Inverness 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

Forres, Elginshire (1820); Fortrose, Ross-shire (1826); Inverness (1830); Nairn (1831)


23 Aug. 1830JOHN BAILLIE

Main Article

Inverness, the chief town of the Highlands, situated near the mouth of the River Ness, had a population (burgh and parish) of 12,264 in 1821 and 14,304 in 1831. A ‘very thriving place’, it had woollen, hemp and leather manufactures and a commodious harbour. The completion of the Caledonian Canal in October 1822 brought considerable commercial benefits to the town, which was provided with gas and water in this period.1 Its electoral delegate was chosen by its council of 21 which, though largely self-electing, included three deacons returned by the members of the six incorporated trades. At the opening of this period, however, the burgh was disfranchised, a campaign by some of the guild brethren, led by a councillor, for reform of its constitution and poll elections having ended in suspension of the sett in December 1818. Interim management of the town was vested by the court of session in the old council.2 Fortrose, which lay in the Black Isle on the northern shore of the Moray Firth and was conjoined with the equally ‘stationary’ settlement of Rosemarkie, had a population (burgh and parish) of 1,571 in 1821 and 1,799 in 1831. Its council numbered 15,of whom 14 were resident in the early 1820s.3 Nairn, situated at the mouth of the River Nairn on the southern bank of the Firth, 15 miles north-east of Inverness, had a population (burgh and parish) of 3,228 in 1821 and 3,266 in 1831. Its improved harbour was wrecked in the storms and floods of 1829, and by 1836 it was reckoned to be ‘of little importance’. Its council consisted nominally of 17, but there was no written sett, and in practice the number was generally between 17 and 21, of whom more than half were non-residents.4 Ten miles east of Nairn was Forres, an undeveloped but salubrious inland town with a population (burgh and parish) of 3,540 in 1831 and 3,895 in 1831. Its council numbered 17, of whom ten were non-residents in 1822.5 The disfranchisement of Inverness had enhanced the position of the local landowners who dominated the eastern burghs of Nairn and Forres, respectively Sir William Gordon Cumming* of Altyre, Elginshire, and his first cousin Colonel Francis William Grant* of Castle Grant, Member for Elginshire, whose elder brother Lewis, 5th earl of Seafield from 1811, nominal head of the clan, was an incurable madman.6 In 1818, when the casting vote was with Nairn, Colonel Grant had agreed to back Gordon Cumming’s nominee in return for reciprocal support for his own at the next general election, when Forres would be the returning burgh. Accordingly the sitting Member, Charles Grant, a member of the Liverpool ministry and son and namesake of the powerful East India Company director, who had secured his return in 1811 and 1812 with the backing of the hemp manufacturer James Grant of Bught, a leading figure on Inverness council, and the acquiescence of Gordon Cumming and Colonel Grant, stood aside and replaced his father as Member for Inverness-shire. Gordon Cumming’s nominee was his uncle George Cumming, a nabob turned financial speculator, who gave general support to the government. Charles Grant senior kept up his interest in Inverness and sought to maintain good relations with Colonel Grant.7

Forres council sent a loyal address to the regent in the aftermath of Peterloo, 30 Nov. 1819.8 At the dissolution three months later, Colonel Grant was abroad, and there was uncertainty as to his wishes for the burghs. Charles Grant† senior had tenuous hopes that there might be an opening for his younger son Robert, a commissioner of bankrupts, who seemed certain to lose his current seat for Elgin Burghs. Robert Grant urged Lord Melville, the Liverpool ministry’s Scottish manager, to try to secure the immediate issue of a privy council warrant restoring Inverness’s constitution, but Melville said that this was impossible. Bught told Charles Grant senior that it was

probable that we can have nothing to say in the first election ... [and] we can have no voice ... If it were otherwise I have no doubt that you would be the most agreeable person to us ... and I think it likely that ...[Robert] would be too. Mr. Cumming has not I am persuaded any expectations from us, and I am pleased that he has not.

