ERSKINE, Sir William, 2nd Bt. (1770-1813), of Torrie, Fife.
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Family and Education
b. 30 Mar. 1770, 1st s. of Lt.-Gen. Sir William Erskine, 1st Bt., of Torrie by 2nd w. Frances, da. of James Moray of Abercairney, Perth, wid. of George Drummond of Blair Drummond, Perth. unm. suc. fa. as 2nd Bt. 19 Mar. 1795.
Cornet 15 Drag. 1786, lt. 1788, capt. 1791, maj. 1794, lt.-col. 1794, half-pay 1798; capt. W. Fife yeomanry 1797-1803, brevet col. 1801; col. 14 garrison batt. 1801; half-pay 1803; maj.-gen. 1808, lt.-gen. (Peninsula) 1811, ret. 1813.
Erskine served as aide-de-camp to his father, a veteran of 50 campaigns, in Flanders in 1794. The latter was about to take command of the troops in Ireland when he died in 1795 ‘regretted by the whole army’. Erskine’s sister’s marriage to William Wemyss, Member for Fifeshire, had separated the Torrie family from their Whig kinsmen Henry and Thomas Erskine, and when he came in unopposed for the county in place of his brother-in-law in 1796, it was as a supporter of Pitt’s administration, with the good wishes of Henry Dundas. He was not present at the election, took six weeks’ leave of absence on 10 Nov. 1796 and any support he gave government in that Parliament was silent. The situation had changed by 1802 because Erskine was being challenged for his seat by Dundas’s brother-in-law John Hope. This made Erskine ‘decidedly hostile to Mr Dundas’, but rather than face a doubtful contest he privately agreed with Dundas that if he were not opposed at this general election he would withdraw, as desired, in favour of John Hope, when the latter was available and disposed to take up the seat.1
Erskine gave a general support to Addington’s administration and in his maiden speech, 6 July 1803, cornbated Col. Craufurd’s views on defence, stating that he would prefer any ten battalions of militia to any ten regiments of the line. This speech was ‘very animated, and made a strong impression on the House’; indeed it was ‘universally well spoken of, as calculated (coming from an officer of gallantry, experience and superior merit) to inspire confidence in the force now assembled for the defence of the country’. Nevertheless, Erskine expressed Scottish opposition to Sunday training, 20 July; objected to a system of defensive fortification and dispersal of defence troops, 22 July; and concurred with Fox’s proposal of a general council of war, 2 Aug. 1803. Then on 11 Apr. 1804 he spoke for government against the critics of the Irish militia augmentation bill, pointing out that they had nothing better to offer for defence: ‘he was convinced it was as large and efficient as any that could have been provided’. On Pitt’s return to power, Erskine indicated his willingness to retire in favour of John Hope, according to the agreement of 1802, but the arrangement did not materialize. The government appear to have had reservations about his support for them, but he did not oppose and on 8 Apr. 1805 he was in their minority against the censure on Melville. On 28 June he combated Craufurd’s military motion, arguing that while it was impossible to dispense with a degree of enforced recruitment, the volunteer system was ‘the sheet anchor of the state’. In July he was listed a friend of Pitt’s ministry. On 14 Feb. 1806 Erskine’s brother-in-law Wemyss announced to the county that Erskine was suffering from ‘an acute rheumatism he got on his late inspection tour’ and might make way for Wemyss at the next election, at which a contest was already threatened. Erskine’s health apart, it is clear that Wemyss thought he stood a better chance than Erskine. In any case Erskine, who had not openly opposed the Grenville ministry, though he might have been expected to dislike their military plan, withdrew at the dissolution and was not again in Parliament.2
Erskine subsequently applied for active military employment. On 20 Feb. 1810 he submitted to the committee of inquiry into the Scheldt expedition evidence which Castlereagh thought fit to attack ‘most violently’ on 26 Mar.3 Erskine’s reckless courage in the Peninsular campaign 1811-12, as a cavalry officer, did not inspire confidence in his commander and signs of insanity led to his being required to leave the army. He committed suicide at Lisbon by throwing himself from a window, 14 May 1813.4
Ref Volumes: 1790-1820
Author: R. G. Thorne
- 1. Gent. Mag. (1795), i. 354; Pol. State of Scotland 1788, p. 135; NLS mss 3835, f. 37; Edinburgh Advertiser, 27-31 May 1796; Add. 33049, f. 350; PRO 30/8/157, f. 290.
- 2. The Times, 7, 8 July; Fitzwilliam mss, box 63, Laurence to Fitzwilliam, 11 Aug. 1803; Colchester, i. 461; NLS mss 9370, f. 81; Edinburgh Advertiser, 14-18 Feb., 15-19 Aug.; Spencer mss, Scottish list, 1806.
- 3. Fortescue mss, Fremantle to Grenville, 27 Mar. 1810.
- 4. Gent. Mag. (1813), i. 595.