Tain 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

Dornoch, Sutherland (1820); Wick, Caithness (1826); Kirkwall, Orkney (1830); Tain (1831), Dingwall, Ross-shire (not the returning burgh in this period)


31 Mar. 1820SIR HUGH INNES, bt.
3 July 1826SIR HUGH INNES, bt.
23 Aug. 1830JAMES LOCH
23 May 1831JAMES LOCH

Main Article

Dornoch, the county town of Sutherland, situated on the south-east coast near the Dornoch Firth, was ‘extremely insignificant in every particular’, being ‘literally a village, consisting of a church, a gaol and a very few houses, without trade or manufactures of any kind’. There was no harbour, as the estuary was too shallow. Its population declined from 630 in 1821 to 504 in 1831, and its council numbered 15, of whom eight had no property in the burgh.1 Wick, a seaport in the far north-east of Scotland, together with its suburb of Pulteney Town, constituted ‘the most important northern station of the herring fishery’, whence up to 2,000 boats operated during the summer season. It was described in 1830 as ‘a busy, well-built, thriving town’, where ‘speculation’ was ‘all the rage - houses spring up daily’. Grain and wool from the surrounding area were exported as well as fish, but there was ‘no manufacture of any importance’. The population (burgh and parish) rose from 6,713 in 1821 to 9,850 in 1831, and the council had 12 members, of whom three had no property in the burgh.2 Kirkwall was a seaport and capital of the Orkney Islands. An annual fair was held there in August, ‘when the greater part of the mercantile transactions of the Orkneys ... are negotiated’. Fishing and fish curing were major sources of employment, and many women made straw hats and bonnets; the kelp manufacture was in decline. In 1831 it was reported that the town had been ‘stationary for a long period’, although ‘some good houses’ had recently been built. The population increased from 2,212 in 1821 to 3,056 in 1831, and there was a council of 23, of whom 18 had property in the burgh and the others carried on trade there.3 Tain, situated on a bank near the southern shore of Dornoch Firth, in a ‘fertile agricultural district’, had no harbour and ‘little or no manufacture’, but it was stated in 1831 that ‘many new houses’ had been built to accommodate the residential population and the town was ‘in a thriving condition’. The population (burgh and parish) rose from 2,861 in 1821 to 3,078 in 1831, and the council had 15 members, of whom 12 lived in the burgh or its vicinity.4 Dingwall was situated near the head of Cromarty Firth, 13 miles north-west of Inverness, and consisted ‘chiefly ... of one main street’, with ‘some good houses and shops’. It had ‘no manufacture’ but served as the supply centre for Wester Ross, and was described in 1831 as ‘thriving, though not likely to be greatly extended’. The population (burgh and parish) increased from 2,031 in 1821 to 2,124 in 1831, and there were 15 councillors.5

Elizabeth, countess of Sutherland exercised political control over Dornoch, where her husband, George Leveson Gower†, 2nd marquess of Stafford, was provost. Since 1794 she had controlled the parliamentary representation through a pact with Francis Mackenzie†, 1st Baron Seaforth (d. 1815), who had built a dominant interest in Dingwall. This arrangement was renewed in 1818 with the Whig James Stewart Mackenzie* of Brahan Castle (who had acquired the Seaforth estates through marriage the previous year), despite his political differences with the Grenvillite Staffords. Samuel Laing of Papdale, the leading figure in Kirkwall politics (he served as provost, 1820-34), was another Whig ally of the Staffords. Their combined influence outweighed that of the Tory Sir John Sinclair† of Ulbster, who controlled Wick but was in financial difficulties, and of Sir Charles Lockhart Ross of Balnagown, a minor, whose interest in Tain appears to have been handled by his great-uncle William Dundas, Tory Member for Edinburgh and cousin of the 2nd Viscount Melville, the Liverpool ministry’s Scottish manager. Sir Hugh Innes of Lochalsh had sat for the burghs since 1812, originally as the Seaforth nominee, and gave independent support to the government; he was returned unopposed in 1818.6 In November 1819 he reported that ‘the Seaforth interest’ was ‘again firmly established in Dingwall’, after an attempt to shake it, and claimed to have received assurances of continued support from the Staffords and the Stewart Mackenzies, although he was evidently now regarded as the nominee of the former family. He was ‘unanimously re-elected’ at Dornoch in 1820.7

