MACLEOD, Norman (1754-1801), of Dunvegan Castle, Skye, Inverness.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1790-1820, ed. R. Thorne, 1986
Available from Boydell and Brewer



1790 - 1796

Family and Education

b. 4 Mar. 1754, o.s. of John Macleod of Duke, Elgin by Emilia, da. of Alexander Brodie of Brodie, Elgin, ld. lyon king of arms. educ. privately; St. Andrews Univ. 1769; Univ. Coll. Oxf. 1770. m. (1) 25 Mar. 1776, Mary (d. 20 Feb. 1784), da. of Kenneth Mackenzie of Suddie, Black Isle, Ross, 1s. 1da.; (2) ?1784, Sarah, da. of Nathaniel Stackhouse, 2nd in council at Bombay, 3s, 4da. suc. fa. 1767; gdfa. Norman Macleod of Dunvegan as chief of Macleod 21 July 1772.1

Offices Held

Capt. 71 Ft. 1775; maj. 73 Ft. 1778; lt.-col. 42 Ft. 1780-6, 73 Ft. 1786-d.; brevet col. (E. Indies) 1782-94; army command, Malabar 1783-4; 2nd in command, India 1785-8; brevet col. 1790, maj.-gen. 1794, lt.-gen. 1801.


Macleod spent his first ten years with his mother in Hampshire, before going to live with his unsavoury grandfather near St. Andrews. He insisted on his right to be consulted over his further education, stressing the importance of acquiring good English, and was sent to the local university, only to be removed within a year on account of a sexual escapade and sent to Oxford. His grandfather’s extravagance had reduced the family finances to a precarious state and in 1771 a cattle plague in Skye threatened utter ruin. Macleod personally persuaded the tenants to co-operate, promised to live among them when he succeeded as chief and had the estates put under trust. When his grandfather died the next year, he fulfilled his pledge and commenced his attack on his financial problems. Visitors to Dunvegan were impressed by his abilities and good intentions. Thomas Pennant wrote that ‘to all the milkiness of human nature usually concomitant with his early age, is added the sense and firmness of more advanced life’, and Dr Johnson, who assessed him as elegant, graceful, ‘unusually intelligent’ and quick to learn, ‘tasted lotus’ at Dunvegan and wished him well in his struggle.2

The prospect of ‘a long life of painful economy’ soon palled, as Macleod later wrote in an autobiographical fragment:

I consider this as the most gloomy period of my life. Educated in a liberal manner, fired with ambition, fond of society, I found myself in confinement in a remote corner of the world; without any hope of extinguishing the debts of my family, or of ever emerging from poverty and obscurity.

In 1775, he asked his kinsman Gen. Simon Fraser of Lovat for ‘a considerable rank’ in the battalions he was raising for service in America. He was never afflicted with modesty and did not sell himself short on this occasion:

there are not many people who could raise more men or more speedily ... I have attached myself so much to you that I am in some sort your child ... Notwithstanding some late follies I bid fair to do no discredit to your protection, and ... my claims on government give some degree of propriety to my speedy preferment ... Will you take the credit of being the sole maker of me? I feel something in me that tells me it would be a credit to you.

He obtained a company and sailed for America with his new bride in April 1776, but was captured by privateers en route and detained as a prisoner. He came home in 1779 and the following year was commissioned to raise a second battalion for the Black Watch, with whom he sailed to the Cape and thence to India in 1781. Despite two bouts of fever and a severe wounding, he distinguished himself in the campaign of 1782-4 against Tipu Sultan, but on learning of his wife’s death in 1784 he had a nervous breakdown, from which he probably never fully recovered. Although he married a notable beauty soon afterwards, he began to lose his self-possession and sense of proportion.3

His late wife’s nephew John Randoll Mackenzie visited him at Dinajpur in 1787 when, as second-in-command of the Indian army, he enjoyed the brevet rank of major-general and a salary of £6,000 a year, and found him ‘all warmth and generosity’. He retained his interest in the welfare of his tenants and promoted local fisheries. Sales of land and careful management by the trustees had reduced his debts to £31,000 by 1781, and in 1787 John Knox wrote of Dunvegan:

This estate has been greatly diminished of late years, on account of debts, and much remains to be discharged. Notwithstanding ... the proprietor raised no rents, turned out no tenants, used no man with severity, and in all respects, maintained the character of a liberal and human friend of mankind.

