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:

59 in 1790 rising to 97 in 1811


6 July 1790SIR THOMAS DUNDAS, Bt.28
 Sir Alexander Campbell, Bt.22
10 Nov. 1794 ROBERT GRAHAM vice Dundas, called to the Upper House 
13 Jan. 1802 HON. CHARLES ELPHINSTONE FLEEMING vice Elphinstone (Baron Keith [I]), called to the Upper House 
 Sir Robert Abercromby26
 Michael Stewart Nicholson24

Main Article

Sir Thomas Dundas of Kerse, Member since 1768, whom his fellow Whigs believed to be ‘beloved by men of all parties’, had a ‘great estate and great personal interest’. He had not faced a contest since 1774: although James, Marquess of Graham (who in September 1790 succeeded his father as 3rd Duke of Montrose) as representative of a ‘very considerable interest’ on the ministerial side, had seemed likely to oppose Sir Thomas in 1784, he had desisted on John Francis Erskine of Mar’s declaring for Sir Thomas, or so Erskine claimed.1 In 1788 when there were 76 voters on the roll, and a threat of Sir Archibald Edmonstone* to bring forward 14 claimants to oppose him had come to nothing, Sir Thomas was thought safe.

Henry Du ndas informed Pitt on 11 Aug. 1788 that Sir Thomas was cultivating his constituency and that it would take a concerted effort—based on an alliance between Lord Graham and the Duke of Argyll, who retained some interest in the county—‘to relieve us of Sir Thomas Dundas in Stirlingshire’, but that if political considerations were to override personal ones, he was prepared to go all out against Sir Thomas. The latter’s commitment to the Whig opposition on the Regency made this inevitable. He was informed by William Morehead of Herbertshire, convener of the county, 2 Jan. 1789: ‘I am sorry to find that almost everywhere in this county Mr Pitt’s popularity has the ascendancy over that of Mr Fox, so that I really fear we may be defeated’. This was in reference to the bid to muster a ministerial party in Stirlingshire through county meetings. On 9 Jan. 1789 their address of thanks to Pitt was defeated by 40 votes to 16: their ringleaders were reportedly Sir Michael Bruce of Stenhouse and his eldest son Col. Andrew Bruce, Lord Fincastle (representing his father Lord Dunmore) and Robert Belsches of Greenyards. Five representatives of this junto met at Carron Hill to renew the struggle, but on 14 Feb. Sir Thomas Dundas’s friends, by way of riposte, carried a vote of thanks to him by 42 to 18 out of 68 present. His opponents proceeded to enlist Lord Graham’s support, as he might make at least 11 votes. On 28 Mar. 1789 his friends again carried a vote of confidence in Sir Thomas, after his opponents had called an unexpected meeting. There was no division, but Charles Innes, acting for him, informed Sir Thomas that it would have been carried by 23 votes to 16. This was alarming, and by 17 Apr. the Member’s friends considered that the 52 effective votes would divide evenly, while 12 claimants created by Sir Archibald Edmonstone of Duntreath would decide the issue, against Sir Thomas.2 He relaxed his canvass that autumn, believing there would be no opposition, but resumed it when Robert Belsches secured the derolment of 15 of his friends at Michaelmas and the enrolment of eight others. By March 1790 his ministerialist opponent had emerged in the person of Sir Alexander Campbell, 4th Bt., of Ardkinglas, whose father Sir James he had defeated in 1774 and whose enrolment Belsches had failed to secure. On 23 Mar. 1790 Henry Erskine informed Sir Thomas that everything now depended ‘on the consciences of Sir Archibald Edmonstone’s nominal voters’, and Lawrence Hill, in his survey, agreed; except that the decision of the House of Lords against life-renters before the election made it more unlikely that the Edmonstone squad would take the trust oath. So it proved, for at the election, with the electorate reduced to 62, Dundas, who carried his praeses by only one vote, defeated Campbell by six votes, helped apparently by nine abstentions.3 Campbell’s enrolment was again rejected, together with that of other claimants on his behalf, several of them on the Edmonstone interest.