In June 1820 Sinclair entered into an agreement with George Macpherson Grant, Member for Sutherland and a client of the Staffords, to sell the superiority of Wick, which ‘confers on the possessor an absolute control over the council of the burgh’, for £3,500. As part of the deal, Sinclair undertook to remodel the council at the Michaelmas election in accordance with a list to be provided. Macpherson Grant was advised that it would be necessary ‘one way or another to keep attached to us four or five residents capable of being bailies’, in which case ‘a little flummery may be useful with the rest but no great exertion beyond this is required’. John Maclay of Keiss, a banker, was identified as the key individual with whom ‘no doubt we shall be able to establish a useful connection’, whereas it was desirable to ensure that the new council was ‘so organized as not to depend on [the] opinion’ of one Horne, despite his professions of friendship. At the Michaelmas meeting Macpherson Grant was duly elected as provost, with Maclay as one of the bailies. The superiority was subsequently transferred to Stafford’s eldest son, Lord Gower†, which caused Sinclair some disquiet. Nevertheless, in the autumn of 1821, Sinclair informed Macpherson Grant that the council elections had ‘passed off uncommonly well ... without the least symptom of opposition’, explaining that ‘you were unanimously elected provost and the bailies and council are all trusty men’.8 It was reported in October 1820 that ‘a spirited address’ to Queen Caroline from the inhabitants of Dingwall had received ‘upwards of 200 signatures’ and been forwarded to Joseph Hume* for presentation. The news of the withdrawal of the bill of pains and penalties was celebrated by a ‘brilliant illumination’ at Dingwall, 24 Nov. 1820, when ‘various devices and transparencies were exhibited in the windows of some of the shops and houses, and some gaelic mottoes excited much attention’. An effigy of the perjured witness Majochi was ‘paraded on horseback through the streets ... hung upon the cross and burnt’, and a bonfire was lit on Green hill, ‘round which a general firing of guns was kept up ... [for] a great part of the evening’. The streets were ‘paraded by all the respectable inhabitants, male and female, and the greatest good humour ... prevailed throughout’; there was some ‘trifling’ damage to the windows of the few who had not illuminated. The inhabitants later sent two addresses to the king, one ‘expressive of loyalty and attachment to [him] and the constitution’, the other ‘adverting to the queen’s case and the conduct of ministers’. Loyal addresses were sent by Tain and Wick councils, the latter, according to Maclay, having been ‘unanimously voted’. Doubtless aware of Lord Stafford’s opposition to the queen’s prosecution, Maclay admitted to Macpherson Grant that ‘some expressions ... may, perhaps, be rather too strong’, but the signatories were ‘all extremely moderate in their political views and attachments’, and ‘sincerely believing ... that the country was in a most alarming state, we considered it our duty to express what we really felt’. The inhabitants of Dingwall and Wick petitioned the Commons to restore the queen’s name to the liturgy, 26 Jan. 1821.9 On 10 Apr. 1823 the council and inhabitants of Kirkwall appealed to the Commons for relief from distress, arising from the ‘unprecedented fall in the value of cattle’ and the ‘severe and ruinous stagnation’ of the kelp manufacture, through measures including repeal of the window tax.10 A meeting of the West India interest in the northern counties at Inverness, 19 Mar., apparently inspired a petition to the Commons from the council and ‘other respectable inhabitants’ of Tain, 26 May 1824, which deplored the unsettling effect of the abolitionist campaign on the slaves and declared that ‘nothing can be more injurious to the progress of the negroes in instruction and in advancement to a state of civilization than the adoption of hasty and injudicious measures for their manumission’. Amelioration could only come about through the ‘gradual influence of time’, and the petitioners favoured an increase in military forces to preserve Britain’s ‘valuable’ colonial possessions. Dingwall council forwarded a similar petition, 21 June 1824. On the other hand, Kirkwall’s council and United Associate Congregation sent abolitionist petitions to the Commons, 20 Mar., 21 Apr. 1826.11 The inhabitants of Dingwall petitioned the Commons for repeal of the assessed taxes, 3 Mar. 1825.12 All the burghs sent petitions to Parliament against any alteration to the Scottish banking system in 1826.13 Stafford’s adhesion to the government and Innes’s consistent support for it evidently did not provoke any serious Whig opposition in the burghs. In May 1826 it was ‘confidently stated’ that Innes would be re-elected, and by the time of the dissolution the following month this had become a ‘certainty’. At Wick, the returning burgh, James Loch*, the auditor of Stafford’s estates, was ‘unanimously chosen’ as delegate and there followed a ‘marked expression of public feeling’ towards ‘the family of their superior’. Innes was subsequently returned by ‘the unanimous vote of all the delegates’ and, after being chaired through Wick, he gave a dinner to ‘a very large party of friends’, while the ‘populace were largely regaled with porter, etc.’; even the inmates of the gaol were ‘not forgotten in their confinement’.14

The Protestant Dissenters of Wick petitioned the Commons for repeal of the Test Acts, 25 May 1827.15 All the burghs except Wick sent petitions to one or both Houses against Catholic emancipation in March 1829. The one emanating from a meeting in Tain church attracted ‘about 700 signatures’, while that from the meeting in Dingwall church, where a delaying amendment was negatived, was ‘signed by a few respectable persons’, but ‘the greater number of the subscriptions’ was allegedly ‘made by marks and ... very many ... neither understood the subject ... nor even the language in which [the petition] was written’.16 Innes supported emancipation, as he had previously. The fish curers of Wick petitioned the Commons to maintain the bounty on herrings, 26 Apr. 1830.17 At the general election that summer Innes retired to make room for Loch, whose return at Kirkwall went unreported in the press.

