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

Background Information

Alternated with Buteshire

Number of enrolled freeholders:

31 in 1820; 41 in 1826; 46 in 1830


 George Sinclair18

Main Article

Caithness included the island of Stroma in the Pentland Firth and contained Dunnet Head, the most northerly point of the British mainland. Farming, fishing and stone quarrying were its staples. Wick, on the east coast, was a royal burgh and Thurso, on the north, was the only other considerable town. The principal villages were Berriedale, Castletown, Dunbeath, Halkirk, Keiss, Lybster and Sarclet.1 Sir John Sinclair of Ulbster, near Wick, and Thurso Castle, agricultural improver, busybody and bore, had dominated Caithness politics since his return (the first of four) in 1780, and in 1811 had handed over the seat to his eldest son George, who came in again unopposed in 1818. Ulbster’s sale of some of his estates to meet financial exigencies and George’s flirtation with parliamentary reform made the interest vulnerable in this period.2

The county, under the aegis of the lord lieutenant, Sir James Sinclair of Mey, near Thurso, 12th earl of Caithness since 1793, who was married to Ulbster’s niece, sent a loyal address to the regent in the aftermath of Peterloo in November 1819.3 At the general election of 1820 the return passed to Buteshire. On 3 June 1823 the landholders, justices and commissioners of supply petitioned the Commons against any change in the relative proportions of the duties on East and West Indian sugars.4 When Lord Caithness died impoverished in July 1823 he was succeeded by his son Alexander, who obtained the lord lieutenancy from the Liverpool ministry but whose wife failed to persuade her cousin Canning, the foreign secretary, to secure him their backing for a vacancy in the representative peerage.5 The freeholders and landowners petitioned the Commons for the free export of Scottish spirits to England, 1 June 1824.6 There was petitioning of both Houses against alteration of the Scottish banking system in 1826, when George Sinclair and James Traill of Rattar, the sheriff depute, took a prominent part.7

At a meeting adjourned from the 1823 Michaelmas head court, 1 Oct. 1823, Captain John Gordon of Swiney moved and old William Sinclair of Freswick seconded resolutions approving Lord Archibald Hamilton’s recent motion for reform of the Scottish county representation. They were endorsed by the other freeholders present, who included George Sinclair and Freswick’s brother-in-law, John Sinclair of Barrock. On 12 Oct. 1823 John Hope, solicitor-general for Scotland, informed Lord Melville, the government’s Scottish manager, that George Sinclair was behind this ‘bold attempt’ to promote reform:

In consequence of a very full and accurate explanation of the state of the roll ... having been made to me ... I requested ... [William Dundas*] to lay it before ... [you] as I know that a very strong and general feeling prevailed to oppose George Sinclair and there was a strong wish that some person would get on the roll who would undertake the representation. Indeed so anxious are the gentlemen for some person to offer himself ... which hardly any of themselves wish to do, attendance being so inconvenient, that I was myself requested to take a vote for that purpose ... which of course I at once declined; but I am persuaded that in the state of the county I might beat Sinclair by three to one if I had been insane enough to embark in the scheme.

Next day Lord Caithness’s brother Captain James Sinclair, an army officer, who was not yet on the roll, solicited and received Melville’s support for a challenge to George Sinclair at the next general election.8 Ulbster observed to Freswick that ‘the sons of nobility ought not to interfere with the elections of commoners’ and urged him to try to bind Barrock and his kinsman James Sinclair of Forse to his son. He also told William Dundas that he was ‘astonished’ to find that James Sinclair, who had ‘not an acre in the county’, was boasting of ‘the support of government’, which Ulbster now claimed for George, having obtained from him a clarification of his political views, in which he stated that his ‘point of difference with ministers’ was his belief that ‘a moderate reformation’ of the electoral system was desirable. This cut no ice with Melville, who made clear his preference for James Sinclair.9 The latter’s chances were improved by the defection from Ulbster of the attorneys James Horne of Langwell, his former agent, and his brother William Horne of Stirkoke and his nephew Donald Horne of Langwell, partisan Tories, who secured and redistributed sufficient superiority to create 13 freeholds, one of which was disposed to James Sinclair. Early in 1824 James Horne informed Melville that he had been told that the Irish peer Lord Fife, Member for Banffshire, ‘would not give his support to George Sinclair if government were against him’.10 In June 1824 Ulbster appealed to Peel, the home secretary, to intervene with Melville on behalf of George (who had been at Harrow with Peel), claiming that the opposition to him ‘originates from the self-interested views of James Horne ... whose ungrateful conduct is so much detested in the county that almost all the respectable resident proprietors ... have resolved to support my son’. Peel declined to intervene.11 Soon afterwards James Sinclair sent Melville an analysis of the roll which gave him 25 votes and George Sinclair 18, with two ‘uncertain’.12 Sir Benjamin Dunbar of Hempriggs, an old supporter of Ulbster, tried to broker a compromise whereby George and James Sinclair would divide the next Parliament between them, but the latter and his brother would not hear of it.13 According to Gordon, there was ‘gross mismanagement’ of the Ulbster interest at the Michaelmas 1824 head court.14 At that of 1825 Ulbster had his son the Rev. James Sinclair added to the roll. After other claimants had been enrolled George Sinclair was reckoned to have 25 votes and James 11, with five claimants, including James Sinclair himself as fiar to Donald Horne, having been rejected but then referred to the court of session, and four doubtful, including Dunbar and Sir Ralph Anstruther of Watten. The claims of James Sinclair and his four friends were subsequently upheld by the court.15

