Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1790-1820, ed. R. Thorne, 1986
Available from Boydell and Brewer

Background Information

Number of voters:

155 in 1790, 126 in 1806, 147 in 1811


26 July 1802JAMES FERGUSON61
 Alexander Leith Hay41
27 Nov. 1806JAMES FERGUSON48
 Alexander Leith Hay46
 Alexander Leith Hay39

Main Article

Under the terms of the electoral truce, negotiated in 1787 by Henry Dundas, between the 4th Duke of Gordon and the 2nd Earl Fife, who had been contending fiercely for supremacy in Aberdeenshire, the seat was allocated for the next general election to Dundas’s friend James Ferguson of Pitfour, the beaten candidate at the by-election of 1786.1 Although Fife withdrew his support from the sitting Member, George Skene of Skene, the latter remained in contention for the seat, pinning his hopes on a campaign being conducted by a group of resident proprietors against the multiplication of fictitious votes. His leading associates were Sir William Forbes of Craigievar and Robert Horn Elphinstone of Horn. In a test case they objected to the enrolment at Michaelmas 1788 of Sir John Macpherson, recently returned from Bengal, who claimed on a life-rent from Gordon, one of 25 conveyed in 1786. Macpherson was enrolled and the subsequent complaint of Skene and Forbes to the court of session was dismissed, 10 Mar. 1789, but they appealed to the House of Lords which, on the ruling of Lord Thurlow, 19 Apr. 1790, reversed the court’s interlocutor. Although the Lords’ decision was widely regarded as a significant blow against the manipulators of parchment votes, Skene decided not to fight to retain his seat. At the election meeting, 21 July 1790, however, a committee was appointed to investigate fictitious votes, and at the following Michaelmas head court 53 voters were struck off the roll. The movement was still active in 1791 and the size of the roll fell significantly at least until 1806, when more than two-thirds of the electorate were ‘respectable gentry’ with a genuine stake in the county.2

In September 1791 Fife’s agent told him that a conference with Dundas, Ferguson and the Gordons had ended unanimously in ‘a wish for future quiet’, and that ‘all noise of new votes will be for this year in silent states’. In 1795 Alexander Leith Hay of Leith Hall asked Dundas whether he could expect ministerial support if Ferguson, now aged 60, retired at the next election. It is unlikely that Hay received any encouragement and Ferguson, who showed no disposition to step down, was returned unopposed in 1796.3 Fife grew increasingly discontented and threw his support behind Hay in 1800 when, in answer to his renewed request for support, Dundas peremptorily refused to desert Ferguson. Hay, who claimed to have the backing of ‘many gentlemen of great respectability in the county’, stood his ground and there was a vigorous canvass in the summer. Gordon’s son the Marquess of Huntly, and his uncle Lord Adam Gordon, worked strenuously for Ferguson, for whom they predicted a narrow majority; but Gordon’s maternal uncle George, 3rd Earl of Aberdeen, unexpectedly gave his interest to Hay, despite owing obligations to Dundas. Robert Dundas of Arniston reported a strong feeling that Ferguson would be ‘run very hard if not beat’ and it seems likely that a contest at this juncture would have been very close. Hay’s supporters persuaded themselves that although there would be ‘an ostensible support from administration’ for Ferguson, ministers were ‘in a great measure indifferent as to his success’. Aberdeen died in 1801 and was succeeded by his grandson, aged 17, who could be relied on to follow Dundas’s lead, having been raised by him since the death of his father ten years earlier. Dundas nevertheless felt it necessary to press Addington, 2 Oct. 1801, to meet Ferguson’s wishes in the disposal of local patronage, ‘if it is intended to keep up in this part of the country any connected and systematic strength of government’. At the general election of 1802 Ferguson beat Hay by 20 votes.4

Hay, with the support of Skene, Fife and the ‘independent interest’, remained in the field and obtained the backing of the ‘Talents’ on their accession to power. Early in 1806 there were reports that the Gordons would start Huntly’s brother, Lord Alexander Gordon, but his poor health eventually put this scheme out of the question. Before the dissolution ministers, to the exasperation of the Scottish Whigs and Hay’s local supporters, were slow to bring pressure to bear on uncommitted and wavering voters. On 17 Sept. 1806 Alexander Crombie, Aberdeen’s agent, calculated that Ferguson would have a majority of at least 21. Aberdeen, who was now of age, had an eye to the chances of his brother William Gordon, when Ferguson should retire. Crombie, who thought that Aberdeen held the balance of power as things stood, advised him to bide his time until his position should be further strengthened by the creation of new votes, unless he felt disposed to stake his brother’s claim with the long-term view of striking a bargain with the Gordons.5

