RAE, Sir William, 3rd bt. (1769-1842), of St. Catherine's, Edinburgh

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



26 July 1819 - 1826
16 May 1827 - 1830
1830 - 1831
1831 - 1832
4 Sept. 1833 - 19 Oct. 1842

Family and Education

b. 14 Apr. 1769, 2nd s. of David Rae, Lord Eskgrove, SCJ (d. 1804), of Eskgrove and Margaret, da. of John Stuart of Blairhall, Perth. educ. Edinburgh h.s. 1779-82; Glasgow Univ. 1788; Edinburgh Univ.; adv. 1791. m. 9 Sept. 1793, Mary, da. of Lt.-Col. Charles Stuart, 63 Ft., s.p. suc. bro. Sir David Rae, 2nd bt., as 3rd bt. 22 May 1815. d. 19 Oct. 1842.

Offices Held

Ld. advocate June 1819-Nov. 1830, Dec. 1834-Apr. 1835, Sept. 1841-d.; PC 19 July 1830.

Sheriff, Orkney 1801-9, Edinburgh 1809-19; dir. (extraordinary), Bank of Scotland 1809-14.

Cornet Edinburgh vol. cav. 1797, capt. 1797-1810.


Rae, a tall man with ‘a fine, thoughtful countenance’ and ‘strong’ Scottish accent, was described by his friend Sir Walter Scott as ‘sensible, cool-headed and firm’.1 At the general election of 1820 he secured an unopposed return on the interest of Colonel Robert Anstruther† for the Anstruther Burghs, which he had successfully contested nine months earlier on his surprising appointment as lord advocate.2 In the weeks before the elections he kept Lord Melville, the Liverpool ministry’s Scottish manager, informed of developments, and found and encouraged friendly candidates for a few seats, including the Aberdeen, Haddington and Stirling districts.3 Had the new reign led to the formation of a Whig ministry, he would have been compensated for the loss of his place with the additional barony of exchequer, which in the event went to Sir Patrick Murray†.4 He initially took a relaxed view of the manifestations of unrest in Glasgow and the west of Scotland, but he was involved in the pre-emptive strike which flooded Glasgow with troops on 5 Apr. 1820. He wrote from there next day to the home secretary Lord Sidmouth:

All has continued quiet ... I am satisfied that the radical gentlemen are completely frightened, and that we shall have no opportunity of bestowing upon them any of that description of chastisement which I came here in the hope of seeing inflicted. It now ... remains for us to augment this fear and confirm the confidence of the well-disposed, which has revived wonderfully since our arrival ... We proposed tomorrow to make a formidable search for arms, and to take many of those into custody with whom pikes or such like arms shall be found. A number of other arrests are taking place on stronger grounds, and we shall have abundance of examples to make in the way of trial. A commission of oyer and terminer for the trial of those accused of high treason ... ought not to be delayed.5

In the subsequent trials, held successively at Stirling, Glasgow, Dumbarton, Paisley and Ayr, 23 June-9 Aug. 1820, Rae led for the crown: 24 men were sentenced to death, but only three were executed.6

Rae was named to the select committees on the municipal government of the Scottish royal burghs, 4 May 1820, 16 Feb. 1821. In the House, 1, 4 May, he explained and defended Murray’s controversial appointment, and on 15 May 1820, in what the Tory backbencher Henry Bankes considered a ‘heavy and indifferent speech’, replied to Lord Archibald Hamilton’s censure motion, arguing that the position had been filled, contrary to the recommendation of the Scottish judicial commissioners, ‘on a due consideration of the national contract at the Union’.7 His description of Hamilton’s attack on the Scottish lord clerk register Archibald Campbell Colquhoun* as ‘unfounded and illiberal’ earned him a rebuke from the Speaker. The motion was defeated by only 12 votes. Rae presented a constituency petition for restoration of Queen Caroline’s name to the liturgy, 31 Jan. 1821.8 He opposed Hamilton’s motion for a copy of the order in council to the general assembly of the Church of Scotland on this issue, 15 Feb., when the radical Whig Henry Grey Bennet thought he ‘replied in a very good manner, but gave up all the question by admitting that the clergy of Scotland could pray or not ... as they pleased, for the queen’.9 Later that day he defeated by 59-22 an amendment to his resolution ordering compensation for clerks of the Scottish admiralty court; and on 1 May he asserted that the enabling bill ‘did not contain a single objectionable clause’.10 He voted against Catholic relief, 28 Feb. 1821, 1 Mar., 21 Apr., 10 May 1825. On 2 Apr. 1821 he defended the labours of the royal burghs select committee against Hamilton’s criticisms, admitting that many of the petitioners’ complaints had proved to be ‘well founded’, but dismissing the call for root and branch reform. The ministerialist lawyer Robert Grant* noted that Rae

seems to have managed matters in the committee with address and ability, and to have brought them pretty nearly into a state that the committee are likely to make a very different report ... from that which was made by their predecessors ... [He] carried a resolution ... which puts an end to the hopes of the reformers so far as the reports of that committee are concerned.11

