DUFF, Hon. James (1729-1809), of Duff House, Banff. and Mar Lodge, Aberdeen.

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



1754 - 1784

Family and Education

b. 28 Sept. 1729, 1st surv. s. of William Duff, M.P., of Braco, 1st Baron Braco [I] and 1st Earl Fife [I], by his 2nd w. Jean, da. of Sir James Grant, 6th Bt., of Grant and sis. of Ludovick and Francis Grant. educ. St. Andrews Univ., Grand Tour. m. 4 June 1759, Lady Dorothea Sinclair (sep. 1771), da. and h. of Alexander, 8th Earl of Caithness [S], s.p. Styled Visct. MacDuff 1759-63; suc. fa. as 2nd Earl Fife [I] 30 Sept. 1763; cr. Baron Duff of Fife [GB] 5 July 1790.

Offices Held

Ld. lt. Banff 1795- d.


Duff’s father, head of a family which by trade and money-lending had acquired great wealth and property in the shires of Banff, Elgin, and Aberdeen, was M.P. for Banffshire 1727-34 and was created by Walpole an Irish peer in 1735. James, having become his father’s heir in March 1753, stood for Banffshire at the general election of 1754 when his uncle, Col. James Abercrombie, the sitting Member and Argyll’s friend, was obliged to withdraw.

Listed by Dupplin among ‘Whigs’ doubtful’, Duff soon declared himself. At the Elgin Burghs by-election in autumn 1754, he agreed to transfer the Duff interest from Abercrombie to Andrew Mitchell, Newcastle’s protégé,1 requesting in return the office of sheriff of Banff for David Ross.2 ‘It is the first favour I have asked since I came into Parliament, and I am in such a way in the world as to have little or no occasion to trouble your Grace with demands.’3Newcastle had already promised it to Lord Findlater for George Cockburn, but anxious to gain Duff, ‘a very considerable man and well worth obliging’,4 insisted that Findlater should withdraw his nomination. Findlater, bitterly offended,5 protested to Hardwicke:6

Braco and his son saying they will ask nothing more, nobody that knows them can believe ... Although it is very right to be civil to new converts, I cannot think it for the public good to please them at the expense of old firm friends.

The ‘new convert’ did not long remain faithful. In May 1755 he set off on an extensive European tour7 and shortly after his return joined Pitt and the Grenvilles in opposition. As a result Newcastle deprived Ross of the sheriffship and gave it to Cockburn in October 1756.8 On the formation of the Devonshire-Pitt Administration in November, Duff jubilantly reported to his father that Pitt, unsolicited, had offered to recommend Braco for an Irish earldom.9 He was disappointed both in this and in his hopes of securing Cockburn’s dismissal. He voted 2 May 1757 against Newcastle over Minorca,10 and remained personally attached to the Grenvilles, who under the united Administration importuned Newcastle in 1758 to obtain the Irish earldom. Bedford, the lord lieutenant, very reluctantly agreed to recommend it to the King, but the affair hung fire until March 1759, when Newcastle ‘with great difficulty procured his Majesty’s consent’.11

Shortly afterwards Duff, now Viscount MacDuff, married an heiress with £40,000, but whose claims to the estates and earldon of Caithness were finally rejected in 1767.

Over the Scottish militia question he avoided committing himself; did not reach London until early April 1760, and although he did not vote against the bill, was clearly anxious not to offend Newcastle, whose support he sought for the candidature of his brother-in-law Alexander Duff of Hatton in Aberdeenshire.12 Shortly afterwards he applied to Newcastle, without success, for a place as lord of the bedchamber to the young Duke of York, with whom he was now on intimate terms.13

Returned unopposed in 1761, MacDuff attached himself to Grenville and henceforth remained his faithful supporter. On succeeding to the earldom, Fife increased his pretensions, lived magnificently, purchased a mansion in Whitehall, and from his overweening sense of his own importance was nicknamed by his brothers ‘His Majesty of Fife’. In the summer of 1764 he violently protested to Grenville against the ‘affront’ his interest had suffered by James Stuart Mackenzie’s appointment of a successor to Cockburn as sheriff of Banff, attributing it to malice against Grenville’s friends.14 Furiously angry, Grenville, assuming that the affair was a continuation of the Fife-Findlater feud, strongly reprimanded Mackenzie for favouring Findlater and attacking Fife, a constant Government supporter, and his personal friend. Having promised Fife that he ‘would do his utmost’ to cancel the appointment, Grenville was disconcerted to find that there was no feud with Findlater and little evidence of Mackenzie’s animosity. He was obliged to accept Mackenzie’s explanation of his nomination of John Erskine, ‘a neutral man’, and acknowledged his mistake. ‘But let me still wish that this unlucky appointment, which may very possibly throw an independent man into opposition, had never happened.’ Fife had to accept the fait accomplibut, bitterly resentful, wrote to Grenville, 4 Aug. 1764:

Mr. Mackenzie may put it on any footing he please ... Mr. Cockburn, the former sheriff, was put in here by the Duke of Newcastle at a time when my conduct in Parliament and my friends’ was in opposition to his Grace. I did not then complain, it was rather doing me an honour for his Grace to mark me out in so public a manner. Mr. Erskine’s appointment is just in the same style.

