Single Member Scottish burgh

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1754-1790, ed. L. Namier, J. Brooke., 1964
Available from Boydell and Brewer

Background Information

Right of Election:

in the extraordinary council

Number of voters:



20 Apr. 1754William Alexander 
4 Apr. 1761George Lind22
 John Fordyce7
27 Feb. 1762James Coutts vice Lind, appointed to office 
28 Mar. 1768Sir Lawrence Dundas 
13 Oct. 1774Sir Lawrence Dundas23
 James Stoddart6
 James Francis Erskine3
 David LochO
16 Sept. 1780William Miller18
 Sir Lawrence DundasO
 Dundas vice Miller, on petition, 23 Mar. 1781 
29 Oct. 1781James Hunter Blair vice Dundas, deceased 
5 Apr. 1784James Hunter Blair 
31 Aug. 1784Sir Adam Fergusson vice Hunter Blair, vacated his seat 

Main Article

Edinburgh was governed by a council consisting of 25 members, 17 representing the merchants and eight the trades. For certain purposes, including the election of magistrates and of the Member of Parliament, the council was increased by the addition of eight extraordinary deacons, representing the remainder of the incorporated trades. Edinburgh was the only single burgh constituency in Scotland, and about 1754 the chief influence in its affairs was that of Archibald, Duke of Argyll, and his political manager Andrew Fletcher, Lord Milton S.C.J.

In 1747 Argyll had reluctantly endorsed the candidature of James Ker, an Edinburgh jeweller, the first tradesman to be elected M.P. for Edinburgh since the Union. Ker was strongly backed by Henry Pelham, but by 1753 had become unpopular in Edinburgh. Argyll proposed to replace him by Lord Provost William Alexander, and Pelham’s death, which deprived Ker of his patron, ensured Alexander’s unanimous return.1

Alexander, however, was disinclined to accept dictation from Milton and Argyll. An unnamed correspondent wrote to William Mure in 1763:2

Mr. Alexander was no sooner in the chair and elected Member for the city than he set up on an independent footing and, as the late Duke of Argyll used to say, chose to serve him not as he himself would but as the other pleased; and at the end of 1754 had so modelled the council that the Duke of Argyll’s firm friends had but one of majority.

Milton and Argyll accordingly proceeded to strengthen their hold on the council, and in 1755 succeeded in excluding Alexander and his friends. The candidate Argyll had in mind for the next general election was Alexander Forrester, a friend of the Maules of Panmure, who, however, had spent much of his life in England and was regarded as a stranger in Edinburgh. In 1759, when Charles Townshend, guardian of the young Duke of Buccleuch, visited Dalkeith House, there was a suggestion that he should stand for Edinburgh. Townshend certainly made an impression on the capital, and in his speech on receiving the freedom of the city is said to have ridiculed Forrester so much ‘that the dislike of the town council was increased to aversion’. But how far Townshend’s candidature was a serious project or a visionary speculation of his Edinburgh friends, is not easy to say. Certainly it had been dropped before the end of 1760.3

Forrester’s return now seemed assured, with 22 Argyll men on the council pledged to his support. But ten days before the election a campaign was launched to discredit him and his patron. The Merchant Company and at least nine of the incorporated trades sent protests to the council against Argyll’s dictation and the return of a stranger. Argyll gave way and put forward as his candidate Lord Provost George Lind. Lind was opposed by John Fordyce, a banker, not on the council, but won an easy victory.4

On Argyll’s death, 15 Apr. 1761, his friends in Edinburgh hastened to place themselves under Bute’s patronage; Lind was given a place which vacated his seat; and Bute brought in James Coutts.5 Bute’s retirement left Edinburgh without a patron, and by 1766 Coutts’s friends were in a minority on the council. In 1767 the newly-elected council invited Sir Lawrence Dundas to represent them at the forthcoming general election, and Dundas was returned unopposed.6