Rae had indicated his dislike of the Whig Thomas Kennedy’s bill to reform the Scottish jury system, 16 Feb., observing that while ‘a great practical evil must be shown before any innovation should be permitted’, there was ‘a general disposition in the present day to hunt out every hole and corner in our constitutional system to which some theoretical remedy might by possibility apply’. In early April he sent a copy of the measure and his own critical comments to the conveners of the Scottish counties and urged them to have the bill considered at the impending annual general meetings. A number of hostile petitions were sent to Parliament, and Rae’s intervention was noticed there by the Whigs, but he claimed that he had only been laying the case before the public, 8, 18 May 1821.12

In December 1821 Melville asked Rae if he wanted to take the vacant barony of exchequer, but, while admitting that his claim ‘could not with justice or propriety be resisted’, strongly discouraged him from doing so, because his departure from office would ‘at present be attended with public inconvenience’. Rae replied:

The situation of a baron is one which I have long looked to, and if it passes me now, the chance of another opening is truly remote. On the other hand I have had full experience of your friendship, and government have so acted towards me that I should be most unwilling to take any step contrary to their wishes or which might be attended with real public inconvenience. Having no family, I can venture to run greater risks than most other people, and if I do not get this situation I must somewhat change my views and look to what may happen to fall elsewhere. Under these circumstances and not knowing all the reasons which may influence you ... I am truly desirous to put myself entirely into your hands, and shall cheerfully accede to whatever arrangement you may deem most expedient.

He went to London to see Melville, who evidently raised serious objections to his suggestion of ‘keeping the baron’s gown unfilled up’ for the time being, so that he could take it at the end of the next session, when the ticklish issue of his involvement with the virulent Glasgow Tory newspaper the Beacon had been disposed of. Rae acknowledged the awkwardness of these difficulties and, not wishing to expose himself to the charge that he was ‘a judge elect who ought not to be in Parliament’, advised Melville ‘forthwith to give the gown to David Hume’:

I shall then meet the Beacon question wholly unfettered, and with a feeling in the House, I should rather suppose, somewhat favourable to me. What the consequences ... may be to me hereafter cannot be foreseen, and is immaterial to be looked to. I have, however, seldom observed anyone suffer from following a straightforward course.

On 2 Jan. 1822 Lord Liverpool, the foreign secretary Lord Londonderry* and Sidmouth endorsed this decision and asked Melville to inform Rae of their sense of ‘the propriety and handsomeness’ of his conduct.13