In September, when Erskine, pursued by Fife’s hostility, applied for another place, Fife immediately nominated as sheriff his brother-in-law Keith Urquhart, to whose appointment Mackenzie, under extreme pressure from Grenville, was eventually induced to withdraw his objections.15

Confirmed in his attachment, Fife lost no opportunity of fanning Grenville’s jealousy of Bute and Mackenzie.16 In March he pressed Grenville to secure for his brother George the office of secretary to the Order of the Thistle; Grenville at once sought out Mackenzie who, after long argument, would promise only to submit Duff’s name to the King with those of other competitors. When the King, disregarding Grenville’s personal recommendation, appointed Bute’s friend, Sir Harry Erskine, Grenville hotly argued Duff’s claims in ‘a very improper and passionate conversation’ with the King, but failed to alter his decision.17 Grenville’s resentment eventually forced Mackenzie’s dismissal in June, but before the political crisis Fife had gone abroad on a prolonged European tour. Grenville, disconcerted by his proposal to winter in Paris, wrote to him on 22 Nov. 1765:18

I had depended upon ... having your ... assistance ... in a crisis ... from which I cannot think it right, for your own sake, that you should be absent ... As you tell me ... that if you foresaw anything likely to come before the public in which I am particularly interested, you would come to take part in it, I cannot conceal from you that ... it is intended to attack ... almost every public measure which I promoted during the two former sessions and which upon myself as interested ... to support to the utmost of my power.

Fife, however, remained abroad19and was absent from the Stamp Act debates. He voted against the Chatham Administration on the land tax, 27 Feb. 1767, and against printing the East India Company’s papers.20

In the new Parliament Fife’s attitude over Wilkes was at first uncertain; on 2 Feb. 1769 he voted with the Opposition, the following day with Administration,21 but from March followed Grenville’s lead, and voted with the Opposition. After Grenville’s death in 1770, he remained uncommitted until 1771 when with other Grenvillites he adhered to North. In Spring 1772 he supported Government on the royal marriage bill; but was against them on the naval captains’ petition, 9 Feb. 1773. Increasingly uneasy about the American situation and relations with France, he wrote to his factor, William Rose, 20 Apr. 1773: ‘In the present times of low credit, avert war, say I. Stock jobbers, Jews, and contractors make by that, but you and I are out of pocket.’ Always a strong supporter of Grenville’s Election Act, he voted with the Opposition on 25 Feb. 1774 for its continuance, but at the end of the Parliament was counted by Robinson as a Government supporter.22

At the general election he secured his own return for Banffshire and that of his brother Arthur for Elginshire against strong opposition. He supported North in ‘asserting the sovereignty of this country over America’,23 but on Wilkes again voted with the Opposition on 22 Feb. 1775. His application for the Order of the Thistle was firmly rejected by the King, 21 Apr. 1775, on the ground that as an Irish peer, ‘his obtaining it would give the noblemen of Scotland real cause of displeasure’.24 Although resenting North’s attitude to the abortive Scottish militia bill in 1776,25 he remained pro Administration but by 1778 had become highly critical of the conduct of the American war. On the appointment of the conciliation commission he wrote to Rose, 24 Feb. 1778:26

I pray God that punishment may fall on the heads of those who have made so bad a use of the great exerted force of this country and misspent so much blood and treasure ... I fear we are even too late with this humiliating offer as I daresay France is beforehand with us.

In March 1778 he voted against the ministry in support of a tax on places, but on 19 Apr. 1779 against the Opposition motion to remove his friend Sandwich. But in the new session, he declined North’s request to attend before Christmas, and next voted with the Opposition on pensions, economical reform, and the abolition of the Board of Trade (21 Feb., 8 and 13 Mar. 1780). Absent from the division of 6 Apr. on Dunning’s motion (probably out of respect for the King), he voted with Administration on the prorogation, 24 Apr.; but nevertheless at the end of the Parliament was counted ‘contra’ by Robinson.

