Anstruther Easter Burghs


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

Background Information

Anstruther Wester (1820), Crail (1826), Anstruther Easter (1830), Pittenweem (1831), Kilrenny (disfranchised, 1829-32), all in Fifeshire


3 Apr. 1820SIR WILLIAM RAE, bt. 
 Sir William Rae, bt.2
24 Aug. 1830JAMES BALFOUR3
 Robert Bullock Marsham1

Main Article

The East Fife Burghs (as they were usually called) were small fishing settlements strung over a distance of about six miles along the northern shore of the Firth of Forth at its widest point, in the East Neuk of Fife. Pittenweem, the most westerly, contained some ‘good houses’ in 1831, when its population was 1,317. It had a council of 24, who were nearly all residents.1 Anstruther Wester was ‘a place of little importance’ with a ‘small inconvenient harbour’ and had a population of 430 in 1831. Its self-elected council had 15 mostly resident members. The municipal corporations commissioners noted that there had been unduly high expenditure on entertainments and that the resident burgesses resented the council’s maladministration of burgh affairs.2 Adjoining Anstruther Easter was a more flourishing town, with a ‘good small harbour’, a custom house and a tannery, brewery and boat building yards. Its population in 1831 was 1,007 and its council consisted of 19 men. At Michaelmas the existing council nominated four new councillors and turned out four non-magisterial ones. The three bailies were chosen by the burgesses as a whole from a leet (list) of nine persons submitted by the existing bailies, who themselves were always on the leet, and the treasurer from a leet of three men, which always included the incumbent. The corporations commissioners were critical of wasteful expenditure and the payment of substantial sums annually to the same person, a member of the council, for repairs to the streets and harbour.3 Kilrenny, which abutted the Anstruthers to the east, was ‘a very insignificant place’. Its population in 1831 was 1,705, and its council had 15 members. In 1819 there was a change to the sett of the burgh, whereby the three leets from which the bailies were customarily chosen were amalgamated into one. This led to problems later in the period.4 Crail, which lay four miles north-east of the Anstruthers, had a population in 1831 of 1,388. It was described in 1831 as decayed and ‘stationary’, but by 1835 was reckoned to be ‘in a thriving state’. It had a council of 21, mostly residents, who included the deacons and convener of the seven incorporated trades.5

The principal local interest was that of the Anstruther family, who dominated the Anstruthers and Pittenweem and were strongly placed in Kilrenny. On the death in January 1818 of Sir John Carmichael Anstruther, 5th baronet, pro-Catholic Tory Member since 1811, whose son and namesake was born nine days later (he was the victim of a fatal shooting accident at Eton in 1831, when the baronetcy passed to his uncle Windham Anstruther) their electoral affairs were handled by Colonel Robert Anstruther†, the 4th baronet’s brother and baggage-master for Scotland since 1798. In 1818 he had, at the behest of Lord Melville, the Liverpool ministry’s Scottish manager, twice returned the lord advocate, Alexander Maconochie; and at a by-election in July 1819 he had somewhat reluctantly provided a berth for Maconochie’s successor, Sir William Rae. On the last occasion Colonel John Baillie* of Leys Castle, Inverness-shire, a wealthy nabob, had persevered with his opposition (having withdrawn in 1818), but had obtained only the vote of Crail. He secured a seat for Hedon at the general election of 1820.6 On 10 Feb. the Tory 9th earl of Kellie of Cambo House, who had influence in the constituency, told Melville that Rae was ‘sure’ of his return; and a fortnight later Rae himself reported that all the burghs ‘have sent me declarations of their being able to support me, signed by the whole members of the different town councils’. He came in without trouble.7