In the House, 18 Feb. 1822, Rae failed to persuade Hamilton to withdraw his motion for a bill to abolish the inferior Scottish commissary courts, having one in preparation himself, and had it negatived. He introduced his measure on 3 Apr. but abandoned it on 3 June, when he admitted to Hamilton that the problem had turned out to require ‘much consideration’.14 On 20 Feb. he opposed Hamilton’s motion for inquiry by committee of the whole House into the royal burghs and heralded his own ‘comprehensive’ bill, which would ‘effect a remedy for the existing grievances without injuring any chartered rights or violating any article of the Union’: he ‘could not view any alteration in the constitution of them in any other light than of a parliamentary reform’. He brought in the bill, which sought to regulate the burghs’ accounts and outlaw non-residence by magistrates, on 7 Mar. The latter provision provoked considerable opposition from the councils, especially those in the north, but Rae assured Lord Gower†, whose father Lord Stafford had a significant stake there, that ‘the members of the town council were not intended by him to have been included, not being named in the former laws, and that he would endeavour to omit them’.15 On 17 June it was resolved to divide the measure into two bills, one to regulate the accounts, the other to deal with non-residence. The former became law as 3 Geo. IV, c. 91. The latter passed the Commons, 19 July, when Rae and Lord Binning secured the addition of a clause requiring a majority of council members to be resident and defeated radical Whig amendments making residence obligatory and excluding revenue officers.16 The bill foundered in the Lords. Rae allowed Kennedy to bring in his renewed Scottish juries bill, 5 Mar., but on 20 June he unsuccessfully opposed its second reading, which the new home secretary, Peel, supported.17 The affair of the Beacon, which had been put out of business in the late summer of 1821 by exposure of the part played by Rae and other Tories as guarantors of its financial stability, had taken an embarrassing turn.18 Its replacement, the Sentinel, had continued the practice of publishing savage personal attacks on individual Whigs, and one of these, James Stuart of Dunearn, had brought a libel action against Borthwick and Alexander, the publishers. In the course of this it had emerged that the author of one of the offending articles was Alexander Boswell*, who in late March 1822 was challenged by Stuart to a duel, in which he was fatally wounded. Stuart was tried for murder at Rae’s instigation, but was acquitted. Meanwhile, the crown had also started proceedings against Borthwick for theft, at the instance of Alexander. He spent many weeks in prison on remand, but was released without trial after Stuart’s acquittal. In the House, 25 June, the Whig James Abercromby moved for inquiry into the conduct of Rae and his deputies, especially in the proceedings against Borthwick. Rae initially denied all knowledge of the Sentinel and that he had signed a circular recommending it, but when Abercromby handed him the physical evidence he admitted his error, though he still claimed not to recall signing the paper. He subsequently confessed that he had subscribed £100 to the Beacon and acted as its guarantor. He defended the conduct of his deputies in prosecuting Borthwick, but took the ultimate responsibility on himself. The motion was defeated by 120-95, but Bankes recorded his impression of Rae’s discomfort, observing that he ‘appeared much agitated and confused, and unequal to his antagonist’. The Whig Member George Agar Ellis thought his ‘answer was miserable’.19 In a ‘frequently’ inaudible speech on 23 July 1822, Rae elaborated on his defence, maintaining that he would not personally have initiated the action against Borthwick, but again standing by his deputies and accusing Abercromby of failing to disclose the full scope of his motion, thereby forcing Rae to give in the first instance ‘a very unsatisfactory reply’.20 When Abercromby moved on 3 June 1823 that his conduct in the Borthwick affair had been ‘unjust and oppressive’, Rae insisted that he had ‘acted upon pure and conscientious motives’. No minister spoke for him, and the motion was rejected by only six votes (102-96). The Whig George Tierney* commented that Rae would doubtless follow the ‘precedent’ set by the Irish attorney-general William Plunket* of ‘not resigning in consequence of ill usage and being deserted by those who are bound to support you’; and the Edinburgh Whig lawyer Henry Cockburn reported that there was ‘but one opinion, even among the enemy, as to its being an undeniable and signal defeat’. Henry Brougham* thought Rae must resign, but Cockburn expected him to be ‘speedily made a judge’.21 The junior minister Lord Lowther* had commented in March 1823 that Rae ‘does not seem equal to his business’, but he comfortably survived.22

In the late summer of 1822 Rae had let Melville know that he had ‘not the slightest wish’ to fill the vacant lordship of session. Under the aegis of Peel, he consulted during the recess with senior Scottish judges on proposed changes in the criminal law and made suggestions of his own.23 On 26 Mar. 1823 he led the opposition to Hamilton’s motion for a copy of the 1822 crown warrant authorizing a new Inverness council election after the suspension of the sett. He stressed that the warrant had been issued on the ‘wise and sound discretion’ of the privy council, and claimed that the local government of the burgh had ‘considerably improved under the present management’; the motion was defeated by 49-31. He defended the Edinburgh authorities’ intervention against the ‘blasphemous’ Free Thinkers Zetetic Society, 16 Apr. He opposed Hamilton’s motion for reform of the Scottish county representation, claiming that the existing system was ‘approved of by the people’, 2 June. He had introduced on 27 Mar. a bill for the better granting of confirmations, regulating the commissary court of Edinburgh and altering the jurisdiction of inferior Scottish commissaries. ‘With the view of preserving the consistorial law’ and saving ‘the public from heavy claims of compensation on the part of commissary clerks’, as he explained to Peel, he decided ‘not to propose the entire abolition’ of the inferior courts.24 The measure was divided into two, 28 Apr.: one dealing with confirmations, the other with the commissaries. Rae was forced to defer the third reading of the latter, 18, 19 June, when he accused Hamilton and other Whigs of being obstructive ‘for no other purpose than to cast unpleasant personal reflections upon him’.25 He secured the third reading of the bill, which transferred the commissaries’ business to the sheriffs depute, by 56-21 on 30 June. The measures became law on 19 July as 4 Geo. IV, cc. 97 and 98. Rae divided the House against the second reading of Kennedy’s renewed Scottish juries bill, 20 June 1823, but was in a minority of 42 to 47.26

