Aberdeen Burghs

Scottish burgh

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1690-1715, ed. D. Hayton, E. Cruickshanks, S. Handley, 2002
Available from Boydell and Brewer

Background Information

Aberdeen (1708); Montrose (1710), Brechin (1713), Arbroath, Forfarshire; Inverbervie, Kincardineshire


26 May 1708JOHN GORDON 
 James Scott 
30 Oct. 1710JAMES SCOTT3
 William Livingston2
 Thomas Coutts 
 LIVINGSTON vice Scott, on petition, 8 Feb. 1711 
18 Sept. 1713JOHN MIDDLETON 
 James Erskine 

Main Article

In size and wealth Aberdeen was effectively the capital of its region and immune from direct patronal influence. In a five-burgh district, however, no single burgh could dictate terms, and an Aberdonian monopoly of representation was only achieved with difficulty. Indeed, the most noticeable feature of elections, according to one observer in 1708, was that alignments were ‘so changeable that nothing can be depended upon until the event’. A constant feature, nevertheless, was the rivalry between Aberdeen and Montrose. The latter, ‘a very handsome, well built town’, together with neighbouring Brechin, whose mercantile activities were channelled through Montrose, offered an alternative electoral platform. Montrose was dominated by the Scotts of Logie, who owned property in the town as well as possessing an estate close by, and had been involved for several generations in the council’s affairs. Neither of the remaining burghs was of much commercial consequence. Although Arbroath was entering a period of expansion which would see it eventually surpass Brechin by the 1720s, it was suffering a short-term slump that had reduced its trade in 1711 to a ‘lamentable state’. The non-juring Earl of Panmure and his fellow Jacobite, the Earl of Southesk, were the greatest territorial powers in the vicinity of Arbroath and Brechin, Panmure possessing the right to nominate a bailie in both burghs, though since 1706 his privilege had been exercised for him in Brechin by the lord of session Lord Grange (Hon. James Erskine†), brother to the Earl of Mar. Inverbervie was also subject in some degree to the local laird, in this case Viscount Arbuthnott. The 5th Viscount, who succeeded to the title in 1710, later claimed that the town had ‘been under the authority and command of my family these many centuries and years by past’.1

Arbuthnott was, like Panmure, a non-juror, and, as in the various county constituencies, the strength of cavalier loyalism in the north-east lowlands was perhaps the most important factor in determining the political complexion of the Members returned. This in turn drew its strength from the popularity of episcopalianism. Aberdeen itself was a centre of episcopalian influence, based on the university, which had introduced an Anglican liturgy and harboured a number of High Church professors. There were substantial congregations in Arbroath and in Montrose too, the latter probably by some way the majority of the town’s population. Even in Brechin, where Presbyterianism had flourished despite the fact that the town was the seat of a bishop, there was a strong episcopalian element both in the magistracy and in the populace: the parish incumbency was currently in dispute between the presbytery’s nominee and a deprived episcopalian minister, each of whom attracted a congregation. Although largely outnumbered in the burgh councils, Presbyterians were not, however, bereft of influence. The councils in Aberdeen, Brechin, and, to a lesser extent, Inverbervie, all contained active Presbyterian factions which would in due course form the basis of a Whig interest in the constituency.2

