Scottish County

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1820-1832, ed. D.R. Fisher, 2009
Available from Cambridge University Press

Background Information

Number of enrolled freeholders:

182 in 1820; 180 in 1826; 184 in 1830


17 Oct. 1820HON. WILLIAM GORDON vice Ferguson, deceased 
 Sir Michael Bruce, bt.32
 Hon. John Gordon3

Main Article

Aberdeenshire’s staples were an improving agriculture and fishing, and there was a thriving linen industry in Aberdeen. Besides the royal burghs of Aberdeen, Inverurie and Kintore, its principal centres of population were the ports of Fraserborough and Peterhead and the inland settlements of Aboyne, Alford, Ballater, Ellon, Huntly, Meldrum, Pitsligo and Turriff.1 The county had been included in Henry Dundas’s† electoral settlement of northern Scotland in 1787, and his friend James Ferguson of Pitfour had been returned in 1790 under the terms of the truce negotiated between the former territorial rivals, the 4th duke of Gordon, lord lieutenant, 1794-1808, and keeper of the great seal of Scotland, 1794-1806, and again from 1807, and the 2nd Earl Fife. (In 1808 Gordon handed over the lord lieutenancy to his eldest son, the marquess of Huntly†.) A legal campaign by the resident proprietors against the creation of fictitious votes had had some success in the early 1790s, but after falling to 126 in 1806 the roll of freeholders had expanded again. The disgruntled Fife had backed the ‘independent’ candidature of Alexander Leith Hay of Leith Hall and Rannes when he had unsuccessfully challenged Ferguson in 1802, 1806 and 1807. Fife had died in 1809 and Ferguson was unopposed in 1812 and 1818, sustained by the Gordons, Dundas’s son, the 2nd Viscount Melville, the Liverpool ministry’s Scottish manager, and Dundas’s protégé, the young 4th earl of Aberdeen of Haddo, who had a substantial stake in the county and coveted the seat for his younger brother William Gordon, a naval officer, should Ferguson retire.2

Ferguson and William Gordon were among the 89 men who attended the county meeting, chaired by Huntly, 22 Nov. 1819, which unanimously voted a loyal address to the prince regent in the aftermath of Peterloo. Forty-two others, including the duke of Gordon, sent letters of support.3 On the dissolution three months later it was hinted that a candidate would offer ‘to maintain the independence of the county’, but in the event Ferguson, now almost 85, came in unopposed in the presence of 75 freeholders.4 The county landholders petitioned the Commons for repeal of the additional malt duty, 21 June 1820.5 When Ferguson died, 6 Sept. 1820, the contenders, both of long-standing, were William Gordon and the nabob Charles Forbes of Newe Castle, independent Member for Malmesbury. Melville made clear to the 4th Earl Fife, Member for Banffshire, his strong preference for Gordon. In the event Forbes withdrew almost immediately on the pretext of poor health. A fortnight before the election Aberdeen told a friend:

My brother ... will I believe meet with no opposition. Charles Forbes, although he might have run us hard, had in fact no chance, and from his having concealed his intentions of resigning the contest so long, he had rendered it utterly impossible for anyone to attempt to organize an opposition which can be at all formidable.