In the new Parliament Fife was absent as usual from the autumn session; voted 20 Feb. 1782 with the Opposition on the censure of the Admiralty; with Administration, 22 Feb., on Conway’s motion against the war; but again with Opposition in the division on 27 Feb.; attended (1 Mar.) the presentation of the Commons Address for peace, and remained hostile to North until his fall.

In May Fife, hearing that ‘in these troublesome times ... the Irish may dispute the rights of peers that do not take their seats’, went to Dublin, was ‘duly seated’, left for Scotland in June, and never visited Ireland again.

He supported the Shelburne Administration, rejoiced at the prospects of peace, but was deeply concerned, particularly after the mutiny of the Atholl Highlanders, about the possible effects of unemployment following demobilization. Dreading disturbances in the Highland counties, he submitted proposals to Shelburne, Conway, and later to Dundas.27

After the division on the peace preliminaries, 18 Feb., he wrote to Rose:

I was in the minority with the ministers ... I have no connexion with them, but I love peace; ... abuse came but ill from a set of men who has brought the bad peace on us, for I think whatever is humiliating in it, is owing to the war-makers and not to the peace-makers.

Fife was an impatient observer of the negotiations for a new ministry. ‘I wish to God party was at an end and that they would care for the country. I care not a twopence for either of them.’ On the formation of the Coalition Administration, he wrote to Sir James Grant: ‘Thank God I am connected with no faction or party and I wish those now come in may do public service well. I have fear they won’t long agree.’ He voted (7 May) against Pitt’s reform bill. ‘I wish to God they would reform themselves and let the honest old constitution stand—the reformation within doors is more wanted. All is gambling and dissipation.’28

He returned with relief to Scotland, and was still at Duff House in December, when news reached him of the change of administration. Robinson wrote in December 1783:

Banffshire—Lord Fife will come in again; he is not a great attender but was formerly attached to Mr. Grenville; he varies and is uncertain without explanation and therefore he is classed doubtful, although he may be more steady. Mr. Dundas says pro.

In January 1784 Robinson listed him ‘Hopeful. Quere if up. Absent’. When Fife remained weatherbound in Banff, organizing election campaigns, his son James, observing that he and James Wemyss were the only Scots M.P.s still absent, wrote to William Rose: ‘I hope my Lord will leave you as soon as the snow will allow him. Hurry him. In these times every man ought to stand forth and take a part.’ Fife did not attend until the end of February, remained until the dissolution, and then returned home. At the general election he gave up Banffshire to his son, and after a violent contest was returned for Elginshire. Back in London at the end of April he voted as a Westminster elector against Fox.29

Fife had no sympathy with the Opposition, admired Pitt, took pains to inform himself on his Irish propositions which he eventually supported, but voted against his reform bill, 18 Apr. 1785. Still essentially ‘unconnected’, he sponsored George Skene at the Aberdeenshire by-election against the Dundas-Gordon candidate, James Ferguson, and wrote to Pitt, 25 Dec. 1785:

I do not wish to put you to any trouble in supporting my friend, all I am to request is that it may be left to the free choice of the country gentlemen ... I am sensible that the support I have given you as a minister has been of very little importance, yet it was perfectly independent.30

Absent from the division on Richmond’s fortification plans, 27 Feb. 1786, Fife did not attend until March, when he made his only recorded speech, on settling the date of the hearing of Ferguson’s petition against Skene.31 Within a year, professing firm attachment to Pitt, he entered into negotiations with Dundas to secure peace among the rival pro-Government interests in Elgin , Banff, Aberdeenshire, and Elgin Burghs.32

During the debates on Hastings’s impeachment, 1787 and 1788, Fife was convinced, on the evidence, of his guilt. ‘I blessed God that I had not Asiatic wealth, for such a forfeit of conscience as these nabobs must feel.’ But, as the trial progressed, he conceived great admiration for Hastings and ‘abhorrence of the illiberal persecution which came from the managers’ box’. On excellent terms with the King, he deplored the motion on the Prince of Wales’s debts and wrote, 1 May 1787: ‘I shall certainly support parental authority and feel a duty not to squander public money at the present time.’

‘Racked by anxiety’ about the King’s madness, he hastened to London in December 1788 to attend the Regency debates, and support Pitt. ‘God forbid that I should give a vote that did not mark my feelings for the King’s right and to preserve it entire if it pleases God to recover him.’ So strong was his loyalty that, when his own son took the opposite view, he insisted that he should vacate his seat, and thereafter cut off all communication with him for over four years.