In the last Scottish parliament, the representatives of two of the burghs (Brechin and Arbroath) had opposed the Union, and the commissioner for Aberdeen was an opposition-inclined absentee, whereas John Scott I of Logie (Montrose) and Alexander Maitland* (Inverbervie) supported the Court, thereby earning seats in the nominated first Parliament of Great Britain. Some confusion over the constitution of this Parliament existed in Brechin, where burgh records suggest that the council went so far as to nominate a representative to the non-existent district commission, and that Scott was their favoured candidate. In 1708, when commissioners were appointed in earnest, Scott stood but Maitland declined. The latter (a younger son of the 2nd Viscount Arbuthnott, who had changed his name upon marriage) offered to use his influence at Inverbervie in favour of David Erskine, whose candidacy was being pressed by Mar and Grange. In the event, Erskine opted for an alternative contest, believing that his influence as sheriff depute of Forfarshire would be of more account in Perth Burghs. He was deterred, moreover, by reports of Scott’s successful canvassing at Montrose, Brechin and Arbroath. Erskine’s short-lived campaign was in fact little more than an attempt by Mar and Grange to re-direct support that had been formerly pledged to William Livingston, an Aberdeen merchant now based in London. The consecutive retreats of Livingston and Erskine, however, threatened to leave Aberdeen without a candidate of its own. John Gordon, provost of Aberdeen, was therefore brought forward. No details of voting are known, but it may safely be assumed that Arbroath defected from Scott, joining with Aberdeen and Inverbervie in favour of Gordon, whose return was noted as having been by ‘majority’.3

Aberdeen council supplied Gordon with a set of instructions, urging him inter alia to obtain a division of the court of session into ‘three districts or more . . . and to get one of the said districts to sit at Aberdeen’; to seek trading privileges and financial assistance for the port of Aberdeen, together with a more direct relationship with the Admiralty thereby to avert maladministration by third parties; and to lobby for redress on non-payment of drawbacks on cured fish guaranteed under the Union. No headway was made on any of these, by and large unrealistic, aspirations, except in the case of the drawbacks, an issue that was resolved after widespread pressure and for which Gordon deserved no particular credit. Although he was formally thanked, in conjunction with the Aberdeenshire Member, Sir Alexander Cumming, for his efforts on behalf of the town in pursuit of a disputed gift of bastardy of James Douglas, dissatisfaction with his performance probably played some part in his being dropped in 1710. At first his designated replacement was Cumming, a man of more experience and better political contacts. When Cumming had reassured himself of re-election for the county, however, the council plumped for Livingston. At Montrose, Scott faced an abortive challenge from another London-based merchant, Thomas Coutts. As provost, Scott managed to secure the council’s commission and was thus not only possessed of a vote, but would also act as praeses of the election. All three candidates could be described as Tories: Livingston and Scott were labelled as ‘good Churchmen’ by an English Tory newspaper, while Coutts belonged to a family with a loyalist reputation. It seems, however, that Scott had secured the support of some Presbyterian interests, not in Montrose, which was in essence his personal fief, but in Brechin, which had fallen under the control of a faction headed by the Presbyterian John Doig, and in Inverbervie. There the bailie of Montrose, Alexander Arbuthnot, held the provostship in 1710. Assisted by four of the 13 councillors, allegedly bought over, and by the local Presbyterian minister, also an Arbuthnot, ‘who in promoting this pious work had used his best endeavours’, he effected a political coup that summer, remodelling the council and magistracy in his own, and in Scott’s, interest. This municipal election was the pivot on which the parliamentary election turned. With Livingston sure of the votes of Aberdeen and Arbroath, and Scott favoured by Montrose and Brechin, the commissioner from Inverbervie held the deciding vote. Alexander Arbuthnot had the official nomination, but the majority party in the preceding council disputed the legality of his proceedings and had made their own elections. Their commissioner, William Shepheard, also presented himself at Montrose. As president of the commission Scott then took it upon himself to judge between the respective credentials of the two delegates and admitted his crony Arbuthnot, thereby ensuring his own return. Denial of his right to do so was the nub of Livingston’s subsequent petition (‘the praeses of the meeting in case of equality having only a casting vote, but not a power to judge the right of electors’), with a secondary objection against the methods employed by Arbuthnot to gain control of Inverbervie council. The case was ordered to be heard at the bar of the House, Sir James Dunbar reporting to Lord Grange that

the counsel for the petitioner after a short account of the matter called a witness to give account . . . to which the opposite counsel objected they could not be admitted to prove that by witnesses since all that was there acted is contained in the minutes . . . to which it was said that the complaint was against the clerk of the meeting . . . to this the sitting Member said that if the clerk of the meeting refused to do his duty, they were at freedom to call another notar[y] and take instruments against him . . . Upon this the counsel withdrew and . . . it was agreed that the proceedings was not probable [sic] by witnesses.