Three weeks before the general election in July 1826 Dunbar boasted to Melville that as each party had 20 committed votes his six held the balance: he accused James Sinclair of being ‘neglectful of this weight of interest’ and deplored the conduct of Horne, ‘an Edinburgh writer, pretending to give away the county’. Two days later William Horne informed Melville that ‘the return seems to depend upon a single vote’, with James Sinclair having 19 to George’s 18, and urged him to expedite the passage by sea from Deal to Wick of one of James Sinclair’s voters, Macleay of Newmore, who was too poorly to go by road; otherwise, George Sinclair’s casting vote as parliamentary praeses would give him the edge and enable him to keep his opponent’s new claimants off the roll. James Sinclair’s mother pressed Melville to secure leave of absence for John Finlaison, a former admiralty clerk now employed in the national debt office.16 George Sinclair was reported to have ‘brought a great posse of people with him’ into Wick on the day before the election, and they were subsequently joined by ‘a great number of the lower classes ... from Thurso or other places’. A hostile witness claimed that on the morning of election day George Sinclair delivered an ‘inflammatory’ denunciation of James Horne to stir up the mob, who blocked the passage of some of James Sinclair’s supporters to the court house and besieged others in their hotel. Fife was also reckoned to have egged on the crowd. The Riot Act was read three times, but the trouble continued until the sheriff substitute, under pressure from Fife and others, started proceedings at two in the afternoon. As parliamentary praeses George Sinclair began to read the roll, but on the motion of Innes of Sandside all present were obliged to take the oath of trust and possession. In the contest for praeses of the election meeting James Sinclair’s man Dunbar defeated Fife by two votes, but Innes protested that two of those who had voted for Dunbar had been denuded by sequestration and that George Sinclair’s casting vote for Fife should be considered decisive. Of the new claimants admitted to the roll, four were for James and three for George Sinclair. At this point old Freswick, who was in debt to a friend of James Sinclair, told George Sinclair in confidence that unless it appeared that the outcome would turn on a single vote he wanted to abstain. George Sinclair, who had evidently missed a number of legal tricks in these proceedings, admitted that it was unlikely to be so close and gave Freswick permission not to vote. George Sinclair was proposed by John Campbell Sutherland of Forse and Innes, and James Sinclair was sponsored by Anstruther and Dunbar’s son. James Sinclair won by 23-18, but Fife, still claiming to be praeses, gave his casting vote for George in case it should emerge that there was an equality of legal votes; five of James Sinclair’s voters were reckoned to be suspect. The business did not end until dawn on 6 July, when the mob chaired George Sinclair to his hotel. Before leaving Wick by steamboat, Fife made what one witness described as an ‘absurd and preposterous’ speech refuting allegations that he and the crowd had acted irresponsibly and exhorting young locals to procreate to furnish the navy with sailors.17 Ulbster, trying unsuccessfully to persuade Lord Radnor to return George for Downton, blamed the defeat, which he had to a large extent brought on himself, on ‘the grossest ingratitude on the part of some of the freeholders and jealousy of the long period during which my family had represented the county on the part of others’.18 George Sinclair had promised Freswick secrecy over the reason for his abstention, but word got out, and a few days after the election a furious mob attacked his son, smashed the windows of his house and broke in, reportedly shouting, ‘Where is William Sinclair of Freswick that we may fill his bed with stones?’ George Sinclair publicly disclaimed responsibility for this and earlier outbreaks of disorder. A number of the rioters were arrested and tried.19

