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:

70 in 1820; 83 in 1826; 82 in 1830


3 Apr. 1820SIR ALEXANDER RAMSAY, bt.32
 James Farquhar20

Main Article

Kincardineshire (sometimes known as ‘The Mearns’) contained the eastern extremity of the Grampians and much fertile agricultural land, whose cultivation had benefited greatly from the improving Norfolk-model techniques pioneered by Robert Barclay Allardice of Urie (1732-97), Member for the county, 1788-97, and made rapid strides in the early nineteenth century. There was no significant industry, but fishing sustained the coastal communities. The only royal burgh was Inverbervie, on the coast. The other significant settlements were the port of Stonehaven (founded by Barclay Allardice), nine miles north of Inverbervie and the venue for county elections, and the inland villages of Banchory, Fettercairn, Gourdon and Laurencekirk.1 The only resident peer was the Tory 8th Viscount Arbuthnott of Arbuthnott House, near Inverbervie, who had been lord lieutenant since 1805 and was elected a Scottish representative peer in 1818. Since 1812 the Member had been a newcomer to the county, the spendthrift and disreputable George Drummond, black sheep of the London banking dynasty, a Melvillite Tory, who by dint of creating numerous parchment votes had replaced the Whig man of business William Adam on his retirement from Parliament. The resident proprietors (of whom Adam was one) who made up the Whiggish ‘independent’ interest, headed since 1810 by Sir Alexander Ramsay of Balmain, had been unable to muster an effective challenge to Drummond, despite the promptings of the Foxite William Maule* of Panmure, Forfarshire. Yet Drummond’s financial recklessness had fatally undermined his position by the start of this period.2

On 18 Nov. 1819 Arbuthnott chaired a requisitioned county meeting which unanimously voted a loyal address to the regent in the aftermath of Peterloo. Its proposers were Robert William Duff of Fetteresso, the veteran convener, and John Shand of The Burn.3 When the death of George III ten weeks later precipitated a dissolution, Drummond, who was well on the way to bankruptcy and disgrace, announced his retirement. In his room came forward the civil lawyer James Farquhar* of Johnstone Lodge, near Laurencekirk, ministerialist Member for Aberdeen Burghs in the 1812 Parliament, and Ramsay, who, though he made no political declaration and never joined Brooks’s, was regarded as ‘an oppositionist’.4 On 6 Feb. 1820 Lord Arbuthnott wrote to Lord Melville, the Liverpool ministry’s Scottish manager, soliciting support (which he was initially promised) for his re-election as a representative peer and seeking backing for his brother Colonel Hugh Arbuthnott, a Peninsular veteran, who was currently unwell in France. He referred to a ‘truly remarkable’ report that Ramsay had ‘good reason to expect the support of Mr. Drummond and his friends’, which, if true, would make him unassailable. If it proved otherwise, he thought that Alexander Crombie of Shesdo, who acted for Drummond, might be tempted to support Farquhar; but he argued that Farquhar was ‘so exceedingly unpopular in this county’ that he could not beat Ramsay, and that his brother had a better chance. He added that Ramsay had been encouraged to stand by Maule, who had promised him the backing of Adam (now lord chief commissioner of the jury court) and his friends. In reply, 8 Feb., Melville told Ramsay that, given the current uncertain state of affairs in the county, he had declined Farquhar’s personal request for government support, but observed that his steady conduct in the 1812 Parliament gave him ‘a reasonable claim upon us’ and urged Arbuthnott, if he started his brother, to devise ‘some means ... for avoiding the awkward predicament of our friends remaining disunited and an enemy thereby becoming the Member’. He said that Farquhar had indicated that he would ‘not persevere if he finds that any other friend of government has a stronger possibility of carrying the county’ and that Shand had also applied for support but stated that he would not oppose Ramsay. Shand duly withdrew four days later.5 On 11 Feb. Lord Arbuthnott told Melville that his brother

will be most respectably supported and ... would succeed in opposition to ... Ramsay, though he will be strong, which I am convinced ... Farquhar cannot do; he is so much disliked by the landed interest in the county. Three-fourths of the votes which are secured for my brother would go ... for Ramsay in the event of my brother not having been a candidate, or in the event of his withdrawing, which he cannot do from the circumstances in which he is placed. For however different our politics are from those of ... Ramsay, from our general friendly intercourse with him and our mutual friends, and our conviction we should feel ourselves compelled to support him in preference to ... Farquhar, as well as our feeling it due to the respectability of our county ... It will also be most advantageous for your ... future interest in Kincardineshire, for supposing ... Farquhar should succeed in the present contest, he could not keep the county, which my brother from that feeling of respect for family which still subsists among us, and from personal feelings of friends, would do.6