In the autumn of 1823 he was involved in the Edinburgh deliberations of the Scottish judicial commission appointed by Peel.27 When Hamilton moved to refer its reports to a committee of the whole House, 30 Mar., Rae accused him of trying to make him ‘defend himself from the charge of having neglected his duty, by not giving effect to the recommendations of the commissioners’. He recapitulated recent changes to the Scottish courts, said (to Abercromby’s satisfaction) that he wished to enable justices to take their share of criminal administration and sat down to ‘loud and general cheering’. The motion was defeated by 124-76.28 He disliked Kennedy’s Scottish poor bill, 6 Apr., defended the existing system, 14 May, presented hostile petitions, 19 May, 3 June, and said that the measure had ‘never received the slightest encouragement from any public body in Scotland’, 26 May.29 He thought Kennedy’s revised juries bill was ‘impracticable’ and unnecessarily complex, 4 May. He anticipated ‘heavy objections’ to Hamilton’s bill to amend the Small Debts Act for Scotland, which he considered too biased towards creditors, 10 June. On the 17th he endorsed Peel’s decision to postpone the ministerial Scottish judicature bill until next session, a course which he had strongly advised behind the scenes.30 Soon afterwards he was given leave by the treasury to go to Edinburgh until at least 28 July 1823 ‘to attend to personal and professional duties’; but on the 19th he asked Melville to excuse him from attendance for Abercromby’s motion for reform of Edinburgh’s representation a week later:

I am in hopes that the ... case will not be treated as a Scotch question, but will be met by ... Canning [the leader of the House] on the general ground of its being a commencement to the introduction of parliamentary reform ... I should certainly not wish to quit Edinburgh at the present moment ... We are ... deeply engaged in taking measures for putting down by means of proceedings before the judiciary several shops whose atheistical publications are daily issued to a great extent ... You must be aware of the necessity as far as possible of discountenancing the practice of the lord advocate being required to attend in London during the whole sittings of Parliament. Though I should submit to this without grumbling, it is obvious that if once such a rule is established no lawyer of great professional practice could accept of the situation.31

He was evidently allowed to remain in Edinburgh.

In November 1824 Rae was very anxious to ascertain from Peel and Melville that he and the Scottish solicitor-general John Hope would be entrusted with the task of preparing the amended judicature bill, feeling miffed that it had been taken out of their hands in the previous session:

If the same arrangement is to be persevered in, the only inference which the public can draw is that ... government have not that trust in their council which ... they ought to have. I am hopeful ... that no one can suppose for a moment that we would feel inclined to introduce any change into the bill ... inconsistent with the views and wishes of government.

He and Hope had also prepared ‘a set of clauses’ for inclusion in a planned ministerial measure to deal with jury selection; and he questioned Kennedy’s fitness to handle the issue, even leaving aside his close connection with ‘those whose unremitting object it is to make a run at the Scotch crown council’. Liverpool, Peel, Melville, lord chancellor Eldon and Lord Gifford came to a decision on the matter, but it is not entirely clear how this affected Rae.32 He tried to get out of attending for a call of the House on 18 Feb. 1825, but Peel would not indulge him.33 The Scottish jurors and judicature bills were originated in the Lords. Rae explained the latter on its second reading, 18 Apr., when Kennedy welcomed its concession of selection by ballot. It became law as 6 Geo. IV, c. 22. Rae thought John Peter Grant’s bill to amend the Scottish wrongous imprisonment laws would cost too much to implement and do little good, 5 May. He was in the minority of 52 against the Irish franchise bill, 9 May. He denied any responsibility for the controversial Leith docks bill, 20 May, when he voted in the favourable minority of 15. He defended the Scottish shooting and stabbing bill, 20 June, and the Scottish partnerships bill, 22 June 1825. On 28 Feb. 1826 he brought in a bill to amend the Jurors Act, which became law as 7 Geo. IV, c. 8. He presented petitions against interference with the Scottish banking system, 14, 20 Mar.,34 and was named to the select committee on the circulation of small notes, 16 Mar. That day he defended his conduct in the matter of the disfranchisement of Pittenweem (one of his constituent burghs) and objected to production of the information demanded by Hamilton.35 On 21 Mar. he secured the appointment of a select committee on Scottish gaols, after detailing some of their deficiencies: ‘in one case ... The gaoler was stone-blind and the gaol was managed by his daughter ... the blind gaoler could not give his eye to the prisoners, and as to the daughter, it might occur that the prisoners might be giving an eye for her’. He opposed reform of Edinburgh’s representative system, arguing that extension of the franchise from the council to £5 householders, who were of the class of ‘gentlemen’s servants’, would create chaos. He defended the Scottish bankers bill, 12 May 1826.36