In the event Colonel Grant’s representatives on the spot decided to keep things peaceful and retain Cumming, who was returned unopposed.9

Inverness linen and hemp manufacturers petitioned the Commons for continuance of the bounty on linen exports, 29 June 1820.10 The abandonment of the bill of pains and penalties against Queen Caroline in mid-November 1820 was celebrated in the several burghs.11 By then Robert Grant had seen the lord advocate, Sir William Rae*, to impress on him ‘the evils which must result from leaving the burgh of Inverness in its present dismantled condition, and of the anxiety entertained by all parties for a new warrant’. Rae would not commit himself until the report on precedents ordered by the Commons had been completed. Robert Grant hoped he would decide to reinstate the old council rather than order a poll election, but he made further inquiries to furnish himself with arguments in favour of the former option, while not disguising its difficulties, for he was sure that an open election

would materially alter the governing party in the burgh ... [and] introduce into power men whose politics are not to be trusted, and ... the issue might very probably be to establish the place as one of the strongholds of opposition if not of radicalism.

By early April 1821 Robert Grant was increasingly confident that Rae, who he thought had so expertly managed the select committee on the royal burghs as to frustrate the reformers, would come down on the right side.12 On 21 May 1821 the petition, presented three days earlier, of four resident merchants and guild brethren complaining of the current system of electing the council and the lack of effective control over municipal expenditure was referred to the committee.13 On 9 Aug. 1822 the privy council issued a warrant directing the surviving councillors of 1816-17 to choose a new council. This submitted the accounts of the interim magistrates to a committee, which approved them in November 1822. Reimbursement of these magistrates was subsequently authorized by the court of session, but some burgesses were aggrieved that the payments were made from municipal funds. An unsuccessful challenge by three inhabitants to the validity of the warrant was taken up in the Commons, 26 Mar. 1823, by the Whig Lord Archibald Hamilton, whose motion for the production of a copy was resisted by Rae, Cumming and the home secretary Peel and defeated by 49-31. Subsequent proceedings against the council before the court of session failed.14 On 14 Apr. 1824 the journeymen shoemakers of Inverness petitioned the Commons for repeal of the combination laws. A month later some resident merchants and burgesses of Nairn petitioned the Commons for legislation to stop the council’s misapplication of public money and the non-residence of the provost and councillors.15 The councils of Forres, Fortrose and Inverness and the merchants, burgesses and inhabitants of the last petitioned both Houses against alteration of the Scottish banking system in 1826.16 That session the United Associate Congregation of Nairn and the inhabitants of Forres petitioned for the abolition of slavery.17

As early as November 1822 Robert Grant told a friend that he was ‘almost certain’ of his return for Inverness Burghs at the next general election, when Fortrose had the casting vote

supposing no change of leading men to take place in the burghs ... and no such change is at all probable; and supposing that the present burgh system ... continues ... The leading men of [Inverness and Fortrose] are at present warmly with us, but we have no property in either, nor any such hold over them as the proprietor of an English close borough possesses over the corporation ... When I come in, I command the seat but for two Parliaments at the utmost; after that, the casting vote goes to two other burghs over which we have no influence.18

In April 1824 Charles Grant junior, who had succeeded his father as owner of the Waternish estate on Skye a few months earlier, told Bught of news that ‘in the eastern burghs or at least in Nairn there is an attempt making to tamper with Fortrose’, but he hoped that he could ‘give such an account of our Inverness friends as may put a stop to further attempts’. Bught and the provost of Inverness, James Robertson of Aultnacaillich, assured Robert Grant of their support the following month, but in September 1824 Charles was ‘informed ... that a keen canvass is going on for the burghs’. However, he believed Fortrose to be ‘so firmly for us that I have not any fears on that score, except for the chance of events’.19 There is strong evidence that Fortrose was being nibbled at by John Norman Macleod* of Dunvegan, who was also in contention of the county, abetted by a local whisky distiller, but Bught’s son Duncan Grant was confident he would fail to seduce the burgh.20 By early 1825 Robert Grant, who made a personal canvass, was reckoned to have ‘secured the burghs’, though Duncan Grant privately doubted that he and Charles, who he thought were ‘serving Robertson rather badly’, would ‘ever ... recompense their northern friends as their father did’; it was assumed later in the year that Fortrose was ‘nailed’ to Robert Grant.21 At the general election of 1826 he was duly returned unopposed.22

