Perth Burghs

Single Member Scottish burgh

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

Forfar (1754, ’84); Perth (1761); Dundee (1768), Forfar; St. Andrews (1774), Cupar (1780), Fife


10 May 1754Thomas Leslie 
20 Apr. 1761George Dempster3
 Thomas Leslie2
17 Jan. 1766Dempster re-elected after appointment to office 
13 Apr. 1768William Pulteney4
 Robert Mackintosh1
4 Apr. 1769George Dempster vice Pulteney, chose to sit for Cromartyshire 
1 Nov. 1774George Dempster 
2 Oct. 1780George Dempster3
 Colin Campbell2
26 Apr. 1784George Dempster 

Main Article

‘These burghs’, wrote John Robinson in 1774, ‘are very open, venal, and expensive, and few choose to engage with them.’1 The leading interest at the beginning of this period belonged to the Earl of Rothes, whose son Thomas Leslie had represented the constituency since 1743.

When in 1754 Leslie was faced with an opposition from George Haldane he was forced to spend heavily, and turned to the Treasury for financial assistance.2 In 1761, again fearing opposition from the Haldane family, he pleaded with Newcastle for a further subvention. On 7 Aug. 1760 he sent Newcastle a survey of the constituency:3

Perth—has the casting vote and is the returning burgh; has been always for me; they remain undetermined and will be advised by Lord Kinnoull. Dundee—I am sure of. Cupar—is managed by my friends at present, but may be biassed by money, although not easily. St. Andrews—is managed by my friends at present, but is more venal than the other. Forfar—is for the best bidder and against me.

On 28 Aug. George Dempster announced his candidature. After canvassing Cupar, he wrote to Sir Adam Fergusson, 3 Sept.:4

This is a borough which has been long entailed to the Leslie family. The only tenure by which they hold it is that awe and respect which the inhabitants of a little borough naturally feel for a man who lives in splendour and makes a parade in their neighbourhood.

Dempster failed to secure Cupar or Dundee, St. Andrews declared in his favour, and he had high hopes of Forfar. The new council of Perth received him favourably but would make no promise. By December he was certain of St. Andrews and Forfar, and was concentrating his attention on Perth. In this burgh the issue remained doubtful until almost the last moment, when the council finally returned a delegate pledged to vote for Dempster.5

By 1768 the Leslie interest was in eclipse, and the constituency had become the battle ground for a new interest of more than local importance. Dempster, by his support of the Johnstones and Laurence Sulivan in East India affairs, had aroused the hostility of Clive and Grenville, who now backed Robert Mackintosh against him. Mackintosh gained Perth, but despite intense efforts failed to break Dempster’s hold on the other burghs. Then he tried a new move: on 5 Oct. 1767 the sheriff depute of Fife, on a complaint by Mackintosh, issued a warrant for Dempster’s arrest for bribery and corruption at Cupar. Dempster, released on bail, claimed parliamentary privilege; the case went to the House of Lords, who referred it to the Scottish courts. Perhaps because this case was still undecided when Parliament was dissolved, Dempster withdrew his candidature at the last moment and substituted that of his friend William Pulteney, who was also contesting Cromartyshire. John Walsh wrote to Clive on 3 May 1768:

There will certainly be a petition against Pulteney for the five burghs. Mackintosh and he have each one undisputed burgh [Perth and Dundee], one burgh has somehow no return [probably Cupar], and the other two have chose double delegates, those on Pulteney’s side are Dempster for both places who is under prosecution, and if cast it affects him and the election just equally as if he had stood himself; the other candidate Mackintosh in consequence may be duly returned for three burghs and be the Member. These matters ... will require management in the House.

In August the charges against Dempster were dismissed, and in March 1769 Mackintosh’s petition against Pulteney’s return was withdrawn. Pulteney, having been elected for Cromartyshire, vacated his seat for Perth Burghs, and at the by-election Dempster defeated Mackintosh.6

On 12 Sept. 1774 Dempster wrote from London to Sir Adam Fergusson:

I am fully determined to be at little or no expense about my own election ... a contrary resolution would be madness .... The impropriety of continuing in Parliament with so small fortune as mine frequently comes across me, but that it would be equally foolish to relinquish an interest which nobody seems disposed to contest with me, I should be at no loss to take my resolution.

He was returned unopposed. In 1780 he was opposed by Colonel Colin Campbell, supported by Administration: Dundee, Perth, and Forfar declared for Dempster; Cupar and St. Andrews for Campbell. By now Dempster’s position was almost impregnable; and in 1784 he was returned in absentia, all the burghs declaring for him.7

Author: John Brooke


  • 1. Laprade, 7.
  • 2. See LESLIE, Hon. Thomas.
  • 3. Add. 32909, f. 318.
  • 4. Fergusson, Letters of Dempster to Fergusson, 50-51.
  • 5. Corresp. of Leslie with Newcastle, Add. 32907-21; corresp. of Dempster with Gilbert Elliot, Minto mss.
  • 6. Letters from Grenville, Walsh, Geo. Clive, and Mackintosh, Clive mss; Scots Mag. 1767, pp. 665-6, 669; 1768, pp. 164, 337-44, 401-09.
  • 7. Letters from Dempster to Fergusson, 82, 109, 125-7.