Dunbar noted that ‘this seemed very strange to many of the English who admit witnesses in every circumstance of their elections’. Surprise was accentuated by the circumstance that examination of witnesses was also refused for other aspects of the case:

The petitioner’s counsel produced an instrument taken against the procedure of the electors for not admitting one Mr Shipherd’s commission from Bervy [sic] and produced the commission from Bervy also. Both being read, at first [Scott of] Logie denied there was any such commission produced at the meeting, but seeing the generality inclined to sustain the instrument as probation, and hearing the clerk declare it was produced at the meeting, he passed from that but said that the commission was not good in so far as the electors of the commission were not qualified in the terms of law; and for proving the qualifications necessary, he produced the act of parliament ordaining the allegiance and assurance to be sworn and subscribed . . . The petitioner’s counsel offered to call witnesses to prove that the electors of the commissioner were qualified in the terms of the act of parliament. This was objected against because the act ordains the oaths to be subscribed and recorded and there being qualified can be no otherways proven than by production of that record or an attested double thereof . . . After some reasoning pro and con, the matter was adjourned.

The division on the adjournment was carried by the narrowest of margins (47 votes to 46), and the identity of the tellers casts no light on party-political affiliations, nor is it clear in whose favour an adjournment was believed to operate. The hearing resumed with Scott continuing his attack upon the technical disqualification of Shepheard. This strategy misfired, according to Mungo Graham*, because of the incompetence of Scott’s counsel, who

mistook their business, for they had no more to say but that the magistracy who elected that commissioner who voted for Livingston had not taken the oaths before they proceeded to election, but instead of this they said that they had not taken the oaths after they were elected into the magistracy. The law requires both indeed, but it did appear by the town books (tho’ these were in very bad order) that there had been something like their swearing at the election of the magistracy, but at the election of the commissioner they had certainly forgot to swear. Besides this blunder in Logie’s counsel they made a still greater one, viz. they gave in all their objections together. The counsel on the other side made their reply to all, upon which, being withdrawn, the whole merits of the election came to be in question. The natural consequence of this is, that in the debate in the House one speaks to one point, and another to a second, and so the speeches just turn to cross purposes, which is the fairest opportunity can be wished for by such as want but a pretence to favour their friend. Mr Livingston, being a wine merchant, had some such friends, and accordingly carried it.

Livingston had other friends, too, who were rather more important; namely the English Tory interest as a whole. Recollections of Scott’s past compromises with the Court, and insinuations about his Presbyterian supporters, seem to have had some effect. Scott registered twice as many votes among Scottish Members as did his opponent but still lost the vital division by 65 votes to 26. An alternative hypothesis was reported by Dunbar, who thought that ‘most of our countrymen were for declaring Mr Livingston not duly elected, that so it might be a void election’. The seating of Livingston convinced some ‘that matters were packed up betwixt the competitors . . . many observed that Logie was not so active in his affair as he might, and those he spoke to thought he did it with a great deal of indifferency’.4

Aberdeen and Arbroath, having voted for Livingston, were punished for their wayward votes with tax rises in the ensuing convention of royal burghs, allegedly as a result of Court influence. There was more to this affair, however, than electoral politics. Aberdeen was a prosperous burgh that, according to the spokesmen for the highest-taxed burgh, Edinburgh, was failing to carry its fair share of the fiscal burden. Aberdeen’s situation was similar in this respect to that of Glasgow, whose Member, Thomas Smith II, played a prominent role in seeking legislative redress (see GLASGOW BURGHS). Aberdeen requested the same level of activity from Livingston, but most of the work fell to Cumming. Livingston is not known to have busied himself in this matter, a circumstance which perhaps contributed to his failure to secure re-election.5