On 31 Jan. 1821 the Commons received a petition in support of Queen Caroline from the incorporated trades of Crail.8 The United Associate Synod of Crail petitioned the Commons for the abolition of slavery, 2 July 1823.9 At the Pittenweem council election, 16 Sept. 1823, ten councillors and one whose right to office was disputed attended. Although they did not constitute a quorum under Scottish law, they proceeded with the election and in doing so deviated in a number of ways from the sett of the burgh. James Tod senior and four other members of the council challenged the validity of these proceedings in the court of session, which in May and June 1824 upheld their protest, reduced the 1823 election and made the petitioners the temporary managers of the burgh’s affairs. Tod and his associates (who were accused in their turn of deliberately boycotting the 1823 election meeting in order to render it inquorate, having been thwarted in a scheme to obtain a majority by kidnapping a hostile councillor, as part of their ‘conspiracy against’ the chief magistrate and his supporters) petitioned for a crown warrant to authorize them, as the councillors in place before 16 Sept. 1823, to hold a meeting to choose a new council before the annual election at Michaelmas 1824. The dispute was referred to a committee in October 1824, and on the strength of its recommendation the privy council ordered, 19 July 1825, that the surviving councillors in place on 15 Sept. 1823 should meet on 13 Sept. 1825 to choose a new council, which would continue in office until the annual election at Michaelmas 1826.10 According to a newspaper report of June 1826, at the 1825 election meeting ‘parties were equally poised, and the election being made by the casting vote of the praeses (two persons claiming this right) a double election was consequently made’. An action against the Tod faction’s retention of the burgh’s accounts and minute books was dismissed, after several delays, by the court of session in early June 1826, which left Tod and his cronies David Davidson, William Scott, James Horsburgh and Peter Yale as ‘the undisputed magistrates’.11 In the House, 16 Mar. 1826, the Whig champion of burgh reform Lord Archibald Hamilton moved for copies of the relevant documents and attacked Rae for his part in the affair. Joseph Hume, supporting him, declared his wish to see the baneful Melville interest in Scotland destroyed; but the home secretary Peel dismissed Hamilton’s case as ‘the most frivolous imaginable, as a ground for censuring a public officer’. A modified motion, excluding copies of references of the case to the law officers, was carried.12 The councils of all the burghs except Anstruther Easter petitioned Parliament against interference with the Scottish banking system in March 1826.13 The magistrates and council of Pittenweem petitioned both Houses for the abolition of slavery, 16 Mar., and the council, burgesses and inhabitants of Crail petitioned the Commons to the same effect, 25 Apr. 1826.14

In June 1823 Lieutenant-Colonel James Lindsay* of the Grenadier Guards, the son of Robert Lindsay of Leuchars, a rich nabob who had bought the south Fifeshire estate of Balcarres from his impecunious elder brother, the 6th earl of Balcarres, received an invitation to stand for the burghs on the next vacancy, ‘the true reason for which’ he ‘conceived to be, they think they can make more of themselves by a change’. He considered that ‘our personal interest is equal to carry it’, but after due consideration decided not to get involved with the constituency, for which he reckoned that an uncontested return would require ‘about £1,000, with an annual expense at about £800’, while in the event of a contest the cost would be ‘infinite’.15 At the general election of 1826 Rae was challenged by the pro-Catholic Tory nabob James Balfour, son-in-law of the 8th earl of Lauderdale, who had his main property at Whittinghame in Haddingtonshire but had recently bought a Fifeshire estate at Balgonie, near Balbirnie, 15 miles from the Anstruthers. Encouraged by Lauderdale, he secured the backing of the Tod party in Pittenweem, where he himself was unanimously chosen as the delegate, though the rival councillors elected Hugh Bruce. David Roger and Robert Inglis of Kirkmay were chosen in his interest by large majorities in Anstruther Easter and Crail (the returning burgh) respectively. Rae had the votes of Anstruther Wester and Kilrenny. At the election, Inglis voted for Balfour and registered his casting vote in the event of a tie. Roger voted for Balfour, who duly voted for himself. Bruce voted for Rae, but his vote was ruled out. James Anstruther (Kilrenny) and Thomas Bruce (Anstruther Wester) voted for Rae. Balfour was returned.16 Rae and Hugh Bruce petitioned against the return, 1 Dec. 1826, alleging that Balfour’s election as delegate for Pittenweem was ‘entirely null and void’ and that Bruce was the legally chosen delegate, whose vote should have been decisive. The committee quickly found in favour of Balfour, 15 Mar. 1827.17