At the general election a month later Rae was opposed and beaten in Anstruther Burghs by James Balfour, a wealthy nabob with a Fifeshire estate.37 He remained in place on the formation of Canning’s ministry in April 1827 (when Melville was one of the Tory seceders); it was noted that he could ‘not afford to resign and wait’ for the chance of a judgeship.38 He was provided with a seat for Harwich on the treasury interest in May. He was in the ministerial minority against the Penryn disfranchisement bill, 7 June, and defended the Edinburgh bridewell bill, 11 June.39 Abercromby, a supporter of the ministry, strove in vain to convince his leader Lord Lansdowne of the ‘absolute necessity’ of getting rid of Rae in order to erect ‘a proper government standard’ in Scotland.40 He was retained in office by Lord Goderich, who in early September asked him to back the Whig Sir Michael Shaw Stewart* in the Lanarkshire by-election. Rae vouched for the willingness of the Tory candidate Charles Douglas*, a personal friend, to support the government if elected, and the premier and the colonial secretary William Huskisson* concluded that it would be ‘prudent’ for them to remain ‘neutral’, provided it was made clear to Rae that it must be a ‘real’ and not ‘a pretended neutrality, operating covertly’ in Douglas’s favour. Tierney, a member of the government, was told by Shaw Stewart’s backers that Rae was in fact ‘most active in his exertion’ for Douglas, and pressed Huskisson to intervene. Huskisson felt that Tierney had been misinformed, and explained to him the understanding reached between Goderich and Rae. Shaw Stewart won the contest.41 Abercromby continued to agitate for Rae’s removal and replacement by Hope, with Cockburn becoming solicitor-general. He believed that Rae was ‘quite as impatient to be translated to a less conspicuous station as any of us are to see his place vacated’, but he acknowledged that he was ‘a poor man’ with ‘no resources in the profession’, who could not ‘be cast off without the promise of an early provision’.42 Hope reckoned that Rae would not take a seat in the court of session, but that he still aspired to a barony of exchequer.43 With the return to the cabinet of Melville under the duke of Wellington and Peel in January 1828 Rae was back in more congenial company.

He divided against repeal of the Test Acts, 26 Feb., and Catholic claims, 12 May 1828. He doubted the practicability of Graham’s bill to facilitate the removal of Scottish paupers from English counties, 19 Feb., and did not think intelligent Scottish opinion was ready for the changes in the law of entails proposed by Kennedy, 6 Mar. On 10 June, however, he stated that the measure had been so much improved by the committee upstairs (on which he had sat) that it now ‘merited the most dispassionate ... consideration’. On 14 Mar. he introduced a bill to establish an additional circuit judge at Glasgow, in response to a ‘very considerable’ increase in crime. He had it committed pro forma, 25 Mar., and sent copies to Scotland for consideration by the profession. The measure passed the Commons on 12 May and became law as 9 Geo. IV, c. 29. Rae did not want Spring Rice’s rights of executors bill extended to Scotland, where its principle had been ‘long in practice’, 4 June. He brought in a bill to regulate and improve Scottish gaols, 6 May, but on the 15th said he would not press it ‘against the feelings of the Members for Scotland’; he had it printed for circulation, 20 June. He opposed and defeated by 88-12 an amendment to add the River Thurso to the exemptions from the salmon fisheries bill, 23 June 1828. As expected, he sided with his colleagues for the concession of Catholic emancipation in 1829. On 24 Mar. he admitted that there was much hostility to it in Scotland, but as a member of the Church of England he declared that ‘my friends north of the Tweed need not entertain any fear that the Church of Scotland, or their Presbyterian form of worship, is in the least danger’. He had his reintroduced (14 Apr.) gaols bill referred to a select committee, 8 May, but it continued to arouse fierce opposition from the burgh councils. He warned on 27 May that he would have to legislate on the problem next year, as the condition of its gaols was ‘perhaps, the only part of the national establishment of which Scotland need be ashamed’. Next day he abandoned the bill and introduced a revised version as a basis for further inquiry. He had been leading counsel for the crown in the sensational murder trial of the Edinburgh body snatchers in December 1828, and on the anatomy regulation bill, 15 May 1829, he advised that prescribing too severe a punishment might lead to undeserved acquittals and that this should be left to the discretion of the courts. He joined in the defence of the ministerial proposals to give ‘a very moderate addition’ to judges’ salaries, 21 May 1829.

