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:

178 in 1820; 185 in 1826 and 1830; 211 in 1831


13 May 1829WILLIAM BLAIR vice Montgomerie, deceased 
10 Aug. 1830WILLIAM BLAIR 
18 May 1831WILLIAM BLAIR73
 Richard Alexander Oswald36

Main Article

Ayrshire was divided by rivers into three districts, the ‘bleak and moorish’ Carrick in the south, and the ‘predominantly lowland’ Kyle and Cunninghame in the centre and north. Agriculture in Kyle and Cunninghame had undergone ‘vast improvement’ since the 1780s and dairy farming was widespread; sheep were raised in Carrick. There were extensive coal deposits in the lowland areas, and Ayrshire became second in importance only to Lanarkshire for mining in Scotland. Kilmarnock was a rapidly expanding industrial town, noted for carpet manufacturing, Beith and Kilbirnie were centres of linen production, and large numbers of textile workers, many of them handloom weavers, were employed in smaller towns such as Girvan, Maybole and Saltcoats. The seaports of Ayr and Irvine were the royal burghs.1 Political control had usually been exercised by the Montgomerie family, earls of Eglinton, but they needed allies and became increasingly dependent on support from Lord Melville, the Liverpool ministry’s Scottish manager, especially after a seven-year-old succeeded as the 13th earl in December 1819. Sir Hew Dalrymple Hamilton* of North Berwick, a Grenvillite, had successfully challenged the Eglinton interest and held the seat from 1811 to 1818, with support from Archibald Kennedy, 12th earl of Cassillis, the county’s largest landowner, and a group of independent freeholders, probably led by Richard Oswald of Auchincruive. However, Dalrymple Hamilton had withdrawn in 1818, allowing General James Montgomerie, the 13th earl of Eglinton’s great-uncle, to be returned unopposed.2

In early February 1820, shortly after the death of George III, Montgomerie wrote to Melville to contradict rumours of his intended retirement, and was assured ‘most willingly and cordially’ of government support. Cassillis, who was aggrieved at being passed over for the lord lieutenancy in favour of the 1st earl of Glasgow, urged Dalrymple Hamilton to offer and save ‘the independence of the county’ from ‘the hands of a few individuals’. He suspected that Montgomerie would be ‘merely a locum’ for another candidate, in an attempt to ‘keep a scattering interest together’. Although Dalrymple Hamilton claimed to have ‘the power of being returned’, he stood for Haddington Burghs instead and Montgomerie was ‘unanimously re-elected’.3 During the radical disturbances in the west of Scotland that spring, Montgomerie hurried to Ayr to offer his services and reported to Melville on the ‘very alarming state’ of popular feeling. An address from the radical committee in Glasgow had been ‘stuck up ... in almost every town and village in the county’, prompting many people to leave their workplaces, and while most had since returned

sixty of them went out in the open day to drill at Stewarton ... Two of them are now in prison ... It is well known that pikes are in possession of many of them, and that a great proportion of the lower classes are only waiting for an account of their assembly in force at Glasgow or Paisley to turn out in great numbers. In some manufacturing villages near Kilmarnock the very worst spirit prevails.

With ‘so great a military force’ being assembled around Glasgow and Paisley, however, he considered it unlikely that people in Ayrshire would ‘proceed to extremities’.4 In November Alexander Boswell* of Auchinleck informed the home secretary, Lord Sidmouth, that ‘the radical notions seem to be for the present forgotten’, although the parliamentary proceedings against Queen Caroline had ‘certainly had their evil effects’. He had ‘prevailed upon the well-affected persons in Kilmarnock to form a volunteer association’ and was confident of maintaining peace there. At a county meeting at Ayr summoned by requisition, 30 Dec. 1820, Sir James Fergusson of Kilkerran moved a loyal address to the king, which was seconded by Sir William Cunningham of Caprington. Oswald objected to the ‘exclusive attribute of loyalty’ to those who endorsed the address and to its implied ‘approbation of ministers’, but his unspecified amendment was defeated, 66-15.5 On 30 Apr. the spring meeting agreed a petition against the ‘unnecessary and inexpedient’ Scottish juries bill, which was presented to the Commons, 10 May 1821.6 In the summer of 1825 Dalrymple Hamilton, who was contemplating reviving his electoral pretensions, was advised by Oswald that the county was ‘certainly open and a fair field’, but the Eglinton interest had ‘an advantage in having acted long together and in holding themselves strong as a party’. Dalrymple Hamilton’s own calculation was that if ill health forced Montgomerie to retire, the Eglintons might prefer him as their candidate, as one who was ‘without a family and who may not be supposed likely to wish to remain [long] in Parliament’, rather than bringing forward another individual ‘on their interest, who might be likely to think of establishing one of their own’. Melville was willing to facilitate a mutually acceptable arrangement, but in September Montgomerie made it known that he intended to stand again at the next general election, ‘in justice to the principles and interest of my family’, and would canvass the freeholders. Following the Michaelmas head court meeting, Melville learned that Montgomerie had ‘already secured a large majority’ and ‘there is no appearance of any opposition to him’.7 A meeting summoned by requisition, 4 Mar., which was ‘not numerous’, expressed ‘universal approbation’ of a petition against interference with the Scottish banking system, which was presented to Parliament with ones from Kilmarnock, 6, 7, 9 Mar. 1826.8 At the general election that summer Montgomerie was nominated by Nicol Brown of Waterhaughs and Sir James Cunningham of Corsehill and ‘unanimously re-elected’.9

