Wigtown Burghs


Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1690-1715, ed. D. Hayton, E. Cruickshanks, S. Handley, 2002
Available from Boydell and Brewer

Background Information

Wigtown (1708); Whithorn (by-election 1708); New Galloway (1710); Stranraer (by-election 1712); Wigtown (1713), all in Wigtownshire, except New Galloway in Kirkcudbright Stewartry


 ?Andrew Agnew
14 Dec. 1708WILLIAM COCHRANE vice Lockhart, chose to sit for Edinburghshire
10 Jan. 1712WILLIAM COCHRANE re-elected after appointment to office

Main Article

Wigtown Burghs failed to implement the order of rotation prescribed by the act of the Scottish parliament for settling the post-Union representation. Ignorance rather than calculation of advantage caused this uniquely aberrant behaviour; but the right of presiding at elections was particularly significant in a four-burgh district, where the presiding burgh’s casting vote in a tied election would be decisive. The relevant act was unambiguous: at the first general election the eldest burgh should preside, followed at each general election by the remaining burghs in the order in which they were currently inscribed on the rolls of parliament. These honorific gradations were correctly comprehended and Wigtown, the most senior burgh, was followed by Whithorn (40th on the roll), New Galloway (54th) and Stranraer (65th). The error lay in neglecting to abide by the stipulation that rotation was only to take place at general elections and that any vacancy during the life of a Parliament was to be filled by an election held under the auspices of the burgh which had previously presided. Such a vacancy occurred within a few months of the first general election, when George Lockhart opted to sit for Edinburghshire in preference to this less prestigious seat, which had been obtained with the assistance of the 5th Earl of Galloway simply as an insurance. Galloway swiftly produced an alternative nominee, but the right of presiding at the by-election was wrongly granted to Whithorn. The election actually took place at Wigtown, with the clerk of that burgh acting as clerk to the election, but the manuscript return specifically mentions that Whithorn was granted precedence.1

The errors which followed from this early mistake were not satisfactorily resolved for a quarter of a century. New Galloway presided in 1710, a fact which is not immediately apparent from the printed returns. The election took place at the presiding burgh and the return was signed by the stewart-depute William Lindsay of Maynes. During this Parliament William Cochrane, the sitting Member, was obliged to seek re-election upon appointment to office and at the by-election of 1712 Stranraer acted as presiding burgh. By this misguided logic Wigtown had earned the right to preside at the general election of 1713. Thereafter an absence of by-elections disguised the underlying error until 1728, when Stranraer, as presiding burgh for the general election of the previous year, claimed precedence at a subsequent by-election. In the wake of complaints and a parliamentary inquiry a clause was added to an Act of 1734 for regulating elections in Scotland, ordering Wigtown Burghs to continue in the current order, but upholding the original intention of the Scottish act that rotation should only occur after a dissolution. The extent to which the singular behaviour of Wigtown impinged on contemporaries is unclear, but it is tempting to infer that an unusually specific reference in a by-election return for Dumfries Burghs in 1713 (that Kirkcudbright possessed the right to preside a second time because this election had occurred within the life of a Parliament) was an aspersion cast upon the practice of the neighbouring district. This return was signed by the same William Lindsay who had participated in the misguided proceedings at New Galloway in 1710.2

The interests at the respective burghs were comparatively straightforward. Stranraer was under the control of the Dalrymples, earls of Stair, who returned either family members or political supporters to the Scottish parliament. New Galloway was sometimes referred to as Viscount Kenmure’s burgh and from 1702 had been represented by a cavalier; Kenmure himself was a noted Jacobite and opponent of the Union. Whithorn was controlled by the Earl of Galloway, who described the inhabitants as ‘very poor but honest’; and John Clerk*, a commissioner for the burgh in the Scottish parliament, asserted that the Earl possessed ‘the sole nomination’. Wigtown itself was perhaps the most independent, but here too Galloway was the predominant figure. The amalgamation of these burghs into a single district, therefore, created a clash of interests between Galloway and Stair (evident also in Wigtownshire). Kenmure remained passive, but his approval of Galloway’s nominees, both of whom were virulent anti-Unionists and Jacobite sympathizers, appears plausible.3

