Tain Burghs


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

Background Information

Tain (1790, 1812), Dingwall (1796, 1818), Ross-shire; Dornoch, Sutherland (1802); Wick, Caithness (1806); Kirkwall, Orkney (1807)


2 Dec. 1797 DUNDAS re-elected after appointment to office 
28 July 1804 VILLIERS re-elected after appointment to office 
26 June 1805 JAMES MACDONALD vice Villiers, vacated his seat 
 Sir John Sinclair, Bt.2
7 May 1808 WILLIAM HENRY FREMANTLE vice Mackenzie, vacated his seat 
30 Oct. 1812HUGH INNES3
 Sir Charles Lockhart Ross, Bt.2
11 July 1818HUGH INNES 

Main Article

After three acrimonious contests in the space of two years the electoral situation in Tain Burghs in the late 1780s was complex and unstable. The ministerialist sitting Member, Charles Lockhart Ross of Balnagown, nephew of the lord advocate Robert Dundas, had his main strength in Tain, where his family had wrested power in 1786 from David Ross of Inverchalsey, SCJ (Lord Ankerville). He had also received the vote of Wick, which was controlled by Sir John Sinclair* of Ulbster, in alliance with that of Dornoch, dominated by Elizabeth, Countess of Sutherland, who in 1785 had married Lord Gower*, son of the lord privy seal. His opponent had been backed by Sir Thomas Dundas* of Kerse, who controlled Kirkwall, and by his fellow Whig Francis Mackenzie* of Seaforth, who by 1786 had established an ascendancy in Dingwall.

While Lady Sutherland and her husband remained attached to Pitt, Sinclair drifted into independence, but it was assumed by the Whigs that he was bound to place the vote of Wick at the disposal of the Sutherland interest at the next election. Mackenzie, writing to William Adam* of a scheme to put him up for the district, acknowledged that Tain held the key. He thought adroit and covert management might break Lockhart Ross’s hold, but did not minimize the obstacles to success. Ankerville was sounded by Adam, but refused to interfere further in the town and could only suggest that opposition work on Donald Macleod of Geanies, a Whig sympathizer, who had lost his ‘footing’ in Tain in the upheaval of 1786. At the same time, he pointed out that Macleod might feel inhibited by Lockhart Ross’s recent marriage to a kinswoman of his. Early in 1789 Charles Innes, analysing the position for Sir Thomas Dundas and Adam, also concluded that ‘Tain is the borough in this district to be attempted with the greatest possibility of success’ and that much would depend on Macleod, whom Mackenzie subsequently managed to win over. In May 1789 Mackenzie heard that Lord Macdonald of Sleat, an Irish peer and brother of the attorney-general, was to stand, backed by Sinclair, his son-in-law, and by Gower, his sister-in-law’s brother. Mackenzie was unsure of the precise implications, but thought the Whigs were ‘already secure of the boroughs if secrecy is observed’ and fancied that Macdonald’s standing could only play into their hands. His hopes received a set-back, for which he blamed Macleod’s ‘too sanguine confidence’, at the Tain council elections of 1789, when his friends were left in a minority of five to seven. Macleod admitted that if the general election occurred before Michaelmas 1790 it would be ‘impossible to make a favourable delegate for Tain’, but considered that in any other case there was still a chance of eventual success. Mackenzie calculated that the failing health of Lockhart Ross’s father Sir John, and his own seduction of one of the other side, gave them a potential majority of six to five, and was sure that the rough measures he had taken at Dingwall had made the borough safe. He was still uncertain about Sinclair’s relationship with the Sutherlands, especially as Sinclair was under attack from Henry Dundas in Caithness. On 10 June 1790, the day after Sir John Lockhart Ross’s death, Mackenzie told Adam that he was hopeful of securing Tain ‘even though the dissolution should take place before the Michaelmas election of magistrates’, and claimed the right to nominate a candidate. The Duke of Portland had no objections, though he mentioned William Fullarton* and John Craufurd of Auchenames as deserving party men who were in need of seats. Craufurd was reported to have made a late attempt to insinuate himself, but Mackenzie was unable to wrest Tain from Lockhart Ross, who was returned unopposed.1

In October 1790 Macleod told Craufurd that

though Sir Chas. Ross has at the Michaelmas election ... by the most secret and underhand dealing and in palpable contradiction to his avowed declarations, outwitted me a little, and debauched two of those I considered my friends on the council, by which he has got an apparent victory, I consider myself to stand on fully as good ground as I ever did, if not better, as his conduct gives me an opportunity of acting openly and avowedly in opposition to him, which I had some delicacy about before. To secure the point, the sinews of war will be wanted, but not to any very considerable extent. £1,000 at the utmost.

