Ayr Burghs


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

Background Information

Rothesay, Buteshire (1820); Inverary (1826), Campbeltown (1830), Argyllshire; Ayr (1831), Irvine (not returning burgh in this period), Ayrshire


5 Mar. 1832KENNEDY re-elected after appointment to office

Main Article

Rothesay, the chief town of Buteshire, was a port at the head of Rothesay Bay on the eastern side of the island, with a population of 4,107 in 1821. A cotton-spinning factory, established in 1779, supplemented fishing and boat building as sources of employment. Its council numbered 21, of whom all but two were resident.1 Inverary, a ‘stationary’ small fishing port and the capital of Argyllshire, was situated on the south side of a bay at the River Aray’s influx into Loch Fyne. It had a population of 1,137 in 1821 and 1,117 in 1831, and a council of 16.2 Campbeltown, a fishing port and centre of whisky distilling, was at the head of Campbeltown Loch on the eastern side of Kintyre. Its population rose from 4,403 in 1821 to 4,869 in 1831, and its council numbered 17, all resident.3 Ayr, the largest burgh in the group, was a developing town on the west coast of the mainland on the left bank of the River Ayr, 30 miles south-west of Glasgow. It had ‘very little trade’ in this period, but was improving as the location of a good academy and ‘a desirable place to live’, though John Campbell II* wrote in 1822 that it was ‘the ugliest place I ever entered’. Its population (burgh and parish) was 7,455 in 1821 and 7,606 in 1831. Its council had 17 members, all resident.4 Irvine was a seaport ten miles north of Ayr on the right bank of the River Irvine, which employed many of its inhabitants in hand-loom weaving and sewing. Its population in 1831 was 5,200 and its council numbered 17, of whom two were non-residents.5 Inverary and Campbeltown were under the influence of the Whig 6th duke of Argyll, whose principal residence adjoined the former. Rothesay was dominated by the 2nd marquess of Bute, whose politics were not clearly defined, but whose brother Lord Patrick Crichton Stuart* was a staunch Whig. Irvine had been subject to the influence of the Whig 12th earl of Eglintoun, who lived nearby, but he died in December 1819, leaving his seven-year-old grandson as his heir. Ayr was more independent and Tory than the other burghs and was the scene of a campaign by its burgesses and guildry for parliamentary and municipal reform, which the self-electing council resisted, 1817-24.6

In 1818 Argyll and Bute, with Eglintoun’s approval, had accepted the Whig leaders’ recommendation of Thomas Kennedy of Dunure, eight miles south-west of Ayr, the nephew of the former Foxite party manager William Adam†, now president of the Scottish jury court, and a proponent of legal and parliamentary reform.7 Kennedy, who was one of the progenitors (with Henry Cockburn) of the Scottish reform bill in 1830-1, sat unopposed throughout this period, though it was rumoured in ministerial circles in 1820 that Bute wanted the seat for his brother, only for Argyll to insist on ‘Kennedy continuing for the burghs’.8 His position was made virtually impregnable at the Ayr municipal elections of Michaelmas 1825, as one of the correspondents of Lord Melville, the Liverpool ministry’s Scottish manager, reported:

For the first time since the Revolution a total change has ... taken place. Notwithstanding the great and universal popularity of administration, all their friends have been turned out of the council, hitherto devoted to them, and the new members to a man are engaged to Mr. Kennedy. During last autumn I informed your Lordship that both there and at Irvine the burgesses at large were anxious for an opportunity to recover their independence and share of the representation by some understanding with the Bute or Argyll interests which command the three other burghs ... Nothing distinct on this head being laid before either and no ministerial candidate introduced to their personal acquaintance and communication, at last Ayr ... has taken the lead and joined the duke’s interest. I do not however understand that they have obtained any secure pledge for their object, and on the next occasion if they should be refractory the agents of the duke of Argyll may resort to the same game with Irvine and perhaps with equal success. For I know that the ordinary burgesses there all entertain the same views as those of Ayr relative to their independence and this council did not hold themselves to be engaged for the next election and would not have gone against Mr. Kennedy, well affected as they are to government, without a clear understanding on this point. This view of the matter is in no respect invalidated by what took place at the last election. On that occasion the late Tory provost Cowan rashly engaged the burgh of Ayr to Mr. Kennedy, taken as a matter of course before he knew of the schism betwixt the duke of Argyll and the marquess of Bute. Ever since he has been in the interest of the marquess, but without taking the only method to succeed. If that method shall yet be adopted and persevered in, although not for the present, government may recover its interest in these burghs at a future time. For I am quite sure dissatisfaction will soon be felt both at Ayr and Irvine at the situation in which they now stand, as it is evidently both unnatural and inexpedient as to their communities at large, however the interests of individuals may be served by it.9

