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Number of voters:
|28 May 1708||SIR GILBERT ELIOTT, Bt.||31|
|Hon. William Kerr||241|
|6 Nov. 1710||SIR GILBERT ELIOTT, Bt.||33|
|Sir William Bennet, Bt.||232|
|6 Oct. 1713||SIR GILBERT ELIOTT, Bt.|
The story of electoral politics in Roxburghshire after the Union was a continuation of conflicts originating in the last Scottish parliament, where the county’s four seats had been equally divided at the 1702 election between Archibald Douglas* of Cavers and Sir Gilbert Eliott, 1st Bt., of Minto, supporters of the Court, and (Sir) William Bennet (2nd Bt.*) and Sir William Kerr, 3rd Bt.*, who had not only been endorsed as Country party candidates by some of the local gentry, but also enjoyed support from the Earl (later Duke) of Roxburghe. Four candidates stood on a Country platform, all of whom had been selected at a meeting held six weeks prior to the election. Meanwhile, Douglas, whose influence was based on his possession of the hereditary sheriffdom, had allied with Eliott for the purpose of attacking the weaker partners in their opponents’ combined ticket: Sir John Pringle, 2nd Bt., of Stichell and Sir James Scott of Gala. At the electoral court the Country candidates attempted to gain the initiative by presenting a preconcerted set of instructions to the commissioners in favour of triennial parliaments, a comprehensive place bill, the abolition of the standing army, investigation of the Darien affair, and the maintenance of the rights of the Kirk. Further instructions stipulated that any proposals for a union with England should be carefully scrutinized and any attempt to settle the succession in the Queen’s lifetime opposed. Additional safeguards were demanded that neither issue was to be supported without the concurrence of their constituents. These instructions, according to Bennet, ‘met with general approbation, only [Douglas of] Cavers and Sir Gilbert Eliott wrangled about them, and spent a great deal of time amusing a great many of the lesser freeholds with the fright that these heads were of a dangerous consequence’, and accordingly were able to dilute the Country programme both by amendments and the establishment of a local monitoring committee. Bennet and his colleagues favoured an election by simultaneous nomination to four seats, thereby hoping to exclude Douglas, while recognizing that Eliott’s return was unavoidable. This mode of proceeding was rejected by the meeting, and the election was conducted as a series of two-man contests: Douglas defeated Kerr by a single vote, Eliott beat Pringle by two, Bennet was returned ‘unopposed and with only two votes against’, and finally Kerr was chosen over Pringle by a margin of one. The peculiar nature of the contest was noted by contemporaries, one analyst commenting that the commissioners had been ‘chosen after a very odd and unprecedented manner’. The personal and factional repercussions of this contest, however, were more significant in post-Union electoral terms than the peculiarities of the return or the substantive political issues which had then been debated. Douglas and Eliott supported the Court, voting in favour of the Union, whereas Bennet and Kerr followed the Squadrone line of conditional support for Union, while retaining an underlying hostility to the Duke of Queensberry’s Court party. No attempt appears to have been made to consult constituents over the merits of the Union. Of Roxburghshire’s four commissioners to the last Scottish parliament, all except Eliott were returned as Scottish representatives to the first Parliament of Great Britain.3
Initially, there were four candidates in the field in 1708. First off the mark was Sir Gilbert Eliott, 3rd Bt., of Stobs, whose interest was substantially bolstered by support from his namesake of Minto. Stobs had begun his canvass towards the end of 1707, and had written twice to Bennet by January 1708, requesting his support and reminding him of ‘having served you on the like occasion’ in 1702. Although Bennet did not intend to stand himself, his support for Stobs was not forthcoming, for both he and his Squadrone associate, Sir William Kerr, had deferred to the wishes of Roxburghe, who brought forward his own brother, Hon. William Kerr. This manoeuvre was prompted by fears that Roxburghe himself might fail to secure his own return as a Scottish peer. Since Kerr did not yet possess an estate in the county, this was swiftly organized, after some initial confusion and delays. Kerr was a natural choice to represent the Roxburghe interest, though his diffidence and inexperience severely compromised the campaign. He made a belated departure from London, and upon arrival mishandled the circulation of a loyal address drafted by Roxburghe on the recent Jacobite invasion. The most serious disadvantage under which Kerr laboured, however, was the head start which had been gained by the other candidates. Besides Stobs, an active canvass was in progress for Sir Patrick Scott of Ancrum, a former commissioner to the Scottish parliament for Jedburgh, who had been associated with the Country party in 1702 but had failed to secure the burgh seat at that time. Simultaneously, emissaries