Anti-slavery petitions were sent up to both Houses from Kirkwall’s inhabitants and the United Associate Congregation, 26 Nov., 6, 16, 18 Dec. 1830, and to the Commons from Tain presbytery, 18 Feb. 1831.18 Before Stafford’s transfer of allegiance to Lord Grey’s ministry and support for parliamentary reform became publicly known, there were already signs of movement on this issue in some of the burghs. Remarkably, a meeting of Dingwall council chaired by the provost, Stewart Mackenzie, 24 Dec. 1830, resolved that the Scottish representative system was ‘defective and incongruous in the highest degree’, as the royal burghs were controlled by ‘oligarchies’, whereas ‘all ... householders ... who possess the wealth and constitute the respectable and intelligent part of such communities ought to have a direct influence in the election of their representative’. A petition embodying these views, which also called for municipal reform in Scotland, was presented to both Houses, 3, 4 Feb. 1831. At Tain, a requisition for a public meeting signed by 29 people, including ‘several of the most respectable names in the town’, was rejected by the provost William Murray on the ground that while ‘moderate renovation and improvement’ was ‘desirable and necessary’, it seemed ‘advisable ... to avoid agitation on the subject’ until the government’s plan was revealed. Consequently, the writer Hugh Leslie chaired a meeting of householders and inhabitants at the mason hall, 4 Jan., when it was resolved that although Scotland had ‘greatly increased its wealth and population since the Union’, its ‘vicious’ electoral system, ‘calculated to promote the interests of a very limited number of voters’, was ‘altogether insufficient for affording a full and fair expression of the sentiments and wishes of the nation’. In districts of burghs, the interests of the inhabitants were often ‘overruled by families of influence surrounding such burghs’, who ‘effectually control the election of a representative’. Reform was ‘essentially necessary for the safety and proper government of the country’, and the meeting recommended that in counties ‘holders of real property and their tenants’ should be enfranchised, while in burghs ‘all resident burgesses and owners and occupiers of land or houses of a moderate value or yearly rent’ should have the vote; the system of municipal government, ‘a serious evil’, also needed to be opened up. The resulting petition was presented to Parliament, 4, 15 Mar. Meanwhile, the inhabitants of Dingwall and burgesses and inhabitants of Wick had forwarded petitions to the Commons in favour of reform, 3, 4 Feb.19 The government’s bill proposed to add Cromarty to the district. Stewart Mackenzie convened a ‘numerously and respectably attended’ public meeting at Dingwall by requisition, 14 Mar., when resolutions moved by Hugh Cameron and Bailie Donald Stewart were ‘agreed to with acclamation’. These expressed ‘sincere satisfaction’ with the bill, which would ‘ameliorate the condition of the people, unite them more closely to the aristocracy’ and ‘add stability to the throne and strength to the constitution’, by making the Commons ‘in fact, what it is now in theory, the House of the representatives of the people’. A meeting was ‘called by public advertisement’ at the mason hall in Tain the same day, with Leslie presiding. It ‘cordially approved’ of the ‘comprehensive and liberal system proposed’, which would ‘restore the constitution to its pristine vigour and fully realize the just wants and wishes of the nation’. Around this time Bailie John Kirk chaired a ‘numerous and most respectable’ public meeting at Wick, which ‘unanimously passed’ resolutions in favour of the bill. Gratification was expressed at the presence of ‘several recent respectable converts’, and the meeting ended with three cheers for Alexander Keith, ‘an old and staunch reformer’. Tain’s petition was presented to both Houses, 21 Mar., but those from Dingwall and Wick only reached the Lords, 18, 21 Mar.20 Loch, who had been disabled by an accident, signified to Laing, Kirk and other ‘friends’ in the burghs his support for the bill, and hoped he would be ‘entitled to the confidence of any new constituency’; he rejected the suggestion that the Shetland capital Lerwick and Stromness in Orkney might be added to it. At the general election in May 1831 his position was secure and he was ‘unanimously re-elected’ at Tain.21

