DUFF, Sir James (1753-1839), of Kinstair, Aberdeen.

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



1784 - Dec. 1788

Family and Education

b. 1753, 1st illegit. s. of James, 2nd Earl Fife, by Margaret Adam. educ. Keith acad.; Aberdeen Univ., M.A. 1771. m. 12 Aug. 1785, Basilia, da. of James Dawes of Rockspring, Jamaica, 1s. 3da.  Kntd. 30 Apr. 1779.

Offices Held

Ensign 1 Ft. Gds. 1769, lt. and capt. 1775, capt. and lt.-col. 1780, col. 1790; maj.-gen. 1794; col. 50 Ft. 1798- d.; lt.-gen. 1801; gen. 1809.


Lord Fife was the father of three children by a Keith woman of humble origin from whom they were taken at an early age and placed under the direction of William Rose, Fife’s factor. James was a handsome youth on whom his father lavished affection, making him his constant companion, purchasing his advancement in the army, and giving him a small estate in Aberdeenshire and voting qualifications in Elgin and Banff. In 1779, when Fife’s friend James Harris, minister at St. Petersburg, was created K.B., Duff acted as his proxy at the installation, and for that purpose was himself knighted. His grandmother Lady Fife thereafter referred to him caustically as ‘the nominal knight’.1

At the general election of 1784 Fife gave up his Banffshire seat to his son, and himself stood for Elginshire. From Fife’s uncertain politics and Duff’s connexion with the Duke of York,2 neither Government nor Opposition was sure of their allegiance and classed both as ‘doubtful’. By his marriage in the summer of 1785 to a West Indian heiress Duff acquired a sugar plantation in Jamaica, and became financially less dependent on his father.3

Nominated on 29 Mar. to the select committee on the Nairnshire election, he inadvertently caused a discussion on procedure by absenting himself through a misunderstanding. His apology to the House is his only recorded speech.4 Fife, hitherto ‘happy in a son who studied to exceed his wishes’, differed profoundly from Duff on the Regency question. Although listed as voting with Administration in the division of 16 Dec. 1788, Duff wrote to Rose, Dec.:5

I was never more distressed than I am at present respecting my conduct in Parliament. The Prince of Wales has sent to me, requesting I will give him my support in case of any attempt of restricting him of his natural rights. I have answered that I will not give my countenance to any measure where he is personally concerned. I am afraid Lord Fife will act contrary to this, but it is impossible for me to give offence to a young Prince coming to the throne, under whose protection as a military man I so immediately stand. I shall act in this ... to the best of my judgment and abide by the consequences.

In a further letter Duff described the dispute with his father:6

On my informing him of my difference of sentiment on the present state of politics, my disapproving of Mr. Pitt’s conduct, and resolution not to take any active part in opposition to the Prince of Wales, every art of persuasion and flattery of which he is master were put in practice to dissuade me from it, but, if I could not bring myself to vote for Mr. Pitt, imploring me, as the greatest service I could do him, to resign my seat. I took two days to consider on the subject of our conversation. I then wrote him that, anxiously wishing to do everything in my power I consistently could, I, in compliance with his request, was willing to vacate my seat.

Despite his father’s ‘numerous professions of friendship and affection’, Duff was not surprised when the following day Fife deliberately avoided him in the street. All communication between them ceased; and Fife immediately nominated James Ferguson of Pitfour for Banffshire. Duff wrote to Rose: ‘I could never have thought of holding a place of that nature when I was totally debarred from having an opinion of my own, not even where I think my interest is concerned.’ After the King’s recovery Duff, at Rose’s suggestion, wrote to Lord Findlater justifying his parliamentary conduct,7 but made no approach to his father. The breach between them remained complete until February 1793 when, on the eve of Duff’s departure for active service in Holland, Fife sent him ‘a kind note’ wishing him a safe return. Much moved, Duff replied: ‘My dear Lord, my heart is relieved by your kind letter. But much too agitated at present to say more than assure you of the eternal gratitude of your devoted James Duff.’8

Cordial relations being now restored, Fife proposed that Duff should succeed Sir James Grant in Banffshire. But as Dundas was unsympathetic,9 and Sir James himself reluctant, Fife failed in his objective, and Duff did not re-enter Parliament.

He died 5 Dec. 1839.

Ref Volumes: 1754-1790

Author: Edith Lady Haden-Guest


  • 1. A. H. Tayler, Ld. Fife his Factor, 115-16, 163-4.
  • 2. Adam, Pol. State of Scotland, 3.
  • 3. A. H. Tayler, Book of the Duffs, ii. 512.
  • 4. Debrett, xx. 2.
  • 5. Ld. Fife his Factor, 195.
  • 6. Book of the Duffs, ii. 511.
  • 7. Ibid. 512.
  • 8. Ld. Fife his Factor , 241, 242.
  • 9. Ibid. 247; H. Furber, Hen. Dundas, 240.