Gordon walked over, nominated by Sir Robert Burnett of Leys, Kincardineshire, and Crathes Castle, and seconded by Charles Mackenzie Fraser of Inverallochy.6 At a requisitioned county meeting chaired by Huntly, 20 Dec. 1820, Alexander Irvine of Drum and John Menzies of Pitfodels moved a loyal address to the king in the context of the Queen Caroline affair. General Leith Hay’s son, Andrew Leith Hay†, dissented from the terms of the address, which he said sought to bolster the ‘tottering fortunes’ of the ministry. His fellow Whig George Skene of Skene (the county Member ousted by Ferguson in 1790) endorsed this view and moved an amendment censuring ministers’ conduct, which Andrew Leith Hay seconded; it was defeated by 96-14.7 The county’s annual general meeting, 30 Apr. 1821, condemned the Whig Thomas Kennedy’s Scottish juries bill, but the planned hostile petition did not materialize.8 On 2 Mar. 1822 the Leith Hays, Burnett and Skene headed a requisition for a county meeting to consider agricultural distress. When it convened, 19 Mar., under Alexander Leith Hay’s chairmanship, his son moved and Archibald Farquharson* of Finzean seconded a petition calling for extensive tax reductions through cuts in public expenditure. Irvine’s son Alexander Forbes Irvine of Schivas led a Tory opposition to this and secured its rejection by 34-21.9 On 16 Apr. Menzies, the county convener, apparently responding to a request from William Gordon, called a meeting of two dozen leading lairds, which petitioned the Commons for the free export of Scottish spirits to England as a means of alleviating agricultural distress.10 At the annual general meeting, 30 Apr., Alexander Leith Hay accused Menzies of getting up a hole-and-corner meeting and moved a vote of censure on his conduct as convener. An amendment recording thanks to him was moved by Alexander Russell of Aden and carried by 26-8, with the Leith Hays, James Mansfield of Midmar, Alexander Forbes of Invernan, James Forbes of Echt, Burnett’s son Thomas, Skene and George Wilson forming the minority. A resolution vindicating a convener’s right to exercise discretion in the calling of meetings was proposed by Forbes Irvine and James Urquhart of Meldrum and carried by 27 against the votes of the Leith Hays, Forbes of Echt, Skene and George Still of Millden. Menzies was then unanimously re-elected as convener.11 In October 1822 William Gordon and Huntly were ‘most anxious’ to secure the appointment as sheriff clerk of Hugh Lumsden of Pitcaple, in preference to one Gordon, ‘a determined enemy’ and ‘a radical in politics’.12 The county’s commissioners of supply and landholders and the agriculturists of Turriff petitioned both Houses for relief from agricultural distress, 24 Feb. 1823.13 At the annual meeting, 30 Apr. 1824, when Robert Dalrymple Horn Elphinstone of Horn was elected convener, it was resolved to memorialize the treasury against the ‘proposed impolitic alteration’ of the beer duties and to petition the Commons for a free export of Scottish spirits.14 ‘Several’ new freeholders were enrolled at the 1824 Michaelmas head court.15 The county met to petition against relaxation of the corn laws, 19 Apr., and like petitions were sent up from Turriff.16 In February 1826 William Gordon secured a county meeting to consider the ministry’s pending measure to restrict the circulation of small Scottish bank notes. Those present included Elphinstone (in the chair), Andrew Leith Hay, Farquharson, Walter Forbes of Brux, second son of the 18th Lord Forbes, Sir Alexander Bannerman of Elsick and Michael Bruce of Scotstown House, son and heir of Sir William Bruce of Stenhouse, Stirlingshire. Resolutions condemning interference with the Scottish banking system were carried, and heavy countywide petitioning ensued on an issue on which William Gordon opposed government.17 Petitions for the abolition of slavery were sent to Parliament from Pitsligo, Huntly and Peterhead that session;18 and on 23 May 1826 the landholders and justices petitioned the Lords against relaxation of the corn laws.19

At the 1826 general election four new freeholders were enrolled and William Gordon, nominated by Elphinstone and seconded by Walter Forbes, was returned unopposed.20 There was widespread petitioning of both Houses against further tampering with the corn laws in 1827, and on 12 Apr. the ship owners of Peterhead petitioned the Commons for relief from distress.21 In June 1827 Huntly succeeded his father as 5th duke of Gordon; he became keeper of the great seal of Scotland in the duke of Wellington’s ministry in 1828, when Lord Aberdeen entered the cabinet. In November 1827 Michael Bruce succeeded his father as 8th baronet. The county’s landholders petitioned the Commons against the ministry’s corn bill, 25 Apr. 1828.22 At the annual meeting five days later, Andrew Leith Hay and Elphinstone promoted a petition to the Commons for revision of the excise laws; the managing committee which was set up included Bruce.23 Gordon was absent on professional duties that session, when county business was handled by Hugh Arbuthnott, Member for Kincardineshire.24 At the 1829 annual meeting, 30 Apr., William Gordon was instructed to try to have the tailzies regulation bill amended and the Scottish gaols bill, which would ‘materially affect the rights and property of the landholders’, postponed.25 At the 1830 annual meeting resolutions were adopted denouncing the Scottish poor bill and juries bill.26 About 60 freeholders attended the election meeting, 24 Aug. 1830, when seven new ones were enrolled and one claimant was rejected. Gordon, nominated by Elphinstone and seconded by Menzies, was unopposed.27