There was a hint of opposition to Kennedy in Ayr in 1826, but it came to nothing.10

In early February 1820 there was a large radical meeting in Ayr which passed off peacefully under the scrutiny of the county yeomanry. James Logan, secretary of the Ayr Radical Committee, turned police informer, and Ayr was the venue of the treason trials of the ringleaders of the abortive April 1820 radical ‘insurrection’ in western Scotland.11 Ayr council tried unsuccessfully to curb popular celebrations of the abandonment of the bill of pains and penalties against Queen Caroline in November 1820, and the burgesses and inhabitants of Irvine and Inverary petitioned Parliament in her support in early 1821.12 The council of Irvine petitioned the Commons for inquiry into the regulation of salmon fisheries, in which Kennedy was actively interested, 11 Mar. 1824.13 There was petitioning from all the burghs except Irvine against interference with the Scottish banking system in 1826.14 The maltsters of Campbeltown petitioned the Commons for repeal of the Malt Act, 12 Mar., and the Merchant Company and council of Ayr for that of the Test Acts, 25 Mar., 29 Apr. 1828.15 Ayr Merchant Company and incorporated trades petitioned the Commons against renewal of the East India Company’s trade monopoly, 26 Apr. 1830.16 Anti-slavery petitions reached the Commons from Rothesay, 2 Dec. 1830, and Ayr, 11 Mar. 1831, when the House also received petitions from interested parties in Ayr, Campbeltown, Irvine and Rothesay against the Grey ministry’s proposed tax on steamboat passengers, and a petition from Ayr merchants against alteration of the duties on colonial timber.17 In November 1830 Ayr council, led by Provost Quintin Kennedy, unanimously accepted the principle of and need for reform of the Scottish representative system and municipal government. They and the Merchant Company and incorporated trades petitioned both Houses to that effect in December.18 The burgesses and inhabitants of Ayr, the council, trades and inhabitants of Irvine and the council, burgesses and householders of Inverary followed suit in February 1831.19 When the ministry’s reform scheme was unveiled the following month, favourable petitions were sent up by Ayr council and various organizations in the burgh, the council, burgesses and inhabitants of Irvine, the council and inhabitants of Campbeltown and the merchants, traders and householders of Rothesay.20 The council and the burgesses and inhabitants of Irvine, the council, householders and tenants and friendly societies of Ayr, the burgesses and inhabitants of Inverary and of Campbeltown petitioned the Lords in support of the reform plan, 30 Sept.-6 Oct. 1831.21 The Merchant Company of Ayr and the incorporated trades, burgesses and inhabitants of Irvine petitioned the Commons to withhold supplies until reform was secured, 21 May, as did, belatedly, the incorporated trades of Ayr, 15 June 1832.22 The enactment of reform was elaborately celebrated in Ayr, 10 Aug. 1832.23

