HUNTER BLAIR, James (1741-87), of Dunskey, Wigtown.
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Family and Education
b. 21 Feb. 1741, 2nd s. of John Hunter of Milnholm and Brownhill, merchant, by Anne, da. and coh. of William Cunninghame of Brownhill, Ayr. educ. Ayr sch.; Edin. Univ. m. 12 Dec. 1770, Jane, da. of John Blair of Dunskey, niece of David Kennedy, 10th Earl of Cassillis [S], 10s. 4da. After 1777, when his w. suc. her bro. to Dunskey estates, assumed add. name of Blair. cr. Bt. 27 June 1786.
Ld. provost Edinburgh 1784-6.
Jt. King’s printer and stationer 1785.1
Hunter began his business career at the age of 15, as an apprentice in the Coutts bank in Edinburgh. In 1762 he became a partner when the firm was reorganized under Robert Herries as senior partner.2
In 1763 Hunter was brought on to the Edinburgh town council by Lord Milton to support the interest of James Coutts, who wrote to William Mure, 9 Sept. 1763:3 ‘Hunter ... is, I think, one of the most promising young men I ever knew; it would be a pity politics should do him any hurt.’ Hunter lost his seat on the council in 1768 and thereafter was immersed in business. The firm’s activities included the formation of the London Exchange Banking Company in 1771 for the issue of travellers cheques, an undertaking which led to a breach with the Couttses. ‘Cheerful and fond of society, ... ever ready to promote the interest’ of his friends, and ‘capable of the most unwearied application’, Hunter had a high reputation. But his partner Sir William Forbes records:
In his temper there was a degree of warmth ... which ... in the heat of an argument occasionally bordered on vehemence and impetuosity ... In his notions of right and wrong he was rigid and even stern, and he had no allowance to make [for] ... any departure from the standard he had formed of propriety of conduct.
After Herries obtained the tobacco contract from the French farmers general in 1771 Hunter, ‘who managed the department of the tobacco purchases, did not always take the best method of smoothing matters’ with the Glasgow merchants. When the firm almost lost the contract in 1774 Hunter and Forbes, disliking Herries’s speculative business methods, dissolved the partnership, relinquished their share in the London Exchange Bank, and thereafter confined their activities to the Edinburgh banking business.4
Re-elected to the Edinburgh town council in 1777, Hunter supported the party of Sir Lawrence Dundas, and at the 1780 general election strongly opposed the return of William Miller, the Government candidate. When Sir Lawrence, after winning his petition in March 1781, died in the following September, Henry Dundas wrote to John Robinson, 8 Oct. 1781:5
I was much relieved by receiving a message ... 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 with Government ... I believe him perfectly sincere in all this; 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 ... I have ... told [Mr. Hunter Blair] plainly that he must lay his account that the interest of the Duke of Buccleuch in Edinburgh is what Government will continue to support ... This being steadily adhered to, you may be perfectly assured that before twelve months is over Mr. Hunter Blair himself and the whole council of Edinburgh will be completely and permanently placed, as they used to be, in the hands of Government.
Hunter Blair accepted the situation with some reservations. Opposed to the continuance of the American war, in his speech at his election dinner on 29 Oct. he said:6
I am determined in the present embarrassing conjuncture to support very earnestly every measure of Administration which my judgment shall approve. At the same time I give you the fullest assurance that the prosperity of the British Empire, of this great city, and of you my constituents, shall be the constant object of my attention.
His first recorded vote, 20 Feb. 1782, was with Administration on the censure of the Admiralty, but he voted with the Opposition on 22 and 27 Feb. on Conway’s motion against the war. He again divided with the Government on 8 and 15 Mar. on Cavendish’s censure motion and Rous’s motion of no confidence. He voted for Shelburne’s peace preliminaries, 18 Feb. 1783; did not vote on Fox’s East India bill; and in December 1783 was listed ‘doubtful’ by Robinson. By January Hunter Blair was listed as a supporter of Pitt and was returned at the general election as an Administration candidate. A few months later he vacated his seat to make way for Dundas’s friend, Sir Adam Fergusson. Only one speech of his is recorded—on 4 Aug. 1784 when he opposed the new duties on linen and cotton and ‘proved his extensive knowledge of the trade and manufactures of Scotland. His arguments were pointed and conclusive.’7
At Michaelmas he was elected lord provost of Edinburgh and during his two year term of office actively promoted the rebuilding of the University and the construction of the South Bridge over the Cowgate. He died 1 July 1787. Sir William Forbes wrote of him:
As a magistrate he was active and zealous ... as a senator he was honestly independent ... Too early and too deeply immersed in business, he ... was therefore but little acquainted with books or literature; but he possessed ... great knowledge of the world and an almost intuitive discernment of the characters of men.8