Orkney and Shetland

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:

7 in 1759, 27 in 1780, 34 in 1788


15 May 1754James Douglas 
30 Apr. 1761Sir James Douglas 
6 May 1768Thomas Dundas of Fingask 
31 Jan. 1771Thomas Dundas younger of Fingask vice Thomas Dundas of Fingask, appointed to office 
4 Nov. 1774Thomas Dundas younger of Fingask 
10 Oct. 1780Robert Baikie11
 Charles Dundas5
 Dundas vice Baikie, on petition, 23 Feb. 1781 
4 May 1784Thomas Duindas younger of Fingask12
 Robert Baikie7

Main Article

Orkney and Shetland long retained their Norse customs, but while Orkney was gradually absorbed into the Scottish feudal system the Shetland landowners, or odal men, never applied for Scottish charters or a valuation of their holdings. Throughout our period there were no Shetland voters on the electoral roll. The principal interest about 1754 belonged to the Earl of Morton, but his influence was constantly disputed by the independent lairds. In 1757 they brought a lawsuit against Morton, charging him with illegally exacting higher rents and feu duties and with increasing the old Scandinavian standard weights by which payments in kind were measured.1 The case was decided in Morton’s favour in 1759, and the opposition then sought to challenge his electoral control of the constituency.

Patrick Honyman of Graemesay, who in 1758 succeeded to an estate next in importance to Morton’s own, began to create new votes. Morton, alarmed lest the other Orkney electors, almost all of whom were blood relations, would combine against him, engaged the assistance of his friend James Baikie of Tankerness, for whom he obtained a secret service pension of £200 per annum.2 Morton seems to have underrated his opponents: he neither enrolled new voters nor tried to prevent the other side from doing so. The Michaelmas head court of 1760 was attended by only one freeholder, Robert Graeme of Breckness, who proceeded to enroll Honyman and his additional voters. When Honyman declared himself a candidate, Baikie and Morton protested against the legality of this one-man court.3 At the election meeting in 1761 the Morton party turned up in force, refused to admit the votes of Honyman and his four supporters, and elected Sir James Douglas in absentia. Honyman and his friends, having unsuccessfully challenged the six Morton voters to take the trust oath, held a meeting of their own and elected Honyman. Their action was ignored by the sheriff depute and Douglas was returned; Honyman presented a petition, but apparently withdrew it.

In 1766 Morton sold for £63,000 all his estates and superiority rights in Orkney and Shetland to Sir Lawrence Dundas, and in 1768 and 1774 Dundas’s candidates were returned unopposed. Dundas, although rarely visiting the islands, made some attempt to raise Orkney from its poverty; but his offer of £10,000 for improvements was rejected by the lairds when he desired ‘heritable security for his money’.4 Feu tenants, complaining of Dundas’s exactions, were backed by the merchant lairds, whose prosperity increased during the American war when Orkney became a rendezvous for shipping. After Dundas had withdrawn his support from North’s Administration, the Orkney opposition, encouraged by Henry Dundas, received £300 from secret service funds towards the expenses of the forthcoming general election;5 and Robert Baikie, son of Lord Morton’s friend, was adopted as Government candidate. Baikie secured control of the head court and won the election, but was unseated on petition, seven of the Dundas voters having been excluded from the roll.

Sir Thomas Dundas, who succeeded Sir Lawrence Dundas in 1781, was disposed to encourage the Shetland landowners to acquire electoral qualifications; but the practical difficulties of conducting an election in the island, together with doubts of the legality of enrolling the Shetlanders, caused him to drop the plan. At the general election of 1784 Baikie was again the Government candidate and was again defeated.6 Yet the opposition to the Dundas interest was by no means over.

Author: Edith Lady Haden-Guest


  • 1. Letter from Orkney (1757), attributed to Morton’s friend, Rev. T. Hepburn of Birsay.
  • 2. Namier, Structure, 463.
  • 3. P. N. Sutherland Graeme, ‘Parlty. Rep. Orkney and Shetland’, Orkney Misc. 1953.
  • 4. J. Fea, Present State of the Orkney Islands considered (1775).
  • 5. Laprade, 58.
  • 6. Edinburgh Advertiser, 7 May 1784.