DUNDAS, Sir Lawrence, 1st Bt. (c.1710-81), of Kerse, Stirling and Aske, nr. Richmond, Yorks.

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



1747 - 16 Mar. 1748
27 Dec. 1762 - 1768
1768 - 1780
1780 - Mar. 1781
23 Mar. - 21 Sept. 1781

Family and Education

b. ?1710, 2nd s. of Thomas Dundas of Fingask, Stirling and Edinburgh by Bethia, da. of John Baillie of Castlecarry, Stirling, and bro. of Thomas Dundas.  educ. ?Edinburgh h.s.  m. 1738, Margaret, da. of Brig.-gen. Alexander Bruce of Kennet, 1s.  cr. Bt. 20 Oct. 1762.

Offices Held

Burgess of Edinburgh 1739; commissary for bread and forage in Scotland 1746-8, for stores and provisions in Flanders 1747-9, of stores in Scotland 1748-57; keeper of magazines of forage 1757-8; commissary of bread for foreign troops in Germany 1759; contractor for horses and wagons for the Hanoverians 1760-1; further contracts 1761-2.1 Gov. R. Bank of Scotland 1764-77. P.C. 9 Oct. 1771.


The younger son of an impoverished branch of the Dundas family, Lawrence on leaving his father’s drapery shop in the Luckenbooths set up in business as a merchant contractor.2 During the ’45, with the help of his friend James Masterton, he obtained contracts for supplying the army of Cumberland, by whose favour he was appointed commissary in Scotland, and subsequently in Flanders.

In 1754 he again contested Linlithgow Burghs against the combined interests of Pelham, Argyll, and Hyndford, and early began ‘his work of treating and bribing’.3 Distrusted by almost everyone, including his kinsmen of Arniston and Dundas, he carried his feud with Argyll and the Campbells into Stirlingshire, where he gave his family interest, augmented by the purchase of the Kerse estate, to the Haldanes and ‘prevailed upon the Duke of Montrose to act against Captain Campbell.’4 The ministerial interest was solidly against him, and ‘after violent scenes and vast expenditure’,5 ‘the Forager’, ‘much hipped’, lost Linlithgow Burghs to John Murray of Philiphaugh.

In the seven years’ war Dundas recouped his losses by contracts and commissariat appointments for supplying the troops in Germany. Despite disputes with Thomas Orby Hunter,6 the commissaries of control,7 and Prince Ferdinand (who, according to Walpole, ‘had been on the point of hanging him’ for not fulfilling a contract to time8) he acquired considerable reputation and a fortune estimated at £6-800,000.

Disappointed of a seat at the 1761 election, he approached Shelburne, whom he had known in Germany, through his Scots military friends, James Edgar9 and James Masterton. Edgar wrote to Shelburne, 17 Oct. 1761:10

I have had a letter from Lawrie Dundas to say that he is very desirous of coming into Parliament under your Lordship’s protection ... he submits the terms to your Lordship, his object is to get in.

Dundas followed this up by a letter to Shelburne from Bremen, 28 Oct.:

Col. Masterton wrote me lately he had taken the liberty to inform your Lordship of the disappointment I had met with about my seat in Parliament, and acquainted me how ready you was in offering your assistance with your friends to bring me in upon the first vacancy.

Expense being no object, Dundas preferred to be under obligation to Shelburne rather than ‘to people he did not know’, and on his return home in 1762, discussions took place during which Shelburne ‘gave him the confidence’ of his financial affairs and accepted a substantial loan.11 On 19 Aug. 1762 Shelburne wrote to Henry Fox:12 ‘Dundas, the Nabob of the North, writes me to desire I’ll get him made a baronet; this made me go to Lord Bute yesterday.’ On 20 Oct. Dundas duly received his baronetcy, and having purchased the estates of Upleatham and Aske, made sure of a seat in future by acquiring the borough of Richmond. Shelburne consulted Bute, Fox, Calcraft, and the Bedfords on obtaining an immediate vacancy for the ‘rich Scotch commissary’; suggested Hindon;13 but eventually agreement was reached on Lord Gower’s borough of Newcastle-under-Lyme. On 18 Dec. Dundas wrote to Shelburne:14

I have just now seen Mr. Calcraft who informed me what had been determined concerning my coming into Parliament, and that Lord Gower was to call upon me this forenoon and settle everything, I am afraid my Lord, that you have made a point of this in a stronger manner than I have any pretensions to or reason to expected [sic].