Campbell, egged on by Henry Dundas, petitioned against the return, 1 Dec. 1790, upset some of Sir Thomas’s votes at the court of session and established some of his own, only to see others successfully challenged by the other side, for whom Henry Erskine* was advocate. On 12 Feb. 1791 the court’s decisions brought the votes to an equality, thereby ensuring Dundas’s return by his casting vote: but much heat was generated by Lord Dreghorn’s ‘fine spun crotchets’ in deciding two similar cases differently: ‘The bench and the bar were at daggers drawn the whole debate’. Appeals were launched and there was talk of a legal loophole to disfranchise Sir Thomas Dundas ‘all over Scotland’ under an Act of 1695 governing the application of entail, but by 10 Mar. the appeals were defeated by 6 votes to 4, and on 14 Mar., after the committee of the House had decided, unlike the court of session, that the vote of Sir Archibald Edmonstone’s son Charles was bad and likewise that of his son George, the petitioner ceded victory to Sir Thomas Dundas. Campbell never forgave his cousin James Campbell, heir in tail to his estate, for siding with Dundas, after he had offered to cancel a debt of £2,500 for his support.4

This Whig triumph was offset by Sir Thomas Dundas’s becoming an alarmist when war with revolutionary France broke out, and accepting a peerage in 1794, whereupon another political convert, Robert Graham of Gartmore, connected with the Duke of Montrose (now lord lieutenant) and a former supporter of Sir Thomas, stepped into his shoes unopposed. This revenge of Henry Dundas’s, if such it was, proved short lived. By August 1795, Graham had already made it clear that he would not offer again. Sir George Keith Elphinstone, uncle of John, 12th Baron Elphinstone, came forward to replace him, at the instigation of his brother William Fullerton Elphinstone, with the support of the Duke of Montrose and the concurrence of Henry Dundas. Thanks to the latter’s encouragement of his far-flung naval career he was returned in absentia and seldom in England that Parliament. This offset any opposition views attributable to his friendship with the Prince of Wales, his connexion by marriage with William Adam*, and the concurrence of the former Sir Thomas Dundas, whose interest now went into abeyance. As it was, a token opposition to Elphinstone after his unanimous return was put up by Robert Belsches of Greenyards, whose petition against Elphinstone’s return on the grounds that his qualification was invalid was frustrated by his own demise.5

In the autumn of 1801 it was anticipated that Elphinstone would obtain a British peerage and his family were at loggerheads. Elphinstone’s brother William Fullerton Elphinstone thought they should sponsor his fellow nabob Patrick Craufurd Bruce*, who flatteringly offered to give way to Fullerton Elphinstone. Although Bruce hovered about expectantly, the dowager Lady Elphinstone, shortly before she died, contrived to secure the Duke of Montrose’s support for her second son, Capt. Charles Elphinstone Fleeming, and as Montrose was a member of Addington’s government he was the ministerialist candidate. A challenger appeared in the person of Sir Robert Abercromby* of Airthrey, whose nephew George was Henry Dundas’s son-in-law. Henry Dundas decided to support Abercromby, informing Montrose of it on 22 Nov. 1801, but the latter refused his support, so Dundas found himself at odds with Addington in Stirlingshire (as well as in Fifeshire): not immediately, as Abercromby declared on 26 Nov. 1801 that he would not contest Fleeming’s return at the by-election caused by his uncle’s promotion to the peerage, but at the general election, to which Abercromby postponed his pretensions. On 11 Dec. 1801 Montrose wrote to his ministerial colleague Lord Pelham in high dudgeon at Dundas’s ‘decided part in Stirlingshire (vote and interest) against my line in the county, and against Captain Charles Elphinstone who is supported by me’; averse to ‘tamely truckling to this disregard’, he offered his resignation of the lord lieutenancy and of his office in the government. By 20 Dec. he had been induced to withdraw these, but remained embittered at Dundas’s continuing influence in Scotland.

At Fleeming’s unanimous election, 13 Jan. 1802, he was enrolled despite all objections, while Abercromby’s nephew George was incorrectly denied enrolment as a peeress’s son—his mother was not a Scottish peeress. Addington now took up the cudgels on Montrose’s behalf and on 31 Jan. 1802 wrote a stiff letter to Dundas, claiming that ‘an old interest, which had been uniformly friendly to government, was threatened, and that the interest, so threatened, was headed by an old political and personal friend of my own, the Duke of Montrose’. He hinted that Dundas should get Abercromby to withdraw. Dundas would have none of this and in his reply of 5 Feb. called it ‘the grossest misrepresentation ... the consequences must rest with you, not with me’. To Pitt he wrote the same day that Abercromby being supported by ‘the substantial property of the county’, and Captain Elphinstone, the duke’s protégé ‘without an acre of property in the county’, while the duke himself had no old established interest and government none worth speaking of, he felt justified in giving his personal support to Abercromby, especially as Montrose had not consulted him. This was the rub, for as Dundas exclaimed to another correspondent on 6 Feb.:

He had full time for further explanation ... He neither desired to see me, nor even replied to a very civil and candid letter on my part, but took the magnificent line of walking over us till he found himself completely mistaken and then complained of bad usage and called for the assistance of government. The duke, unfortunately for his interest, had not yet learned the secret, that in an independent Scotch county everything depends on the choice of a candidate, and in that respect he never once has judged well and everybody but himself saw that the first explosion would bring forward the consequences of that error in judgement. All that Mr Addington says to you is the result of hearing only one side of the question. I don’t really know if his interference in the business would get a vote to the duke’s interest. I am not sure if it would not get two to the other side if it is clearly ascertained that government and I are at variance on the subject. You ask me if I could retreat with honour. That depends on the feelings of Sir Robert Abercromby more than on mine, at least till the moment that government takes any open step in the business.

Dundas suggested that Pitt and Addington might, with civility, secure Abercomby’s withdrawal, but Abercromby’s freedom of action seems to have been limited, as not even illness caused him to withdraw.6 Dundas, moreover, had gone to the trouble of securing for Abercromby the support of William Elphinstone’s rival at India House, David Scott I*, and the Duke of Argyll’s support (largely through Sir Archibald Edmonstone’s interest) in exchange for his doing nothing to hinder Argyll’s interest in the Dunbartonshire election, which Montrose and Lord Elphinstone were challenging. Yet Abercromby was easily defeated, being absent on the election day and driven to the expedient of quashing the qualification of his opponent, who arrived at the last minute. This he pursued in an unsuccessful petition, reiterated by two of his supporters. In fact, Fleeming’s qualification was legally confirmed, despite opposition from Lord Elphinstone himself, on 30 June 1802. The result seems to have been an agreeable surprise to the government—some of Abercromby’s declarants appear to have stayed away. But Lord Keith had reason to complain that his nephew’s return, to facilitate which he had made use of his naval patronage, had cost £3,000, there being evidently some venality in the county, and of Dundas’s showing continued hostility by opposing Lord Elphinstone’s wish to be a representative peer—though in 1803 Elphinstone obtained this too.7

As in the case of his uncle, Elphinstone Fleeming’s naval career made him an inconspicuous Member who supported each government in turn until 1807. There was no opposition to him in 1806 nor, contrary to expectations, in 1807. His going into opposition with the outgoing ministry was thought likely to provoke the Duke of Montrose to end his understanding with the Elphinstones and combine with Lord Melville, with whom he was now reconciled as a member of the Portland ministry, in order to thwart Elphinstone Fleeming. It was hoped by the Whigs that this might be countered by calling on the Edmonstone interest, or even putting up Charles Edmonstone himself. Lord Melville seems to have been nothing loath, but Montrose, whose strength lay in the west of the county, demurred:

the remains of Lord Dundas’s interest, together with the influence of the Elphinstones and the squadroni volanti in the eastern part of the county are, I conceive, of greater strength than is imagined by those who have informed you: though I believe at this moment the question which occasioned the change of ministers and the dissolution of Parliament would have had great effect had there been a contest.

Although Elphinstone Fleeming was chosen unanimously, an address favourable to the ministry had been carried by 18 votes to 6, and Melville and the lord advocate, whom he consulted on Stirlingshire affairs, began to envisage Elphinstone Fleeming’s overthrow at the next election.8

Early in 1811 Sir Charles Edmonstone emerged as Elphinstone Fleeming’s competitor. The latter was absent on naval service but Lord Keith was active on his behalf, hoping to benefit from the friendship of the Regent and a possible change of ministry, as well as the support of the Dukes of Argyll and Hamilton. The Duke of Montrose, who was credited with influence over 12 votes, and the lord advocate supported Edmonstone’s pretensions. By 25 Mar. 1811, on a roll of 93, Edmonstone had 35 supporters, 25 opponents with 14 hopeful and 19 undecided, according to his friends; and on 17 Apr. 1811, anticipating a roll of 100, Edmonstone had 55 against 32, with 7 uncertain and 6 not voting. On 6 May Lord Keith claimed that the candidates were ‘just equal’, but on 3 June his forecast, which put Fleeming ahead, involved many more ‘doubtfuls’ than the other side’s. He met with one major disappointment in falling out with William Cunninghame Graham of Gartmore, hitherto an ally, who disapproved on tactical grounds, believing that Fleeming should have stood for Dunbartonshire through a compromise with Edmonstone and that now both counties would be lost. Although Edmonstone was little known in the county, the sitting Member was likewise, in his uncle William’s phrase, ‘so odd and unattentive that he has disgusted many of the gentlemen who will not vote for him. Lord Elphinstone was equally negligent—so that three or four of them said they would vote for me but not for him.’ As it was, when the long anticipated election took place in 1812, Fleeming arrived only at the last minute, too late to redeem his sinking cause (Lord Melville at the Admiralty would see to that). Edmonstone was returned unopposed.9