from Douglas of Cavers (who was himself still in London) conducted a comprehensive tour of the county. Initially, this canvass kept open the possibility of the sheriff’s own candidacy, but from early February it was clear that his aim was to hold the decisive balance in the election, while declining to stand himself. As one of Kerr’s supporters expressed it, Douglas intended ‘to secure his friends so that he might serve any party he thought fit’. An alliance was thereafter forged between Douglas and the Eliotts of Stobs and Minto, leaving Kerr with only one viable strategy: to persuade Scott (whose interest was estimated by one observer at 17 voters) to stand down and transfer his interest. This was achieved shortly before the election through a series of personal interviews with Scott by Kerr, Bennet and Roxburghe. The last of these took place six days before the election, when the Duke also summoned several other freeholders to his presence, being resolved ‘to know who his friends are’.4
Proceedings at the electoral court were complex: 55 votes were recorded, an increase of 14 from 1702. A total of 23 votes were subject to objections, compared with only three controverted votes at the last election to the Scottish parliament. Seventeen objections were made against voters for Stobs, and these were presented by Hon. William Kerr, Sir William Bennet, Sir William Kerr, and George Baillie* (all of whom were associated with the Squadrone), with additional support coming from Sir Patrick Scott and his leading supporter William Ainslie of Blackhill. The seven counter-objections on behalf of Stobs were all made by Eliott of Minto, who as Lord Minto of the court of session was also deemed by his opponents to have intimidated a number of voters with business pending before that court into voting for Stobs, or absenting themselves from the election. A similar charge was levelled against Douglas, regarding those voters with cases before the sheriff court. Other objections were made against the sheriff, namely that his impartiality as praeses was compromised by his vote in favour of Stobs, and that his right to a vote was questionable on the grounds that English sheriffs were automatically disfranchised by dint of their office. Douglas countered both charges by reference to the preservation of Scottish electoral practice under the treaty of Union. The litany of complaints from Kerr’s supporters was completed by accusations that the clerk of the election (the sheriff depute and therefore a client of Douglas) had entered the minutes ‘so as they might be most construed in favour of Eliott of Stobs’, whereas hostile protests were delayed and only entered after repeated pressure. Despite a request for a double return on the grounds that Kerr had a majority of uncontroverted votes, the sheriff ruled in favour of Minto’s protest that Stobs had a clear majority of seven votes and that the objections were ‘groundless and frivolous’. In fact, a commission was drawn up in favour of Kerr and signed by his voters, but since this lacked any official endorsement from the sheriff it was of no practical use.5
An anti-Squadrone squib on the 1708 election, after descanting on the party’s lacklustre performance in general, drew particular attention to Roxburghshire as one of those constituencies where the Squadrone had ‘opposed the election of Whigs with Whigs merely as those Whigs fell in with their party’. The lack of a clear-cut distinction between the party affiliation (in English terms) of Kerr and Stobs affected the proceedings at Westminster on Kerr’s petition. This was presented on 25 Nov. 1708, and though it was ordered to be heard on 8 Mar. 1709 no action was taken. Kerr renewed his petition on 17 Nov. 1709, and it was referred to the elections committee. The Court had favoured Stobs over Kerr, and despite the supposed co-operation between the Junto and the Squadrone, only those Members associated with Lord Halifax [Charles Montagu*] (the one Junto peer not in high office) appeared in support of Kerr. He could not draw on any particular assistance from the Tories, and, according to Lord Yester’s report of proceedings, ‘the large half of the Scots [were] against him’. The proceedings of the elections committee in January 1710 witnessed a number of ill-tempered exchanges: on one occasion Baillie was nearly brought to the bar, and on another Kerr and Stobs came close to fighting a duel. These disputes originated in Stobs’s attempt to bolster his electoral prospects by confirming his own voters, while obtaining a verdict that Kerr’s petition was ‘frivolous and vexatious’. Indeed, Kerr’s early withdrawal was designed partly to prevent such an outcome, for several of Stobs’s controverted voters were validated by the committee. Such decisions were felt by Kerr to undermine the Scottish act regulating elections (1681); ‘so rather than encroach further to the destruction of that act’, he explained to his mother, ‘like a good patriot I gave up the business’. Baillie had previously expressed similar views, and his assertion that Kerr’s petition would have been ‘determined otherwise’ by the Scottish parliament was deemed ‘a reflection upon the justice of the committee, which occasioned such a hubbub that Mr Baillie was forced to say he meant no reflection’. On 28 Jan. the elections committee reported its resolution that Stobs had been duly elected, and the House concurred without a division. In the aftermath of defeat, Kerr gave up all thought of contesting the county at the next election, and only retained possession of his Roxburghshire property in order to maintain his vote there.6