Adam and Portland declined to lay out money for an assault on Tain until Macleod’s complaint over the conduct of the local elections had been decided in the court of session. The verdict of March 1791 was adverse and Macleod and Mackenzie considered Tain ‘forever gone from us’. Nevertheless, they thought an alliance with Sinclair might suit their purpose equally well and Mackenzie advised Adam to

go directly to Sir T. Dundas and try to get a plan fixed for these boroughs. Tain is beyond doubt Sir Charles’s; Dornoch is Lord Gower’s. If the wandering wool-gathering knight [Sinclair] is to be trusted the other three are with us. As Caithness does not return next Parliament, Sir John will naturally wish for the boroughs. Now I think Sir Thos. and I should say to him, ‘Sir John, you shall sit for these boroughs if you provide a seat for a friend in England and on no other terms’.

Sinclair had in fact already secretly pledged the vote of Wick at the next election to Henry Dundas, and although certain difficulties arose later in the year he renewed the engagement in 1792.2

A decisive shift of alignment occurred in 1794 when Mackenzie and Sir Thomas (now Lord) Dundas went over to government with the Portland Whigs. Mackenzie made a pact with Lady Sutherland to unite the votes of Dingwall and Dornoch at the next general election, when he was to have the nomination. He told Portland that Ross was ‘out of the question, as I know pretty well that he will be a candidate for a county in the south of Scotland’, that he would have no truck with Sinclair and that he intended to put up his brother-in-law Alexander Mackenzie*, on whose behalf he asked the duke to intercede with Lord Dundas. At about this time Lord Dundas ceased to exercise his electoral influence in Scotland and the management of Kirkwall passed to the Foxite Malcolm Laing* of Strenzie, although Sir William Honyman, SCJ (Lord Armadale) also carried some weight. The support of Kirkwall for the Seaforth-Sutherland alliance was evidently secured, but it was Henry Dundas’s nephew William who was returned in 1796. Mackenzie, who had been promised a peerage by Dundas (he became Lord Seaforth in 1797), further accommodated him by returning Lockhart Ross for Ross-shire.3

Before Seaforth went as governor to Barbados in 1800 he arranged with Henry Dundas that at the next election Lockhart Ross would come in again for the county, in return for the Cromarty seat being given to his brother-in-law, and that his agreement with Lady Sutherland, whose turn it was to nominate at Tain Burghs, would remain in operation. When Lockhart Ross tried to make trouble at Tain for her candidate, the Pittite John Charles Villiers, he was sternly rebuked by Dundas, who pointed out that it was futile as well as dishonourable, because Sinclair had pledged the support of Wick. In 1805 the Marquess of Stafford, as Gower had become, left Pitt for the Grenvilles. Villiers also broke with Pitt, but felt sufficiently uncomfortable to vacate his seat, which was filled by Stafford’s nephew James Macdonald, son of the former attorney-general. Fox and Lord Lauderdale had the seat in mind as a possible opening for a friend, mentioning Laing, William Maxwell II* of Carriden and Sir William Cunynghame, but evidently did not feel that their connexion with the Staffords was close enough to warrant a direct approach.4

In August 1806 Sinclair, in need of a seat at the next general election when Caithness had no return, wrote to Lord Grenville:

The natural seat for me is the northern district of boroughs ... of which I have one myself. Upon your lordship’s immediately writing to the lord advocate upon the subject, I have no doubt that two more might be secured, by the interest of Lord Armadale and Sir Charles Ross. Lord and Lady Stafford have one ... which they have given to Lord Seaforth, who has the fifth. He is probably not indisposed to the present government, but it would be advisable not to give him too much weight in the election, though his concurrence would be of much importance.