On 10 Mar. 1789 Fife described his first interview with the King after his recovery:

I went to Kew yesterday ... I saw him mount his horse ... His eye catched me. He called out before all present, ‘Lord Fife ... I am glad to see you. Come to me.’ I went forward ... and returned my grateful thanks. He then called out, ‘Lord Fife, you are no gambler, you are no rat.’ I then forgot all distance betwixt King and subject, took him by the thigh, prayed the Almighty to bless him.

He retained to the end of his life the affectionate friendship of the King, who in 1790 conferred upon him a British peerage. A generous patron of the arts, Fife was essentially a countryman of spartan habits and remarkable hardihood, happiest when deer stalking in the Highlands, a considerate landlord, astute in business, but charitable to the poor. Ruthless in preserving his electoral interest, he sought neither ministerial office nor parliamentary fame.

My wishes are to support Government, and I never differ with them when I think in my mind I can support them— this is my old-fashioned way and I care not whether it meets with approbation—it gives self-satisfaction which is one good thing.

Blind for the last nine years of his life, Fife died 24 Jan. 1809.33

Ref Volumes: 1754-1790

Author: Edith Lady Haden-Guest


  • 1. Mitchell to Newcastle, 5 Oct. 1754, Add. 32737, f. 43.
  • 2. Duff to Newcastle, 8 Oct. 1754, ibid. f. 83.
  • 3. Duff to Newcastle, 6 Nov. 1754, ibid. f. 292.
  • 4. Newcastle to Argyll, 19 Oct. 1754, ibid. f. 162; and to Deskfoord, same date, f. 173.
  • 5. Findlater to Mitchell, 29 Oct. 1754, ibid. f. 227.
  • 6. Add. 35448, f. 224.
  • 7. Duff to Newcastle, 10 May 1755, A. H. Tayler, Book of the Duffs, 198.
  • 8. Ld. Milton to Gilbert Elliot, 2 May ?1759, Minto mss; Duff to Grenville, 2 Aug. 1764, Grenville mss (JM).
  • 9. Book of the Duffs, 170 (misdated Mar. 1759).
  • 10. Add. 33034, f. 232.
  • 11. Bedford Corresp. ii. 346, 353, 372; Grenville Pprs. i. 257.
  • 12. MacDuff to H. V. Jones, 7 Apr. 1760, enclosing memorandum for Newcastle, Add. 32904, ff. 243, 245.
  • 13. Add. 32905, f. 43.
  • 14. The corresp. on the sheriff of Banff, 20 June-4 Aug. 1764, between Grenville, Fife, Charles Jenkinson, Stuart Mackenzie and others, is to be found in Grenville mss (JM); Grenville letter bk.; Grenville Pprs. ii. 382-4, 387, 388; Jenkinson Pprs. 309, 312; Stuart Mackenzie to Bute, 15 July 1764, Bute mss.
  • 15. Fife to Grenville, 13 Sept., 6 Dec. 1764, Grenville mss (JM); Jenkinson Pprs. 334-5, 397; Grenville to Fife, 11 Oct., Grenville letter bk.; Caldwell Pprs. ii(1), p. 275.
  • 16. Grenville Pprs. iii. 222.
  • 17. Ibid. iii. 124-6; Jenkinson Pprs. 397.
  • 18. Grenville letter bk.
  • 19. Walpole’s Corresp. with Mme du Deffand (Yale ed.) v. 270, 271, 286, 294; A. H. Tayler, Ld. Fife his Factor, 23-28.
  • 20. ibid. 40
  • 21. Fortescue, ii. 86.
  • 22. Ld. Fife his Factor, 70-71, 78, 81.
  • 23. Fife to Rose, 21 and 25 Jan. 1775, ibid. 86-87.
  • 24. Fortescue, iii. 207.
  • 25. H. Dundas to Buccleuch, 16 Mar. 1776, Buccleuch mss.
  • 26. Ld. Fife his Factor, 105.
  • 27. Ibid. 106, 115-16, 118, 139, 141-3, 148, 150, 158.
  • 28. Ibid. 150, 152, 158; W. Fraser, Chiefs of Grant, ii. 480-1.
  • 29. Ld. Fife his Factor, 160, 161-2, 164; Laprade, 99.
  • 30. Ld. Fife his Factor, 166-7, 171, 176.
  • 31. Debrett, xix. 411.
  • 32. Ld. Fife his Factor, 185-7; ‘Fair Statement of Northern Politics’ (1786), NLS, Melville mss; Dundas to T. Steele, 2 Sept. 1788, Chatham mss.
  • 33. Ld. Fife his Factor, 188, 189, 192, 196, 201, 258.