The Duke of Roxburghe was highly dissatisfied at the success of ‘so silly a rogue’ as Stobs, and determined to challenge him at the next opportunity. His favoured candidate in 1710 was Bennet, who received Roxburghe’s thoroughgoing support, albeit somewhat constrained by fears, which he set out in a letter to his mother on 10 Aug., about peers involving themselves in elections:
I am forced to give your ladyship this trouble today, having writ abundance of letters to several gentlemen in the shire of Roxburgh, which upon due consideration I thought it better not to send, for if any of them should have miscarried, or anyways by negligence come into anybody’s hands that did not wish me well, so as to be produced in the House of Commons, it could not fail to procure a vote to be passed upon me, for lords meddling in their elections is a high crime there; for this reason I have resolved not to have them delivered, but being very much concerned about Sir William Bennet’s election I have sent them down to your ladyship; but desire you would not speak of them or show them to anybody but [George Baillie of] Jerviswood, that he may be satisfied it was not laziness that kept me from writing, and if your ladyship could spare but one week over in Teviotdale to speak to all the gentlemen, or to write to such as you could not see, assuring those that had been against my brother that both you and I would forget it if they would be for Sir William Bennet, and cajoling them and all the rest, I am sure it would have a great deal of weight.
The 1708 poll can be partially reconstructed from the objections entered in the minutes of the electoral court (which survive in two versions), the abortive commission in favour of Kerr signed by his voters, and from correspondence. This evidence can be compared with the electoral minutes and full list of voters (again in several versions) for 1710, together with a document which appears to be a canvassing list for Bennet in 1710. This document is arranged in three columns, respectively headed by the names Sir William Bennet, Sir Patrick Scot and Sir Gilbert Eliott; at the bottom right of the document is a further group of miscellaneous names. Analysis reveals that the first two columns represent those voters who would support Bennet or Scot (in most cases the names appear in both); the third column contains the sure voters for Stobs. The fourth group of names contains potential voters whom Bennet hoped to secure.7
The voting pattern for the two elections breaks down as follows: of the 24 voters for Kerr in 1708, all but one can be identified; 18 proceeded to vote for Bennet in 1710. This high level of continuity conforms to the expected pattern, since Roxburghe fully supported both candidates, and Scot himself declined to stand. Those who failed to vote in 1710 comprised one who had died (Bennet’s father), two who are known to have absented themselves, and a further pair whose votes had been objected to in 1708 and whose non-appearance may reflect a recognition of their lack of genuine entitlement. The 23 voters for Bennet in 1710 therefore included at least four new voters, two of whom were the younger sons of Kerr voters from 1708; one came from the pool of unengaged voters in the canvassing list of 1710; while the fourth eludes identification. These results can be compared with Bennet’s estimate of his probable strength prior to the election. In the canvassing list, 27 voters are estimated for Bennet and 28 for Scot. Of all of these names only two occur in Scott’s but not Bennet’s column, and one vice versa. Significantly, Stobs managed to poach three of Bennet’s likely voters: one supported Stobs but not Bennet, one was favourable to either, and another had voted for Stobs in 1708 but apparently misled Bennet that his allegiance had altered. Only 19 out of Bennet’s total of 27 safe votes actually appeared in his favour, five were absentees themselves, one had a doubtful entitlement and another was present at the election but Bennet decided not to call for his vote. The most important fact revealed by the canvassing list is that Bennet secured only a single vote (out of a possible 16) from the group of unengaged voters, whereas Stobs obtained at least five, possibly six, votes. The remaining names proved absentees, of whom five were deemed particularly crucial in Bennet’s inquest on the election. Moreover, Stobs had a far greater degree of success in securing the sure votes attributed to him: of 23 such voters, all but two (who were absent) voted for him. The consistency of voting for Stobs between 1708 and 1710 cannot be fully established, but 18 voters from 1708 can be identified, all of whom, save one who died in the interim, voted the same way in 1710. In addition, nine names occur under the list of Stobs’s sure voters; these individuals are not positively known to have voted in 1708, but may well have done so. In sum, therefore, Stobs’s campaign was far more effective than Bennet’s, both in retaining existing support and attracting uncommitted voters. This strong campaign can be attributed to the efficacy of the co-operation between Douglas and Minto, an alliance dating back to 1702, which was complemented by the driving ambition of Stobs to retain his seat. Bennet’s campaign, conversely, was undermined by residual uncertainty over Stobs’s intentions, and Roxburghe’s unwillingness to interfere strongly on Bennet’s behalf.8