Lord Glasgow chaired a meeting at Ayr, 9 Aug. 1826, to consider measures for the relief of the manufacturing operatives. Sheriff Bell observed that, in contrast to Lanarkshire and Renfrewshire, manufacturing was ‘scattered over a number of small towns and villages’, which made it difficult to collect accurate information. He mentioned that £700 had been received from the Edinburgh relief committee, but local action was now expected. Montgomerie, who praised the ‘peaceable and orderly conduct ... universally displayed under the pressure of so severe a calamity’ and noted that harvest work had provided some temporary relief, moved for a committee ‘to gather exact information’ and to open a subscription; he was seconded by Brown of Waterhaughs.10 Montgomerie’s deteriorating health made it seem likely that a vacancy would soon occur, and in April 1827 Sir Charles Lamb, Eglinton’s stepfather and guardian, sounded the prime minister, Canning, as to whether the government would support his candidature. He explained that Eglinton was ‘anxious about keeping up his family interest’ and ‘very desirous that I should come in for a Parliament or two till his brother is old enough to take it’. He admitted that government support ‘may be very necessary in the present instance, as Lord E is a minor and his estate is in the hands of trustees’, and added that ‘I have been so little in the county lately ... that I don’t know how people may have changed their minds’. The premier, who had already been approached by an unnamed aspirant with a similar request, would not be drawn. According to another source, Lamb’s wife, Lady Montgomerie, had tried to secure his adoption by the ‘Eglinton interest’, but this ‘met with no countenance whatever’. Dalrymple Hamilton informed Melville in June that he had no ambition to stand again. Two months later David Boyle of Shewalton, the lord justice clerk and a former Member, who suspected that Oswald was conducting a secret canvass and would receive support from Dalrymple Hamilton and ‘those who are disposed to support Mr. Canning and his present associates’, suggested that his son might offer on ‘church and state’ principles. He told Melville that ‘a considerable body of freeholders’ were hostile to Catholic claims and had ‘likewise a feeling of attachment to the late government’, while the Eglinton interest would also be ‘powerfully available to a proper candidate standing in opposition to Oswald’. Nothing came of this, but Cassillis remained convinced in January 1828 that the Ayrshire seat was ‘really going abegging’.11 That autumn, Fergusson and William Blair of Blair canvassed the freeholders, and both professed ‘friendly dispositions’ towards the duke of Wellington’s government, which adopted a neutral stance. John Whishaw of Dalquharran observed that ‘nothing can exceed the tameness and indifference of all parties in the contest, if it can be so called’, adding that ‘a word from Lord Melville in favour of either ... would immediately turn the scale’. When Montgomerie died in April 1829 Fergusson ‘declined the contest’, as ‘the great majority of votes’ were pledged to Blair. There is no evidence to confirm that the Eglinton interest was behind Blair, but Fergusson appears to have been backed by Cassillis. Blair was duly returned the following month, after declaring his commitment to ‘Tory principles’ but making a virtue of the fact that he ‘went into Parliament without the influence of the administration’.12 Ayrshire was silent on the question of Catholic emancipation in 1829, but hostile petitions were sent to Parliament from Beith, Kilmarnock and Stewarton.13 At the general election of 1830 Blair was again returned unopposed and gave a ‘splendid dinner’ to the freeholders.14

