Kirkcudbright Stewartry


Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1820-1832, ed. D.R. Fisher, 2009
Available from Cambridge University Press

Background Information

Number of enrolled freeholders:

144 in 1820; 166 in 1826; 161 in 1830


3 Apr. 1820JAMES DUNLOP 
 James Dunlop47

Main Article

Kirkcudbright Stewartry was the eastern portion of Galloway. In its improving agriculture the raising of cattle was a speciality. It contained the royal burghs of Kirkcudbright, on the Dee estuary, and New Galloway, inland on the Water of Ken. The other principal settlements were Castle Douglas, Creetown, Dalbeattie, Gatehouse and Maxwelltown, which was separated from the burgh of Dumfries by the River Nith, the Stewartry’s eastern border.1 George Stewart, 8th earl of Galloway, whose brother Montgomery Stewart had been Member for the county, 1803-12, had focused his electoral attention mainly on neighbouring Wigtownshire in 1812, when the Peninsular veteran General John Dunlop of Southwick, who probably had Galloway’s blessing, had comfortably beaten another supporter of the Liverpool ministry, William Douglas of Almoness. The latter had been disowned by his ostensible backer Thomas Douglas, 5th earl of Selkirk, of St. Mary’s Isle, the lord lieutenant, a former Whig who had fallen out with his party in 1807 and was mostly abroad from 1815. Dunlop was unopposed in 1818.2

Anticipating the dissolution in February 1820, Lord Melville, first lord of the admiralty and the ministry’s Scottish manager, secured Galloway’s promise to support Dunlop’s re-election.3 Once a Mr. Laurie (presumably a connection of Sir Robert Laurie of Maxwelltown) had withdrawn, Dunlop, who was said by the lord advocate Sir William Rae* to be ‘not popular’, but almost sure of ‘success’, was challenged by the Whig Alexander Murray of Broughton, Wigtownshire, and Cally, near Gatehouse, the illegitimate son of James Murray (d. 1799), Member for the county, 1768-74, whose wife had been Galloway’s paternal aunt. According to the Edinburgh lawyer James Gordon, son of the county sheriff Sir Alexander Gordon of Culvennan, whose wife was Murray’s cousin, Galloway, when solicited by Murray, ‘expressed regret that he had already committed himself to one or two voters favourably for General Dunlop, but [said] that he would take no further part either way’. He assured Melville, who intervened to recruit support for Dunlop as a friend of the government, that he had told Murray that ‘I was pledged to support General Dunlop and in consequence of his politics and my connection with the government I could ... not support’ him. Gordon, who reported on 10 Mar. that Dunlop ‘does not give out that he has the support of ministers so far as I can hear, but expects to gain his seat on Lord Selkirk’s interest and that of his brother-in-law, the solicitor-general [James Wedderburn], which is at present powerful’, thought Murray would be a ‘formidable opponent’, though he fancied that it was ‘too late [for him] to succeed at this election’.4 Thanking Melville for his backing, 19 Mar., Dunlop claimed that ‘though Mr. Murray were to double the numbers of his present supporters it would not affect the certainty of my being returned in any material degree’, and expressed himself satisfied with Galloway’s conduct.5 Murray gave up at least ten days before the election, but according to Gordon he was determined to try at a future opportunity, ‘when he expects to have upon his own property 30 new votes’. Gordon’s understanding was that Dunlop would have crushed Murray by 25 to 30 votes, as the declaration of ministerial support for him had proved crucial in bolstering his strength and putting him well beyond his opponent’s reach. Yet he frankly told Dunlop that his failure to vote for the Six Acts and the county’s loyal address to the prince regent after Peterloo had damaged him in Tory quarters. Gordon informed Melville that it would be prudent in Dunlop to select as his praeses and proposer and seconder ‘decided ministerial men of some weight and rank in the county’, such as Wedderburn, Sir James Montgomery* of Stanhope, Peeblesshire, Selkirk’s brother-in-law, and Sir John Shaw Stewart Heron Maxwell of Heron, as his usual praeses, Richard Alexander Oswald† of Cavens, was of ‘decidedly opposite’ politics; there had even been ‘a report that he [Dunlop] is to resign in two years in favour of Mr. Oswald’s son’.6 Dunlop walked over, 3 Apr. 1820. Five days later Selkirk died in France, leaving an only son and successor who would not come of age until 1830. The lord lieutenancy was given to Galloway, who had held it from 1794 to 1807.

