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:

128 in 1790, 76 in 1811, 144 in 1819


 Alexander Cuninghame21
 Archibald Speirs17
2 May 1810 ARCHIBALD SPEIRS vice McDowall, deceased31
 Boyd Alexander15
 Archibald Campbell8
 Boyd Alexander17
4 July 1818JOHN MAXWELL 

Main Article

The leading interest was that of Sir Michael Stewart of Blackhall, ‘the head of one of those considerable Whig families in the county, which had made uncommon exertions in the cause of opposition’, combined with that of his heir John Shaw Stewart. They were estimated to control 45 votes out of 114, with William McDowall of Castle Semple, a friend of Henry Dundas and of Pitt’s administration, in second place, commanding 26 votes.1 John Shaw Stewart and McDowall had shared the representation by pact from 1780 to 1786, to keep out John Craufurd, a former Member, or any other contender, but in 1786 McDowall abrogated their agreement and was defeated when he attempted to retain the seat for the duration of the Parliament. The figures were 63 to 44.

McDowall gave up the contest for the county when he aspired to a seat for Glasgow Burghs in 1790, and, by his own account to Pitt, was encouraged to promote a contest in Renfrewshire by the unwillingness of some fictitious freeholders, the validity of whose votes had been contradicted by the lord chancellor on appeal from the court of session in April 1790, to take the oath. He sponsored the candidature of his brother-in-law, Cuninghame of Craigends. Henry Dundas then urged on McDowall the claims of young William Blair of Blair, a political friend who was anxious for a taste of Parliament. If ignored, Blair would probably join Shaw Stewart and dish Cuninghame, to whom Shaw Stewart would prefer Blair, ‘if better cannot be’; if McDowall came to terms with Blair, Cuninghame might sit for three years and Blair for the rest of the Parliament, promising to join forces with McDowall at the next general election. But Blair did not press his claims, nor support Shaw Stewart, and McDowall pursued his own plan. Shaw Stewart defeated Cuninghame by one vote only. McDowall claimed that if Cuninghame had declared ‘a fortnight sooner’ he would have been returned; but Shaw Stewart, who was sanguine, did not summon his distant friends. McDowall consoled himself with the certainty ‘of carrying the county ... at the next election’. Cuninghame having died soon after his defeat, McDowall’s prospective candidate was his own brother Hay, then in India.2

Shaw Stewart’s politics were compromised by his giving up active opposition with the Portland Whigs, and in 1796 ‘the strength of opposition was for a time dissolved, and the county was secured in the interest of government’. McDowall, who had become lord lieutenant in 1794, was expected to stand, but he held on to Glasgow and put up Boyd Alexander of Southbar, a nabob who was connected by marriage with Shaw Stewart. To quote McDowall, ‘Mr Alexander was returned unanimously, the opposite interest having found it in vain to stand the contest’.3 In 1802 Alexander, contesting Glasgow, changed places with McDowall, who was unopposed.4

In July 1806 Archibald Speirs of Elderslie, son-in-law of Lord Dundas, one of the leading Scottish Whigs, announced his candidature. McDowall, whose business interests were in disarray, at once scotched a rumour that he was not standing and, fortified by a private pledge of support from the lord advocate Erskine, protested to the prime minister Lord Grenville that Speirs, who was supported by Sir John Shaw Stewart and Sir John Maxwell of Pollok, claimed ‘the good wishes and support of the present administration’. He added:

This opposition is as unexpected as I am convinced it will be unsuccessful from my numerous friends and connections and from the repeated marks of confidence and approbation with which I have been honoured as lord lieutenant and representative of that county.5

Having obtained from McDowall an assurance that he was well disposed to government, Grenville gave no countenance to Speirs, but Speirs continued to exert himself and waxed indignant at the attention paid to his opponent, a mere ‘proselyte’. On 24 Nov. 1806, McDowall informed Grenville:

Assertions by the friends and agents of Mr Speirs that he had the good wishes of the present administration and the future patronage of the county confirmed by the office of tidesurveyor at Greenock being at his disposal and offered to more than one person in the event of voting for him, were only to be counteracted by that steady attachment and sincere friendship, of which I have experienced so many proofs on the present occasion. In a roll of 79 electors, Mr Speirs could not have had the support of above 16 freeholders, and he lately wrote a polite letter informing me that he declined any further contest at the ensuing election.6

In December 1806 there was a rumour that McDowall meant to resign his seat and Speirs’s wife wrote to Earl Fitzwilliam to stake her husband’s claim, ‘as he knows there will be other applications for ministerial support’. She added:

It will be of very great consequence to Mr Speirs and his friends to know positively whether he is to obtain this support or not for if it is given to another, it will be useless for them to be at any further expense, which the nature of the votes in Scotland always creates, at the first making — and particularly as from the enclosed, this seems to be Sir John Stewart’s opinion.7

From this it appeared that Shaw Stewart was backing Speirs. There was, however, no vacancy and McDowall was counted a friend of government in February 1807.8 When in May 1807 Speirs again offered, Lord Lauderdale reported to Lord Grenville that McDowall had complained of it, and thought him justified ‘considering how steadily he has acted with us’, and, he added, ‘it is foolish as it cannot succeed’. He thought Fitzwilliam might dissuade Speirs. William Adam, however, regarded McDowall as having ‘gone over’ to the Portland administration. In any case, he easily defeated Speirs, and although Adam thought there was ‘good ground of petitioning against him’ no action was taken.9

