MACPHERSON, James (1736-96), of Putney Heath, Surr. and Belville, Inverness.

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



1780 - 17 Feb. 1796

Family and Education

b. 27 Oct. 1736, s. of Andrew Macpherson, farmer, of Ruthven, Kingussie, Inverness by w. Ellen Macpherson (of the second branch of the clan), da. of a tacksman. educ. Badenoch; Inverness g.s.; King’s Coll. Aberdeen 1752; Marischal Coll. 1755; Edinburgh Univ. unm. 3s. 2da.

Offices Held

Agent for the nawab of Arcot 1778-d.


Macpherson ‘made some noise in his day in the literary as well as the political world’. By 1790 he had, despite all protestations to the contrary, abandoned his literary projects, whether poetical, historical or journalistic, and was concentrating on his business as the nawab’s agent and advocate in England.1 He had followed his disgruntled kinsman Sir John Macpherson* into opposition during the Regency crisis 1788-9. After being once more returned for Camelford—the price was reported to be 4,000 guineas—on the Phillipps interest, he paired against the malt tax, December 1790, and voted against administration on the Oczakov question, 12 Apr. 1791, and (after pairing on 25 May 1791 and for the rest of the session) on 1 Mar. 1792.2 The Whigs reported him absent, but favourable, to the repeal of the Test Act with regard to Scotland, in 1791. No further minority vote is known, nor did he speak in the House. In January and November 1795 he was a defaulter.

Macpherson had undoubtedly attempted to join the Prince of Wales’s circle: on 10 Feb. 1790 he wrote to Captain John Willett Payne* about a promised interview with the Prince and on 9 Apr. that he would like to call at Carlton House to discuss the conduct of administration. He met with the Whigs at Burlington House on 11 May. On 10 Dec. he wrote to Capt. Payne from his town house in Fludyer Street, Westminster upon the pretext that he had a packet to deliver to the Prince. On 24 Jan. 1791 he pressed Payne to attend ‘a little party’ at his Putney villa. On 12 Mar., repeating the invitation, he referred to his ‘late confinement’, and asked whether ‘all friends’ should attend the Prince’s forthcoming levee.3 On 21 Feb. he had written to Pitt informing him that the nawab, weary of the claims on him of the East India Company, which he denied, ‘throws himself upon the laws of Great Britain’. He was a critic of Henry Dundas both in Indian and Scottish affairs, and an investor in East India Company stock.

Macpherson’s health declining, he purchased an estate in his native parish which he embellished with a mansion and visited every autumn. Thence he wrote to John Robinson I* on 24 Oct. 1794 asking whether Parliament was to be dissolved (he was in constant correspondence with Robinson on Indian affairs)4—but he did not live to see the dissolution. He did not leave the Highlands in the winter of 1795: he ‘dallied with his Gaelic originals’, but achieved nothing and, convinced that his end was come, ‘hoped no relief from medicine’ and died imploring divine mercy, 17 Feb. 1796. ‘He was a very good-natured man’, reported his neighbour there, Mrs Grant,

and now that he had got all his schemes of interest and ambition fulfilled, he seemed to reflect and grow domestic, and showed of late a great inclination to be an indulgent landlord and very liberal to the poor ... His heart and temper were originally good. His religious principles were I fear unfixed and fluctuating: but the primary cause that so much genius, taste, benevolence and prosperity did not produce or diffuse more happiness, was his living a stranger to the comforts of domestic life, from which unhappy connexions excluded him.

He left his ‘unhappy connexions’ well provided for and asked to be buried in Westminster Abbey, in ‘the city wherein I lived and passed the greatest and best part of my life’. Lord Glenbervie who ‘never liked him’ reported that ‘when "Ossian" Macpherson died, it was proposed that his epitaph should begin "Here continueth to lie".'5

Ref Volumes: 1790-1820

Author: R. G. Thorne


  • 1. Poetical Works (Edinburgh 1802), prefatory biog.; T. Bailey Saunders, Life and Letters of Jas. Macpherson (2nd ed. 1895). For his corresp. with Pitt on the affairs of the nabob as he called him (and on whose behalf he offered ‘daily prayers to the Almighty’) see PRO 30/8/154, ff. 317-19; 362, ff. 53-113.
  • 2. India Office Lib. mss. Eur. C. 307/4, f. 73; Wraxall Mems. ed. Wheatley, v. 218; Blair Adam mss, Macpherson to Adam, 22 Dec. 1790, 24 May, 6 June 1791.
  • 3. Prince of Wales Corresp. ii. 497, 505, 547, 568, 575.
  • 4. CJ, l. 92, 75; li. 103-4; HMC Abergavenny, 70-71; the letters are quoted in full by Saunders, 298.
  • 5. Saunders, 300; PCC 137 Harris; Glenbervie Diaries, i. 99; ii. 76.