The county’s public notaries petitioned the Commons for repeal of the duty on their licenses, 29 Mar. 1824.7 The freeholders, justices and commissioners of supply petitioned both Houses against interference with the Scottish banking system in April 1826.8 In April 1824 Melville had evidently asked the Gordons of Culvennan to support Dunlop next time, but James Gordon warned him that if Oswald’s son stood the contest would be close:

There is an unfavourable impression against General Dunlop because he has been considered to be brought in by the Selkirk interest and that of the earl of Galloway united; and because he has never laid himself out to gain the freeholders in general. The county is also two thirds still of Tory or government politics, but the general opinion is that General Dunlop is no more a Tory than the other two talked of candidates are ... This being the long confirmed opinion of a great majority of the freeholders who are not influenced by either the interest of Lord Galloway or Lord Selkirk’s family, and Mr. Oswald being extremely popular, I am convinced his son will have a great number of the Tories to support him and others of them will stay away. It will therefore be necessary that the most decided measures be taken without much loss of time to keep the freeholders attached to government together, otherwise if left to the last ... it may terminate in the county being added to the list of those represented by avowed Whigs. This county has of late had no proper head who took any interest in keeping these together, and unless someone is fixed upon who is fit for it and who is known to have the countenance of government, I fear the consequences. I may add that the measure of withdrawing the branch of the Bank of Scotland from Kirkcudbright, of which the agent was a decided supporter of government, and leaving all money accommodation with the three branches of the British Linen Bank at Dumfries, Castle Douglas and Newton Stewart, which is a decided Whig bank, will bring many more to that side of politics.9

In the event the challenge to Dunlop came from the 1790s reformer Robert Cutlar Fergusson of Orroland, Kirkcudbrightshire, and Craigdarroch, Dumfriesshire, a former state prisoner who had prospered handsomely as a barrister in Bengal, where he was employed by the East India Company, during a long residence there since the turn of the century. On his final return to Britain in the summer of 1825 he ‘set all in motion by commencing a canvass for the next election’, which was expected that autumn. According to one of Dunlop’s supporters, Fergusson’s brother ‘had been canvassing for him at least a year before, but so quietly that none of our friends were aware of it’.10 He was a ‘dangerous’ opponent, for aside from his wealth, his politics, though still liberal, had been tempered by his professional connection with the authorities in India and he was known to favour protection for agriculture. The late Lord Selkirk’s widow advised Melville in early September 1825 that there were a worryingly large number of ‘non- declarants among those who are known to be supporters of government’ and ‘who generally oppose a Whig candidate’. Although she had been ‘assured ... on very good authority’ that Dunlop was ‘sure’ of 64 votes to Fergusson’s 53 ‘if he is now frankly supported’, she felt that ‘some exertion is absolutely necessary’ and lamented Montgomery’s absence and the ‘most unlucky accident’ which had dislocated Dunlop’s shoulder and hampered his canvass.11 Dunlop, using an amanuensis, solicited the support of the Gordons, stressing Oswald’s declared preference for Fergusson on party political grounds. James Gordon reproached Dunlop for his inattention to his father since the last election and informed him that ‘many of those county gentlemen whose political opinions coincided with ours’ had indicated that ‘they did not consider their supporting Mr. Fergusson as opposing the present government, and that he would have their support’. Although he was an old friend of Fergusson and was pleased to see him after so long an absence, Gordon ‘resolved to delay any determination of the part we may take until a dissolution’. He sent Dunlop’s letter to Melville and commented:

He begins at last to discover that the influence of the family of Selkirk is not likely to secure his election even with the personal canvassing of the countess, who is now writing to and visiting the freeholders ... I stated to the lord advocate the state of the county and my firm belief that Mr. Fergusson would carry the election ... Not having been applied to by your Lordship or ... Lord Galloway ... my father and I have as yet taken no part ... because it has been the plan of General Dunlop and of the Selkirk party and its agents to lessen my father’s consequence and influence, since we gave the late William Douglas our active support at the request of your Lordship [in 1812] ... many of our connections have already declared for Mr. Fergusson on the principle that they will not allow that family to put in the Member ... It is understood that Lord Galloway is not to apply to anyone ... I am desirous to know if your Lordship intends that General Dunlop should have a decided support, because without it he has no chance of success, and even with it very little.12

Melville intervened on Dunlop’s behalf, and at the end of October 1825 (when the dissolution had been postponed to next year), Lady Selkirk gave him ‘a favourable report’ of his canvass, though he was still handicapped by his injury:

Lord Galloway has supported the general most effectually, and I really have no apprehension for the result, provided all our friends can be prevailed on to come forward. But while there is such indefatigable activity maintained by the opposite party, there can be no relaxation as long as there are any non-declarants left.

Melville appears to have shared in ‘the impression that prevails even among his friends of want of activity on the part’ of Dunlop, but Lady Selkirk attributed this largely to the chapter of accidents.13 Fergusson joined Brooks’s in February 1826. At the general election four months later, Dunlop’s casting vote as parliamentary praeses carried the choice of his nominee as praeses of the election meeting. After a long legal wrangle an attempt to expunge one of Fergusson’s voters from the roll was defeated by 44-40. This proved crucial, for three new freeholders were enrolled in his interest and only two in Dunlop’s. Dunlop was nominated by the aged Peter Johnston of Carnsalloch, Dumfriesshire (county Member, 1782-4) and seconded by Douglas Hamilton Craik of Arbiglang. Fergusson was sponsored by Oswald and Sir John Gordon of Earlston. The vote gave Fergusson victory by 48 to 47, with nine ties and about 30 absentees. The Kirkcudbright populace rejoiced in his victory and escorted him in triumph from the court house.14 Dunlop told Melville that ‘two only of the supporters of each side ... of those who were expected to attend’ had failed to turn up: one of his was abroad and the other in Dublin. He went on:

No small care had been taken to keep the political sentiments of ... [Fergusson] as much in doubt as possible. Several of his supporters had therefore been hitherto considered as well disposed to government, though others voted for him avowedly because they expected him to be in opposition ... Should his conduct in the House ... be moderate it may be expected that the efforts which have created his interest in the Stewartry will be able to preserve it, for some considerable time at least. If, however, he unites himself decidedly with opposition ... he will certainly lose ... several of his most respectable present adherents. On the other hand, he will preserve as he has gained all those who are anxious for the establishment of a democratic party in the county or who come within the influence of such means as an active, wealthy and able man, early initiated into the mysteries of electioneering, has always at his command, if disposed to use them.15

Although Fergusson acted generally with the Whig opposition in the House, he was not a blind partisan, and the tone of his frequent speeches was mostly temperate. In July 1828 Galloway resigned the lord lieutenancy in favour of his eldest son Lord Garlies*. Fergusson was returned unopposed at the 1830 general election. The council, householders and inhabitants of Castle Douglas, the freeholders, commissioners and landholders of the county and the council and inhabitants of Gatehouse petitioned Parliament for reform of the Scottish electoral system between December 1830 and March 1831.16 The merchants and householders of Maxwelltown, the council and inhabitants of Castle Douglas, the occupiers and householders of the western district of the Stewartry and the tenants of the eastern district petitioned in support of the Grey ministry’s reform bill, for which Fergusson spoke and voted.17 The county’s freeholders, commissioners and landholders petitioned the Lords, 22 Mar., to the effect that the ministerial plan should be ‘adopted where beneficial, or amended where defective’, and called for ‘general reform’ of the Commons, extension of the Scottish franchise, renovation of the burgh electoral system and a reduction of expenditure and taxes.18 Presenting the petition of the commissioners of supply against the Scottish reform bill, 20 Apr. 1831, Fergusson explained that it was founded on ‘strong objections’ to the proposed £10 householder franchise and that it had been carried by the casting vote of the praeses after a tied vote (24-24) on an amendment for reform.19 At the ensuing general election he was opposed by the young advocate, William Forbes† of Callendar House, Stirlingshire, who professed support for ‘prudent’ reform but condemned ‘the sweeping alteration lately attempted’. Forbes initially claimed to have had an encouraging canvass, but a week before the election he admitted that he had no chance and withdrew.20 On 17 May 1831 Fergusson told Lord Holland, a member of the cabinet:

I shall be returned without further trouble on the 24th. I have had an anxious and laborious canvass; but I should have been elected by a very considerable majority had we come to a vote. Many did not declare till late, and all those ... declared for me, which augurs favourably for the progress of the cause of reform. Joseph Hume* sent me down placards and hand bills, but the people in this country require to be kept back, not excited. In truth they are a little ferocious. My antagonist was occasionally not very well received.21

At the general election of 1832, when the Stewartry had a registered electorate of 1,045, Fergusson was returned unopposed as a Liberal. He sat unchallenged until his death in 1838, and the county remained in Liberal hands until 1885.22

Author: David R. Fisher


  • 1. Ordnance Gazetteer of Scotland (1895), iv. 421, 424-5.
  • 2. HP Commons, 1790-1820, ii. 552-5.
  • 3. NAS GD51/1/198/14/19.
  • 4. NLS mss 11, f. 79; NAS GD51/1/198/14/21-25, 29.
  • 5. NAS GD51/1/198/14/26.
  • 6. NAS GD51/1/198/14/27, 28.
  • 7. CJ, lxxix. 223.
  • 8. Ibid. lxxxi. 217; LJ, lviii. 166.
  • 9. NAS GD51/1/198/14/30.
  • 10. NAS GD51/1/198/14/31, 36.
  • 11. NAS GD51/1/198/14/32.
  • 12. NAS GD51/1/198/14/33, 34.
  • 13. NAS GD51/1/198/14/35, 36.
  • 14. Glasgow Herald, 16, 23, 26 June 1826.
  • 15. NAS GD51/1/198/14/37.
  • 16. CJ, lxxxvi. 188, 209, 310; LJ, lxiii. 262, 347.
  • 17. CJ, lxxxvi. 395, 406, 423; LJ, lxiii. 353, 498.
  • 18. LJ, lxiii. 357.
  • 19. CJ, lxxxvi. 509.
  • 20. Caledonian Mercury, 25, 28, 30 Apr., 5, 16 May 1831; NAS GD224/580/3/1/3/0; 581/10/5.
  • 21. Add. 51836.
  • 22. Scottish Electoral Politics, pp. xi. 224, 237, 253-4.