The proceedings at the electoral court on 6 Nov. 1710 followed a similar pattern to the previous election. The managers on either side were largely the same, but the number of controverted voters rose to 29, more than half the total electorate, the respective proportions being 17 voters favouring Stobs and 12 supporting Bennet. The objections, as before, focused on the usual arguments about entitlement, with the significant addition, in a few cases, of reference either to the precedent of voting in the previous election or the rulings of the Commons on Kerr’s petition. At one stage, Kerr’s own vote was objected to as a split freehold, with Lord Minto citing an English act of 1693 which Kerr countered by referring to the Union treaty and the preservation of Scottish electoral custom, adding further that to sustain such an objection against him by applying an English act to Scottish elections would subvert the basis of the county electorate, opening a Pandora’s box which might ultimately result in the enfranchisement of every 40s. freeholder. This line of reasoning, based on the preservation of Scottish custom as enshrined in the Union, did not, however, seem to have troubled Kerr when he repeated the charge levelled in 1708 against Cavers’ vote, an objection which derived its force from dubious English parallels, in particular with the hereditary sheriffdom of Westmorland. Bennet’s supporters also revived the charge of Minto’s pernicious influence, noting for example that Andrew Rutherford of Edgerstoun had disponed his estate to his brother and was currently engaged in litigation, and thus vulnerable to intimidation. It is also worthy of note that Edgerstoun, though he had voted previously for Stobs, had been thought a sure voter for Bennet in the canvassing list. A general sense of betrayal pervaded Bennet’s post-electoral analysis. In particular, he castigated ten individuals as ‘treacherous after solemn oaths who promised not to vote’ and a further two who ‘solemnly promised but did not vote’. Together with eight absentees ‘who would have voted for Bennet’ (including John Stewart* of Stewartfield and Sir John Johnstone, 1st Bt.*), it was calculated that a full turnout would have raised Bennet’s vote to 31, and if those who broke promises had kept their word, Stobs’s vote would have been reduced to 25. Since Bennet also had another freeholder present at the election, whose vote was not called for, he might have carried it by nine votes. He gave vent to his frustration in a letter which concluded in a caustic rhyming ditty:
We now know our friends, and have discovered the fearful, the false, the treacherous, and base fellows amongst us, the number is too great to be almost mentioned . . . this will make a noise hereafter, and it has been very freely told, and very civilly taken, spades were called spades, and shovels had their proper names. Show the list to the Duke of Rox[burgh] . . .
Younger and elder the Toddriggs they are,
The father a rogue, a villain the heir,
If justice had plewed a ——— would be there.
Bennet was convinced that Stobs had secured his victory by obtaining votes which, if they had been tested by the traditional measure of a ‘plewgang’ (ascertained by ploughing an area within a specified time), then crucial votes would have been disallowed. Bennet’s resentment did not, however, find expression in a petition to Parliament. He pronounced himself willing to be guided by Roxburghe, who presumably decided against one. Baillie, conversely, criticized Bennet for failing to act, and believed that his previously good relationship with Robert Harley* might have been a factor in his favour.9
The victory of Stobs in 1710 marked a decisive turning point in the electoral politics of the county, and there was no contest in 1713. The guiding force behind Eliott’s success was the sheriff, or at least this was the opinion of his son, William Douglas†, who commented in 1712 that ‘you have it in your hands to make the Member for the county’. Stobs was not, however, entirely convinced that his seat was safe. Bennet reported with malicious, though impotent, pleasure that several days before the election:
Our knight got a terrible alarm . . . he was told of a deep plot laid, to catch them napping, when lulled to a security, and that we were to pop upon them horse, foot and dragoons, and to elect lord knows whom, then it was fie ride John and George, and when the day came, nobody appearing whom they dreaded, they concluded a precipital election.