His ‘German pillage’, his extravagance and his gambling were the subject of much comment.15 On 3 May 1763 Lord Hardwicke wrote to Lord Royston:16 ‘Sir Lory Dundas, who extends his conquests from North to South, has purchased Moor Park [from Lord Anson’s heirs] for £25,000. He has contracted in his own great way; takes everything as it stands.’ A few months later he bought Lord Granville’s London house for about £15,000.17

About this time he sold out Government stock: of his subscription to the loan of 1760 he had retained £25,000, of 1761 nearly £50,000, and of October 1762, £50,00018—how much more he had obtained for ‘stagging’ is not known (on 15 Sept. 1762 Shelburne wrote to Bute: ‘Dundas ... will be obliged to you for a million of your subscription’). Further he pressed Shelburne in June 1763 for repayment of his loan,19 and although he professed to be ‘hurt in the extreme to think there could be a possibility of putting any other construction upon his letter’, he was clearly unsettled by Bute’s resignation. He wanted his son to replace James Campbell in Stirlingshire and appealed in July 1763 to Bute, to whom he professed great attachment both in and out of office, to persuade Campbell to quit Parliament or exchange Stirlingshire for Dundas’s borough of Richmond.20 This scheme having failed, he was further chagrined when the commissioners for German demands queried his accounts.21

Having loyally supported Grenville’s Administration and come from a sickbed ‘brought in on men’s shoulders’ to vote, 18 Feb. 1764, on general warrants, he was bitterly offended when on 12 Apr. the Treasury approved, despite his protest, the steps taken by the German commissioners to make ‘a hypothetical charge’ against him.22 On 18 Apr. Sandwich warned Grenville:23 ‘I wish you may have an opportunity of saying something friendly to Sir Lawrence Dundas ... as I think there is danger of losing him which a little well-timed civility will prevent.’ Grenville replied the same day:24 ‘I saw Sir Lawrence Dundas yesterday and said to him all that I possibly could on this subject as friendlily as I was able and as I am really disposed to him.’ By his son’s marriage to Rockingham’s niece, Dundas had a connexion with the Opposition, and while the Treasury continued to dispute his accounts, and refused an immediate settlement,25 there was good reason to fear the commissary might change his allegiance. James Stuart Mackenzie sought to placate him by recommending against his better judgment his brother-in-law Bruce of Kennet for promotion to the Scottish bench.26 Although forced to accept a reduction of £17,000 in his claims,27 Dundas decided to remain faithful to Grenville, followed him into opposition, and voted against the repeal of the Stamp Act.

His interests were now concentrated, according to his critics, on achieving power in Scotland comparable to the former Argyll dictatorship. In July 1766 he purchased the Orkneys and Shetlands from the Earl of Morton for £63,000, thereby obtaining control of the county representation and a leading interest in Tain Burghs. He had long been nursing Stirlingshire for his son Thomas. Lavish expenditure would secure Stirling Burghs which he intended for his friend Robert Haldane. He still maintained an interest in Linlithgow Burghs and Linlithgowshire. In Fife he had considerable influence which he gave to James Wemyss of Wemyss. For himself he reserved the representation of the city of Edinburgh.

During the Chatham Administration he remained in opposition, closely associated with the Bedfords and Grenvilles. He voted with them on the land tax, 27 Feb. 1767, and on 8 Mar. spent the entire day negotiating with Rockingham, Rigby, and Grenville on the organization of a united opposition to the proposal to print the East India papers.28 But when the alliance between the Bedfords and the Grenvilles was wearing thin, Alexander Wedderburn warned Whately in September 1767:29 ‘I wish Mr. Grenville would take some opportunity of writing to Sir Lawrence Dundas; the Bedfords are extremely attentive to him, and he is apt to be taken with attentions.’ All parties were interested in Dundas and the eight or nine Members he was expected to bring into the next Parliament, but Dundas did not commit himself; and neither he nor his son voted on the nullum tempus bill, 17 Feb. 1768. They were more immediately concerned with creating their Scottish ‘empire’, courting popularity, and promoting the Forth and Clyde canal.

