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:

35 in 1790 reduced to 27 in 1811


14 July 1790JAMES GRANT9
 Robert Bruce Aeneas Macleod5
 Robert Home Gordon3
23 June 1796JAMES GRANT 
4 June 1804 DUNDAS re-elected after appointment to office 
2 May 1808 JOHN RANDOLL MACKENZIE vice Dundas, vacated his seat 
29 Sept. 1809 GEORGE MACPHERSON GRANT vice Mackenzie, deceased 
6 Mar. 1816 GEORGE MACPHERSON GRANT vice Macdonald, vacated seat 

Main Article

The compiler of the opposition survey of 1788 considered the influence of Lady Sutherland and her husband Lord Gower*, who the previous year had returned Gen. James Grant, a personal friend of Henry Dundas, to be virtually impregnable. At the same time, he noted that the excessive creation of life-rent votes had

had the effect of exciting discontent among a few; and perhaps something might be done ... by starting a real proprietor, for instance Mr [George] Dempster [of Skibo] ... but such an attempt at next election, it is thought, would be entirely fruitless.

In January 1789 Grant was told that while there was a possibility of opposition from Dempster, the independent Whig Member for Perth Burghs, or George Mackay of Bighouse, factor to the deranged 6th Lord Reay, or Sir John Sinclair* of Ulbster, there was little cause for concern. The following month Henry Erskine and his côterie of Edinburgh Whigs, acting on ‘hints conveyed to us from a leading interest in the county’, considered mounting a challenge to the Sutherland interest, but referred first to William Adam for confirmation of speculation that Gower was at heart an opposition sympathiser, whose allegiance to Pitt was only maintained by the restraining influence of his father, the lord privy seal. Adam evidently replied that the party leaders were not disposed to attack Gower and the plan was set aside. Sinclair’s attempts to obtain a qualification for Sutherland were unsuccessful and in August 1789 Dempster pledged his support to Grant. In May 1790 Robert Home Gordon of Embo, a wealthy West India proprietor and member of an old county family, who was due to come on to the roll at the next head court, announced his intention of standing and asked Erskine for opposition backing. Erskine was ready to give it, but the party leaders apparently decided not to intervene. Gordon persevered, but got only three votes—his own, and those of his relatives Mackay of Bighouse and Hugh Mackay Baillie of Rosehall—to Grant’s nine, and the five obtained by a last-minute third candidate, Robert Macleod* of Cadboll.1

Evidence adduced during the subsequent litigation strongly indicates that this tripartite contest was not the result of a split in the independent interest,2 but that Macleod’s intervention was merely a stratagem, adopted in collusion with the Sutherlands and designed to exclude Gordon, should Grant’s suspect qualification fail to survive legal scrutiny. Macleod, an avowed Pittite, who was currently using his influence in Cromarty for Henry Dundas’s candidate, was elected praeses over Mackay of Bighouse at the freeholders’ meeting, which was chaired by Grant. Gordon’s counsel later contended that if he had ever had serious designs on the seat, he could have used his power as praeses to procure it for himself, instead of which he had voted consistently in Grant’s favour when the roll was made up. On 17 Dec. 1790 Gordon petitioned against Grant’s return, alleging that he was not legally qualified and was guilty of bribery and corruption. Macleod followed suit, 23 Dec., claiming only that he had been duly elected by a majority of the legal freeholders. Consideration of the petitions was repeatedly deferred until March 1792. In the interim Grant’s qualification was challenged in the court of session, on the ground that he had never been in actual possession of his wadset. Grant admitted this to have been the case between 1782 and 1789, but maintained that he had been in actual possession at the time of the election. After a full investigation, judgment was given in his favour. An appeal was lodged, but never brought to a hearing before the Lords. When the Commons select committee upheld the court ruling and rejected Gordon’s petition, Macleod’s counsel declined to proceed further, admitting that it had been intended to press his case only if Grant had been declared ineligible to sit. It is significant that Macleod’s petition was deemed ‘frivolous and vexatious’.3

There was no further challenge to the Sutherland interest in this period. Grant retired in 1802 and William Dundas, nephew of Henry, was returned. He supported the ‘Talents’, partly to safeguard his seat, and, accordingly, Lord and Lady Stafford (as the Sutherlands had become) retained his services in 1806 and 1807. He was unable to sustain an opposition line, which put him at odds with the rest of his family, and surrendered the seat in 1808, when he was replaced by John Randoll Mackenzie of Suddie, a soldier and Whig sympathizer whom the Staffords had returned for Tain Burghs at the general election. On his death in action in 1809 Gen. Grant’s great-nephew and successor as laird of Ballindalloch was returned. In 1812 James Macdonald, the Staffords’ nephew and a staunch Whig, was brought in, but in 1815 he found himself becoming politically estranged from his patrons, who were gravitating back to government. Having failed to elicit from them a satisfactory ‘explanation of Trentham politics’, he resigned the seat at the opening of the 1816 session, and the Staffords turned again to the more compliant Grant.4

Author: David R. Fisher


  • 1. Pol. State of Scotland 1788, p. 339; Macpherson Grant mss 339, A. Mackenzie to Grant, 19 Jan.; 414, same to same, 11 Aug. 1789 (NRA [S] 771); Ginter, Whig Organization, 47, 162-3; Pol. State of Scotland 1790, pp. 186-8.
  • 2. As suggested in Ginter, 162.
  • 3. CJ, xlvi. 96-97, 134, 333, 424; xlvii. 13, 28-29, 502, 524-5, 540-1; S. Fraser, Controverted Elections, ii. 156-85.
  • 4. Fortescue mss, Macdonald to Grenville, 30 Sept.; Add. 51542, same to Ld. Holland, 25 Oct. [1815].