When Rae belatedly discovered in mid-February 1830 that lord chief baron William Shepherd† had retired and was to be replaced by Abercromby (whom he did not blame personally), he was mortified. He complained to Melville that it looked like ‘a job for a particular individual’ engineered by lord chief commissioner William Adam† and lord chancellor Lyndhurst, and that it ‘showed in how little estimation I am held by ... government’:

I have no right to be offended at the selection ... but I ... have some grounds to complain of the manner in which this arrangement has been conducted, as unkind to me and disrespectful to my office ... What has now occurred has greatly altered my feelings as to holding office. It has not been from pecuniary motives that I have so long continued advocate. I liked the duties, however laborious and responsible, and I thought it probable that ... this ... would lead to some respectable retirement for the close of life. This expectation is ended. The office which was the object of my ambition is to be passed by me like a shadow without my being allowed even to grasp at it; and if disposed (which I certainly am not) to commence with the duties of an ordinary Scotch judge at a time of life when my contemporaries are retiring from the bench on the score of infirmity and old age, the contemplated judicial arrangements would preclude the possibility of my ever attaining such a position ... It shall not, however, be said that I do anything from pique or from a wish to embarrass the government. But my course must be so guided that I may withdraw at the time and in the manner which may place me in the best point of view with those of my countrymen whose opinions I value.

Melville sent him a conciliatory but firm reply, observing that he had ‘not viewed the subject’ with his ‘usual fairness and impartiality’. He dismissed Rae’s conspiracy theories, said that he had personally proposed his nomination as lord chief baron, but had not been prepared to insist on it in the circumstances, which required the appointment of an English barrister, and assured him that he and other ministers held him in high regard. Having been delayed on his journey to London by his wife’s illness, Rae accepted Melville’s exoneration of Lyndhurst, but insisted that he had never acquiesced in the notion that the chief baron must be an English barrister, a principle of selection which ‘necessarily went not only to exclude me, but my successors in office in all time coming, and even the whole members of the Scotch bar, from one of the honours of the profession’. He was, however, gratified by Melville’s personal support.44 On 1 Apr. 1830 he introduced the Scottish judicature bill, one part of the ministry’s package of legal reforms, which aimed to unite jury trials in civil causes with the ordinary jurisdiction of the court of session and abolish two judges of the latter. He asserted that there was ‘no hostility’ to it in Scotland, 30 Apr., but had it committed and printed for amendment, 10 May. He presented favourable petitions from the profession, 27 May, 11 June. On 18 June he invited written suggestions for improvements, and he answered some criticisms on the third reading, 23 June. When the king’s death three days later threatened its passage through the Lords, Rae told ministers he would resign if it was not carried before the dissolution.45 He got his way, and the bill became law on 23 July as 11 Geo. IV & 1 Gul. IV, c. 69. Rae said that the death penalty for serious forgery offences had had a good deterrent effect in Scotland, but did not oppose its abolition, 13 May. He was in the Protestant minorities against the Galway franchise bill, 24, 25 May. He explained that he had been unable to prepare a satisfactory gaols bill for that session, 28 May. On 10 July he applied to Wellington for admission to the privy council in recognition of his work as the longest serving lord advocate since the Union. After some consideration, during which Peel noted that he had a ‘strong’ claim, he was sworn in on 19 July 1830.46

At the general election the following month he was returned unopposed for Buteshire by the 2nd marquess of Bute. He was in the ministerial minority on the civil list, 15 Nov. 1830, and duly resigned with his colleagues a few days later, having secured a civil list pension of £660 for his wife.47 In the House, 2 Dec., he urged the Grey ministry to appoint his successor as soon as possible. (They picked Francis Jeffrey*, former editor of the Edinburgh Review.) On Kennedy’s entails reform bill, 7 Dec. 1830, Rae professed to be ‘anxious’ for change, but suggested that legislation should begin in the Lords, where judicial expertise could be utilized. Next day he introduced a bill to alter the Scottish law concerning heritable enfeoffments. On 13 Apr. he brought in one to facilitate the transfer of heritable securities, but both measures were overtaken by the 1831 dissolution. Following Jeffrey in the debate on the ministerial reform scheme, 9 Mar., Rae said that ‘a great alteration is proposed, for which no sufficient reason has been assigned’. Confining himself to the Scottish proposals, he objected to various details of the redistribution of seats, defended the existing county franchise, by which ‘in the great majority of cases the largest landed proprietor in the county becomes ... its representative’ and predicted ‘excitement ... disorder and even bloodshed’ at Edinburgh elections held under a £10 householder franchise. He asserted that the plan was only popular in Scotland because the people did not fully understand it, 19 Mar. He divided against the second reading of the English bill, 22 Mar. He presented and endorsed a petition against the proposed disfranchisement of Anstruther Burghs and one from Glasgow cotton manufacturers against the duty on raw cotton wool, 28 Mar. He voted for Gascoyne’s wrecking amendment to the English reform bill, 19 Apr. 1831. Buteshire’s return passed to Caithness at the ensuing general election, when Rae was accommodated with a seat for the Irish borough of Portarlington on the interest of the 2nd earl of Portarlington, financed from the Tory election fund.48