Sir Lawrence was now about to reap his reward. At the general election, his brother Thomas was returned for Orkney, his son Thomas for Stirlingshire, his friend Masterton (in place of the deceased Robert Haldane) for Stirling Burghs. He himself having been returned for both Richmond and Edinburgh, vacated his English seat in favour of William Norton. The other Richmond Member was Alexander Wedderburn, brought in, it was said, as ‘an able and well tongued friend’ to act as spokesman for the Dundas group.30

By the autumn Dundas had still not decided whether to join Grenville in opposition, or Bedford and the court. Whately wrote to Grenville, 14 Oct. 1768:31

I have a letter from Wedderburn who asks whether you have written lately to Sir Lawrence Dundas. Though he is more satisfied than ever with his language yet he wishes a civility were now and then thrown in to prevent any impression by the great attention paid him from another quarter.

On 5 Nov. Rigby wrote to Bedford:32

It remains still doubtful whether I shall prevail with my friend Sir Lawrence to be steady with Government and to-night he will determine with Sir Fletcher Norton and Wedderburn whether to be friends or foes. I think them a material set of people at this juncture and have taken great pains to secure them. The Duke of Grafton will give no promise to Sir Lawrence’s favourite point and without that, if Sir Lawrence determines to give his support to the Administration, he declares he does it for no other reason but the personal regard he bears to your Grace. Grenville and Lord George Sackville try heaven and earth to get him but I think I parted with him just now favourably disposed.

Dundas’s ‘favourite point’ was a peerage. The King refused, but Dundas, despite his disappointment, from the beginning of 1769 consistently voted with Administration, parting company with Wedderburn on 8 May 1769 over Luttrell and the Middlesex election. Wedderburn vacated his seat, and the loss of ‘the ablest man in Britain’ was long remembered in Scotland as a blow to the parliamentary influence of Dundas with his ‘eight or nine dead votes at his heels’.33 Although Dundas never obtained office either for himself or his followers it was generally believed that ‘without the name of minister’ he had ‘the disposal of almost everything in Scotland’.34 While his critics claimed that his patronage only extended to ‘ordinary’ appointments in Scotland and the East India Company, and ‘scraps’ for ‘his minions and dependants’,35 Garlies certainly resented his political interest: ‘The Duke of Queensberry or Lord Marchmont ... generally ask and get almost everything to be disposed of in Scotland, except what is given to Sir Lawrence Dundas.’36 As governor of the Royal Bank, 1764-77, he exercised great influence in the financing of new projects, notably the Forth and Clyde canal, and steered the bank through the crisis arising from the collapse of the Bank of Ayr.37His wealth and financial acumen were useful to Administration at whose behest in 1769 he bought up holdings of East India stock to the value of over £100,000 for splitting to provide qualifications at the 1770 election of directors.38

On the formation of the North Government Dundas once more asked for his reward, presumably a peerage, which was again refused. ‘I wish to know’ wrote the King, 16 Feb. 1770, ‘in what manner Sir Lawrence Dundas has received the answer I authorized you to give him in consequence of his very unreasonable and unseasonable application.’39North reassured the King, 17 Feb.: ‘All Sir Lawrence’s friends were at the House yesterday and would have voted with us if there had been any division.’ During 1771 Sir Lawrence was in poor health and proposed to winter at Nice. Before going abroad he pressed North ‘for the dignity of a Privy Councillor’; although North ‘wished that the request had not been made’, the King consented ‘if Lord Gower had no objection’, and the honour was accordingly granted.40 Both he and his son were listed ‘pro—absent’ (presumably abroad) during the debates on the royal marriage bill, March 1772.

He was still neither liked nor trusted, the Scottish nobility in particular resenting the extension of the ‘upstart’s’ influence. Argyll’s interest in the west of Scotland was a principal object of attack by Dundas, who in 1774 opposed the Glasgow and Clyde navigation bill not on its merits but because it was supported by Argyll. John Craufurd (whom Dundas had offered to bring into Parliament if he failed in Renfrewshire) told William Mure41 that it ‘became a kind of trial of strength’ between them, but the affair was so mishandled that in the end ‘the shabby Sir Lawrence’ divided against his friends.

In the constituencies Dundas had acquired new allies. Argyll wrote to Mure, 24 Feb. 1774:42

I hope that you ... will not come under any engagement with Sir Lawrence Dundas as to the new Hamilton votes in Stirlingshire being neutral; Sir Lawrence Dundas has found means to have such influence with the Elphinstones, that if you do not keep him in order with these votes, he will have them [the Elphinstones] against Duke Hamilton and me both in Dunbartonshire and Clydesdale ... I don’t see that you have anything to fear in Linlithgow as Sir James Cockburn is ready to meet Sir Lawrence there with his own weapons without putting Duke Hamilton to any expense.