The trade corporations had hoped that Dundas would help to secure a change in the system by which the ordinary council had power to control the representation of the trades. Disappointed in their expectations, in 1774 they refused to endorse the invitation to Dundas again to represent the city. On 10 Oct. David Loch of Over Carnbee offered himself as a candidate. Describing himself as ‘a trading burgess of small fortune, not afraid to enter the lists against a man of great political interest and immense wealth’, he promised never, except on a point of principle, to ‘clog the wheels of Government by voting against the Ministry’. Two days later James Francis Erskine of Forrest also offered his services ‘to rescue the capital of Scotland from the ignominy of being dictated to by the agents of Sir Lawrence Dundas’. When Dundas was accused of bribery, the council put up Lord Provost James Stoddart as an alternative candidate to Dundas. But Dundas was returned, and a petition against him was dropped.7

Opposition to Dundas gathered strength rapidly after 1774. He was accused of neglecting the city; his friends quarrelled among themselves over appointments to the magistracy; and an old dispute about the right of the council to present to the Edinburgh churches was revived. From 1776 Lord Advocate Henry Dundas and the Duke of Buccleuch in association with the trade corporations, set out to overthrow Sir Lawrence. Henry Dundas was counsel for the trades in their unsuccessful attempt to alter the constitution and secure the right to elect their own deacons; and in 1780, when Sir Lawrence went over to the Opposition, the Government interest was thrown against him. Henry Dundas and Buccleuch had now about 18 supporters on the extraordinary council, and Sir Lawrence’s main hope was that at the municipal elections of 1780 he could secure a new council more favourable to his interest. For the general election his opponents put up William Miller, son of the lord justice clerk, and entrusted the management of the election to James Craig, convener of the trades.8

On 12 Sept. 1780 Lord Provost Hamilton, a friend of Sir Lawrence Dundas, received the precept of election but took no steps to fix the election day. The municipal elections were due shortly, and Sir Lawrence’s plan was to postpone the parliamentary election until they were over. But on 16 Sept. Craig and his friends met and proceeded to elect Miller. The newly-elected council, against the protests of Craig, refused to regard this as a valid election; by a majority of one vote only they fixed the parliamentary election for 7 Oct.; when Sir Lawrence Dundas was elected by 17 votes to 15. The sheriff of Edinburgh refused to accept this election, and Miller was returned, but unseated on petition.9

In September 1781, on Sir Lawrence Dundas’s death, James Hunter Blair, formerly one of his most ardent supporters, was put forward as a candidate. Henry Dundas wrote:10

I was much relieved by receiving a message to inform me that Mr. Hunter Blair would be unanimously chosen if my friends would concur with him, and that he was to come in under the previous declaration of acting cordially along with Government ... At the same time, the party by which he is chosen and which in truth is the party left by Sir Lawrence Dundas must be broke, and the town of Edinburgh brought under some respectable patronage on which Government can rely, for they must not be permitted to govern the town by a knot of themselves without the interposition of some such patron ... for if they do, the first good opportunity that offers some able individual who leads the rest will sell them to any rich man like Sir Lawrence ... If the Duke of Buccleuch chooses to be that patron in connexion with Government, every circumstance unquestionably points him out as the properest of all persons.

By 1784 Henry Dundas had secured a subservient council, and Hunter Blair was re-elected as a stop-gap at the general election, to be replaced a few weeks later by Dundas’s friend Sir Adam Fergusson.

Author: Edith Lady Haden-Guest


  • 1. Argyll to Pelham, 15 Oct. 1753, Newcastle (Clumber) mss; Add. 32734, f. 206.
  • 2. Caldwell Pprs. ii (1), p. 183.
  • 3. Add. 32861, f. 279; Alex. Carlyle, Autobiog. 406-9, 418; letters from Carlyle and John Dalrympe, to Townshend, Buccleuch mss.
  • 4. Scots Mag. 1761, pp. 147-53; Walpole, Mems. Geo. III, i. 47.
  • 5. Caldwell Pprs. ii (I), pp. 183, 192-3.
  • 6. Scots Mag. 1767, pp. 556-7; G. Chalmers to Grenville, 14 Mar. 1767, Grenville mss (JM); Alex. Heron, Merchant Co. of Edinburgh, 97.
  • 7. Scots Mag. 1774, pp. 554-8.
  • 8. Scots Mag. 1776, pp. 118-19; 1777, pp. 51, 563-66; 1778, p. 719.
  • 9. Scots Mag. 1780, pp. 495-503, 668-70.
  • 10. H. Furber, Hen. Dundas, 195-7.