Anstruther Easter 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

Anstruther Easter (1708), Pittenweem (1710), Anstruther Wester (1713), Craill, Kilrenny, all in Fife


 George Hamilton2
 HAMILTON vice Anstruther, on petition, 10 Apr. 1712 
18 Sept. 1713SIR JOHN ANSTRUTHER, Bt.3
 George Hamilton2

Main Article

This district comprised five small coastal towns in Fife, two of which were under the control of a single family. Anstruther Easter and Wester had respectively returned, to the last Scottish parliament, the only son and younger brother of Lord Anstruther of the court of session. Both Sir John and Sir Robert Anstruther, 1st Bt.*, had acted equivocally over the Union, being content, however, to abstain on key divisions. Absenteeism also characterized the conduct of George Moncrieffe, commissioner for Craill (whose death shortly after the division on the first article provides its own explanation) and George Smith, for Pittenweem, who registered a vote against the principle of the treaty, but was a poor attender thereafter. Having failed to support the Union, none of these commissioners merited nomination to the first Parliament of Great Britain. Nor, for that matter, did Kilrenny’s representative, James Bethune of Balfour, a cavalier and future Jacobite rebel, who initially voted against the Union but was persuaded by his father-in-law, George Hamilton, to change his mind, being one of only two burgh members to do so. The reward for this political about-turn was military promotion for Hamilton, whose connexion with Bethune later proved electorally significant.1

The 1708 election was uncontested, Sir John Anstruther gaining the seat without difficulty, though apparently not unanimously, for the return was marked as ‘by plurality’. As a defeated candidate for Fifeshire, it appeared that Anstruther would opt for the county if his petition was successful, but he even decided against contesting a by-election caused by the death of the sitting Member in the interim. In 1710 Anstruther seemed to have the district secure with the certain votes of his family’s burghs, plus a firm promise from Bethune of his interest at Kilrenny. Rivalry for the shire, however, between the Anstruthers and Sir Alexander Areskine, 2nd Bt.*, spilled over into the burgh elections. More than simply a local struggle, this reflected the wider conflict between the Scottish Court interest (which, since the formation of the Oxford ministry, was essentially Tory) and the Whig interest of the Squadrone, represented by Anstruther as a member of the connexion of Lord Rothes. On 17 Sept. Areskine gave the following report to the Earl of Mar of his preliminary moves against his opponents:

I was earnest to know if General Hamilton would be right, my reason was after I had set all the people that I knew had interest with [Bethune of] Balfour on him he came . . . to my house to dine with me . . . I was in hopes he had changed his mind as to the Anstruthers, however, he told me that he had given his promise to them but with an exception if he was not to stand himself or a very near friend. He proposed to me the General. I told him if the General was upon the right side and satisfied my lord Mar, I should be very well content with him, but my difficulty was that I might find it hard to persuade the towns I had interest with to go into him that was a stranger. There were a great many company . . . that day that I could not get spoke to him nor thought of it fully, but since, I have proposed to some of his friends who have interest with him a sort of medium how he may save his words with Sir John: that is that his town may not vote either for himself or the General, and Pittenweem which hath now the casting vote joined with that of Craill make three votes which will clearly defeat the two Anstruthers.