James Sinclair was largely a cypher in the House, where he supported Catholic emancipation in 1829. There was hostile petitioning from the presbytery of Caithness and the inhabitants of Halkirk.20 At an anti-Catholic meeting at Thurso, Freswick’s was the lone voice in favour of emancipation. This enraged the mob, who attacked his house and threatened his family over a period of three days. The old fool blamed the Sinclairs of Ulbster and spent the next few years drafting long and boring letters of remonstrance, which he probably never sent.21 The return reverted to Buteshire in 1830. Anti-slavery petitions were sent to Parliament by the inhabitants of Thurso in November 1830 and the synod of Caithness and Sutherland in August 1831.22 The freeholders of Caithness petitioned the Lords for reform of the British franchise and an amended representation for the county, 18 Feb. 1831. They and the inhabitants of Thurso petitioned the Commons for reform of the Scottish electoral system, 26 Feb., while the inhabitants of Caithness petitioned the Lords for economy and retrenchment, extension of the franchise and the ballot, 28 Feb. The magistrates, merchants, ship owners and inhabitants of Thurso petitioned the Lords in favour of the Grey ministry’s reform scheme, 21 Mar.23 At a county meeting, 6 Apr., a resolution condemning their Scottish reform bill as ‘too sweeping in regard to counties’ was carried by 10-6.24 A week later Barrock, hearing a report that George Sinclair was ‘on his way down here to canvass’, sounded Freswick on the notion of inviting George Traill, Member for Orkney, who had a Caithness home at Castlehill, to stand as a reformer at the next election, when he was likely to be turned out of his present seat. Freswick, who had already committed himself publicly to Traill, warned of the need to be ready should defeat of the English reform bill precipitate a snap dissolution. When this occurred, he drafted an invitation to Traill, but Barrock was unwilling to involve himself beyond forwarding it to Traill’s house. In the event Traill, who had been pinning his hopes of success in Caithness on the speedy enactment of reform, opted to stand again for Orkney.25 George Sinclair offered as a reformer, but failed to secure a promise of support from Freswick, who still harboured his grudge against Ulbster. This proved to be of no account, for James Sinclair of Mey declined to stand and in effect endorsed George Sinclair. He was returned unopposed with the blessing of, among others, Horne of Stirkoke, who glossed over their former differences.26 The freeholders petitioned the Commons, 26 Aug., and the Lords, 12 Sept. 1831, against the use of molasses in brewing and distilling.27 The inhabitants of Thurso petitioned the Lords in support of the reform bills, 30 Sept. 1831, and, with Caithness proprietors and freeholders, petitioned the Commons to withhold supplies until reform was secured, 20 June 1832.28

Henry Cockburn, the Scottish solicitor-general, wanted Caithness to be united with Sutherland or Orkney by the Scottish reform bill, but it was left alone and the alternating return ended.29 At the general election of 1832, when there were 270 registered electors, George Sinclair was returned unopposed as a Liberal.30 The county remained in Liberal hands for most of the nineteenth century and beyond. Donald Horne of Langwell, who withdrew his candidature before the 1832 election, became one of the leading Conservative election agents in Scotland.31


  • 1. Ordnance Gazetteer of Scotland (1895), i. 213-15.
  • 2. HP Commons, 1790-1820, ii. 525-7.
  • 3. Inverness Courier, 2 Dec. 1819.
  • 4. CJ, lxxviii. 361.
  • 5. Add. 40357, ff. 286, 287; Harewood mss, Lady Caithness to Canning, 25 Aug., reply, 31 Aug. 1823.
  • 6. CJ, lxxxix. 446.
  • 7. Ibid. lxxxi. 217, 241; LJ, lviii. 155, 163; Inverness Courier, 29 Mar. 1826.
  • 8. NAS GD51/1/198/6/16, 17; GD136/479/15; NLS mss 2, ff. 68, 70; R. Mitchison, Agricultural Sir John, 258-9.
  • 9. NAS GD51/1/198/6/17, 20; GD136/441/29; 519/7, 10.
  • 10. Mitchison, 259-60; NAS GD51/1/198/6/17, 18; NLS mss 1054, f. 187.
  • 11. Add. 40317, ff. 27, 30.
  • 12. NLS mss 2, ff. 61, 63.
  • 13. Mitchison, 260; NLS mss 2, f. 65.
  • 14. NAS GD136/479/19.
  • 15. NAS GD51/1/198/6/22; GD136/727; Mitchison, 261.
  • 16. NAS GD51/1/198/6/23-25.
  • 17. Inverness Courier, 12 July 1826; NAS GD51/1/198/6/26; GD136/729.
  • 18. Sinclair mss, Sinclair to Radnor, 11 July 1826.
  • 19. Inverness Courier, 20 Sept., 1826; Mitchison, 262.
  • 20. CJ, lxxxiv. 103; LJ, lxi. 116, 234.
  • 21. Inverness Courier, 11 Mar. 1829; NAS GD136/494, passim.
  • 22. CJ, lxxxvi. 86, 748; LJ, lxiii. 105.
  • 23. CJ, lxxxvi. 310; LJ, lxiii. 241, 263, 345.
  • 24. Aberdeen Jnl. 20 Apr. 1831.
  • 25. NAS GD136/536/8, 9; Orkney Archives, Balfour mss D2/3/14, W. to J. Balfour, 21 Apr.; 23/11, Traill to Baikie, 21 Apr. 1831.
  • 26. NAS GD136/519/21; Inverness Courier, 11, 18 May; The Times, 24 May; Aberdeen Jnl. 25 May 1831.
  • 27. CJ, lxxxvi. 787; LJ, lxiii. 970.
  • 28. LJ, lxiii. 1025; CJ, lxxxvii. 420.
  • 29. Cockburn Letters, 264, 293, 359.
  • 30. Aberdeen Jnl. 19 Dec. 1832, 2 Jan. 1833.
  • 31. Scottish Electoral Politics, pp. lvi, 223, 231, 235, 250, 277.