The councils of Pittenweem and Anstruther Wester, the inhabitants of Pittenweem and the council, minister and inhabitants of Crail petitioned both Houses against Catholic emancipation in March 1829.18 Balfour presented the petitions, but voted for emancipation. By then Kilrenny had been disfranchised and placed under the administration of managers by the court of session, as a result of legal problems arising out of the 1819 change in the sett.19 It remained disfranchised for the rest of this period. At the general election of 1830 Balfour was challenged on the Anstruther interest by Dr. Robert Marsham, warden of Merton College, Oxford, who had married in 1828 the widow of Sir John Carmichael Anstruther. He applied to Peel, the home secretary, for backing, but was told that it would be contrary to customary practice for ministers to interfere against a sitting Member who had given them ‘regular and cordial support’, as Balfour had.20 Pittenweem and Crail ‘very early declared’ for Balfour, and Anstruther Easter (the returning burgh) did so soon afterwards, by 13 votes to four. Marsham had only Anstruther Wester, and although he went through with his opposition, the outcome was a forgone conclusion.21

Following the Michaelmas elections in Anstruther Wester, a minority of the councillors, resentful of the dominance of the Anstruther family, began to agitate for an extension of the municipal franchise to householders.22 Anti-slavery petitions reached the Lords from the United Associate Congregation of Crail, 26 Nov. 1830, and the synod of Pittenweem and the inhabitants of the Anstruthers, 29 Mar. 1831.23 The council of Crail petitioned the Commons for reform of the Scottish representative system, 13 Dec., and the incorporated trades, burgesses and inhabitants petitioned the Lords to the same effect, 21 Dec. 1830, adding a prayer for Scottish burgh reform. That day the Lords received a petition for general reform from the council of Crail.24 The group was targeted for disfranchisement by Henry Cockburn, solicitor-general of Scotland in the new Grey ministry, and Thomas Kennedy*, who submitted a scheme of Scottish reform to ministers in December 1830; and this proposal was duly incorporated in the first Scottish reform bill unveiled in March 1831.25 The council and inhabitants of Anstruther Easter and the inhabitants of Pittenweem petitioned the Commons in protest against this, 23 Mar., pointing out that the district had a combined population of over 16,000, with seven substantial towns nearby which could be added to it. Balfour presented this petition, and on 25 Mar. spoke against the proposed disfranchisement. The council and inhabitants of Anstruther Easter and the burgesses and inhabitants of Kilrenny petitioned the Commons against the Scottish bill, 28 Mar., when a petition in its favour were received from other residents of Anstruther Easter.26 Cockburn had already become uneasy over the apparent willingness of the lord advocate Francis Jeffrey, who had charge of the bill in the Commons, to give way on ‘the quashing of the Fife burghs’.27 At the dissolution which followed the defeat of the English reform bill Balfour turned his attention (successfully) to Haddingtonshire. Marsham offered in his room, as an opponent of reform. Some ‘independent men’ of the district cast around for a reformer. None appeared initially, and Bailie Simpson of Pittenweem told his friend Joseph Gordon of Edinburgh, where he had gone on an abortive mission to find a candidate, that he and his associates were at a loss. Gordon, who evidently had some influence in the burghs, tried to convince him that ‘the only chance of the doom of the burghs being averted is their election on this occasion of a candidate possessing great influence’. He had in mind James Alexander Stewart Mackenzie*, the laird of Seaforth and a well-connected Whig, who was engaged to stand for Ross-shire. Gordon asked Stewart Mackenzie’s wife to authorize him to ‘mention’ her husband’s ‘name, as a probable candidate’ for the burghs, which were ‘going a-begging’, and said that if she did, he would ‘request my friends to keep themselves disengaged for eight days’.28 He was too late, for Andrew Johnston, a young advocate, whose father owned a small Fifeshire estate at Rennyhill and who had been active for Balfour against Rae in 1826, came forward as a reformer. Gordon was sceptical of reports that Crail and Pittenweem (the returning burgh) had declared for Johnston, which, with Kilrenny disfranchised, would be decisive, but in case they were true wrote to Mrs. Stewart Mackenzie:

I should think that Johnston would very readily transfer his interest to Seaforth on being refunded his expenses ... As to the expense of the canvass, my decided recommendation to Seaforth, were he standing, would be not to incur a shilling except for the dinners at choosing the delegates in his interest, and his own election dinner. Neither of these would I think fall under the Treasury Act, and although all the burgesses of the two burghs must be made as drunk as possible on both occasions, I should think about £300 would cover the whole. I do not know what Balfour’s expenses may have been. I have some reason to think he had to purchase the good will of a professional gentlemen in the first instance, and that he had also to come down pretty largely to the leading men in the councils of East Anstruther and Pittenweem.29

Johnston did indeed have the backing of Crail and Pittenweem, which deterred Marsham from going through the motions of a contest.30

In the House, 30 June 1831, Lindsay, now Member for Fifeshire, presented and endorsed a petition from the council of Cupar for that burgh and St. Andrews, which were scheduled to be grouped with Perth, to be united with the Anstruther Burghs: he argued that Perth deserved a Member to itself, that the disfranchisement of the burghs would be an infringement of the Union and that if they were thrown into the county they would, with an electorate of over 300, exert an undesirable urban influence. Johnston refuted a story that the burghs had returned him as a reformer because they had been given to understand that this represented their only hope of salvation. Cockburn warned Kennedy to be on his guard against these developments.31 The inhabitants of Anstruther Easter petitioned the Lords in support of the reform scheme, 3 Aug.32 On 6 Aug. Lindsay presented the petition of the magistrates, council and burgesses of the burgh against disfranchisement of the group. In supporting it, he complained of ‘the unaccountable delay’ in restoring the privileges of Kilrenny, disfranchised on account of ‘a trifling informality’, contrasting ministers’ procrastination on this with the speed with which they had secured the restoration of the Whig stronghold of Dundee. Johnston, who was awkwardly placed as a reformer, claimed to have tried to persuade Lindsay to delay presentation of the petition until the Scottish reform bill came before the House, but admitted that he had a number of similar ones from the other councils in his own hands. Jeffrey said that the district contained only 40 £10 houses and that the Kilrenny problem, which he had inherited from Rae, had turned out to be a very knotty one, turning on ‘a question of whether ... [it] ever had a right to act as a royal burgh’. Rae, who observed that his own defeat in 1826 proved the truth of Lindsay’s argument that the Anstruther Burghs were not under nomination, and that but for the disfranchisement of Kilrenny the Tories would have opposed Balfour with every chance of success, maintained that the Kilrenny problem was not as intractable as Jeffrey claimed, and that he and his colleagues in office had refrained from interfering to avoid being accused of political partiality. Johnston confirmed that they were not nomination burghs, but disputed Rae’s claim to have been supported in 1826 ‘by all the landed and local interest in the neighbourhood’ and said that his understanding was that the Kilrenny disfranchisement was so difficult that it was thought that an Act of Parliament would be required to restore the burgh. He added that if it had been enfranchised at the time of the last election he would have gained a majority there. Alexander Pringle, Tory Member for Selkirkshire, criticized Jeffrey’s lame explanation concerning Kilrenny and argued that the admitted defect in the original charter had surely been ‘cured by ... immemorial usage’ and the authority of the Act of Union. On 23 Sept. Johnston presented ‘very spirited’ petitions against the disfranchisement from the convention of royal burghs (which also expressed support for the overall reform plan), the councils and burgesses of the Anstruthers, Crail and Pittenweem and the managers, burgesses and inhabitants of Kilrenny.33 Three days later Lord Althorp, the leader of the House, announced that ministers had decided to reprieve the Anstruther Burghs by joining them with St. Andrews and Cupar and giving Perth a Member to itself. The council of Crail, the council, burgesses and inhabitants of Pittenweem and the inhabitants of Anstruther Easter sent petitions to the Lords in support of the English reform bill, 30 Sept., 4 Oct. 1831.34 On 15 June 1832 Johnston argued in favour of a late adjustment to the proposed boundary of Crail in the new constituency, but Jeffrey would have none of it and accused him of seeking a political advantage. A petition from Crail council on this matter was received, 22 June 1832.35

