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

Background Information

Alternated with Caithness

Number of voters:

12 in 1788 rising to 17 in 1808



Main Article

Although there was no serious challenge in this period to the control exercised by John, 4th Earl of Bute (created Marquess in 1796), there is evidence that neglect temporarily made his command over the county less absolute than appears on paper. On 14 Apr. 1795, before taking up his embassy to Spain, Bute asked George Rose for a written promise of a pension for the wife of Professor James Young of Glasgow University, which ‘would in all probability command the next return’. In 1796 his brother Frederick, who required a refuge from his creditors, was returned, but at the end of the year Bute felt obliged to press Pitt to take action over the pension. He was referred to Rose, who suggested that, as the Scottish pension fund was still closed, Pitt should provide Bute with a promissory letter and a sum of £150 to cover the period until funds became available. Nothing had been done by June 1797, when Bute again reminded Pitt of the importance of the matter: ‘My position is at present become such that were a vacancy to happen the county would be inevitably lost, and far from going there, which I ought, I dare not show my face’.1

On 25 July 1805, by which time Bute was back in the Whig fold, his father-in-law, Thomas Coutts the banker, told William Adam that William Macleod Bannatyne, SCJ (Lord Bannatyne) was ‘making three votes’ in the county, while Bute ‘has now only one on the roll’:

He must therefore get at least three bona fide votes; that is to say friends who can pay the price and who can attend. I hope you will go to Luton and advise and assist him. He ought I think to have four or five. Robert Ferguson [of Raith] I think will buy one. Perhaps you would for your son buy one, to serve Lord B. Pray think of it till you see him. It would be mighty stupid to lose it.2

The appropriate measures were evidently taken, but Bute continued to feel vulnerable before the new voters came on to the roll. Thanking Grenville for his advance notice of the intended dissolution, 14 Oct. 1806, he commented that the news, ‘which I shall certainly keep to myself’, was not ‘quite agreeable to me, since my voters cannot be brought on the roll before next February, [and] there consequently exists a chance of the county being lost’. In the event, there was no opposition to the return of his brother, who came in merely as a stopgap, for want of a more active Member. On 11 Mar. 1807 Bute wrote to Adam:

My brother ... has called on me to agree to his resigning his seat ... on account ... of his declining health. I have replied that my new votes would not be ready before ... May, I believe the 12th, and conjuring him to remain till such period, applying to you in the meanwhile to ask leave of absence of the House ... for two months.

The early dissolution, when the return passed to Caithness, solved the problem and enabled Bute to strengthen his position. Of the 17 voters on the roll in 1808, five were members of his immediate family and five were friends or ubiquitous Whig pluralists who had bought superiorities.3 In 1812 Bute was unable to find a suitable nominee among his relatives and fell back on John Marjoribanks, the brother of Coutts’s banking partner and manager of his Scottish estates.4

Author: David R. Fisher


  • 1. PRO 30/8/118, ff. 208, 212.
  • 2. Blair Adam mss.
  • 3. Fortescue mss; Blair Adam mss; Pol. State of Scotland 1811, pp. 34-35.
  • 4. NLS mss 11088, f. 146; Fortescue mss, Bute to Grenville, 14 Nov. 1812.