Like Gordon before him, Livingston forfeited the confidence of his own burgh in the course of one Parliament. His wilful abstention from the division on the malt tax in 1713, and subsequent endorsement of the French commercial treaty, destroyed his credibility as a representative of Scottish interests. In any case, the political balance in Aberdeen itself may have shifted slightly. The provost now was John Allardice, who in 1709 had on behalf of the council entertained the visiting English Nonconformist Edmund Calamy. Indeed, the burgh had sent in two loyal addresses in 1712 to thank the Queen for communicating the peace terms: one from ‘the principal burgesses and others, free inhabitants’, which included thanks for the passage of the Scottish Toleration Act, and the other, from ‘the magistrates and council’, much more moderate in its gratitude, omitting all reference to the Toleration Act and emphasizing the Queen’s care for the maintenance of the Hanoverian succession. Clearly the burgh was divided politically, with the council either Whiggishly inclined or at least less violently Tory than the popular interest, which was often flagrantly Jacobite. Interestingly, the magistrates were to participate in the proclamation of King George I in 1714 and to send in a loyal address, while street mobs in the city cheered for the Pretender. Of the other burghs, Arbroath’s high-flying address of 1712 on the peace and the toleration shows that Toryism remained dominant there. Similar addresses were forthcoming from Montrose and Inverbervie, the latter including an ambiguous statement about the succession which many interpreted as Jacobite. Moreover, celebrations of Restoration day in 1713 at Montrose were accompanied by Jacobite demonstrations, with the encouragement of the local episcopalian minister and the apparent endorsement of the magistracy. Such developments pointed towards a Tory majority in the next commission. In fact, the Member returned was John Middleton II, a dependant of Argyll and in party-political terms a Whig. Middleton had canvassed the seat as early as April 1713, that is prior to Argyll’s breach with the ministry. Nevertheless, Lord Ilay subsequently claimed the election as a victory for the Campbells and for Scottish Whiggery in general. Circumstances were not in fact so straightforward. For one thing, Middleton’s family background partially offset his Whiggish associations, his father being the principal of King’s College in Aberdeen. ‘It’s true Middleton is no Scots Whig’ reported a correspondent of the Presbyterian divine, Robert Wodrow, ‘but he is an Argathelian, which some think is the same thing in a Member of Parliament, for its commonly said all their religion is interest.’ He was opposed by Captain James Erskine†, the elder brother of the David Erskine (now Lord Dun SCJ) who had contemplated the seat in 1708. Lords Dun, Southesk, Northesk and Panmure travelled to Brechin, the presiding burgh, with ‘a full chalder of chamberlains to fright to the poor towns into that election the lords pleased’. Notwithstanding that ‘a great many people . . . depend upon my Lord Dun as a dog on a kitchen, and stick to him as they do to bowl of punch’, the election had gone for Middleton. Brechin’s commissioner, Provost Doig (no longer an ally of Scott, who had temporarily alienated Presbyterians by baiting his local congregation over the Toleration Act) threw his vote, and his influence, behind Middleton. Earlier reports that Aberdeen, Inverbervie, and Arbroath were ‘in concert together’ and intended to determine future elections through an unofficial rotation of the right to nominate proved unfounded. Nor did such an arrangement resurface in 1715, when Erskine was returned by the votes of Montrose, Arbroath and Brechin, only to be unseated on a petition from Middleton that was supported on party grounds in a Whig-dominated House.6