Forres parish farmers petitioned Parliament against interference with the corn laws in February 1827, and the magistrates and inhabitants of the burgh petitioned the Commons for repeal of the stamp duty on receipts, 18 Apr. 1828.23 Robert Grant, like Charles, who resigned from the Wellington ministry in May 1828, was now one of the Huskissonite parliamentary squad. They voted for Catholic emancipation in 1829, when the freemasons and inhabitants and incorporated trades of Inverness petitioned against it.24 The burning in effigy of Charles Grant by a crowd of ‘boys and disorderly lads’, 6 Mar., escalated into a riot, in which the Catholic chapel was attacked, windows were smashed, Robertson was hit with a stone when appealing for order and three arrested miscreants were rescued from custody by the mob. Yet Bught, assuring Charles Grant that the council ‘entirely’ approved of emancipation, dismissed the incident as the work of ‘deluded and extremely ignorant people’, who were ‘too despicable to render any opposition to them on the part of the magistrates necessary, further than such as we thought best to preserve the public peace’.25 Robert Grant promoted petitioning of the Commons from Inverness and Nairn against the ministry’s Scottish gaols bills in 1828 and 1829.26 In the latter year an eight-year controversy over the town clerkship of Forres, in which Colonel Grant and Gordon Cumming were involved, was settled to the satisfaction of the Grant faction.27 Inverness bankers petitioned the Commons for mitigation of the punishment for forgery, 24 May 1830.28

By then Robert Grant was in open opposition. In mid-June 1830, anticipating the king’s death and a dissolution, when Inverness would become the returning burgh, Duncan Grant wrote to his father:

I should not regret that R. Grant found that you had at least a choice of candidates. His claim on Provost Robertson and yourself is I believe very slender. In fact we have had reason to suspect that he has rather hindered than abetted his brother’s friendly dispositions towards either. What indefeasible claims then he may conceive himself to have upon you I know not. He probably conceives that his brother’s influence should not only carry the county but also command the town, which, taking into account the arrogance of his whole bearing, is a little too much.

Robert Grant, having ‘strong assurances of support from Fortrose, but hearing sinister reports about the eastern burghs and about my chance of being returned again’, appealed to Bught for continued backing, but he was told that Inverness council had decided to vote for John Baillie of nearby Leys Castle, a former officer in the East India Company’s Bengal army, related to the locally influential Baillies of Dunain and Dochfour, and pro-Catholic Tory Member for Hedon since 1820. He had already secured the support of Forres and Nairn. Duncan Grant, in Edinburgh, was taken ‘somewhat by surprise’ to learn that ‘things were so matured’ and, though glad to be rid of the unpopular Robert Grant, had ‘no great liking’ for Baillie, who was supposed to have carried the burghs ‘through the means of East Indian patronage’.29 Robert Grant bowed to the inevitable and went to contest Norwich, where he won a spectacular victory in defiance of ministerial influence.30 At the Burghs election, when Robertson proposed him, Captain Rose of Nairn seconded and James Alexander Grant of Viewfield (for Forres) and Provost Macfarquhar of Fortrose concurred, Baillie declared his intention to continue his support of government.31