His comment on the riotous tendencies of lower class Scots had been widely noticed,49 and in the House, 27 June 1831, he claimed that he had been ‘very much misrepresented’ and had merely observed that although they were ‘orderly, peaceable and difficult to excite, yet when excited and formed into a mob’, they had ‘an extraordinary disposition to riot, and seldom separate without it’. Two days later he deplored Shaw Stewart’s attempt to find excuses for the Lanarkshire election disturbances, which he had witnessed at first hand. He voted against the second reading of the reintroduced English reform bill, 6 July, for use of the 1831 census to determine the disfranchisement schedules, 19 July, against the partial disfranchisement of Chippenham, 27 July, and in a minority of 17 for the preservation of existing voting rights, 27 Aug. On 6 Aug. he protested again against the proposed disfranchisement of the Anstruther Burghs, pointing out that his own defeat there in 1826 proved that they were not in anyone’s pocket. He suggested disfranchising instead Tain Burghs, given that the patron Lord Stafford had been left with his ‘nomination county’ of Sutherland. He divided against the passage of the reform bill, 21 Sept., and the second reading of the Scottish measure, 23 Sept., when he presented and endorsed a petition from St. Andrews for representation for the Scottish universities. On 3 Oct. he conceded that the original ‘undigested and objectionable’ Scottish reform bill had been materially improved, largely thanks to the suggestions of Tories, but he still found many faults in it and was convinced that it would bring an ‘end for ever to the influence of the landed interests’. He also urged ministers to deal firmly with disorder to dispel the impression created by Jeffrey and others that they desired a strong demonstration of popular reform feeling. He wanted sheriffs to have the final say on disputed registration claims, 4 Oct. He was in the minority for inquiry into the effects of renewal of the Sugar Refinery Act on the West India interest, 12 Sept. In late July he had sent Wellington a memorandum criticizing lord chancellor Brougham’s bill to reorganize the Scottish exchequer court, which he considered a botch and a job for Abercromby.50 In the House, 6 Oct. 1831, he questioned the leader of the Commons Lord Althorp about the measure, expressed dismay at the proposed abolition of the entire court and pressed for further inquiry by commission. Next day he divided the House unsuccessfully (31-95) against the second reading. As a former sheriff of Orkney, he was consulted by its Member George Traill, who was seeking to secure separate representation for the county, and who considered his obliging letter ‘stating the objections to the junction’ with Shetland to be ‘very valuable’.51

Rae was ‘ordered up’ to London in early December 1831 and was present to vote for the second reading of the revised English reform bill on the 17th.52 He voted against the enfranchisement of Tower Hamlets, 28 Feb., and the third reading, 22 Mar. 1822. Named to the select committee on the new Scottish exchequer court bill, 27 Jan., he secured the adoption of an instruction widening its remit, 31 Jan., and supported Clerk’s attempt to add six Members to it, 2 Feb. When he proposed unsuccessfully to refer the bill back to a select committee, 30 May, he complained that three quarters of the members of the first one had been ‘direct adherents of the government’ and argued that many of the court’s important duties could be redistributed. On 15 Feb. he called for the cholera prevention bill to be extended to Scotland if this was legally feasible; but when Jeffrey introduced a specifically Scottish measure later that day, he said that it would be ‘the commencement of a compulsory system of poor laws in the parishes of Scotland’. Yet next day he said that the bill had not been brought in soon enough, as it had ‘been known for some weeks that the disease is raging in Scotland’. He remained of the view that the problem should have been left to the Scottish privy council. He voted against the second reading of the malt drawback bill, 2 Apr. He made practical suggestions for registration of Scottish £10 voters, 4 June, and on the 6th persuaded Jeffrey to agree to an amendment to the machinery whereby three sheriffs were to be appointed to rule on appeals. He spoke against the annexation of part of Perthshire to Kinross-shire and the junction of Cromartyshire with Ross-shire and Nairnshire with Elginshire, 15 June. He divided against government on the Russian-Dutch loan, 12 July 1832.