Author: D. W. Hayton


  • 1. SRO, Mar and Kellie mss GD124/15/841, James Gordon to Mar, 4 May 1708; Scot. Urban Hist. ed. Gordon and Dicks, 92; Defoe, Tour ed. Cole, 652-5; A. J. Warden, Angus, ii. 269-70; Misc. (Scot. Burgh Recs. Soc.), 86-89, 99-102; Calamy, Life, ii. 196; D. Fraser, Montrose Before 1700, 151; G. Hay, Hist. Arbroath (1899), 170, 172-3; NLS, Sutherland mss Dep. 313/532, Arbuthnott to Sutherland, 18 June 1716.
  • 2. Clarke thesis, 59, 70-71, 277-81, 357; Misc. (Scot. Burgh Recs. Soc.), 194-5, 208-9, 236; Fraser, 122-4, 151; Warden, 269-70; D.D. Black, Hist. Brechin, 93, 103-4, 115-18, 127, 130, 340-1; Hay, 165, 177, 181, 260; Add. 61629, ff. 142, 145; 61632, ff. 77-78; HMC Portland, x. 232, 250-1, 393-4, 398; D. Fraser, The Smugglers, 89.
  • 3. Hist. Scot. Parl. 14-15, 365, 468, 501, 615; P. W. J. Riley, Union, 329-34; Hay, 176; Black, 121, 123-4; Mar and Kellie mss GD124/15/841, James Gordon to Mar, 4 May 1708; 862, David Erskine to same, [May 1708]; SRO, Seafield mss GD248/593/7/10, sederunt, 26 May 1708; Aberdeen City Archives, Aberdeen burgh recs. 1/1/58, pp. 103-4, council reg. 26 May 1708; Edinburgh Courant, 28-31 May 1708; C219/106.
  • 4. Aberdeen burgh recs. 8/1/8, ff. 124-6, 145, draft instructions to Gordon [1708], council to same et al., 27 Feb. 1710; Extracts Aberdeen Council Reg. (Burgh Recs. Soc.), 1643-1747, pp. 335-7; Recs. Old Aberdeen (New Spalding Club), i. 177; Post Boy, 4-7 Nov. 1710; Cal. Treas. Bks. xxiii. 439; xxiv. 242, 250, 293, 497, 505; Cal. Treas. Pprs. 1708-14, p. 136; C. Rogers, Genealogical Mems. Fams. of Colt and Coutts, 15-17; J.G. Low, Notes on Coutts Fam. 9-15; Fraser, Montrose, 151-2, 173; Fraser, The Smugglers, 79, 88-89; D. Fraser, East Coast Oil Town, 110; HMC Portland, x. 159; The Case of William Livingston [1710]; Mar and Kellie mss GD124/15/1020/1, 10-11, Dunbar to Grange, 5 Dec. 1710, 1, 8 Feb. 1711, SRO, Montrose mss GD220/5/808/16, Graham to Montrose, 8 Feb. 1711.
  • 5. Case of the Royal Burghs [1712]; Extracts Glasgow Recs. 461, 466; T. Pagan, Convention of R. Burghs, 64-65.
  • 6. W. Kennedy, Annals of Aberdeen, ii. 233; Riley, Union, 329; Calamy, 203; Aberdeen burgh recs. 1/1/58, p. 276, council reg. 6 Aug. 1712; London Gazette, 27-30 Sept., 30 Sept.-4 Oct. 1712; Post Boy, 13-16 Sept. 1712; HMC Mar and Kellie, i. 508; P. Rae, Hist. Late Rebellion (1718), 103; W. Watt, Aberdeen and Banff, 282; Wodrow, Analecta ii. 276; SP55/1, pp. 67, 75; Boyer, Pol. State, iv. 333-5; Black, 125, 340-1; NLS, Advocates’ mss, Wodrow pprs. letters Quarto 7, ff. 166-7; Advocates’ mss, Murray pprs. 3, f. 88; Seafield mss GD248/561/49/4, James Allardice to [-], 10 Apr. 1713; Herts. RO, Panshanger mss D/EP F54, ff. 8-9; SRO, Montrose mss GD220/6/1752/19, ‘The Case of James Erskine’ [1715].