According to a newspaper list in June 1831, there were 131 £10 householders in Wick, 38 in Kirkwall, 35 in Dingwall, 27 in Tain and four in Dornoch.22 The councils and inhabitants of Dingwall and Wick and the inhabitants of Tain petitioned the Lords for the speedy passage of the reintroduced reform bill, 4, 18 Oct. 1831.23 Following its rejection, the Wick magistrates summoned a ‘general meeting of the inhabitants’, 17 Oct. 1831, when an address to the king was agreed requesting the use of his prerogative powers to help carry the whole bill.24 The inhabitants of Tain petitioned the Commons to withhold supplies until the revised bill was passed, 24 May 1832.25 Tain presbytery sent petitions to Parliament against the proposed system of national education for Ireland, which would ‘subvert or defeat the objects of the established churches’, 11 Apr., 10 May 1832.26 At the general election of 1832, when the registered electorate of what was now known as Wick Burghs had increased to 681, Loch was returned unopposed. He sat until defeated by another Liberal in 1852, having relied on support from the Staffords (who became dukes of Sutherland in 1833), the ‘British fishery society ... at Wick’ and the effect of his own ‘radical votes’.27 The seat was monopolized by the Liberals until 1885.

Author: Terry Jenkins


  • 1. Ordnance Gazetteer of Scotland (1895), ii. 362, 363; PP (1823), xv. 690; (1831-2), xlii. 48, 49; (1835), xxix. 192-4.
  • 2. Ordnance Gazetteer of Scotland, vi. 489-91; PP (1823), xv. 689; (1831-2), xlii. 60, 61; (1836), xxiii. 432-6; Inverness Courier, 7 July 1830.
  • 3. Ordnance Gazetteer of Scotland, iv. 437-42; PP (1823), xv. 689; (1831-2), xlii. 56, 57; (1836), xxiii. 172-8.
  • 4. Ordnance Gazetteer of Scotland, vi. 424-6; PP (1823), xv. 691; (1831-2), xlii. 58, 59; (1836), xxiii. 420-6.
  • 5. Ordnance Gazetteer of Scotland, ii. 355, 356; PP (1823), xv. 690, 691; (1831-2), xlii. 35; (1835), xxix. 187-90.
  • 6. HP Commons, 1790-1820, ii. 619-22; Kirkwall Recs. ed. J. Mooney, 124, 125; Add. 40366, f. 140; Inverness Courier, 12, 26 Oct. 1820.
  • 7. NAS GD46/4/123; 124/7; Inverness Courier, 23 Mar., 6 Apr. 1820.
  • 8. NAS GD771/466, letters to Macpherson Grant from Sinclair, n.d., reply, 22 June, Colin Mackenzie, 30 June, William Mackenzie, 12, 15 Aug., 26 Sept. 1820 (with list of magistrates), Sinclair, 7 Feb., reply, 10 Feb.; 475, Sinclair, n.d., Maclay 29 Sept. 1821; Inverness Courier, 5 Oct. 1820.
  • 9. Inverness Courier, 26 Oct., 7 Dec. 1820, 4 Jan.; GD771/466, Maclay to Macpherson Grant, 6 Jan., 3 Feb. 1821; CJ, lxxvi. 12.
  • 10. CJ, lxxviii. 185.
  • 11. Inverness Courier, 11, 25 Mar. 1824; CJ, lxxix. 418, 526; lxxxi. 188, 270.
  • 12. CJ, lxxx. 157.
  • 13. Inverness Courier, 9 Mar. 1826; CJ, lxxxi. 130, 139, 152, 203, 270; LJ, lviii. 81, 107, 144, 234.
  • 14. Inverness Courier, 10 May, 7 June, 5 July 1826.
  • 15. CJ, lxxxii. 490.
  • 16. Inverness Jnl. 27 Feb.; Inverness Courier, 11 Mar. 1829; CJ, lxxxiv. 104, 124, 127, 182; LJ, lxi. 116, 185, 186, 207.
  • 17. CJ, lxxxv. 332.
  • 18. Ibid. lxxxvi. 147, 188, 269; LJ, lxiii. 133, 178.
  • 19. Inverness Courier, 22, 29 Dec. 1830, 12 Jan.; Brougham mss, Loch to Vizard, 4 Feb. 1831; CJ, lxxxvi. 209, 211, 383; LJ, lxiii. 201, 290.
  • 20. Inverness Courier, 9, 16, 30 Mar. 1831; CJ, lxxxvi. 416; LJ, lxiii. 336, 346, 347.
  • 21. Staffs. RO, Sutherland mss D593/K/1/5/27, Loch to Laing, 16 Mar., George Gunn, 16 Mar., Robert Innes, 25 Mar.; Inverness Courier, 4, 25 May 1831.
  • 22. Inverness Jnl. 10 June 1831.
  • 23. LJ, lxiii. 1044, 1098.
  • 24. Inverness Courier, 19, 26 Oct. 1831.
  • 25. CJ, lxxxvii. 337.
  • 26. Ibid. 304; LJ, lxiv. 163.
  • 27. Inverness Courier, 26 Dec. 1832; Scottish Electoral Politics, 226, 231, 272.