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:

95 in 1790 rising to 123 in 1811


26 June 1790ROBERT DUNDAS 
11 Oct. 1799 DUNDAS re-elected after appointment to office 
1 June 1801 ROBERT SAUNDERS DUNDAS vice Dundas, appointed to office 
13 Apr. 1807 SAUNDERS DUNDAS re-elected after appointment to office 
1 May 1809 SAUNDERS DUNDAS re-elected after appointment to office 
5 Feb. 1810 SAUNDERS DUNDAS re-elected after appointment to office 
6 July 1811 SIR GEORGE CLERK, Bt., vice Saunders Dundas, called to the Upper House62
 Sir John Hamilton Dalrymple, Bt.12
26 Oct. 1812SIR GEORGE CLERK, Bt.56
 Sir John Hamilton Dalrymple, Bt.46
29 June 1818SIR GEORGE CLERK, Bt.79
 Sir John Hamilton Dalrymple, Bt.49
15 Mar. 1819 CLERK re-elected after appointment to office 

Main Article

The matchless decorum of Midlothian elections was maintained as long as the ‘natural interest’ of the Dundases of Arniston, in alliance with the Duke of Buccleuch and reinforced by ‘ministerial influence’, was exerted.1 Henry Dundas, who in 1790 transferred from the county to the city seat, had been unchallenged since his signal victory in 1774 and he now presided over the unanimous election of his nephew Robert of Arniston. The latter, on his election, dismissed an anonymous letter writer who accused his family of monopolizing the county with the retort that he was independent, attached to the government only by principle and confidence and received independent support.2 Though more nervous than his uncle about his hold over the county, anxious to gratify even newcomers to the roll and ever on the look out for ‘the first symptom of hostility’, Robert Dundas met with no opposition, nor, when he left the House as chief baron in 1801, did his cousin, Henry Dundas’s heir Robert. On that occasion, Henry Dundas informed the premier Addington, 9 May 1801:

Although from the strength of my family and personal interest, and the personal popularity of my son I do not entertain any serious apprehensions with regard to his success in the county, still it is never right to allow speculations to get afloat which would be the case if he did not immediately come forward, and therefore he cannot delay immediately announcing his intentions.3

Robert Dundas was threatened with an opposition when the Whigs took office in February 1806, being privately informed by Lord Moira that his opponent would be John Clerk, advocate, of Eldin, Fox’s choice as solicitor-general for Scotland. He at once circularized for support and an anonymous advertisement of 28 Feb. gave him further notice that, though there was no dissolution in sight, ‘at a proper time’ a candidate would appear to challenge him; but he was reassured by the replies in his favour, and the ‘secret machinations’ he feared evaporated when on 10 Mar. he reported to his father Lord Melville, ‘My opponents in Midlothian now pretend to say that George Ramsay [of Whitehill] was the candidate they wished to support, and that as he has declared in my favour they do not suppose there will be any other candidate’.4

So it proved, despite a subsequent and forlorn attempt to enlist Capt. Alexander Charles Maitland of Clifton Hall, the Earl of Lauderdale’s cousin, as candidate. The next test of the family strength came when Robert Saunders Dundas succeeded to his father’s title in 1811. On 10 June Sir Hew Dalrymple Hamilton informed Lord Grenville:

I don’t know whether you may have heard that I have prevailed upon my cousin Sir John Dalrymple to stand a candidate for Midlothian in opposition to Sir George Clerk supported by the Melville interest. I do not think we shall carry it at present but I look with confidence to the result at the general election.

Sir John Hamilton Dalrymple, 5th Bt. of Cousland, who was sponsored by Lauderdale on the Whig interest, came nowhere at the by-election. It was thought that Baird of Newburgh would have been a better candidate. Even so, James Dewar of Vogrie had informed the 2nd Viscount Melville beforehand that Clerk was considered ‘much too young and inexperienced’ and that ‘nothing but the support of your family could prevent very strong opposition’, even from ‘your warmest friends’, of whom Dewar considered himself one, having declined an invitation to offer himself.5

Yet Melville insisted on Clerk. On 4 Dec. 1811 Dalrymple, who had renewed his canvass, reported to William Adam, whose help he enlisted, that he had ‘45 promises, about ten as good as promises and towards the same number nearly disposed’. This, he thought, could carry the county without a change of government; if his friends returned to power, he was certain of his success, though he feared that ‘many people have bought votes here to make by them’. He found it difficult to calculate in advance, however, because ‘the people of this country whether friendly or otherwise to you ... seem to study to keep you in the dark with respect to their intentions in political matters’, and because ‘all here were under obligations to the Dundases’—including himself. This did not warrant the county being ‘in the hands and at the disposal of one family’, and as his opponent was not a member of that family he need not plead guilty of ingratitude.6

On 7 Mar. 1812 John Wauchope WS, whom Melville relied on for support, reported to George Home:

Sir John Dalrymple is getting on in this county. He is most persevering—keeps open house and attentive to everybody. At a late Dalkeith ball he had Sir George Clerk’s sister for his partner. She was quite pleased with him. This is carrying on the war in style. He has succeeded in getting the laird of Edmonstone. If there was to be a change of ministry ... I would not say what might happen in this county.