Four names were added to the roll at the 1830 Michaelmas head court, chaired by Gordon, when the problem of the malt and spirit duties was referred to a committee.28 On his brother’s resignation with his ministerial colleagues in November 1830, Gordon of course joined him in opposition to the new Grey administration. There was renewed petitioning for the abolition of slavery from Huntly and Peterhead in the 1830 Parliament.29 The government’s reform scheme elicited favourable petitions from Huntly, Peterhead, Echt and numerous parishes.30 The signatories of a county petition against the ‘unwise and dangerous’ plan were headed by Elphinstone and William Gordon. Bruce, the Burnetts, Sir John Forbes of Craigevar, Bannerman, Farquharson and Alexander Leith Hay promoted a counter-petition welcoming the proposals.31 Bannerman, Forbes and the Leith Hays attended the city and county reform dinner in Aberdeen, 4 Apr.32 At a formal county meeting, chaired by Elphinstone as convener, 7 Apr., Mackenzie Fraser moved 11 resolutions which acknowledged the need for ‘rational reform’ of obvious abuses and an extension of the franchise, but condemned the ministerial proposals, especially those for Scotland, as too radical. Bruce, backed by Forbes of Craigevar, moved a short amendment expressing approval of the bills. After a lively debate the anti-reform resolutions were carried by 92-49. William Gordon was one of those who sent letters denouncing the measures. On the motion of Walter Forbes a committee was set up to monitor their progress and to communicate the freeholders’ views to Gordon.33

At the general election precipitated by the defeat of the English bill, Gordon offered on the same platform as that adopted at the county meeting. He was challenged by Bruce as a thoroughgoing reformer. A week before the election Aberdeen told Wellington that ‘in Aberdeen they have burnt my brother in effigy and threaten some disturbance’, but that ‘should he have anything like fair play I have no doubt whatever of his beating his opponent’.34 The election was a rowdy affair, with the unfranchised Aberdeen mob causing chaos in the overcrowded courthouse and hurling incessant abuse at Gordon. Bruce acquiesced in Menzies’s election as praeses of the election meeting. Three names were added to the roll, one of them under objection. John Farquharson of Haughton nominated Gordon as a supporter of ‘temperate reform’ and Forbes Irvine seconded him. Forbes of Craigevar and Alexander Leith Hay sponsored Bruce. When called on to vote, Andrew Leith Hay pronounced Gordon ‘unfit’ to represent the county. Gordon received 75 votes to Bruce’s 32, while Gordon’s brother John, another naval officer, got three, even though he had not been formally nominated. Eight freeholders tied off. Gordon was shouted down when he tried to return thanks and had to sneak away to avoid trouble in the street, where Menzies was manhandled. Disorder continued into the evening, when Bruce gave a dinner to over 100 guests, but special constables were sworn in to restore peace.35

The farmers of Fraserburgh petitioned the Commons against the use of molasses in brewing and distilling, 3 Sept. 1831.36 The council and inhabitants of Peterhead petitioned the Lords in support of reform, 12, 18 Oct. 1831, and addressed the king in the same sense after the English bill’s defeat.37 At the annual meeting, 30 Apr. 1832, a petition to the Lords for vassals of the crown and holders of superiorities to be financially compensated was carried.38 The provincial synod of Aberdeen petitioned the Commons against the government’s Irish education scheme, 8 June 1832.39