In Edinburgh Dundas’s popularity had waned. He was criticized for neglecting the city’s affairs,43 and for his non-residence, which he rectified by building a mansion in St. Andrew’s Square. None the less he was re-elected in 1774 against strong opposition. His posse was diminished by the loss of Stirling Burghs, and although his interest had secured Clackmannan, Ralph Abercromby declined his whip. The rest of the group followed their leader in supporting Administration.

Sir Lawrence now had to face the rivalry of his distant connexion Henry Dundas, with whose family he had long been on bad terms, and who in alliance with the Duke of Buccleuch openly challenged his interest. From 1776 violent struggles took place for control of the Edinburgh town council, scores of vituperative handbills appeared attacking ‘the stout Earl of the German Plains’, ridiculing his origins, his ostentation, his pretensions to a coronet. Although Sir Lawrence gained prestige in 1778 by presenting Edinburgh’s loyal address and promoting the raising of the Edinburgh Regiment,44 it became obvious that he could expect little from a ministry which permitted its lord advocate to oppose him.

By 1779 his loyalty began to be suspect. All his group were absent from the division on the contractors bill, 12 Feb. 1779, and their support was no longer taken for granted. Reporting to the King on the Keppel debates of 3 Mar., Sandwich particularly mentioned that Sir Lawrence ‘with all his friends’ had voted with Administration, and subsequently told Jenkinson ‘that Sir Lawrence Dundas and his connexion would attend on every question in which he [Sandwich] was personally concerned’.45 But on 20 Nov. 1779 Robinson wrote to Jenkinson46 that Rigby ‘had seen a letter from Sir Lawrence Dundas to his nephew in which he said that he hated opposition but that the conduct of Administration was so weak and bad that he could not support them and would not attend’. He seems to have kept his word. And his next recorded vote on 8 Mar., on economical reform, was against the Government. Thereafter he continued in opposition, making on 10 May 1780 his only recorded speech during nearly twenty years in Parliament: on the malt tax bill in support of Dempster’s amendment complaining of an injustice to Scotland.47

Listed ‘contra’ in Robinson’s survey of 1780, Sir Lawrence had to face contests in almost every part of his ‘empire’. ‘The court’, wrote Rockingham, ‘have been most alert and violent against him, not only in Edinburgh but wherever they could in boroughs and counties where he was concerned.’48 Sir Lawrence showed considerable generalship against Henry Dundas’s organized attack. He transferred his nephew Charles from Richmond to Orkney, to replace his absent brother Thomas and meet Baikie’s opposition. To secure his son’s return for Stirlingshire he made an agreement whereby in exchange for the Montrose interest he brought in the Marquess of Graham for Richmond. He bargained and intimidated, exchanged votes and interest, made new allies.49 He had himself returned for Richmond as an insurance against defeat in Edinburgh where the Henry Dundas-Buccleuch party was as unscrupulous as himself in election tactics. Rockingham wrote to him during the campaign:50

I shall not condole with you that you are become an object of the malice and the intrigues of a time serving court party in Scotland ... I have heard that my friend Dempster and you have been deemed traitors in Scotland for having voted that the influence of the Crown was increased, was increasing and ought to be diminished.

Sir Lawrence was defeated in extraordinary circumstances, but promptly petitioned against William Miller’s return.

During the contest James Boswell, formerly an opponent of Sir Lawrence, but now united with him in antagonism to Henry Dundas, met him for the first time.51

It was adding a new distinguished character to my collection. He appeared to me not a cunning shrewd man of the world as I had imagined, but a comely jovial Scotch gentleman of good address but not bright parts ... I liked him much. I even felt for him as a man ungratefully used in his old age.

In March 1781 Sir Lawrence won his petition but, crippled with gout, died 21 Sept. 1781, leaving an estate worth £16,000 p.a. and a fortune of £900,000 in personal and landed property.52 Henry Dundas wrote to Robinson, 8 Oct. 1781:53

When Sir Lawrence Dundas laid out twenty thousand pounds to build a house in Edinburgh and submitted for these fifteen years to every species of disagreeable meanness to establish an interest in the town of Edinburgh, did he ever imagine that he would not only die without a coronet but that within a few months of his breath being out there should not remain in any of his family the vestige of that interest which cost him so much? And yet in truth that will be the case.