In December 1830 Cockburn, the newly appointed Scottish solicitor-general, writing to Kennedy on proposals for Scottish reform, suggested that if the Ayr district proved to contain too few £10 houses to create a viable constituency the burghs could be thrown into their respective counties. Alternatively, the large and expanding Ayrshire manufacturing town of Kilmarnock, seven miles inland from Irvine, could be added to the group.24 Initially the ministerial bill proposed no change to the district beyond the extension of the franchise; but when it was decided in September 1831 to give Buteshire separate representation rather than annex it to Dunbartonshire, Rothesay was removed from the Ayr group and put into its county. It was replaced with Oban, a small but growing Argyllshire port and resort. On 6 June 1832 the Commons received petitions from the inhabitants of Campbeltown, the council of Renfrew and the burgesses and inhabitants of Dumbarton asking for those burghs to be grouped with Inverary and Rutherglen and for Ayr and Irvine to be placed with Kilmarnock. On 15 June petitions to the same effect from the council and trades of Kilmarnock and the chief magistrate of Inverary were received, as well as ones from the councils of Ayr and Irvine asking for the chief magistrates of burghs to be designated the returning officers rather than the sheriffs, as proposed.25 That day the reformer Sir Michael Shaw Stewart moved that Kilmarnock be removed from the Renfrew district and grouped with Ayr, while Campbeltown and Inverary were placed with Renfrew, Rutherglen and Port Glasgow. Lord Althorp, the leader of the House, and Kennedy opposed this as an infraction of the principle of the bill, and it was defeated by 67-35. Ayr’s parliamentary boundaries were extended to encompass Content, Newton-on-Ayr and Wallacetown.

At the general election of 1832, when the constituency had a registered electorate of 623, Kennedy defeated the Ayr radical hero John Taylor by 375 votes to 164, with a Conservative in third place with 33. The frustrated supporters of Taylor rioted.26 When Kennedy retired in 1834, Crichton Stuart beat Taylor by 182 votes in a poll of 518. The district was a Liberal stronghold for most of the century.27

Author: David R. Fisher


  • 1. Ordnance Gazetteer of Scotland (1895), v. 274, 276, 277; PP (1823), xv. 714; (1830-1), x. 37, 45.
  • 2. Ordnance Gazetteer of Scotland, iv. 292-4; PP (1823), xv. 715; (1830-1), x. 4-54, 45; (1831-2), xlii. 181.
  • 3. Ordnance Gazetteer of Scotland, i. 227-9; PP (1823), xv. 715; (1830-1), x. 5, 45; (1831-2), xlii. 179.
  • 4. Ordnance Gazetteer of Scotland, i. 96-100; PP (1830-1), x. 6, 45; (1831-2), xlii. 177; Life of Campbell, i. 413.
  • 5. Ordnance Gazetteer of Scotland, iv. 324-5; PP (1830-1), x. 6; (1831-2), xlii. 183.
  • 6. J. Strawhorn, Hist. Ayr, 90, 155, 161.
  • 7. HP Commons, 1790-1820, ii. 594; iv. 331, 332.
  • 8. NLS mss 11, ff. 14, 24, 41.
  • 9. NAS GD51/1/198/3/83.
  • 10. Stawhorn, 162; Macleod of Macleod mss 937.
  • 11. P.B. Ellis and S. Mac a’ Ghobhainn, Scottish Insurrection of 1820, pp. 135, 137, 232, 236, 257, 264, 265; NAS GD51/5/102.
  • 12. Strawhorn, 155; CJ, lxxvi. 12; LJ, liv. 30.
  • 13. CJ, lxxix. 149, 150.
  • 14. Ibid. lxxxi. 130, 135, 152, 230, 231, 263; LJ, lviii. 81, 94, 107, 160.
  • 15. CJ, lxxxiii. 159, 197, 283.
  • 16. Ibid. lxxxv. 330.
  • 17. Ibid. lxxxvi. 143, 367.
  • 18. Strawhorn, 155, 161; CJ, lxxxvi. 169; LJ, lxiii. 166, 189.
  • 19. CJ, lxxxvi. 230, 310; LJ, lxiii. 189, 254, 263.
  • 20. CJ, lxxxvi. 406, 416; LJ, lxiii. 315, 346, 349, 353, 358, 384, 402, 439.
  • 21. LJ, lxiii. 1025, 1036, 1046, 1052, 1063, 1067.
  • 22. CJ, lxxxvii. 326, 404.
  • 23. Strawhorn, 157.
  • 24. Cockburn Letters, 273, 277, 278.
  • 25. CJ, lxxxvii. 382, 404.
  • 26. J. Howie, Hist. Account of Ayr, 101-4; Strawhorn, 157.
  • 27. Scottish Electoral Politics, 228, 241, 260, 261.