Macleod reacted furiously to the regulations of 1788 which deprived Indian officers of their local rank. He pressed his mother to persuade Henry Dundas to have him made a.d.c. to the King, or to procure some other mark of royal favour, observing that a baronetcy would not be enough. Unable to submit to the indignity of retaining his command as a lieutenant-colonel, he returned home in 1789, viewing a seat in Parliament as his best hope of securing redress and advancement. According to his son, he brought with him £100,000, chiefly in prize money.4

He held progressive views on the Scottish representative system and since 1785 had been negotiating with local proprietors for the formation of an alliance against the Duke of Gordon, the chief manufacturer of parchment votes in Inverness-shire. Before leaving India, however, he sent overtures to the duke and Sir James Grant*, whose electoral adviser counselled caution, noting that Macleod ‘acts a good deal on the Chesterfield system’. He obtained a promise of backing from Dundas and, after two months of bargaining, secured the support of the Clan Fraser and the Duke of Gordon, on condition that he made way for a Fraser nominee at the election after next. He was a prime mover in an attempt to expunge the constituency’s fictitious votes, including his own, and at the 1790 Michaelmas head court had the roll savagely purged. To his crony William Macleod Bannatyne he wrote:

it appeared to me that this was one of the occasions when it is necessary and proper to step beyond the fixed and settled rules, to strike the glowing iron, to snatch the moment when the spirit and wishes of the times were with us to effect a great constitutional point.

The votes were later reinstated on Gordon’s appeal to the court of session. At the same meeting the question of an extension of the Scottish franchise was mooted. ‘Though a friend to the idea’, Macleod took little share in the debate, ‘except to promise to obey faithfully whatever instructions I should receive from the county’.5

His first attempt to obtain restitution from Dundas for his demotion was unsuccessful and it is clear from his subsequent letter of grudging apology that he had approached the minister far from deferentially:

perhaps my feelings for my professional degradation and the confidence I had been taught to have in your good inclination towards me led me to be too urgent with you ... I beg leave to appeal to military men whether my feelings ... were not natural and just and whether anything short of what I mentioned can be considered a reparation.

Yet the War Office made encouraging noises when he offered to raise a body of highlanders in May 1790 and he obtained a colonelcy later in the year.6

In his maiden speech, 17 Dec. 1790, he eulogized Warren Hastings and accused Burke of using the privileges of Parliament to hound him. Sir Gilbert Elliot wrote that he had ‘exposed himself completely’ and that Burke ‘gave him a good natured but a good dressing’; while Lord Palmerston noted that ‘Burke was excellent in answer to a wild Col. Macleod’.7 In subsequent speeches, 21 Dec. 1790, 14 Feb. and 2 Mar. 1791, he set himself up as a pundit on Indian military matters, spicing his observations with personal reminiscences and anecdotes. He had something to say on the corn bill, 11 Mar. and 11 Apr. 1791.

In May 1791 he broke with Pitt and Dundas. According to a memoir by his son, the rift occurred when Macleod, having agreed to return to India, flew into a rage at Dundas’s refusal to give him assurances of a definite appointment when he arrived. He cancelled his passage and wrote to Dundas:

After having shown every wish to be of use to government either abroad or at home, and having been so injuriously treated by you this day, you cannot be surprised if my attachment ceases. I have never received from any member of administration, notwithstanding my warm support of it, the smallest attention or civility; much less any appearance of attention to reward my services. Such neglect appears to me incompatible with the character I hold in life.

Dundas’s retort was a classic of dismissive frigidity: ‘Your letter being merely an intimation of a resolution you have formed for the regulation of your own conduct, it does not require any particular answer.’ The same day Macleod told Pitt that ‘my wishes have been to support your administration, but no man of spirit can act under the pressure of contempt and neglect’. He tried to surrender his commission while keeping his rank, but on learning that ‘conditional resignation’ was impossible, retained both. Dundas deprived him of all local patronage.8

Macleod voted consistently and regularly with the Foxite opposition from this point and marked his switch of allegiance by supporting, as predicted in April, the relief of his countrymen from the Test Act, 10 May 1791, when he accused Pitt of treating Scotland as a ‘dependent province’. He seconded Whitbread’s Oczakov motion, 29 Feb. 1792, recanted his error in having hitherto supported Pitt’s government and dedicated the ‘remainder of his life’ to fighting it. Curiously, he was not listed in the minority in the division. He joined Brooks’s on 18 Feb. 1792 and the Whig Club on 9 Apr. 1793. He denounced the Scottish representative system as a mockery, 25 May 1792, joined the Friends of the People, took a leading part at the meeting of Scottish reform delegates in July 1792, and, during the recess, when he was very active at meetings and on drafting committees, kept Grey informed of the progress of the Scottish reform movement, of which he considered himself the spokesman. He favoured the eradication of fictitious votes, the attachment of the right of voting to real property and an extension of the franchise. He was a committee member of the Friends of the Liberty of the Press.9