Ref Volumes: 1754-1790

Author: Edith Lady Haden-Guest


  • 1. T29/30/371; T52/45/7, 43; T29/32/136, 432; T54/36/377; T52/48/215; T29/33/40, 302; T29/34/181, 275; Add. 33038, f. 328; 32896, ff. 5-6; 32928, f. 280.
  • 2. Edinburgh handbills, Reply to ‘a Citizen’ by an Old Magistrate, 28 Sept. 1776; A Dramatic Interlude: The Humour of the Town, 1 Oct. 1776.
  • 3. Argyll to Pelham, 4 Sept. and 15 Oct. 1753, Newcastle (Clumber) mss.
  • 4. Same to same, 6 Nov. 1753, ibid.
  • 5. Letters from Andrew Pringle, HMC Hamilton, ii. 177-8.
  • 6. Dundas to Newcastle, 20 Sept. 1759, Add. 32896, ff. 5-6.
  • 7. Dundas to Col. Peirson, 10 Sept. 1761, Add. 32928, f. 280.
  • 8. Mems. Geo. III, iii. 214.
  • 9. See memorandum from Shelburne to Bute on Edgar’s career, 20 Nov. 1761, Bute mss.
  • 10. Lansdowne mss.
  • 11. Gibbs Crawfurd to Shelburne, 11 June 1763.
  • 12. Henry Fox mss.
  • 13. Shelburne to Bute, 11 Dec. 1762, Bute mss.
  • 14. Lansdowne mss.
  • 15. Lady Barrymore to Bedford, 30 Jan. 1764, Bedford mss; James Harris’s memoranda, 22 May and 24 July 1763, Malmesbury mss.
  • 16. Add. 35352, f. 343b.
  • 17. Alex. Forrester to Andrew Mitchell, 12 Sept. 1763, Add. 30999, ff. 16-17.
  • 18. Bank of England recs.
  • 19. Gibbs Crawfurd to Shelburne, 11 June 1763, Lansdowne mss.
  • 20. Sir Harry Erskine to Bute, ?19 July 1763, Bute mss.
  • 21. Dundas to Jenkinson, 18 Nov. 1763, Add. 38201, f. 248.
  • 22. T29/35/361.
  • 23. Grenville mss (JM).
  • 24. Grenville letter bk.
  • 25. T29/35/449; Grenville to Dundas, 14 July 1764, Grenville letter bk.
  • 26. Mackenzie to Bute, 28 May and 3 June 1764, Bute mss.
  • 27. T29/36/209, 304, 341; Jenkinson to Grenville, 21 Mar. 1765, Grenville mss (JM).
  • 28. Rockingham to Newcastle, Newcastle to Rockingham, 8 Mar. 1767, Add. 32980, ff. 220-1, 226-7.
  • 29. Grenville Pprs. iv. 160-2.
  • 30. Edinburgh pamphlet, A Rhapsody, 9 Sept. 1777, p. 9.
  • 31. Grenville mss (JM).
  • 32. Bedford mss. 57, f. 220.
  • 33. A Rhapsody.
  • 34. Ramsay of Ochtertyre, i. 154.
  • 35. A Rhapsody.
  • 36. Cal. Home Office Pprs. 1766-9, pp. 506-7.
  • 37. Neil Munro, Hist. Royal Bank of Scotland, ch. x.
  • 38. Whately to Grenville, 2 and 15 June 1769, Grenville mss (JM); L. S. Sutherland, E. I. Co. in 18th Cent. Politics, 183; Lady Mary Coke, Jnl. iii. 134.
  • 39. Fortescue, ii. 130.
  • 40. North to Gower, 30 Sept. 1771, HMC 5th Rep. 208.
  • 41. Caldwell Pprs. ii(2), pp. 231-2.
  • 42. Ibid. 230.
  • 43. Letter of the Incorporated Trades to Thomas Dundas, 9 Sept. 1771.
  • 44. Fortescue, iv. 16-19.
  • 45. Ibid. 298, 300.
  • 46. Add. 38212, f. 227.
  • 47. Almon, xvii. 693.
  • 48. Rockingham to Frederick Montagu, 22 Oct. 1780, Rockingham mss.
  • 49. See John, 9th Duke of Argyll, Intimate Society Letters, ii. 438, on the Dunbartonshire situation.
  • 50. Rockingham mss.
  • 51. Boswell, Private Pprs. xiv. 121-2, 123, 126.
  • 52. Gent. Mag. 1781, p. 444.
  • 53. H. Furber, Hen. Dundas, 197.