Grenville does not appear to have pressed Sinclair’s claims. Seaforth, just back from the West Indies, offered to bring in his son-in-law Sir Samuel Hood*, should he be defeated in Westminster which he was contesting for the government, but when Hood’s success seemed assured he put up his friend John Randoll Mackenzie. Lockhart Ross, who professed to support the ‘Talents’, but resented the conduct of the Scottish Whigs in opposing him in Linlithgow Burghs and harboured a grudge against Seaforth for turning him out of Ross-shire, voluntarily told Grenville that he would direct the Tain delegate to vote as the premier wished. Grenville replied that he wanted Seaforth’s candidate to be supported. Ten days before the election Sinclair again urged Grenville to intercede with Armadale on his behalf. He stood in desperation against Mackenzie, but was defeated by three votes to two. To Grenville, Lockhart Ross later expressed pleasure at Mackenzie’s success and claimed that illness had confined him to the north and prevented him from receiving Grenville’s letter, which had been directed to his seat in Lanarkshire, ‘in time to send a delegate from Tain in order to support Lord Seaforth’s views’. Lady Stafford gave Grenville a different version of the episode:

I am assured that a few days before the election in consequence of a letter he received from Edinburgh he sent a delegate immediately from Tain ... with instructions to vote for Sir John Sinclair, who had some hopes that from the remote situation or some possible inaccuracy in the form of appointment, the vote of that delegate might be annulled, and consequently Sir John Sinclair having the returning burgh (Wick) the election would have been carried in his favour; fortunately by the attention of Mr Laing of Kirkwall this was prevented ... but the delegates of Tain and Wick voted for Sir John Sinclair and protested in very strong language against the interference of the peerage meaning Lord Seaforth and myself, who they threaten to have ‘over the coals’ before the House of Commons; and to pull Lord Seaforth’s ears and make me undergo the trial of treading on burning ploughshares, which I suppose must be some new experiment in agriculture of Sir John Sinclair’s.

James Gibson, a Whig activist, told Lauderdale that Armadale reckoned that Lockhart Ross ‘gave Tain to Lord Grenville’, but subsequently ‘gave it to Lord Melville, who gave it to Sir John Sinclair’. There is no evidence to suggest that Melville was involved in Sir Charles’s devious game; and when Seaforth complained to him of the baronet’s conduct he gave assurances that he had had no knowledge of the business and that in 1804 he had promised Lady Stafford that he would not disturb her interest in Tain Burghs, despite their political estrangement. Sinclair’s petition, which complained of corruption and ‘unconstitutional interference’ by peers, was rejected.5

At the 1807 election Seaforth, with some misgivings on political grounds, honoured his agreement with the Staffords, who decided to retain Mackenzie, now in opposition with the late ministers. There was an attempt, instigated by Lauderdale, to obtain the seat as a temporary berth for Lord Howick, who faced defeat in Northumberland, but Lady Stafford would not risk altering arrangements already made, ‘for fear of some ill disposed people’ taking ‘some advantage which might hazard the seat altogether’. She confided that it was of Seaforth himself that she was most afraid. Seaforth, worried by his political estrangement from the Staffords, sought clarification of their electoral relationship, and told Melville, 23 Feb. 1808:

I have received from the lady a message conveyed in the most frank and decisive terms, of opinion shall make no alteration in our borough business which she looks on as going on and the next turn as mine.

He was ready to return a supporter of government at the next election provided ministers delayed no longer in granting his request for customs appointments at Kirkwall for friends of Laing, who had made this a condition of his co-operation. He asked Melville to press his case, and observed that if government failed to help him he would be forced to surrender the seat to the Staffords, as he was not prepared to return either Sinclair or Lockhart Ross. Whether Melville intervened on Seaforth’s behalf is not clear, but government tried to wrest the seat from the Staffords at the by-election of 1808, caused by the transfer of Mackenzie to Sutherland in place of William Dundas, who had decided to vacate the county seat because of his political conflict with his patrons. The Tain seat was offered to Lord Buckingham for his brother’s political factotum William Fremantle, in return for providing a seat for St. Mawes for Stafford’s son. Archibald Colquhoun, the lord advocate, told Melville’s son that Archibald Macdonald, brother of Alexander Wentworth Macdonald*, was willing to stand, as he would have done in 1807 but for his unwillingness to ‘confer’ with Seaforth and his discovery that the burghs were then impregnable. Robert Dundas asked John Anderson WS to assist in an attack on Kirkwall, but he was in the Staffords’ debt and refused to comply. Macdonald went to Kirkwall, the returning burgh, as delegate for Tain, ‘with all the influence of government in his favour, as well as the weighty arguments of a heavy purse’, but retreated on finding Dornoch, Dingwall and Kirkwall firmly behind Fremantle. Sinclair abandoned any notion he may have had of trying to exploit the situation.6