On the dissolution the canvass was conducted with immense energy on both sides and the contest attracted widespread interest as a trial of strength between the new and old regimes. It soon became clear that Crombie had grossly overestimated the strength of Ferguson’s position and Melville was later reported to have despaired of his chances. In the event Charles Gordon of Cluny, Ferguson’s supporter, was elected praeses of the freeholders’ meeting by four votes. The claims to enrolment of six of Hay’s supporters on superiorities conveyed by Fife were rejected. A vote for Hay was wasted when John Cumine paired at the last minute with a man who was not qualified to vote. Sixteen of the freeholders calculated by Crombie to be committed to Ferguson did not vote. Of the voters marked ‘undeclared’ by Crombie, seven voted for Hay and only two for Ferguson; but John and George Morison, whose votes Hay’s supporters had been desperately anxious for government to secure, did not vote. Ferguson obtained a majority of two of the admitted votes cast, while the six rejected claimants voted under protest for Hay.6

The Melvillites were delighted with Ferguson’s success, but William Adam was confident that he would be turned out on Hay’s petition. It was presented on 20 Dec. 1806, but a committee was not appointed until 21 Apr. 1807 and its proceedings were terminated by the early dissolution.7 Hay stood again, not with any serious hopes of beating Ferguson, whose comfortable victory was guaranteed by the return of his friends to power, but to maintain a solid base of support from which to attack at a more favourable opportunity. Both he and Fife alleged that ‘the Melville influence was very conspicuous’, but Hay thought that

the independence of the county has been preserved in so far as it was possible by those friends who supported me and who are in point of standing and large landed property surely by much the most respectable part of the county.8

In May 1808 Melville wrote to Aberdeen on learning that his brother had gone to the county:

If it is either for amusement or to make love there is no objection, but I hope both Crombie and he will take care not to hold out any hints as to his future views in the county. It would be premature to do so. He will of course make himself as agreeable as he can to everybody and the rest will work its own way.

William Gordon eventually secured ministerial endorsement as Ferguson’s successor, but did not get his chance in this period. There was a canvass in 1815, provoked by a candidate on the ‘independent’ interest, but it came to nothing.9

Author: David R. Fisher


  • 1. SRO GD51/1/198/1/2-4; NLS mss 5, ff. 16, 41; PRO 30/8/157, ff. 53, 59; H. Furber, Henry Dundas, 206-14.
  • 2. W. Ferguson, ‘Electoral Law and Procedure in 18th and early 19th Century Scotland’ (Glasgow Univ. Ph.D. thesis, 1957), i. 101-4; S. Fraser, Controverted Elections, ii. 186-215; A. Luders, Controverted Elections, iii. 386-402; Edinburgh Advertiser, 23-27 Apr., 11-15, 22-25 June, 13-16, 23-27 July, 8-12 Oct. 1790; Morning Chron. 3 Mar. 1791. For an analysis of the electorate in 1806 see J. Patrick, ‘1806 election in Aberdeenshire’, Northern Scotland, i (1972-3), 163-76.
  • 3. Dom. Pprs. Rose Fam. 33-34; NLS mss 1053, f. 54.
  • 4. SRO GD51/1/198/1/8-11; GD225/33/23 passim; NLS mss 5, ff. 131-5; 8, f. 111; Sidmouth mss.
  • 5. Patrick, 157-60; Spencer mss, Hay to Lauderdale, 15 June, Spencer to Hay, 16 June; Fortescue mss, Hay to Grenville and reply, 17 June 1806; SRO GD225/34/25 passim; GD51/1/198/1/13, 14.
  • 6. Patrick, 163-72; Buckingham, Court and Cabinets, iv. 88-89, 98; HMC Lonsdale, 227; Blair Adam mss, Gibson to Adam, 28 Oct., 13 Nov., Lauderdale to same, 6 Nov., Dingwall to same, 12 Nov., Hay to same, 12 Nov., Adam to Douglas, 1, 2, Nov., to Morison, 6 Nov.; Fortescue mss, Adam to Grenville, 23 Nov. 1806; SRO GD51/1/198/1/12, 26; GD225/33/25 passim; NLS mss 3834, f. 56.
  • 7. HMC Lonsdale, 227, 229; SRO GD51/1/109/1; Fortescue mss, Hay to Grenville, 25 Nov., Adam to same, 28 Nov. 1806; CJ, lxii. 13, 60, 233, 296, 347; Parl. Deb. ix. 85.
  • 8. NLS, Melville mss, Melville to Dundas, 1 May; Blair Adam mss, Hay to Adam, 15, 22 May, 17 June; Fortescue mss, Fife to Grenville, 17 May, 10 June 1807; SRO GD51/1/198/1/18.
  • 9. Add. 43227, f. 150; SRO GD51/1/198/1/20, 21.