Anti-slavery petitions were sent to the 1830 Parliament from Forres, Inverness and Nairn.32 On 29 Oct. 1830 some burgesses and inhabitants of Nairn met to denounce the ‘intolerable grievance of a self-electing and non-resident magistracy and council’ and to petition the Commons to reform the Scottish representative system, while censuring ‘visionary schemes of reform’.33 A requisition from John Mackenzie, banker, George Mackay, merchant, and other inhabitants of Inverness for a similar meeting, 11 Dec., was refused by Robertson on the ground that the issue should be left in the hands of the new Grey ministry, but the requisitionists met regardless, 20 Dec., when Mackenzie took the chair and a petition to the Commons was adopted; a few county landowners, including the Frasers of Abertarff, Balnain and Torbreck, were present. There was a reform meeting at Forres, chaired by Alexander Whyte, a merchant, on 21 Dec. 1830.34 Provost Mackenzie of Fortrose also refused a requisition for a reform meeting, but some burgesses, inhabitants and householders convened to petition for Scottish reform early in 1831.35 On 11 Mar. some burgesses and inhabitants of Nairn met to petition Parliament and address the king in support of the ministry’s reform scheme. Robertson again refused an Inverness inhabitants’ requisition, but they met under John Mackenzie’s chairmanship on 19 Mar., when their adopted petition welcomed the bills but questioned the proposal to give the Scottish county vote to £10 householders. Pro-reform petitions were also sent up by the reform committee of Fortrose and the merchants, burgesses and inhabitants of Forres.36 In early April Robert Fraser of Torbreck announced that he would stand for the burghs when they had been reformed.37 Baillie voted against the second reading of the English reform bill, but subsequently declared his intention of supporting the Scottish measure. When Parliament was dissolved he challenged Charles Grant (a member of the cabinet) in the county, but he did not go to a poll. Gordon Cumming’s brother, Charles Lennox Cumming Bruce of Roseisle, Inverness-shire, obtained the support of the councils of Nairn, the returning burgh, and Forres, with the backing of Colonel Francis Grant. Proposed by Captain Rose of Nairn, he was returned unopposed as a professed supporter of moderate reform but an opponent of the ministry’s ‘sweeping’ scheme.38 The reform committee of Nairn petitioned the Commons, 24 June 1831. On 3 Sept. the council and burgesses of Fortrose and the council of Forres petitioned for retention of the principle of the delegate system in burgh district elections, a notion which Cumming Gordon raised in the House. The inhabitants of Forres, the inhabitants and burgesses of Fortrose and Nairn and the inhabitants of Inverness petitioned the Lords in support of reform in October 1831.39 The inhabitants of Fortrose addressed the king to the same effect in December.40 On 22 May 1832 a large public meeting at Inverness, chaired by John Mackenzie and attended by Abertarff and Balnain, petitioned the Commons to withhold supplies until reform was secured. The inhabitants of Nairn did likewise.41 That summer Fortrose, Inverness and Nairn mounted public celebrations of the enactment of reform.42

The same four burghs made up the reformed constituency, which had a registered electorate of 715 at the 1832 general election. Baillie, standing as a Conservative, defeated a Liberal by seven votes in a poll of 689, with Cumming Bruce in third place.43 On Baillie’s death in 1833 Cumming Bruce regained the seat, which he narrowly held in 1835. The success of a Liberal in 1837 marked the start of that party’s long hegemony.44