When Macleod came to London in December 1792 Randoll Mackenzie reported that he had been ‘so violent in politics as to have offended the King’.10 He was one of the minority of 50 who voted for Fox’s amendment to the address, 13 Dec., and four days later he defended the recent proceedings of the Friends of the People, contending that it was the duty of men of rank to ‘mingle with the people’ and ‘to instruct them in the constitutional methods of obtaining redress’. He amplified his views in a pamphlet of January 1793, Two letters, which exhorted the ‘poor and virtuous’ to exercise moderation in pursuit of ‘loyal and gentle corrections’ to a basically sound but superficially dilapidated constitution. His mother bitterly reproached him, 14 Jan. 1793, for risking personal ruin through his political conduct, and his relations with his family clearly deteriorated from this point. On 12 Feb. Francis Mackenzie* of Seaforth, a Portland Whig, wrote scathingly to William Adam of the Foxites’ new recruit:

a man the most universally disliked by all ranks I ever heard of, whose butterfly head is crammed with scraps and saws of political knowledge, picked up in ale-houses and fermented in debauchery and whose heart is the very sink of selfish insincerity and political depravity. In short, he is one of those ruffian spirits who confound the country with the ministry and would rather ruin the former than not be revenged of the latter for refusing him all that his overweening vanity thought his due.11

He voted against war with France, 18 Feb., argued that reports of seditious activity in Scotland had been much exaggerated, 4 Mar., and applauded the proposal to grant limited relief to Scottish Catholics, 23 Apr. 1793, though he wished it had gone further. He demanded action on the reduction of coal duties for northern Scotland, 16 Apr., and urged Dundas to put regular and Company troops in India on the same footing, 23 Apr. On 6 May, when Pitt attributed to him the remark that all the current parliamentary reform petitions came ‘from the same shop’, Macleod retorted that it had in fact originated with Dundas, and begged that the latter’s ‘witticisms might not be fastened on himself and his friends’. He then presented petitions from Edinburgh, ‘of the whole length of the floor of the House’, and from Anstruther, and voted for Grey’s reform motion the following day. Thereafter he faded from the active reform movement, and he publicly withdrew his support from the Friends of the People in November 1793.

His repeated offers to raise men or serve abroad were all rejected and in 1794 he was accused of having embezzled money taken from the bibi of Cannanore when he had captured the city in 1784. He complained to Dundas that ‘I am marked out as the special object of your most severe and unjust ministerial persecution’, and indignantly denied the charges, which were never proven.12 In a pamphlet of March 1794, Considerations on false and real alarms, Macleod attacked the conduct of the war and prophesied that its inevitable outcome was mutual exhaustion and, for Britain, national bankruptcy. He attacked the French émigré enlistment bill, 8 Apr., supported Maitland’s call for inquiry into military failures, 10 Apr., and opposed the Aberdeen police bill, 28 Apr. and 5 May 1794. His motion to delay the Scotch quota bill, 17 Apr. 1795, was defeated by 35 votes to 6. He supported Grey’s amendment to the resolutions on the Prince of Wales’s debts, 14 May, bellowing to make himself heard amid laughter and calls for the question. After an abortive attempt to obtain a return of the number of soldiers in the kingdom, 30 Apr., he moved on 18 May for inquiry into the recent increase in allowances to troops, made without the consent of Parliament and therefore, he said, ‘a most daring and flagrant violation of their best and dearest privileges’. He was defeated by 67 votes to 22. He spoke frequently against the repressive legislation of 1795 and on 30 Nov. facetiously suggested that the bill for the security of the King’s person should remain operable ‘during the life of our most gracious minister Mr Pitt’, rather than that of his Majesty. On 20 Nov. 1795, after successfully moving for information on the number of troops in the country and criticizing ministers for failing to make adequate medical arrangements for the army, he divided the House unsuccessfully against the plan to raise fencible cavalry, which he condemned as a potential instrument of domestic repression. On the same subject, 2 Dec., he accused Pitt, ‘the author of all the miseries under which the country groaned’, of ‘dragooning’ the people.