The unexpected death of McDowall in 1810, following the sale of the Castle Semple estate, ‘left the county open to a new attempt on the part of the opposite interest, which had been concerted and was known to have been in operation for some time before’. Shaw Stewart, having discovered that he could create freehold qualifications in life-rent on his Ardgowan estate ‘at a trifling expense’, made an ‘arrangement’ with Speirs and Sir John Maxwell, his fellow oppositionists, ‘to secure the county in their own families in time to come’, a member of each family to be returned in rotation. Speirs was the first to benefit from this ‘treaty’.10 He was opposed by Boyd Alexander, who attempted to rally McDowall’s friends in support of ‘the government or minister whoever he was’, and by Archibald Campbell of Blythswood, who had contested Glasgow Burghs against Alexander in 1806 and had the backing of the Dundas family and of Perceval’s administration.11 They got nowhere, as Campbell would not agree to a pact proposed by Alexander on the day of the election to unite their forces. They subsequently contested Shaw Stewart’s creation of life-renters, ‘but they lost the question in the court of session by the narrowest majority, and on appeal to the House of Lords, the judgement of the court below was unexpectedly affirmed’.12 Consequently when Boyd Alexander, with Lord Melville’s concurrence but not his active co-operation as to patronage, again challenged Speirs in 1812, he was little stronger than before. He again failed to secure Campbell’s support, although Campbell was looking elsewhere for a seat and Alexander offered to make way for him if he preferred his chances at Renfrew to Glasgow Burghs.13

On the death of Shaw Stewart before the election of 1812, his heir Stewart Nicolson (subsequently Sir Michael Shaw Stewart) ‘entered into all the views of his predecessor with respect to the representation of the county; and in token of his determination he created an additional number of life-rent qualifications over the estate of Ardgowan’. In 1813 Boyd Alexander began a campaign to recapture the county from the Whig triumvirate, relying on ‘the ordinary patronage and support of government’, for which he appealed to Lord Liverpool, emphasizing that he was a determined friend to administrations.14 He obtained the assurance of this from William Dundas and subsequently from Lord Melville. During the five years before the next election, Alexander teased the junto by contesting their votes in the courts, bearing the expenses himself against their pooled resources. The failure of an appeal for Campbell of Blythswood’s co-operation on 23 Oct. 1816, which opened the possibility of Campbell’s coalescing with the enemy; of the appeal to the Lords to confirm Lord Eglintoun’s nine votes in 1817; of the bid to secure seven new ones from Lord Glasgow, and of the further appeal against Ardgowan life-renters in June 1818 on the eve of the election, marred Alexander’s prospects. He declined a contest against John Maxwell of Pollok, Sir John’s heir and nominee according to the Whig agreement. He promised to contest the next vacancy, however, and his friends consoled themselves by publicly thanking him for restoring ‘the real and independent electors to their just influence in the choice of a representative’. The contest was expected to be a close one, as the Whigs had 73 votes to Alexander’s 71 in March 1819, and he believed that the support of Lord Glasgow, who could create a dozen votes (but was related to Maxwell) and of Miss Hamilton, who had created ten and needed only the bait of a baronetcy for her brother-in-law to prevent her selling out to the Duke of Hamilton, would win him the day.15 Alexander’s ambition came to nothing and the Whig junto maintained their supremacy until 1837.

Author: R. G. Thorne


  • 1. Pol. State of Scotland 1788, pp. 278-93; Ginter, Whig Organization, 21; NLS mss 2, f. 21, ‘Memo on the State of Parties in the County of Renfrew, 31 Mar. 1819.’
  • 2. Edinburgh Advertiser, 23-27 Apr., 23-27 July; SRO GD237/139, Dundas to McDowall, 23, 29 June, 5, 7, 12 July 1790; PRO 30/8/154, ff. 154, 156; Ginter, 45, 90, 198.
  • 3. NLS mss 2, f. 21; Edinburgh Advertiser, 22-25 Mar.; True Briton, 23 May 1796; Pol. State of Scotland 1788, p. 289.
  • 4. Argyll mss, McDowall to Argyll, 21 June; Edinburgh Advertiser, 23-27 July 1802.
  • 5. Edinburgh Advertiser, 8-11, 18-22 July; Fortescue mss, McDowall to Grenville, 13, 30 July, reply 31 July 1806; N. Riding RO, Zetland mss ZNK X21/1/1509, 1523, 1524, 1530, 1549.
  • 6. Fortescue mss, McDowall to Grenville, 24 Nov. 1806.
  • 7. Fitzwilliam mss, box 70, Mrs Speirs to Fitzwilliam, 17 Dec. 1806.
  • 8. Grey mss, Adam to Howick, 7 Feb. 1807.
  • 9. Fortescue mss, Lauderdale to Grenville, Thurs. [May], Adam to same, 30 May; Add. 51585, Tierney to Holland [May]; Edinburgh Advertiser, 1-5 May, 29 May-2 June 1807.
  • 10. NLS mss 2, f. 21; Fortescue mss, Cuninghame to Grenville, 13 Aug. 1812.
  • 11. NLS mss 1, ff. 186, 188, 190, 193, 196, 198, 199, 200, 250.
  • 12. NLS mss 2, f. 21.
  • 13. Edinburgh Advertiser, 15 May, 13, 30 Oct., 3 Nov. 1812; Brougham mss 34961; SRO GD51/1/198/22/2, 3, 5, 6; 51/1/198/28/18; 51/5/364/17; NLS mss 1054, ff. 120, 122, 124, 125, 127, 129, 134.
  • 14. Add. 38253, ff. 47, 161.
  • 15. NLS mss 2, ff. 19, 21; 9, f. 237; SRO GD51/1/198/22/7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14; The Late Elections (1818), 457; Edinburgh Advertiser, 28 July 1818.