On 26 Mar. 1812 Sir George Clerk reported the ‘state of Midlothian’ to be for Clerk 51, for Dalrymple 38, absent 20, doubtful 17, which was scarcely reassuring. In the summer, there being no change of government, Dalrymple evidently changed his mind about his prospects and would have been relieved if he could have withdrawn honourably, but he went on. His friends still had hopes of his success. Lady Minto informed her husband on the eve of the election:

Your cousin Sir John Dalrymple, old Sir John’s son is neck and neck with Sir George Clerk for Edinburghshire. He is a very agreeable man and a Whig. Sir George is the Dundas candidate, but Lord Melville’s interest is fast dying away. I don’t understand why with all the family power in their hands, yet so it is.

But a letter written to her son the same day by J.A. Murray was sceptical as to the possibility of defeating ‘the Dundas and Buccleuch interest’ in Midlothian.7

On 26 Oct. 1812 Clerk, on whose behalf the chief baron had been ‘very anxious and active to collect the troops’, secured the praeses and carried the election by ten votes. A few of Dalrymple’s supporters were kept away by ‘an able manoeuvre of the ministerialists’ in arranging the Stirlingshire election the same day. Arguments over votes objected to on both sides and the admission of four out of five claimants for Dalrymple took so long that three ‘pairs’ went away without voting, or the result would have been 61 to 51 by one account and 59 to 49 by another, though Clerk’s friends pointed out that six of their number were absent ill and three ‘necessarily absent’. Some of these were privately accused of ‘ratting’, but nothing ruffled the genteel atmosphere of the election. Dalrymple, who also complained privately of absent friends, thought he had really lost by only one vote, as good votes of his were rejected and seven bad ones for his opponent kept on the roll. Clerk publicly claimed that he had lost a vote because of the rumour that he was being supported on condition that ‘he should abandon the representation of the county, when some individual, more nearly allied to them in blood, should be capable of coming forward in his room’.8

Dalrymple made it clear that he would persevere, and by 1816 the report ran:

The struggle in this county is going on briskly; Dalrymple has gained a few new votes this year; and the corporation of Edinburgh have been contriving some out of their superiority for the Arniston family who begin already to express their dissatisfaction with their own creature Sir George Clerk, in order ... to pave the way for the chief baron’s son by the time he is of age.

At the election of 1818, however, Dalrymple did not do as well as in 1812. While all new claimants on both sides were admitted, his objections to some of Clerk’s votes were not sustained and he suffered from ‘the ponderous influence of government’ being against him, from the loss of six votes by his opponents ‘conjoining the town votes to those of the county’, which he meant to combat at law, and from desertions. The candidates’ speeches made it clear that they were in opposite political camps, though Dalrymple’s proposer cast him in a Melvillite role, not only to ‘watch over the interests of this county, but of the whole of Scotland, with a vigilance that would never sleep’.9

In March 1819, when Clerk was re-elected unopposed on taking office, the lord advocate Alexander Machonochie made it known privately (and not publicly, to Lord Melville’s relief) that next time he and his friends would support the pretensions of Robert Dundas, younger of Arniston, now of age, rather than those of Clerk. The young man assured Melville that it might be ‘six or seven years’ before he felt inclined to stand and Melville made reassuring noises, adding that if Robert Dundas did offer next time, ‘I have no doubt you will find the county as well disposed to yourself as they have been for a century past to others of your family who have gone before you’. At the county meeting in November 1819, the Edinburgh Whigs, with Francis Jeffrey as their spokesman, could muster only 18 out of 105 votes on the question of confidence in the government. One of their leaders, John Clerk of Eldin, had just been struck off the roll and a political vendetta seemed inevitable, but it did not materialize.10 Sir George Clerk retained the seat unopposed and Dalrymple had to wait until 1832 for it.

Author: R. G. Thorne


  • 1. Stair mss, Corresp. of 8th Earl, no. 7, Stair to Sir J. H. Dalrymple, 2 Nov. 1812.
  • 2. Edinburgh Advertiser, 25-29 June 1790.
  • 3. NLS mss 6, f. 1; H. Furber, Henry Dundas, 239; Sidmouth mss.
  • 4. SRO GD51/1/195/9, 18, 19; GD224/668/12/7; Edinburgh Advertiser, 28 Feb.; Spencer mss, Scottish list, 1806.
  • 5. Fortescue mss, Blair Adam mss, Gibson to Adam, 17 Oct. 1806, Lauderdale to same, Tues. [1811]; Archibald Constable, i. 159; SRO GD51/1/198/16/24.
  • 6. Blair Adam mss; Add. 35649, ff. 259, 308, 345.
  • 7. SRO GD267/17/4; GD51/1/198/16/31; G. W. T. Omond, Arniston Mems. 281; Stair mss, Dalrymple Pprs. 1667-1887 no. 28, Stair to Dalrymple, 27 July [1812]; NLS mss 11082, f. 128; 11808 (as yet unfol.).
  • 8. Blair Adam mss, Sandilands to Adam, 10 Oct.; Edinburgh Advertiser, 27, 30 Oct.; NLS mss 1054, ff. 136, 137; Stair mss, Corresp. of 8th Earl, no. 18, Dalrymple to Home Elphinstone, 27 Oct. 1812.
  • 9. Add. 52180, Horner to Allen, 17 Sept. 1816; Edinburgh Advertiser, 30 June; SRO GD224/581, Dalrymple to Buccleuch, 3 July; Stair mss, Corresp. of 8th Earl, no. 9, Rollo to Dalrymple, 28 June 1818.
  • 10. Omond, 313, 314; NLS mss 1496, f. 148; SRO GD51/5/592/1.