Anti-slavery petitions from the inhabitants and Dissenters of Kilmarnock and Maybole were presented to both Houses in March 1831.15 The Grey ministry’s reform scheme proposed to attach Kilmarnock to the group of burghs hitherto headed by Glasgow. Lord John Russell stated, 1 Mar. 1831, that there were 308 voters in Ayrshire (other sources suggest a much lower figure), of whom only 105 ‘possess any landed property in the county’. Petitions in favour of reform were forwarded to Parliament from Beith, Girvan, Kilbirnie, Kilmarnock, Maybole and Saltcoats (the latter with ‘600 signatures’), and at Kilmarnock ‘an illumination, unexampled during the war’ was organized to celebrate the second reading of the English bill.16 Blair’s opposition to it prompted Oswald to announce his candidature at the ensuing general election, for which a local Whig expressed ‘sanguine hopes’. Dalrymple Hamilton reported to Wellington that Oswald, who favoured a more radical reform measure, was very popular in the county and that he could not persuade his friends to oppose Oswald without harming his own reputation; he believed some would nevertheless support Blair.17 An ‘attractive and imposing’ procession took place at Kilmarnock, 6 May, when 5-6,000 persons, including ‘33 different classes of tradesmen’, marched and many ‘flags with curious devices and mottos, gay, grave and witty’, were displayed in support of Oswald. Although this event was orderly, there were rumours of ‘hosts of people’ pouring into Ayr to ‘intimidate the electors’, and troops were stationed in the town. Blair and Ritchie of Busby proposed Sir James Cunninghame of Crosshill as praeses, and Oswald and Rankine of Drumdow nominated Cathcart of Genoch; the majority of 34 for Cunninghame was ‘received with loud disapprobation’. Several petitions were then presented in favour of Oswald. John Hamilton of Sundrum (who managed the Eglinton interest) and Craufurd of Craufurdland sponsored Blair, while Thomas Kennedy of Dunure, Member for Ayr Burghs, and James Campbell of Craigie introduced Oswald. Blair, on being challenged about his views on reform, maintained that he would ‘go unshackled to Parliament’, but said he would support a ‘moderate and constitutional’ measure; his victory by a majority of 37 was greeted with ‘yelling and hissing’. The court house was ‘completely surrounded by a most determined mob’, and Blair and his friends were trapped for three hours before the dragoons were ordered in and the Riot Act read. Amidst a ‘violent and dangerous uproar’, Blair’s party were escorted to the quay to board a steamer, but when the troops left ‘the deck was completely swept with showers of stones’, causing many injuries; Blair was ‘severely cut’ on the back of the head. The windows of his supporters in the town were smashed before the violence subsided.18

It was reported of Ayrshire in July 1831 that ‘the price of freeholds has run from £400 to £500’, which ‘may be considered about the average price in most counties’.19 Beith, Kilbirnie, Kilmarnock, Largs, Maybole and Saltcoats petitioned the Lords for the speedy passage of the reintroduced English reform bill, 30 Sept., 3, 4 Oct. 1831.20 Following the Scottish bill’s enactment the registered electorate was 3,197, making Ayrshire the ‘largest £10 constituency’ of all the Scottish counties except Perthshire. At the general election of 1832 Oswald heavily defeated Blair, and he held the seat until his retirement in July 1835. Subsequent registration gains led to a Conservative by-election victory in 1839, and they retained the seat with one brief interruption until the county was divided in 1867.21

Author: Terry Jenkins


  • 1. Ordnance Gazetter of Scotland (1895), i. 96-106; iv. 324-6, 370-7.
  • 2. HP Commons, 1790-1820, ii. 514-20; NAS, Dalrymple Hamilton mss RH4/57/5/49.
  • 3. NAS GD51/1/198/3/78; 5/749/180-1; Dalrymple Hamilton mss RH4/57/5/41; Add. 58999, f. 186; Glasgow Herald, 31 Mar. 1820.
  • 4. NAS GD51/5/102; Glasgow Herald, 14, 17, 21 Apr. 1820.
  • 5. Devon RO, Sidmouth mss, Boswell to Sidmouth, 8 Nov. 1820; Glasgow Herald, 5 Jan. 1821.
  • 6. Cockburn Letters, 19-22; CJ, lxxvi. 327.
  • 7. Dalrymple Hamilton mss RH4/57/49, 50; NAS GD51/1/198/3/80, 81, 83.
  • 8. Glasgow Herald, 6 Mar. 1826; CJ lxxxi. 145; LJ, lviii. 81, 84.
  • 9. Glasgow Herald, 7 July 1826.
  • 10. Ibid. 14 Aug. 1826.
  • 11. Harewood mss WYL 250/8/80c, Lamb to Canning, 27 Apr., 16 May, replies, 15, 17 May 1827; NLS mss 2, ff. 101-3; Add. 40395, f. 64.
  • 12. NLS mss 2, ff. 129-31; Add. 40307, ff. 264-6; 51659, Whishaw to Lady Holland, 6 Oct. 1828; Glasgow Herald, 24 Apr., 18 May 1829.
  • 13. CJ, lxxxiv. 151, 154, 165; LJ, lxi. 234, 235, 256, 370.
  • 14. Glasgow Herald, 5 July, 13 Aug. 1830.
  • 15. CJ, lxxxvi. 355, 367, 443, 455; LJ, lxiii. 340, 472.
  • 16. Greenock Advertiser, 25 Mar., 5 Apr. 1831; CJ, lxxxvi. 371, 405-6, 416; LJ, lxiii. 205, 264, 266, 289, 336, 346, 378.
  • 17. Wellington mss WP1/1182/9; Stair mss (History of Parliament Aspinall transcripts), Gen. Hughes to Sir J. Dalrymple, 14 Apr.; Glasgow Herald, 15 Apr. 1831.
  • 18. Glasgow Herald, 9, 13, 16, 20 May 1831.
  • 19. Glasgow City Archives, Maxwell mss T-PM 117/1/194.
  • 20. LJ, lxiii. 1022, 1035, 1041, 1046-7, 1053.
  • 21. Glasgow Herald, 22 June, 27 July, 28 Dec. 1832; Scottish Electoral Politics, 223, 248.