SINCLAIR (ST. CLAIR), Hon. John, Master of Sinclair (1683-1750).

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



26 May - 3 Dec. 1708

Family and Education

bap. 5 Dec. 1683, 1st s. of Henry, 10th Ld. Sinclair [S] by Barbara, da. of Sir James Cockburn, 1st Bt., of Cockburn, Berwicks. educ. Franeker Univ. 1700.  m. (1) 16 Aug. 1733, Lady Mary, da. of James Stewart, 5th Earl of Galloway [S], s.p.; (2) 24 Apr. 1750, Amelia (d. 1779), da. of Ld. George Murray of Pitcaithly, Perth, s.p.1

Offices Held

Capt.-lt. Col. George Preston’s regt. [later 26 Ft.] 1708.


Sinclair, who was elected on his father’s interest at Dysart Burghs while abroad on military service, never took his seat in Parliament, being ineligible on two counts: first, being under a sentence of death resulting from a court martial of 17 Oct. 1708; and second, less dramatically, because a Commons decision of 3 Dec. laid down that the eldest sons of Scottish peers could not stand for election. It was the latter ruling which took precedence over his conviction for murder. Shortly after the Union, Sinclair had joined the army against his father’s wishes, having been ‘prepossessed with the same folly that most young men are’. In September 1708, some nine months after receiving his commission as captain-lieutenant, he fought a duel with an ensign from his own regiment, Hugh Schaw (brother of John Schaw*). Ensign Schaw had asserted that Sinclair had stooped down, during action at the battle of Wynendaal. Sinclair mortally wounded his accuser, only to find himself traduced by the brother of the deceased. Captain Alexander Schaw now charged Sinclair with having used paper padding to protect his breast during the duel. Resenting this further reflection on his courage, Sinclair shot Captain Schaw, under circumstances that barely qualified as a duel. Indeed, there had been no seconds present at either encounter. Sinclair was convicted of a breach of the 19th article of war, but a capital conviction was stayed, pending reference to the Privy Council. In the interim, with the connivance of the Duke of Marlborough (John Churchill†), Sinclair escaped from camp and thereby eluded execution of the Council’s adverse ruling on his case. His inclusion on a list of those who voted for the impeachment of Dr Sacheverell was an error. He remained abroad, serving with the Prussian army until the end of the war, despite the efforts of John Schaw to have him driven from the allied camp in the summer of 1710. Marlborough placated Schaw with reports of Sinclair’s departure, but did not enforce a rigorous exclusion, having been the principal instrument of Sinclair’s enlistment with the Prussians. The ending of the war, together with political changes at home, brought about an improvement in Sinclair’s fortunes. In 1712 he secured a pardon, ‘Queen Anne, having, as it was said, turned Tory’. According to Sinclair’s father, this ‘great favour’ was entirely owing to the intercession of the Duke of Hamilton. After an irritating interlude of semi-detention in London, during which the Earl of Mar reportedly attempted to extract promises of future electoral support in Fife, Sinclair returned to Dysart, where he initially attempted to remain aloof from party politics. Inevitably, he was drawn into Jacobite plotting. The family’s sympathies were well known, Sinclair’s father having been one of those pre-emptively arrested during the invasion scare of 1708. Sinclair himself, despite having a low regard for Mar, joined heartily in the Fifteen, bringing off a notable coup by seizing a large cache of arms at Burntisland. His conduct at Sheriffmuir was less distinguished, and he was criticized for his failure to take proper advantage of an attack upon Argyll’s left wing. Retreating to Perth with the Jacobite forces, he soon afterwards fled to the Continent, being attainted for his part in the rebellion.2

After a decade in exile, Sinclair obtained a partial remission of the attainder through the mediation of Lords Townshend and Findlater in 1726. He had made the following supplication to the latter, shortly before obtaining his pardon:

I hope it has appeared to you that my crime . . . [was] no sooner committed than followed by a speedy repentance . . . and ever since confirmed by a firm adherence and persisting in that repentance, during ten years, when I had not the least shadow of hopes or encouragement to profit by it, but on the contrary, drew upon me daily repeated shocks from those I had engaged with, in the maliciousest [sic] and cruellest manner could be contrived, which would have shaken one less firm . . . Having spent all my youth abroad, either at schools or in the war, and almost always among foreigners, and having but a little before the rebellion returned to that country to which I was a stranger, I was the easier surprised and carried headlong, with the weight of noise and the influence of friends.

One factor militating against Sinclair’s return was the unwavering hostility of Schaw. In an attempt to forestall any intervention on his part, the earlier proposal for Sinclair’s pardon had been presented with a proviso that Sinclair submit to being excluded from Clackmannanshire and Renfrewshire (where Schaw’s estates lay) and from Midlothian whenever he had reason to believe that Sir John was in that county. The authenticity of Sinclair’s change of heart was given credence by the Presbyterian divine, Robert Wodrow, who noted in 1725 that Sinclair was ‘the most sincere’ of the exiled Jacobites, and ‘professes himself a firm Whig, and openly declares his thorough conversion. He carries very blamelessly . . . The Scots Members have an excellent report of him.’ Sinclair duly received a pardon remitting the death sentence but leaving in force the attainder on his inheritance. He nevertheless regained de facto control of his late father’s estate, for his younger brother James (who had succeeded in 1723) honoured a private arrangement on that score. Sinclair died at Dysart on 2 Nov. 1750, and is most often remembered as the author of a lively but cynical history of the Fifteen.3

Ref Volumes: 1690-1715

Author: David Wilkinson


  • 1. Scots Peerage ed. Paul, vii. 586–7.
  • 2. Ibid.; DNB; Procs. in the Court Martial, Held upon John, Master of Sinclair . . . (Roxburghe Club, xlv); SRO, Hamilton-Dalrymple mss GD110/1099/1, 2, Marlborough to Schaw, 3 Dec. 1708, 10 Nov. 1710; Add. 61294, ff. 141–53; 61295, ff. 56–60; Master of Sinclair, Mems. Insurrection in Scotland (Abbotsford Club, xxx), 4–7, 95–102; SP 54/4/261; SRO, Hamilton mss GD406/1/5793, John Paterson to Hamilton, 4 Nov. 1712.
  • 3. Add. 61632, f. 141; SRO, Seafield mss GD248/567/92/32, Sinclair to Seafield, [n.d.]; Hamilton-Dalrymple mss GD110/1100/1, 2, Roxburghe to [Lady Schaw], [n.d.], proposal re. Sinclair [n.d.]; Wodrow, Analecta, iii. 231–2; H. Tayler, Jacobite Epilogue, 238–9; Scots Peerage, 586–7.