At the first election to the Westminster Parliament George Lockhart, according to the return, was chosen ‘unanimously’. An Edinburgh newspaper, however, reported that Lockhart had ‘defeated Major Agnew by a majority of votes, but there were several protests’. It is conceivable that Lockhart did withstand a challenge from Major Andrew Agnew of Hays, but it is also possible that some confusion had arisen over a namesake candidate, Colonel Andrew Agnew, who was about to challenge Hon. John Stewart* in the shire election. Galloway’s nomination of Lockhart can be explained by their shared antagonism to the Union and the fact that they were brothers-in-law. Another anti-Unionist (and relative) stepped into the vacancy created when Lockhart chose to represent Edinburghshire. William Cochrane, Galloway’s uncle by marriage, was sufficiently confident of success to depart for London at the end of November 1708, in advance of being ‘unanimously’ chosen on 14 Dec. There were some rumblings of dissatisfaction at Galloway’s high-handed conduct in both the burghs and the shire. Sir Alexander Maxwell, 2nd Bt.*, complained that he himself could have ‘done as much service to our country as he [Cochrane] or any stranger’. Neither Lockhart nor Cochrane had any natural interest in the locality, a fact which Lord Stair emphasized in his correspondence with Sir Charles Hay, 2nd Bt., of Park, a leading opponent of Galloway in the county. Not only was Galloway ‘imposing commissioners upon the shire’, wrote Stair in the run-up to the 1710 election, but he was also guilty of ‘introducing strangers every Parliament to represent the towns’. There may have been some opposition at this election, for the return states that Cochrane was chosen ‘by plurality’. When Cochrane was forced to seek re-election upon appointment to office, he reported to Lord Oxford (Robert Harley*) that ‘notwithstanding of my Lord Stair’s and his brother Colonel Dalrymple’s [Hon. William*] doing what they can to oppose my election, I am assured I will be chosen again’. This prediction proved correct, though Cochrane’s return was once again recorded as ‘by plurality’. An Edinburgh newspaper, however, reported a victory ‘nem. con.’4

Cochrane did not stand at the 1713 election, having been frightened into political retirement by a narrow escape from charges of corruption. The seat fell to Maxwell. A local candidate was no doubt welcome after a succession of strangers, and as a brother-in-law of Galloway he had some claim upon his interest. Maxwell also co-operated with the re-election of Galloway’s brother John Stewart for Wigtownshire, acting as praeses of the electoral court. Maxwell was not supported by Stair and his election was not unanimous. As the 1715 election approached the Dalrymples drew some comfort from the fact that Maxwell ‘hath not acquit himself entirely’ to the ‘satisfaction’ of the burghs, so that ‘if interest were used’ some of these burghs might be ‘prevailed upon’ to support a candidate nominated by Stair. This preliminary canvass, in favour of one Captain Dunbar, hoped to draw strength from the fact that ‘the town of Stranraer at this election hath the casting vote which gives them more interest at this time than they have had before’. This, indeed, would have been the case, if Wigtown burghs had been correctly rotating their electoral precedence. In fact, by the mistaken reckoning which was being employed, Whithorn was due to preside. Nothing came of this challenge, nor of the briefly mooted candidacy of Hon. William Dalrymple. Instead, the Dalrymples supported Patrick Vans*, a cousin of Maxwell and, more importantly, a former thorn in the side of Galloway in the shire. The success of Vans in 1715 proved that the Galloway interest in Wigtown Burghs was not invincible.5

Author: David Wilkinson


  • 1. APS, xi. 302, 425-7; C. S. Terry, Scot. Parl. 47; C219/106.
  • 2. C219/110, 114, 118, 122, 126; CJ, xxi. 501.
  • 3. Hist. Scot. Parl. 787, 783; P. W. J. Riley, King Wm. and Scot. Politicians, 177; Stair Annals, i. 246; Riley, Union, 333; SRO, Clerk of Penicuik mss GD18/?5246/?1/?13, Galloway to Clerk, 3 Nov. 1702; GD18/?5238/?17/?2, Clerk to his fa. 28 July 1702.
  • 4. Edinburgh Courant, 31 May-2 June 1708; C219/106, 110; SRO, Hay of Park mss GD72/651, Stair to Hay, 16 Oct. 1710; Add. 70278, Cochrane to [Oxford], 29 Oct. 1711; Scots Courant, 16-18 Jan. 1712.
  • 5. SRO, Wigtown sheriff ct. recs. SC19/63/10, electoral ct. mins. 29 Oct. 1713; C219/114; SRO, Stair mss GD135/?141/?1, Robert Dalrymple to Stair, 17 Aug., 18 Sept. 1714.