Single Member Scottish County

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1754-1790, ed. L. Namier, J. Brooke., 1964
Available from Boydell and Brewer

Background Information

Number of voters:

187 in 1788


2 May 1754James St. Clair 
9 Apr. 1761James St. Clair 
7 Jan. 1763James Wemyss vice St. Clair, deceased 
31 Mar. 1768John Scott 
21 Oct. 1774John Scott 
24 Jan. 1776James Townsend Oswald vice Scott, deceased61
 John Henderson60
2 July 1779Robert Skene vice Oswald appointed to office70
 John Henderson43
 Henderson vice Skene, on petition, 7 Feb. 1780 
22 Sept. 1780Robert Skene 
20 Apr. 1784Robert Skene80
 Sir John Henderson49
6 July 1787William Wemyss vice Skene, deceased 

Main Article

At the beginning of this period there was no one dominant interest in Fife. One closely related family group included the Wemysses, the St. Clairs, and the Erskines of Mar and of Kellie, all of whom in varying degrees had suffered for their Jacobitism. To them were usually opposed the Leslies, earls of Rothes, the earls of Leven, and the earls of Morton, firm Whigs belonging to the anti-Argyll party and attached to the ‘English’ ministry. Of the independent country gentlemen, the most influential were the Anstruthers of Anstruther, the Hendersons of Fordel, the Scotts of Scotstarvit, and the Oswalds of Dunnikier.

David Scott, the sitting Member at the dissolution in 1754, had been supported by the Wemyss, Erskine, and St. Clair interests. At the general election Scott and James St. Clair arranged to exchange constituencies, Scott transferring to Dysart Burghs while St. Clair stood for the county. St. Clair had a bitter feud with General Philip Anstruther, who set up his military secretary Major George Moncrieff to oppose St. Clair in Fife. St. Clair wrote to James Oswald on 1 Aug. 1753:1

Our affairs in the county stand extremely well, Major Moncrieff’s attempt being laughed at by all freeholders but those depending on the Anstruthers, who are not one sixth part of the whole, and these will give us no disturbance, though joined by the party of the earls of Rothes and Leven and supported by the War Office. ... Lord Rothes gives out that he is to set up a man of his own, but I suppose ... only to make a merit with the ministers when they probably will desire him to desist, when they are credibly informed that his interest is next to nothing in the county.

St. Clair was returned unopposed, and again at the general election of 1761.

On St. Clair’s death in 1762, James Wemyss of Wemyss was returned unopposed, backed by Colonel John Scott of Balcomie and the Bute Administration. But in 1768 Scott deserted Wemyss, and, supported by Sir John Anstruther, declared himself a candidate for Fife.2 Wemyss, seeking allies, found Bute and James Stuart Mackenzie unsympathetic, and allied himself with George Grenville and Sir Lawrence Dundas.3 But he could not compete with Scott’s wealth and energy, backed by ministerial support and a creation of new votes; and was compelled to withdraw.4

Scott was again returned unopposed in 1774; and after his death in 1775 Wemyss declined to contest the by-election but gave his interest to James Townsend Oswald. Henry Dundas, the lord advocate, the guardian of Scott’s children, now assumed control of the Balcomie interest, for which there was keen competition. Andrew Stuart pressed the claim of his nephew, John Henderson younger of Fordel, and General Robert Skene of Hallyards secured the recommendation of the Duke of Argyll. Stuart urged Dundas to give the Scott interest to Henderson: ‘it could not be to the interest of General Scott’s family’, he wrote on 28 Dec. 1775, ‘to throw their interest into the same scale with the Wemysses, their rival power in the county’.5 Dundas agreed, and as well as the Scott interest Henderson secured that of the Anstruthers. Skene withdrew, and gave his interest to Oswald.

At the election, the Dundas-Henderson party, although they managed to install Sir John Anstruther as praeses, were defeated by one vote, the validity of which they at once questioned. In an action before the court of session, James Boswell’s father Lord Auchinleck, an Oswald supporter, gave his decision that the vote was good. When Henry Dundas accused him of partiality and threatened to report his conduct to the House of Commons, Boswell was so incensed that he considered challenging Dundas to a duel.6 On petition the House of Commons upheld Oswald’s election, and thus the Wemyss-Oswald interest was precariously re-established.

In 1779, after Oswald’s appointment to office, Skene and Henderson were again candidates for the vacant seat. James Wemyss was elected praeses of the election meeting, and Skene was returned by a comfortable majority.7 Henderson petitioned, on the ground that Skene’s office of baggage master and inspector of roads in the Highlands disqualified him from sitting in Parliament. On this technical point, Skene was unseated; but, divesting himself of the office, he immediately began his campaign for the general election.8

Henderson had little chance against Skene, supported by Government and the Wemyss interest, and did not contest Fife at the general election of 1780. In 1784, probably counting on the fact that Skene’s adherence to the Fox-North party would lose him some support, Henderson stood again but was badly defeated. On Skene’s death in 1787, Henderson naturally expected to become the Government candidate in Fife. But the Wemyss interest was not to be gainsaid and William Wemyss, now head of the family, was a strong supporter of Pitt. Dundas decided to end the feud between the Scott and Wemyss families, and gave the Scott interest to William Wemyss.9 Henderson, though mortified at Dundas’s decision, was too weak to challenge Wemyss, whose command of the county was now virtually unassailable.10

Author: Edith Lady Haden-Guest


  • 1. Oswald mss.
  • 2. Sir W. Fraser, Memorials Fam. of Wemyss of Wemyss, iii. 211-15, 222-7.
  • 3. Geo. Chalmers to Grenville, 16 Oct. 1766, 5 Jan. 1767, Grenville mss (JM).
  • 4. Ld. Auchinleck to Ld. Loudoun, 25 Mar. 1768, Loudoun mss.
  • 5. NLS, Melville mss.
  • 6. Boswell, Private Pprs. xi. 72-78, 114-18, 121, 131, 138.
  • 7. Caledonian Merc. 3 July 1779.
  • 8. Skene to Ld. Balgonie, 21 Feb. 1780, Leven and Melville mss, SRO.
  • 9. H. Furber, Hen. Dundas, 276.
  • 10. Jas. Robertson to Dundas, 29 May 1787, Melville mss; Philip Yorke to Pitt, 21 June 1787, Chatham mss.