Edmonstone was challenged at the next election from another quarter, Fleeming retiring and Michael Stewart Nicolson (afterwards Shaw Stewart) of Carnock, great-nephew of Sir John Shaw Stewart*, being the Whig candidate. His address appeared on 3 Apr. 1818, and on 9 Apr. Edmonstone denied the rumour that he was withdrawing. He defeated Nicolson with ease in the ensuing contest, the latter complaining that the election was fixed for the same day as the crucial one for Lanarkshire.10

Author: R. G. Thorne


  • 1. R. M. Sunter, ‘Stirlingshire Pols. 1707-1832’ (Edinburgh Univ. Ph.D. thesis, 1971); Pol. State of Scotland 1788, p. 322; Blair Adam mss, Erskine to Adam, 22 May 1796.
  • 2. PRO 30/8/157, f. 43; N. Riding RO, Zetland mss ZNK X2/1/766, 772, 798, 807, 862, 863, 883, 908, 909, 915; SRO GD22/1/315, Morehead to R. Graham, 17 Feb. 1789.
  • 3. Zetland mss X2/1/928, 938, 957, 979; SRO GD22/1/315, Sir T. Dundas to R. Graham, 17 Aug. 1789; GD267/1/15, G. to P. Home, 6 Mar. 1790; Pol. State of Scotland 1788, p. 322; H. Furber, Henry Dundas, 229; A. Mackenzie, Pol. State of Scotland 1790, p. 180; Edinburgh Advertiser, 6-9 July 1790.
  • 4. CJ, xlvi. 15, 300; SRO GD267/1/16, G. to P. Home, 12 Feb.; NLS mss 6, f. 14; Morning Chron. 10, 12, 14 Mar. 1791; Sir James Campbell, Mems. i. 336.
  • 5. Blair Adam mss, John F. Erskine to Ld. Dundas, 17 Aug. 1795; SRO GD51/1/198/26/3; CJ, lii. 46, 231.
  • 6. Blair Adam mss, W. F. Elphinstone to Adam, 17 Aug., Lady Elphinstone to same, 29 Aug., 7 Oct., Montrose to Elphinstone, 17 Nov. 1801; SRO GD51/1/198/26/7, 9, 10; NLS mss 1, ff. 99, 101, 105; Add. 33108, ff. 441, 443, 464; Sidmouth mss, Addington to Dundas, 31 Jan. 1802; Furber, 274-6; Edinburgh Advertiser, 9-13 July 1802.
  • 7. Scott Corresp. (Cam. Soc. ser. 3, lxxvi.), 381; Argyll, Intimate Society Letters of the 18th Cent. ii. 503, 506; Edinburgh Advertiser, 16-20, 20-23 July 1802; CJ, lviii. 38; lix. 257; Add. 33049, ff. 350, 354; 33109, f. 391; SRO GD51/1/198/26/11; Prince of Wales Corresp. v. 2029; Letters of John Ramsay (Scottish Hist. Soc. ser. 4), iii. 64, 70.
  • 8. Blair Adam mss, Cunninghame Graham to Adam, 25 Mar., 30 Apr. 1807; SRO GD51/1/198/8/5; Edinburgh Advertiser, 21 May, 2-5 June 1807; NLS mss 1053, f. 136.
  • 9. SRO GD22/1/327, Cathcart to Speirs, 19 Jan., Ld. Elphinstone to same [13] Feb., Keith to same, 15, 29 Feb., 6 May, 3 June 1811; GD 51/1/198/26/14-27; NLS mss 1, ff. 258-9; Blair Adam mss, Cunninghame Graham to Adam, 4 Apr. 1811, W. F. Elphinstone to same [22 Sept.], 29 Sept., 7, 10 Oct.; Morning Chron. 9 Oct. 1812.
  • 10. Edinburgh’s Advertiser, 7, 14 Apr., 19 June, 3 July 1818.