DUNDAS, Robert (1758-1819), of Arniston, Edinburgh.
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Family and Education
b. 6 June 1758, 1st s. of Robert Dundas† of Arniston, ld. pres. of ct. of session, by 2nd w., and bro. of Philip Dundas* and William Dundas*. educ. Edinburgh h.s. 1763-6; adv. 1779. m. 9 Apr. 1787, Elizabeth, da. of Henry Dundas* by 1st w., 3s. 2da.
Solicitor-gen. [S] 1784-9; ld. advocate Sept. 1789-1801; jt. clerk and keeper of sasines [S] Dec. 1799-May 1801; chief baron of Exchequer [S] May 1801-d.
Capt. R. Edinburgh vols. 1797-1800; rector, Glasgow Univ. 1803-4.
‘A cheerful lively unaffected little man’, but otherwise ‘not endowed with those brilliant talents which were conspicuous in many of his family’, Dundas was earmarked to replace his powerful uncle Henry Dundas in his seat for Midlothian as early as 1781. Like Henry Dundas before him, he became solicitor-general in 1784, managing his uncle’s election for the county, and in 1790, having meanwhile cemented their bond by marriage to his uncle’s daughter and become King’s advocate, was returned unopposed under his uncle’s aegis. At his election he denied family influence, claiming he was rendered independent ‘by a laborious profession’ and that his support for Pitt’s administration was likewise a matter of principle and approbation.1
As lord advocate Dundas had one defect, at least in the view of James Fergusson of Pitfour:
The lord advocate should always be a tall man. We Scotch Members always vote with him, and we need, therefore, to be able to see him. I can see Pitt and Addington, but I can’t see this new lord advocate.
On the other hand, he had charm in abundance. His cousin Lord Cockburn recalled him as ‘a little, alert, handsome, gentleman-like man, with a countenance and air beaming with sprightliness and gaiety, and dignified by considerable fire; altogether inexpressibly pleasing’.2
Dundas, who wished to be of use to Pitt in the House, had misgivings about his first effort in debate on the corn bill, March 1791. ‘It seems, however’, so he informed his wife on 23 Mar.,
that I was mistaken, as Pitt was much pleased, and said what I had stated was in point of matter and manner more to the purpose than anything he had heard on the subject. In short, he thinks I shall do him good; and in proof of it, I was admitted, by his own desire, to the previous meeting at his house yesterday, of 8 or 10 of his friends, to consider what was to be stated in answer to the expected attack on the bill for appropriating the unclaimed dividends. He says he never wants me to make a set speech, but wishes me to make myself previously master of the business to come on, and not to rise and speak out, unless I feel inclined, and anything occurs which I think myself able to answer.
On 10 May 1791 he led the opposition to the motion for the exemption of Scotland from the Test Act.3
In May 1792, to counter the movement for burgh reform in Scotland against which his uncle had set his face and on which he had opposed Sheridan’s motion of 18 Apr., Dundas introduced an abortive bill to secure the accountability of the burghs for property and revenue under their control, which reached its second reading. Subsequently he was preoccupied with measures to prevent the spread of popular discontent and radical ideas. His house was attacked by rioters on 5 June 1792 and he watched them like a hawk thereafter, reporting their every move to his uncle in London. On 2 July when the parliamentary reformers met in Edinburgh, Dundas ‘instead of opposing, chose to second Sir Thomas Dundas’s motion for a committee to prepare a bill for the next session to remedy the abuses and to cure the defects of our county representation’. It was thought that he could not resist the movement and was giving way, but by November he ‘stoutly opposed the whole committee and wished to keep matters nearly on the present footing of aristocratic corruption’.4
On 25 Dec. 1792 he informed his uncle that he thought he was ‘more usefully employed’ in Edinburgh ‘at present’, but would attend Parliament if he wished it. He had become his absent uncle’s factotum in Scotland and his parliamentary attendance was curtailed, though in April 1793 he introduced the bill to remove the disabilities of Scottish Catholics. On 30 Aug. Dundas appeared for the crown in the prosecution of Thomas Muir for sedition, his conduct of which was unexceptionable, and he subsequently tried to prevent Muir from becoming a Whig martyr. He secured the arrest of the United Irishman Rowan Hamilton, who challenged him to a duel, and in December took into custody the leaders of the radical convention held at Edinburgh. On 10 and 25 Mar. 1794 he ‘very ably’, so Pitt thought, defended his conduct towards the Scots radicals and was teller against the Whig motions on the subject. He had assured his uncle:
I am perfectly convinced that the minds of the people are, however, in general with government, and that if we take decided and strong measures against those rebels, we shall be supported. It is the only system which will have effect, or otherways an insurrection will be the consequence.5
On 14 May 1794 Dundas was placed ex officio on the secret parliamentary committee on sedition. In the autumn he prosecuted Robert Watt who was executed for high treason. In November 1795, at Edinburgh, he brought about the defeat of Henry Erskine’s resolutions against the sedition bills by 70 votes to 9. He displaced Erskine as dean of faculty, 12 Jan. 1796, by 123 votes to 38.6 After this victory over Scotch radicalism, Dundas had far less to do either in Scotland or in Parliament. He voted for Pitt’s assessed taxes, 4 Jan. 1798, and in April-May 1799 shepherded through the House a bill to increase the amount of bail in criminal cases in Scotland and to detain certain criminals in custody until their trial.