There was little comfort to be derived from such childish japes, and the reality of the control now exercised by Douglas and the Eliotts was confirmed in the run-up to the 1715 election, when Baillie informed Bennet that Roxburghe did not ‘incline to meddle’ in the election: ‘I believe he would wish to have another rather than the person you mention [William Douglas]; what Minto may do I know not, but if he stands by Sir Gilbert [Eliott of Stobs] or would set up his son, it might signify. If he and the sheriff were joined, I do not know what anybody else can do about them.’ In the event, William Douglas, the sheriff’s son, was returned without a contest in 1715, making way for Minto’s son in 1722. Stobs was laid entirely aside until his candidacy was required four years later at a by-election, the conduct of which, however, led to a fatal duel, illustrating that acrimonious undercurrents persisted beneath the apparent stability which Douglas had imposed from 1713. The context in which such bitter feelings could arise must be traced to the custom of extracting solemn promises from voters during pre-election canvassing. As one freeholder expressed it in 1708, it was impossible to change one’s vote if it was pre-engaged without showing ‘that abominable sin of ingratitude’.10
Author: David Wilkinson
- 1. Roxburghe mss at Floors Castle, bdle. 1143, electoral ct. mins. 1708.
- 2. NLS, ms 13356, ff. 1-10.
- 3. Hist. Scot. Parl. 49, 190, 224-5, 392; Roxburghe mss, bdle. 726, Bennet to [Countess of Roxburghe], 8 Oct. 1702; NLS, ms 14498, ff. 82-83; SRO, Biel mss GD6/1061/6, heads of instructions presented at Michaelmas head ct. 1702; GD6/1062/b, mins. of election, 6 Oct. 1702.
- 4. Roxburghe mss, bdle. 1067, Kerr to his mother, 4, 13 Dec. 1707, n.d. [Dec. 1707], 15 Jan. 1708; bdle. 739, William Jamisone to Countess of Roxburghe, 15 Jan. 1708; bdle. 800, same to same, 28 Feb. 1708; bdle. 755, Roxburghe to his mother, 13 Dec. 1707, 24 Jan., 27 Mar. 1708; bdle. 726, same to same, 3 Apr. 1708; bdle. 784, Kerr to same, 1 Feb. 1708, Roxburghe to same 12 Feb. 1708; SRO, Ogilvy of Inverquharity mss GD205/36/6, Eliott to Bennet, 30 Dec. 1707, 13 Jan. 1708; GD205/36/6, [Ainslie] to [Bennet], 26 Jan. 1708, Thomas Chatto to [-], 2 Feb. 1708, W. Rutherford to Bennet, 3 Feb. 1708, [Kerr] to same, 22 May 1708; GD205/32/2, Robert Bennet to same, 24 Feb. 1708.
- 5. Roxburghe mss, bdle. 1143, electoral ct. mins. 1708; bdle. 1172, commn. for Kerr, 1708; Biel mss GD6/1061/8, info. for same, May 1708.
- 6. SRO, Montrose mss GD220/?6/?1778/?1-3 ‘A Brief Acct. of the Elections in the North of Britain’, ; NLS, ms 7021, f. 199; Ogilvy of Inverquharity mss GD205/?35/?5/?1/?1, Robert Wood to Bennet, 21 Mar. 1709-10; Roxburghe mss, bdle. 795, Kerr to his mother, 21 Jan. 1710.
- 7. Roxburghe mss, bdle. 776, Roxburghe to his mother, 24 Jan. 1710; bdle. 756, same to same, 12 Aug. 1710.
- 8. Roxburghe mss, bdle. 1143, electoral ct. mins. 1708; bdle. 1172, commn. for Kerr, 1708; Biel mss GD6/1061/8, info. for same, May 1708; GD6/1061/4, objections to freeholders, 1710; GD6/1061/10, absentees and treacherous voters, ; GD6/?1063/?a, b, b2, c, electoral ct. mins., canvassing list, and misc. pprs. 1710; Ogilvy of Inverquharity mss GD205/36/6, [Ainslie] to [Bennet], 26 Jan. 1708, Thomas Chatto to [-], 2 Feb. 1708, W. Rutherford to Bennet, 3 Feb. 1708, [Kerr] to same, 22 May 1708; GD205/32/2, Robert Bennet to same, 24 Feb. 1708; NLS, ms 13356, ff. 1-10.
- 9. NLS, ms 13356, ff. 1-10; Biel mss GD6/1063/a, b, b2, c, electoral ct. mins., canvassing list, and misc. pprs. 1710; GD6/1061/4, objections to freeholders, 1710; GD6/1061/10, lists of absentees and treacherous voters, ; GD6/1063/c, Bennet to Robert Bennet, 27 Nov. 1710; Ogilvy mss GD205/36/6, J. Edmonstone to [same], 6 Nov. 1710.
- 10. Ogilvy mss GD205/38/8, Bennet to William Nisbet*, 20 Oct. 1713; GD205/33/3/2/26, Baillie to Bennet, 28 Aug. 1714; GD205/36/6, [Ainslie] to [same], 26 Jan. 1708; NLS, ms 13356, f. 13.