Ramsay and Farquhar canvassed, while Arbuthnott remained in France; and on 24 Feb. Lord Arbuthnott complained to Lushington, the financial secretary to the treasury, that Farquhar had done ‘much mischief’ by falsely claiming to have the support of government, which, given his unpopularity, would force many of their friends to vote for ‘the enemy’ Ramsay.7 Two days later the lord advocate, Sir William Rae*, reported to Melville from Edinburgh that Arbuthnott had ‘the smallest number, but they won’t transfer’, and that Farquhar, ‘having the largest, refuses to join Arbuthnott’, but that he hoped to ‘bring him to this before the election’. He added that a suggestion from Arbuthnot, the patronage secretary (which had originated with Farquhar), that Hugh Arbuthnott might stand instead for Aberdeen Burghs had been dismissed by Lord Arbuthnott.8 On 3 Mar. the last repeated to Melville his determination to support Ramsay against Farquhar if he was forced to withdraw his brother and asking for arrangements to be made to secure leave for a friendly army officer stationed in Ireland. Melville, still staying neutral, declined to do so without ‘the knowledge and concurrence’ of Farquhar and chided Arbuthnott over ‘the state of affairs which has arisen in your county and which I think might have been avoided’.9 On 6 Mar. he was told by the exchequer judge James Clerk Rattray (Duff of Fetteresso’s son-in-law) that his ‘forebearance in the Mearns may be attended with very bad effects’, for ‘as government has declared for no candidate, the voters are going any way that private solicitation leads’. Rattray also suspected that ‘the Mearns politics is sacrificed for Aberdeen politics’, in that Crombie, ‘who commands five votes and kept aloof for some time’, had ‘now joined the Whig candidate ... Ramsay’, presumably for ‘favours to be repaid in Aberdeenshire’ by Ramsay’s kinsmen the Burnetts of Leys. Rattray condemned the Arbuthnotts, who had

behaved most absurdly. Lord Arbuthnott has been canvassing for his brother ... but never in a way to get him the seat; he never sent a letter to any person, nor an address of any kind, nor can the colonel leave France ... This canvass, however, has procured 10 or 12 votes, which ruins ... Farquhar, who if [he] had these would have beat Sir Alexander even with the assistance of ... Crombie. The report of Crombie going with Sir Alexander may be premature, but it is essentially necessary that you should declare decisively that ... Farquhar has your countenance and that the friends of government who may have promised to the Arbuthnott interest should transfer their support to ... Farquhar ... who considers the county to be lost to government if not supported by an avowal. He does not think that Crombie has actually declared.10

The following day, however, Charles Hope† of Granton, lord president of the court of session, told Melville that the county was ‘lost, owing entirely to Farquhar’s interference’:

Ramsay has secured 23 votes unconditionally, and it is now ascertained that Crombie ... and four more join him on condition that Sir Alex shall support Captain [William] Gordon* [Lord Aberdeen’s brother] in Aberdeenshire ... Farquhar has about 17 and Arbuthnott the same. But then nine of Arbuthnott’s will on no account transfer to Farquhar, but have promised their second votes to Sir Alexander ... Nearly as many of Farquhar’s have promised their second votes also to Sir Alexander, so that even if Farquhar were now to give in to Arbuthnott, and still more if Arbuthnott were to give in to Farquhar, the county cannot be carried ... Under these circumstances, Lord Arbuthnott, after a full consultation with the principal gentlemen who have declared for his brother, came yesterday [6 Mar.] to the resolution of withdrawing him, especially as Sir Alexander Ramsay had from the first behaved very handsomely to him and had pledged himself that if he could not show positive strength to beat Farquhar at all events, then he and all his friends would join Arbuthnott, rather than let in Farquhar.