With no prospect of coming in again for Inverness-shire, Macleod was casting round for a seat, but on 19 Nov. 1795 he wrote to Adam:

I am under a degree of uneasiness which I don’t know how to put in words ... but I fear that ... [Fox] does not like me. If so, I shall at once give up all political pursuits ... Pray ascertain this fact for me, because it will govern all my future life. My great wish to be in Parliament is founded on this notion, that there should be somebody who will boldly speak of Scotland. If you come in ... there will be no need of anybody else, unless on the principle that two is better than one ... I hope I am wrong and mistaken.

While he must have been given some reassurance, as he was canvassing Milborne Port early in 1796, it is not difficult to believe that Fox held him in low esteem. Macleod’s son later wrote that his fellow Foxites ‘dreaded the violence of his temper so much as to be afraid when he got up to speak that he might hurt the cause through his warmth’; and a hostile commentator believed that he ‘certainly possesses much military knowledge, but the manner of his detailing it seldom fails of producing a very ludicrous effect’.13

On 26 Feb. 1796 Macleod drew attention to reports that Lord Balcarres, governor of Jamaica, had authorized the use of bloodhounds against the Maroons. He moved for papers on the subject, 20 Mar., but withdrew the motion when Dundas promised an official inquiry. It later emerged that the reports were well founded.14 He voted for abolition of the slave trade, 15 Mar., and opposed the expulsion of John Fenton Cawthorne*, 2 May. In his last reported speech in the House, 13 May 1796, he moved a resolution condemning the erection of barracks as a threat to freedom of election, but when Windham and Grey pointed out that he had misconstrued the statute which covered the point, he grudgingly backed down.

Macleod bade farewell to his constituents in an address of flaming invective against the ministry and the war.15 He was beaten at Milborne Port, his petition was rejected and the whole venture cost him £15,000. He complained to Adam, 30 Dec. 1796, that he had been ‘pillaged’ by the lawyers and that his finances were ruined: ‘the complicated private misery as well as public which the madness of our wicked ministers occasions is beyond description, and I have my full share’.16 His last years were spent in disappointment and drunken self-pity. Having squandered the fortune acquired in India, he was forced to sell off large parcels of his estate at bargain prices and bequeathed to his successor debts of over £33,000 on the remaining lands. In 1800 he visited Dublin with letters of introduction to Grattan and his set from Fox.17 He died in Guernsey, 16 Apr. 1801, while preparing for a cruise for the restoration of his health.

Ref Volumes: 1790-1820

Author: David R. Fisher


See R. C. Macleod, Macleods, 71-104; I. F. Grant, Macleads, 482-3, 497-8, 501-42.

  • 1. Scots Mag. (1772), 399.
  • 2. Bk. of Dunvegan ed. Macleod, ii. 8, 12-13, 21-24; Grant, 502-3; Johnson Works (Yale ed.), ix. 71; Boswell’s Life of Johnson ed. Hill and Powell, v. 176-7.
  • 3. A. Mackenzie, Hist. Macleods, 165; HMC Laing, ii. 483; Bk. of Dunvegan, ii. 25; Grant, 517; Macleod, 94, 102-3.
  • 4. Add. 39195, f. 3; Grant, 508; Bk. of Dunvegan, ii. 26; Macleod, 97.
  • 5. Bk. of Dunvegan, ii. 37; Sir W. Fraser, Chiefs of Grant, ii. 506; HMC Laing, ii. 536-41.
  • 6. Macleod mss, box 38c, Macleod to Dundas [7 Jan.], 21 May 1790.
  • 7. NLS mss 11048, f. 23; B. Connell, Whig Peer, 211.
  • 8. Grant, 525-6; SRO GD51/3/198/29/4; Macleod mss, box 38c, Dundas to Macleod, 7 May, Macleod to Pitt, 7 May, to Sir G. Yonge, 9 May, Yonge’s reply 12 May; HO 102/4/368, Macleod to Dundas, 12 Aug., reply 22 Aug. 1791.
  • 9. E. Hughes, ‘Scottish Reform Movement and Charles Grey’, Scottish Hist. Rev. xxxv (1956), 27-41.
  • 10. Add. 39195, f. 37.
  • 11. Macleod mss, box 56; Blair Adam mss.
  • 12. Grant, 533; Macleod mss, box 38c, letters 16 Feb. 1793-3 Mar. 1794 passim.
  • 13. Blair Adam mss; Grant, 534; Parl. Portraits (1795), ii. 180.
  • 14. Farington, i. 156; Morning Chron. 7 July 1796.
  • 15. Morning Chron. 18 May 1796.
  • 16. Blair Adam mss.
  • 17. Grant, 539-42; Bk. of Dunvegan, ii. 28.