Author: David R. Fisher


  • 1. Ordnance Gazetteer of Scotland (1895), iv. 301, 304, 307-9; Hist. Inverness (1847), 46, 48; N.S. Newton, Life and Times of Inverness, 59, 68; PP (1831-2), xlii. 39, 40.
  • 2. PP (1823), xv. 691, 692; (1830-1), x. 28-29; (1836), xxiii. 207, 220; HP Commons, 1790-1820, ii. 609.
  • 3. Ordnance Gazetteer of Scotland, iii. 55, 56; PP (1823), xv. 691; (1830-1), x. 24, 25; (1831-2), xlii. 37.
  • 4. Ordnance Gazetteer of Scotland, v. 91-93; PP (1823), xv. 692, 724; (1830-1), x. 33; (1831-2), xlii. 41; (1836), xxiii. 361.
  • 5. Ordnance Gazetteer of Scotland, iii. 47-49; PP (1823), xv. 692; (1830-1), x. 24; (1831-2), xlii. 35.
  • 6. Add. 40361, f. 9.
  • 7. HP Commons, 1790-1820, ii. 608-9; NAS GD23/6/745/123.
  • 8. Inverness Courier, 2 Dec. 1819.
  • 9. NAS GD23/6/745/123-5, 127; GD51/5/749, pp. 177, 178; GD248/824/2/14, 19, 21, 28; NLI, Melville mss 4614; Inverness Courier, 6 Apr. 1820.
  • 10. CJ, lxxv. 371.
  • 11. Inverness Courier, 23, 30 Nov., 7 Dec. 1820.
  • 12. NAS GD23/6/573/1, 2.
  • 13. CJ, lxxvi. 356, 361.
  • 14. Inverness Courier, 15 Aug., 26 Sept., 13 Nov 1822, 3 Apr. 1823; PP (1836), xxiii. 207, 220; NAS GD23/6/586/2/1.
  • 15. CJ, lxxix. 297, 366.
  • 16. Ibid. lxxxi. 106, 159, 230, 308; LJ, lviii. 61, 113, 158, 269; Inverness Courier, 15 Mar. 1826.
  • 17. CJ, lxxxi. 249, 253; LJ, lviii. 203, 269.
  • 18. Hants RO, Calthorpe mss 26M62/F/C 545.
  • 19. NAS GD23/6/573/3; 6/746/66, 72.
  • 20. Macleod of Macleod mss 1059/4, 5; NAS GD23/6/583/4.
  • 21. NAS GD23/6/583/6; 6/746/75; Add. 39193, f. 68.
  • 22. Inverness Courier, 7, 21, 28 June, 5 July 1826; NAS GD23/6/610.
  • 23. CJ, lxxxii. 239; lxxxiii. 247; LJ, lix. 80.
  • 24. CJ, lxxxiv. 170; LJ, lxi. 332, 334.
  • 25. Recollections of Inverness (1863), 29-31; Inverness Courier, 11 Mar.; The Times, 17 Mar. 1829; NAS GD23/6/746/121/2.
  • 26. NAS GD23/6/573/5-7; CJ, lxxxiii. 403; lxxxiv. 288, 343.
  • 27. NAS GD248/824/8/1, 10, 13-15, 16, 18-26, 28-39, 41, 42, 44-61, 63-79.
  • 28. CJ, lxxxv. 463.
  • 29. NAS GD23/6/573/10; 6/583/22, 23; 6/746/124; NLS mss 24726, f. 4.
  • 30. Inverness Courier, 28 July, 4, 25 Aug. 1830.
  • 31. Ibid. 14 July, 25 Aug. 1830.
  • 32. CJ, lxxxvi. 175, 238, 445, 491; LJ, lxiii. 87; Inverness Courier, 12 Jan. 1831.
  • 33. Inverness Courier, 3 Nov. 1830; CJ, lxxxvi. 188.
  • 34. Inverness Courier, 15, 22, 29 Dec. 1830; CJ, lxxxvi. 324; LJ, lxiii. 289.
  • 35. Inverness Courier, 26 Jan. 1831; CJ, lxxxvi. 296; LJ, lxiii. 348.
  • 36. Inverness Courier, 23 Mar. 1831; CJ, lxxxvi. 405, 406, 416; LJ, lxiii. 358, 498, 501.
  • 37. Inverness Courier, 13 Apr. 1831.
  • 38. Ibid. 13, 20, 27 Apr., 4, 18, 25 May 1831.
  • 39. CJ, lxxxvi. 557; LJ, lxiii. 1035, 1055, 1086; Inverness Courier, 28 Sept., 5 Oct. 1831.
  • 40. Inverness Courier, 7 Dec. 1831.
  • 41. Ibid. 23 May 1832; CJ, lxxxvii. 375, 488.
  • 42. Inverness Courier, 18 July, 22, 29 Aug. 1832.
  • 43. Ibid. 12, 19, 26 Dec. 1832.
  • 44. Scottish Electoral Politics, 221, 232, 268.