He went on to report that ‘it is lucky it is no worse’, for the previous day Ramsay (whom he did not know) had sought him out to ‘assure’ him that despite a misguided youthful flirtation with Foxite Whiggism, he was disposed to support government against ‘the seditious and disaffected’. Ramsay sent the same message to Rae, who, before receiving it, had informed Melville of Arbuthnott’s decision to retire his brother and complained that ‘without my knowledge’ Arbuthnott had ‘entered into an agreement with ... Ramsay by which one or other ... was to withdraw according as Mr. Crombie and his supporters should decide in favour of the one or the other’. Rae condemned Arbuthnott, who ‘must have seen that he was truly giving away the county, as Crombie had been Sir Alexander’s adviser in standing at first’. Believing that Farquhar’s only chance now rested on ‘his having the countenance of government’, Rae had on his own initiative given him ‘a letter to that effect’.11 In his replies to Hope and Rae, Melville observed that government had not ‘been very handsomely treated’ for their neutrality by Arbuthnott, authorized them to give full ministerial support to Farquhar and urged Hope to try, on Melville’s authority, to persuade Arbuthnott to ‘see the matter in its proper light and abstain from supporting Ramsay, but liberating from their engagement to his brother all those who would be inclined to support Farquhar’. At the same time, in view of Ramsay’s friendly declaration of intent, he said that if he acted up to it in the House ministers would have ‘little reason to regret his success’ and suggested that it would ‘not be advisable to carry our hostility to such an extent as to leave him scarcely any alternative than throwing himself into the ranks of the enemy’: ‘if he shall really support us in Parliament he might hereafter be more easily supported than Farquhar (who is not popular in the county) as candidate for Kincardineshire’.12 On 9 Mar., however, Aberdeen informed Melville that Crombie had ‘not declared’, but was ‘not quite free’, having laid himself under a future obligation to a ‘friend he has now to manage’ when supporting Drummond against Barclay Allardice in 1812. Aberdeen maintained that Melville had been misinformed as to ‘the state of the county’:

Seven of Arbuthnott’s friends have actually promised Ramsay, so that if the remaining five join Farquhar ... Crombie and his friends will carry the election. The best thing for Farquhar is that Colonel Arbuthnott should persevere. There is no doubt that Crombie objected less to ... Ramsay from the expectation of obtaining his support for my brother in Aberdeenshire.13

Rae was increasingly

convinced that Lord Arbuthnott has either played a double game with us, or allowed himself to be gulled by [George] Robertson Scott [of Benholm] ... It is quite plain to me that from the beginning his plan has been to bring in ... Ramsay.14

Presenting on 15 Mar. an analysis of the freeholders which gave Farquhar 26 votes and Ramsay 20, with 12 assigned to the ‘Arbuthnott party’ and six aligned with Crombie, Farquhar urged ministers to try to persuade Lord Arbuthnott to transfer their votes to him or at least stay out of it.15 Melville continued to feel aggrieved, and told Rae that if Farquhar’s surmise that ‘there is a secret understanding between ... Ramsay and Lord Arbuthnott to the effect that the former shall hereafter give up the representation and shall support Colonel Arbuthnott’ proved to be correct, Arbuthnott ‘may perhaps have to learn a lesson hereafter, that candour and plain dealing are in the long run the wisest policy’; Arbuthnott duly lost his place among the representative peers. Melville meanwhile wanted him to be told distinctly that unless he aided Farqhuar, he could not expect active ministerial backing in future. Melville told Farquhar to his face that while he would receive support ‘honestly and fairly’, ministers were not prepared to treat Ramsay ‘as a political enemy’; but Farquhar subsequently informed Melville that mere abstention by the Arbuthnotts ‘would not be sufficient’. Hope was unwilling to intervene, but Rae passed on Melville’s views to Lord Arbuthnott.16 On 27 Mar., a week before the election, Colonel Arbuthnott at last arrived in the county. He glossed his withdrawal as a reaction to the belated discovery that ‘many previous engagements have been formed’, but declared that he would stand next time. At the election, Robertson Scott was chosen praeses and Ramsay defeated Farquhar by 12 votes in a poll of 52 freeholders. In a valedictory address, Farquhar asserted that ‘but for an unfortunate collision of interests, followed by a junction of parties, such as could not have been contemplated ... my prospect of success would have been fully realized’.17