At the 1832 general election, when the county had 2,450 registered electors, Gordon beat Bruce by 182 in a poll of 2,185.40 Subsidized by his brother, he retained the seat until 1854, when he made way for his nephew Lord Haddo.41

Author: David R. Fisher


  • 1. Ordnance Gazetteer of Scotland (1895), i. 20-22.
  • 2. HP Commons, 1790-1820, ii. 512-14; NLS mss 11, f. 37.
  • 3. Aberdeen Jnl. 24 Nov. 1819.
  • 4. Ibid. 23 Feb., 1, 22 Mar. 1820.
  • 5. CJ, lxxv. 338.
  • 6. Aberdeen Jnl. 13 Sept., 18 Oct. 1820; NAS GD51/1/198/1/23; 51/5/749/1, pp. 279-80; Norf. RO, Gurney mss RQG 334/47.
  • 7. Aberdeen Jnl. 27 Dec.; The Times, 27, 29 Dec. 1820.
  • 8. Aberdeen Jnl. 2 May 1821.
  • 9. Ibid. 13, 20, 27 Mar. 1821.
  • 10. Ibid. 8 May 1822; CJ, lxxvii. 215.
  • 11. Aberdeen Jnl. 8, 22 May 1822.
  • 12. Add. 40351, f. 200; 40352, f. 149.
  • 13. CJ, lxxviii. 63; LJ, lv. 532.
  • 14. Aberdeen Jnl. 5 May 1824; CJ, lxxix. 422-3.
  • 15. Aberdeen Jnl. 6 Oct. 1824.
  • 16. Ibid. 20 Apr. 1825; CJ, lxxx. 350, 364, 379; LJ, lvii. 657.
  • 17. Aberdeen Jnl. 15, 22 Feb. 1826; CJ, lxxxi. 176, 217, 241, 301; LJ, lviii. 61, 113, 155, 191, 214, 264, 269.
  • 18. CJ, lxxxi. 101, 234, 263; LJ, lviii. 70, 155, 221.
  • 19. LJ, lviii. 364.
  • 20. Aberdeen Jnl. 28 June 1826.
  • 21. CJ, lxxxii. 206, 230, 413; LJ, lix. 102, 141, 287.
  • 22. CJ, lxxxiii. 267.
  • 23. Aberdeen Jnl. 7 May 1828; CJ, lxxxiii. 511.
  • 24. Aberdeen Jnl. 25 Aug. 1830.
  • 25. Ibid. 6 May 1829.
  • 26. Ibid. 5 May 1830.
  • 27. Ibid. 7 July, 25 Aug. 1830.
  • 28. Ibid. 6 Oct. 1830.
  • 29. LJ, lxiii. 176, 178, 452, 472; CJ, lxxxvi. 453.
  • 30. Aberdeen Jnl. 16, 23, 30 Mar. 1831; LJ, lxiii. 392, 498; CJ, lxxxvi. 406.
  • 31. Aberdeen Jnl. 23 Mar. 1831; CJ, lxxxvi. 423.
  • 32. Aberdeen Jnl. 6 Apr. 1831.
  • 33. Ibid. 13 Apr. 1831.
  • 34. Ibid. 27 Apr., 4 May 1830; Wellington mss WP1/1184/25.
  • 35. Aberdeen Jnl. 25 May 1831.
  • 36. CJ, lxxxvi. 816.
  • 37. Aberdeen Jnl. 12, 19 Oct. 1831; LJ, lxiii. 1083, 1098.
  • 38. Aberdeen Jnl. 2 May 1832.
  • 39. CJ, lxxxvii. 389.
  • 40. Aberdeen Jnl. 20, 27 June, 5, 12, 19, 26 Dec. 1832.
  • 41. Scottish Electoral Politics, 220, 233, 247; Wellington Pol. Corresp. i. 711.