Lauderdale assured Adam that he had ‘written to Lord Armadale in such a way that I have not a doubt of his supporting Laing’, and Armadale duly did so. There was no resistance, but on I Aug. 1807 John Balfour’s nephew William who, with his uncle living mainly in England, was now the member of the family with his ear closest to the ground in Orkney, expressed regret that John had not offered himself, as ‘we shall never have so good an opportunity of crushing these reptiles (the Laings and Honymans) as on this occasion’. With Laing having ‘a whole swarm of young voters growing up under his charge’, he saw no other hope of breaking the monopoly than the chance that Laing’s reliance on his own strength might lead him to set Armadale at defiance.8

The question of the Shetland franchise was revived in 1809 by the Dundas interest and referred to a select committee of the Commons. Charles Lawrence Dundas* and Lawrence Dundas* framed and introduced a bill to establish a valued rent in the islands, 21 Mar., but the Orkney freeholders counter-petitioned and the measure foundered on its second reading, 20 Apr. 1809.9

The collapse of Laing’s health put him out of the running in 1812. Early in the year it was rumoured that Armadale’s son Richard would stand at the next election with Laing’s support. John Balfour, whose brother calculated that they could count at most on ten of the 26 enrolled votes, expressed a half-hearted willingness to stand if success was certain, and William Balfour was enjoined to put out discreet feelers to the favourable and wavering freeholders, ‘as by holding out the possibility of a rallying point our friends may be kept more together’. Richard Honyman came forward and William Balfour, encouraged by indications that some of Laing’s friends were reluctant to support the Armadale interest, prepared to stand himself, subject to the approval of his uncles. He also entered into negotiations with a group of Lord Dundas’s followers with a view to combining the two interests to back a locum tenens, either himself or Alexander Graeme of Graemeshall, to hold the seat until one of Lord Dundas’s sons came on to the roll. John Balfour vetoed the scheme and David strongly advised William not to get involved. William, to the displeasure of his uncles, nevertheless went to a poll, but Honyman received eight of the 12 votes cast. Balfour and the Baikie family pinned great hopes on the last-minute discovery that Honyman had never been enfeoffed in the lands on which his qualification rested. A protest was accordingly lodged, but legal opinion deemed the objection too insubstantial to warrant further proceedings.10

In February 1818 William Balfour, the Baikies and the Traills of Hobister approached Lord Dundas with a proposal to combine their interests to overthrow Armadale’s hegemony. The offer was accepted, Laing’s concurrence secured and an alternating system of nomination, covering in the first instance the next two general elections, was agreed on. In 1818 the new coalition gave Dundas’s son a comfortable victory over Honyman.11

Author: David R. Fisher


  • 1. Pol. State of Scotland 1788, pp. 243-6; Orkney Co. Lib. Balfour mss 9/1.
  • 2. N. Riding RO, Zetland mss ZNK X2/1/715, 721, 726, 731, 732, 914, 923, 933, 937, 943, 979; Ginter, Whig Organization, 51, 90; London Chron. 30 June, 7 July 1790; Pol. State of Scotland 1790, pp. 142-4; CJ, xlvi. 28, 42, 411-12, 447; S. Fraser, Controverted Elections, i. 368-416.
  • 3. P. N. S. Graeme, ‘Parl. Rep. Orkney and Shetland’, Orkney Misc. i. (1953), 74; Zetland mss X2/1/1233.
  • 4. Balfour mss 24/8, D. to J. Balfour 12 Oct., Dundas to same, 21 Oct. 1795, Balfour to Dundas, 22 Apr. 1796; SRO GD51/1/198/19/3-5.
  • 5. Balfour mss 24/8, Honyman to Balfour, 15 Apr., Balfour to Dundas, 22 Apr., 19 May, reply 20 May, D. to J. Balfour, 2, 13 June; 24/9, T. to J. Balfour, 26 Apr., D. to J. Balfour, 24, 31 May 1796; PRO 30/8/178, f. 206.
  • 6. SRO GD51/9/237; Prince of Wales Corresp. v. 2034.
  • 7. Fitzwilliam mss, Dundas to Fitzwilliam, 5 Feb.; Add. 51469, f. 38; Fortescue mss, Armadale to Grenville, 15 Apr., 5 Nov.; Blair Adam mss, memo for Laing, 5 Nov., Laing to Adam, 9 Nov. 1806.
  • 8. Blair Adam mss, Loch to Adam, 31 Mar., Lauderdale to same, Tues. [Apr.]; Fortescue mss, Armadale to Grenville, 1 May 1807; Balfour mss 27/12.
  • 9. CJ, lxiv. 49-50, 141, 147, 157, 219-20, 222, 225, 228; Balfour mss 24/1, Laing to D. Balfour, 4 Nov., reply 9 Nov.; 27/10, D. Balfour to A. Mundell, 22 Mar. 1809.
  • 10. Balfour mss 5/3, memo 11 Nov.; 7/9, D. to W. Balfour, 15 Feb., 23, [c.26] Oct. 1812, 24 Feb. 1813, R. Baikie to same, 24 Oct., J. Baikie to same, 5 Nov.; Edinburgh Advertiser, 20 Oct., 20 Nov. 1812.
  • 11. Balfour mss 26/1, W. to J. Balfour, 20 Apr. 1818.