On 18 Feb. 1822 Ramsay chaired a meeting of the county’s landholders which carried a petition for relief from agricultural distress, proposed by Barclay Allardice and George Silver of Balnagubs.18 The freeholders, justices, commissioners and proprietors and numerous tenants and occupiers petitioned both Houses against interference with the corn laws in 1825.19 The inhabitants of Stonehaven petitioned the Commons, 27 Feb., and the Lords, 9 Mar. 1826, for the abolition of slavery; and the county petitioned both Houses that session against relaxation of the corn laws.20 They petitioned the Commons against interference with the Scottish banking system, 16 Mar. 1826.21 Lord Arbuthnott was re-elected as a representative peer on a vacancy in August 1821 (he served continuously until 1847), and in 1823 he successfully applied to government for the appointment of his nominee as commissary clerk of Kincardineshire.22 In December 1824 he informed Melville that Ramsay (who acted with opposition on his rare appearances in the House) had declared his intention of retiring at the next dissolution:

My brother ... did not lose a moment in offering himself ... and is now busily engaged in a most successful canvass, supported by the great landed interests of the county of all parties, which must ever prevail in it and most certainly will secure his success. This most desirable union of parties in favour of an individual entertaining Colonel Arbuthnott’s political sentiments is mainly to be attributed to his having the good fortune of being generally acceptable to the great body of the freeholders, and though ... [you] ultimately determined that you would not give Colonel Arbuthnott the decided support of government ... yet the fortunate result ... has been promoted ... by the pledge which you judged it proper and just to all parties to give, that the government shall not interfere in any contest ... between Colonel Arbuthnott and any other individual whatever of similar political principles.23

At the general election of 1826 Arbuthnott was returned unopposed, after being proposed by Barclay Allardice and Sir Robert Burnett of Leys as a supporter of the agricultural interest. Ramsay received a vote of thanks for his services.24

In 1827 and 1828 the farmers and occupiers of Dee district and the landholders, commissioners and justices of the county petitioned both Houses in support of the existing corn laws.25 At the annual general county meeting, 30 Apr. 1828, when Duff was chosen convener for the fortieth consecutive time, Barclay Allardice and Silver secured a vote of thanks to Arbuthnott for his attention to the interests of the county on that issue.26 In the summer of 1828 Lord Arbuthnott obtained from the Wellington ministry the appointment of one of his supporters as a landing waiter in the port of London.27 The freeholders and the landholders and some farmers petitioned the Commons against the proposed increase in the duty on corn spirits, 10 May 1830.28 As expected, there was no opposition to Arbuthnott at the 1830 general election, when Duff was voted into the chair and three new freeholders were enrolled. Barclay Allardice and James Scott of Brotherton proposed Arbuthnott, who received another vote of thanks for his assiduous conduct as Member.29

Farmers of the county petitioned the Commons for alteration of the law of hypothec, 14 Mar. 1831, when a petition was also presented from procurators and notaries of the sheriff’s court for repeal of the duty on their certificates.30 Wesleyan Methodists of Stonehaven petitioned both Houses for the abolition of slavery, 28 Mar., 19 Apr. 1831.31 The inhabitants of Stonehaven petitioned the Commons for parliamentary reform, 26 Feb., 19 Mar. 1831.32 Arbuthnott opposed the Grey ministry’s English reform bill. On 8 Apr. his brother presided over a county meeting called to consider the reform measures. John Menzies of Pitfodels moved and Scott of Brotherton seconded six resolutions professing support for a ‘cautious amendment’ of the representative system but condemning the ministerial scheme as a ‘revolution’ and the ‘certain forerunner of ... still more dangerous innovations’. The proposed extension of the Scottish county franchise to £10 householders and tenants was denounced as a ‘violent and dangerous ... innovation’ and the whole Scottish bill deemed to be an infraction of the Union. Burnett’s son Thomas moved and Harry Leith Lumsden of Auchindoir seconded an amendment approving the principle of the government’s plan. The original resolutions, which were embodied in a petition to both Houses and an address to the king, were carried by 28-8: the minority included Burnett, Lumsden, Archibald Farquharson* of Finzean, Aberdeenshire and Major Leith Hay of Rannes, Aberdeenshire. A committee was appointed to monitor the progress of the bills and correspond with the Member.33 At the general election which followed the English bill’s defeat, 34 freeholders attended. Crombie and Silver proposed Sir John Stuart Forbes of Fettercairn as praeses. Three new freeholders were enrolled, including Arbuthnott’s brother Walter. Duff and Sir Alexander Keith of Dunnottar nominated Arbuthnott, who was returned unopposed and paid lip service to the need for ‘safe’ reform.34 Lord Arbuthnott and Barclay Allardice were prominent at a meeting of landholders called to petition the Commons against the use of molasses in brewing and distilling, 9 Aug. 1831.35 The inhabitants of Stonehaven petitioned the Lords in support of the reform bills, 4 Oct. 1831.36 Some freeholders, as vassals of the crown, petitioned the Commons, 1 June 1832, for financial compensation for their ‘serious loss of property’ by the Scottish Reform Act.37