On his uncle’s resignation of office in 1801 Dundas, whose growing hypochondria led him to wish for the comparative retirement of the court of Exchequer, went out of Parliament in May as lord chief baron. There was some talk of his becoming lord president, but his health would not permit him to consider it. He assisted his brother William in the management of Scottish parliamentary business. In 1804-5 he went to Madeira, subsequently on annual pilgrimages to Bath and Mamhead, and took no part in politics, except as a family adviser behind the scenes. In 1806, for instance, he advised Melville to have nothing to do with the Grenville ministry, and in 1807 his cousin Robert, Melville’s son, that if the Portland ministry did not continue to bestow the disposal of Scottish patronage on their family, there was no point in their continuing to manage Scotland for them.7
On the death of Lord President Blair in May 1811 (the day before Melville’s) Dundas was urged by his cousin Robert and by Charles Hope to succeed him: it would be the apotheosis of the Dundas ascendancy in Scotland, the third generation lord president. (As it was, he represented its fifth generation on the Scottish bench.) Dundas wavered, then declined: the thought of a new office sickened him, although he was urged that the Prince Regent wished it, so that his friend William Adam could succeed him as lord chief baron. He was berated by his cousin: ‘I am much mistaken if you are not throwing away a public card in Scotland which will not be recovered during your life or mine’. Apart from the personal detriment: ‘your own eldest son will be the greatest sufferer by your refusal’. This prophecy (which proved true) gave Dundas cause for reflection, but he finally refused. A last minute bid by his brother William to secure from Perceval an English peerage to go with the lord presidency, which was refused, and a letter from Dundas to the premier conceding that the peerage would have sufficed to make him change his mind completed his débâcle. As Perceval commented, 2 Sept 1811:
The chief baron’s health it seems is improved so far that, provided that strengthener of the nerves, a British peerage, could be promised, the danger which otherwise his constitution might apprehend from the change of situation would be no longer alarming!!!
As Dundas did not wish to be lord justice clerk and was not disposed to retire with a pension and the signet, there was nothing that could then be done for him.8 He died 17 June 1819.
Ref Volumes: 1790-1820
Author: R. G. Thorne
- 1. Glenbervie Jnls. 124; Gent. Mag. (1819), i. 652; G. W. T. Omond, Arniston Mems. 216; Edinburgh Advertiser, 25-29 June 1790.
- 2. Omond, 219.
- 3. Ibid. 225-6.
- 4. E. Hughes, ‘The Scottish Reform Movement and Charles Grey 1792-94; some fresh correspondence’, Scottish Hist. Review, xxxv. (1956), 27-8.
- 5. NLS mss 6, f. 59; Omond, 235-44; Geo. III Corresp. ii. 991, 997, 1031, 1121; HO102/10, R. to H. Dundas, Sunday.
- 6. State Trials, xxiii. 1167; NLS mss 7, f. 78.
- 7. Omond, 253, 254; Sidmouth mss, Dundas to Addington, 4 May 1801; Geo. III Corresp. iii. 2403, 2418; SRO GD51/1/90/5; 51/5/377.
- 8. Omond, 277-80; NLS mss 9, f. 189; Blair Adam mss, Hope to Moira, 13 July; W. to J. Adam, 1 Sept.; Moira to W. Adam, 11 Oct. ; SRO GD51/5/487; Perceval (Holland) mss F37, 38, 48, 53, 54, 62, 66, 68; Prince of Wales Corresp. viii. 3179, 3180; Eldon mss, Perceval to Eldon, 2 Sept. 1811.