It was later written of Rae that

as a speaker, he never achieved any eminence; but he made up for want of the higher powers of oratory by a careful attention to the points and bearings of the subject ... which he always argued with great skill, and, above all, with clearness and impartiality. His delivery was very careful, and his language particularly correct ... In proportion as he wanted fire, animation, and ambition in style, he made up for their absence by a steady, persevering adherence to fact, and to a common sense practical mode of reasoning, which was much better adopted to the nature of his subjects.53

He failed to find a seat at the 1832 general election, but he was returned again for Buteshire in September 1833. Peel valued his unspectacular abilities, and made him lord advocate in both his administrations. He died in harness at his home near Edinburgh in October 1842.54

Ref Volumes: 1820-1832

Author: David R. Fisher


  • 1. Gent. Mag. (1843), i. 313; Lockhart, Scott, vi. 140.
  • 2. NLS mss 11, f. 14.
  • 3. NLS mss 11, ff. 14, 17, 24.
  • 4. NLS mss 11, f. 19.
  • 5. G.W.T. Omond, Lord Advocates of Scotland (1883), ii. 258-61.
  • 6. Ibid. ii. 261-3.
  • 7. Dorset RO F/BKL, Bankes jnl. 117 (15 May 1820).
  • 8. The Times, 1 Feb. 1821.
  • 9. HLRO, Hist. Coll. 379, Grey Bennet diary, 20.
  • 10. The Times, 2 May 1820.
  • 11. NAS GD23/6/573/2.
  • 12. The Times, 9, 19 May 1821; Omond, ii. 267; Cockburn Letters, 30-31.
  • 13. NLS mss 11, ff. 115-25.
  • 14. The Times, 4 June 1822.
  • 15. Macpherson Grant mss 489, G. Macpherson Grant to Lady Stafford, 18 Mar., Gower to Macpherson Grant [22 Mar. 1822].
  • 16. The Times, 24 July 1822.
  • 17. Add. 52445, f. 88.
  • 18. NAS GD51/5/522.
  • 19. Omond, ii. 272-82; Bankes jnl 138 (25 June); Northants. RO, Agar Ellis diary, 25 June 1822.
  • 20. The Times, 24 July 1822.
  • 21. Omond, ii. 282-3; Add. 51586, Tierney to Lady Holland, 6 June 1823; Cockburn Letters, 87; NLS mss 24749, f. 30.
  • 22. Lonsdale mss, Lowther to Lonsdale, 18 Mar. 1823.
  • 23. Add. 40339, ff. 39-46, 50, 52, 59.
  • 24. Add. 40339, f. 67.
  • 25. The Times, 20 June 1823.
  • 26. Ibid. 21 June 1823.
  • 27. Add. 40339, ff. 82, 95.
  • 28. The Times, 31 Mar. 1824.
  • 29. Ibid. 15 May, 4 June 1824.
  • 30. Omond, ii. 287.
  • 31. NLS mss 11, f. 139.
  • 32. Add. 40317, f. 46; 40339, ff. 180, 193.
  • 33. Add. 40339, ff. 200-4.
  • 34. The Times, 15, 21 Mar. 1826.
  • 35. Ibid. 17 Mar. 1826.
  • 36. Ibid. 13 May 1826.
  • 37. Edinburgh Evening Courant, 3, 12 June, 6 July; Add. 51800, Lauderdale to Lady Holland, 2 June [1826].
  • 38. Cockburn Letters, 153, 157-8.
  • 39. The Times, 12 June 1827.
  • 40. NLS mss 11800, f. 16.
  • 41. Lansdowne mss, Goderich to Lansdowne, 6 Sept. 1827; Add. 38750, ff. 280, 283.
  • 42. Add. 38751, f. 9; NLS mss 11800, ff. 23, 26.
  • 43. Add. 38752, f. 176.
  • 44. NLS mss 11, ff. 192-204; Bessborough mss, Abercromby to Duncannon, 16 Feb. [1830].
  • 45. Omond, ii. 297; Wellington mss WP1/1124/4; Ellenborough Diary, ii. 303.
  • 46. Wellington mss WP1/1124/24; 1125/31; 1131/4.
  • 47. Extraordinary Black Bk. (1832), 564; Hatherton diary, 24 Nov. 1831.
  • 48. PRO NI, Wellington mss T2627/3/2/296, Arbuthnot to Wellington, 10, 17, 19 Aug. 1831.
  • 49. Cockburn Mems. 8-9.
  • 50. Wellington mss WP1/1190/16.
  • 51. Orkney Archives, Balfour mss D2/3/14, Traill to J. Balfour, 11 Dec. 1831.
  • 52. Cockburn Letters, 359.
  • 53. Gent. Mag. (1843), i. 313.
  • 54. The Times, 22 Oct. 1842; Oxford DNB.