At the general election of 1832, when the county had a registered electorate of 890, the Conservative Arbuthnott beat the Liberal Thomas Burnett by 54 votes in a poll of 692.38 He sat unchallenged until 1865, when a Liberal won the seat, which remained in that party’s hands for 53 years.39

Author: David R. Fisher


  • 1. Ordnance Gazetteer of Scotland (1895), iv. 392, 394-6.
  • 2. HP Commons, 1790-1820, ii. 546-9; iii. 620-1.
  • 3. Aberdeen Jnl. 17, 24 Nov. 1819.
  • 4. Ibid. 9, 23 Feb. 1820; NLS mss 11, f. 22.
  • 5. NLS mss 11, ff. 6, 8; 1054, f. 179.
  • 6. NLS mss 11, f. 11.
  • 7. Aberdeen Jnl. 23 Feb. 1820; TNA T64/261.
  • 8. NLS mss 11, f. 17.
  • 9. NLS mss 11, f. 22.
  • 10. NLS mss 11, f. 28.
  • 11. NLS mss 11, ff. 30, 32.
  • 12. NLS mss 11, ff. 35, 39, 44.
  • 13. NLS mss 11, f. 37.
  • 14. NLS mss 11, f. 55.
  • 15. NLS mss 11, ff. 59, 61.
  • 16. NLS mss 11, ff. 62, 69, 79.
  • 17. Aberdeen Jnl. 5 Apr. 1820.
  • 18. CJ, lxxvii. 99; Aberdeen Jnl. 20 Feb. 1822.
  • 19. CJ, lxxx. 274, 350; LJ, lvii. 658.
  • 20. CJ, lxxxi. 106, 254; LJ, lviii. 95.
  • 21. CJ, lxxxi. 176.
  • 22. Add. 40339, f. 75; 40357, ff. 152, 153, 242, 244; 40360, f. 97.
  • 23. NAS GD51/1/198/12/38.
  • 24. Aberdeen Jnl. 14, 21 June, 5 July 1826.
  • 25. CJ, lxxxii. 229, 356; lxxxiii. 267; LJ, lix. 95.
  • 26. Aberdeen Jnl. 7 May 1828.
  • 27. Wellington mss WP1/941/3; 942/8; 948/13.
  • 28. CJ, lxxxv. 395.
  • 29. Aberdeen Jnl. 4, 25 Aug. 1830.
  • 30. CJ, lxxxvi. 376.
  • 31. Ibid. 445; LJ, lxiii. 472.
  • 32. CJ, lxxxvi. 309, 406.
  • 33. Aberdeen Jnl. 13 Apr. 1831.
  • 34. Aberdeen Jnl. 27 Apr., 18 May 1831.
  • 35. Ibid. 17 Aug. 1831; CJ, lxxxvi. 788.
  • 36. LJ, lxiii. 1043.
  • 37. CJ, lxxxvii. 365.
  • 38. Aberdeen Jnl. 26 Dec. 1832.
  • 39. Scottish Electoral Politics, pp. xi, 220, 237, 253.