The new constituency of St. Andrews Burghs had 600 registered electors in 1832, when Johnston defeated his fellow Liberal Sir Ralph Anstruther by 131 votes in a poll of 531. The Conservatives had hopes of winning the seat in 1835 and 1837, but it remained in Liberal hands for the rest of the century and beyond.36

Author: David R. Fisher


  • 1. Ordnance Gazetteer of Scotland (1895), v. 207-9; PP (1823), xv. 702; (1831-2), xlii. 75; (1836), xxiii. 431-5.
  • 2. Ordnance Gazetteer of Scotland, i. 53; PP (1823), xv. 701; (1831-2), xlii. 67; (1835), xxix. 169, 170.
  • 3. Ordnance Gazetteer of Scotland, i. 53; PP (1823), 701; (1831-2), xlii. 65, 67; (1835), xxix. 165, 166.
  • 4. Ordnance Gazetteer of Scotland, iv. 384, 385; PP (1823), xv. 700; (1831-2), xlii. 73; (1836), xxiii. 248-50.
  • 5. Ordnance Gazetteer of Scotland, ii. 299, 300; PP (1823), xv. 700; (1831-2), xlii. 69; (1835), xxix, 253-7.
  • 6. HP Commons, 1790-1820, ii. 593.
  • 7. NLS mss 11, f. 14; 1054, f. 177; Caledonian Mercury, 19 Feb., 8 Apr. 1820.
  • 8. CJ, lxxvi. 15.
  • 9. Ibid. lxxviii. 447.
  • 10. PP (1826), xxiii. 255-74.
  • 11. Caledonian Mercury, 10 June 1826.
  • 12. The Times, 17 Mar. 1826; CJ, lxxxi. 177, 218.
  • 13. CJ, lxxxi. 165, 176, 188; LJ, lviii. 113, 144.
  • 14. CJ, lxxxi. 175, 278; LJ, lviii. 113.
  • 15. NLS, Crawford mss 25/1/415, 416.
  • 16. NAS GD164/1779/14; Add. 51700, Lauderdale to Lady Holland, 2 June; Edinburgh Evening Courant, 3, 12 June, 6 July; Caledonian Mercury, 10, 15, 22, 24 June, 6 July 1826.
  • 17. CJ, lxxxii. 49, 50, 307, 308, 320.
  • 18. Ibid. lxxxiv. 98, 124, 154, 173; LJ, lxi. 185, 290.
  • 19. PP (1836), xxiii. 250.
  • 20. Add. 40401, f. 87.
  • 21. Edinburgh Evening Courant, 31 July, 5, 23, 26 Aug. 1830.
  • 22. PP (1835), xxix. 170.
  • 23. LJ, lxiii. 134; CJ, lxxxvi. 455.
  • 24. CJ, lxxxvi. 169; LJ, lxiii. 189.
  • 25. Cockburn Letters, 273, 264, 265.
  • 26. CJ, lxxxvi. 424, 446.
  • 27. Cockburn Letters, 300.
  • 28. Caledonian Mercury, 28 Apr. 1831; NAS GD46/132/21, 22.
  • 29. NAS GD46/132/23.
  • 30. Caledonian Mercury, 5 May 1831.
  • 31. Cockburn Letters, 336, 337, 340.
  • 32. LJ, lxiii. 891.
  • 33. Caledonian Mercury, 30 July 1831; CJ, lxxxvi. 863.
  • 34. LJ, lxiii. 1023, 1036, 1044.
  • 35. CJ, lxxxvii. 424.
  • 36. Scottish Electoral Politics, 227, 244, 270, 271.