When a vacancy occurred for Ross-shire in September 1809, Lockhart Ross stood unsuccessfully against Seaforth’s nominee, Hugh Innes of Lochalsh. In the course of abortive negotiations for a compromise his agent suggested to Melville a plan which involved a pact with Seaforth in the burghs, but Seaforth, not surprisingly, would have none of it. After the local elections of 1811 Seaforth claimed ‘a decided majority’ at Kirkwall, where both the Laings and the Traills of Hobister were with him, though it was later reported that William Traill had canvassed the town on behalf of his brother-in-law Sir James Colebrooke, a distant relative of Spencer Perceval, who was expected home from India. Shortly before the general election of 1812, when Seaforth returned Innes against Lockhart Ross’s token opposition, Robert Dundas remarked that for all his nephew’s intrigues, ‘Tain is at present left to its own meditations, and no more considered or valued than the borough of Musselburgh’.7

Before his death in 1815, when his interest passed to his daughter the widowed Lady Hood, who in 1817 married the Whig James Alexander Stewart (afterwards Stewart Mackenzie), Seaforth renewed the agreement with the Staffords. Early in 1817 the wealthy Liverpool merchant John Gladstone*, a lowland Scot by origin, who had bought property in Dingwall from his brother-in-law, contemplated an attack on the district, but, on the advice of his political mentor Canning, he gave up the idea. Later in the year there was some friction between the Stewart Mackenzies and the Staffords, who were now supporting government, but they agreed that the pact would operate as before at the next election, and that it should lapse on the dissolution of the new Parliament. The Staffords accordingly retained Innes in the seat in 1818.8

Author: David R. Fisher


  • 1. Blair Adam mss, Mountstewart to Adam, 5 Oct., Ankerville to same, 11 Oct. 1788, Mackenzie to same, 8 Oct., 3 Nov. 1788, 3 May 1789, 10 June 1790, reply [Feb. 1790]; N. Riding RO, Zetland mss ZNK X2/1/795; Ginter, Whig Organization, 114-20, 180-3, 196, 199.
  • 2. Ginter, 219-20; Blair Adam mss, Macleod to Adam, 4 Feb., 15 Mar., 4 July, Mackenzie to same, 9 Oct., 27 Nov. 1791; SRO GD51/1/198/6/7, 8, 12; NLS mss 6, ff. 27, 29; H. Furber, Henry Dundas, 242.
  • 3. Portland mss PwF6559; SRO GD46/4/119/4.
  • 4. NLS mss 1001, f. 91; Add. 47564, ff. 249, 254.
  • 5. Fortescue mss, Sinclair to Grenville, 24 Aug., 14 Nov., Ross to same, 1 Nov., 5 Dec., reply 7 Nov., Lady Stafford to Grenville [16 Dec.]; Blair Adam mss, Gibson to Lauderdale, 16 Dec. 1806; NLS mss 1, f. 107; 1053, f. 126; CJ, lxii. 34, 177-8, 213.
  • 6. Fortescue mss, Lauderdale to Grenville, 18 May, Lady Stafford to same, 21 May 1807; NLS mss 1054, f. 7; Fremantle mss, box 47, Buckingham to Fremantle [21 Mar.]; box 51, Lady Stafford to same [May]; SRO GD46/17/16, Mackenzie to Seaforth, 2 May 1808; GD51/1/198/19/6-8; 51/5/364/15/13; Pol. State of Scotland 1811, p. 300; Letter-Bag of Lady Elizabeth Spencer Stanhope, i. 160.
  • 7. NLS mss 1054, ff. 36, 38, 51, 56, 61; Blair Adam mss, Seaforth to Adam, 3 Oct. 1811; SRO GD46/17/37, Fotheringhame to Mackenzie, 22 Apr.; GD224/580, Dundas to Horne, 18 Aug. 1812.
  • 8. SRO GD46/4/120/4, 5, 33, 37; S. G. Checkland, The Gladstones, 102-3.