In view of reports that Hamilton was ‘very great with the Duke of Argyll’, Areskine was prepared to believe that he would make an acceptable Tory Member, and with the backing of Mar and his brother Lord Grange SCJ (Hon. James Erskine†) had ‘some hopes to make a man of it’. He urged Mar to use his influence at court to secure a new customs house at Pittenweem, since this would advance the interest of the Earl of Kellie, to the detriment of that of the Anstruthers, and prove that ‘he has friends that are capable to do them some kindness’. Areskine realized that, whoever the Tory candidate might be, Pittenweem was the key to the election, a situation which was equally apparent to the Anstruthers, who were ‘working might and main in this town’. Evidence later presented to the committee of elections revealed that Areskine played a leading role at Pittenweem, managing the election of a delegate on Hamilton’s behalf. In order to do so, Areskine remained a nominal candidate himself, but purely for the purpose of justifying his own right to protest about alleged bribery by the opposition. He also claimed that his status as a ‘trading burgess’ of Pittenweem entitled him to complain about any wrongdoing by the magistrates and council. On 20 Oct. Areskine ‘went into the council chamber before they proceeded to elect their commissioner, and there publicly protested against the votes of seven of the town council, as being influenced either by threats or bribery’. It was alleged, for example, that Lord Anstruther’s influence as a judge had been used to intimidate a particular voter, whose sons had been implicated in the murder of a witch at Pittenweem. One son being already a fugitive from justice, it had been hinted that a favourable vote might procure his safe return, whereas failure to support the Anstruthers’ nominee would result in the hanging of the son who had remained behind. Various other bribes were mentioned, some involving offers of preferential treatment in property disputes concerning Pittenweem inhabitants in Anstruther Easter; another voter was promised that his son would be made master of a ship. Although Areskine’s protest was entered in the minutes of election, this did not preclude the controverted votes being cast. Thus the Anstuthers’ candidate, William Bell, narrowly secured the commission by defeating William Watson (the majority being reported as 9 votes to 7 in the Journals, but as 9 votes to 8 in Hamilton’s printed case). Both men, however, claimed to be the proper delegate, and on 27 Oct. appeared at the district election in Anstruther Easter, where they ‘qualified themselves by taking the oaths, were admitted to vote, and were marked on the poll as voting’. Further protests were now made. Areskine attempted to renew his protest in person, but was ruled incapable of participating, being neither a delegate nor a genuine candidate. His cause was therefore taken up by Bethune, as commissioner for Kilrenny, who attempted to make Areskine’s protest an integral part of his own. He also complained about wholesale bribery at Anstruther Wester where Lord Anstruther had promised to pay ‘a considerable part of their public debts, if they would choose a commissioner as would vote for his son’. Watson also entered a protest, arguing that Bell was not entitled to vote because legally disqualified. This accusation was based on the tenuous premise that, since Bell had been convicted before the court of session in a case of wrongful imprisonment, he was incapable of public trust under the terms of an English Act of 1701 which disqualified office-holders convicted of this crime. Neither protest had any immediate effect, being merely noted in the record. Notwithstanding that the election was technically a tie (with three votes for each side, and the disputed commissionerships of the presiding burgh precluding the operation of a casting vote) Anstruther was declared elected, the town clerk refusing to make out a double return. This decision was confirmed on 31 Oct. by Fifeshire’s hereditary sheriff, Rothes, it being no coincidence that he was also Anstruther’s patron. Party feeling carried over into the convention of royal burghs of 1711, where punitive taxation was allegedly used for the purpose of intimidating the district into future co-operation with the Court (see GLASGOW BURGHS).2

Hamilton petitioned, but no decision was forthcoming in the first session. His petition having been renewed in December 1711, the case was decided without a division at a late sitting of the committee of elections on 22 Feb. 1712. The report presented to the House condemned Areskine’s conduct, declaring that he had ‘no right to vote, protest, or be present at that election’. The evidence of bribery was deemed inconclusive, and the argument respecting Bell’s incapacity rejected as spurious and otherwise invalid. The resolution that Anstruther was duly elected was, nevertheless, rejected by the House. A motion to recommit was carried by 117 votes to 100: the tellers in Hamilton’s favour were both Scottish Tories, Sir Alexander Cumming and Charles Oliphant. Anstruther was supported by one Whig teller, Sir Patrick Johnstone, but the conduct of the second, John Houstoun (who generally voted with the Scottish Tories) remains slightly puzzling. Houstoun was consistent in his attitude, however, telling the same way upon the revised report from the committee of elections, this time in conjunction with another Whig, Sir Robert Pollock. The committee’s former ruling had been reversed because greater weight was given to evidence of bribery. Particular mention was also made of the conduct of the Presbyterian minister at Pittenweem (whom Areskine had privately described as ‘the greatest villain of mankind’). One voter had been threatened with ‘no less than damnation, if he elected any other person’ than the minister ‘was pleased with’. Such conduct confirmed the prejudices of Scottish and English Tories alike, and the House overturned Anstruther’s election and seated Hamilton by 161 votes to 128. During the remainder of this Parliament, Tory sentiment in the constituency was reflected in addresses on the peace from Craill, Kilrenny and Anstruther Wester, which followed the usual pattern of praise for the Queen accompanied by hostile references to the machinations of the Whigs.3

The 1713 election was held at Anstruther Wester, which was incorrect according to a strict interpretation of the Scottish act establishing the order of electoral rotation. Craill, as the 36th burgh on the parliamentary roll, ought to have presided rather than Anstruther Wester in 47th place. The mistake was passed over in silence, however. Sir John Anstruther, having succeeded his father in 1711, was now in charge of the family interest. At the election, the votes split as before, with Pittenweem holding the balance. According to Lockhart, Areskine had obtained a pro-Hamilton delegate at Pittenweem by calling a snap election. Anstruther presumably countered with an alternative candidate elected separately, and then utilized the Anstruther Wester delegate’s role as praeses of the district election to disqualify the rival commission from Pittenweem. As on the previous occasion, Rothes endorsed Anstruther’s return. Tory votes in the House gained Hamilton the apparent advantage of a hearing at the Bar, but this was squandered by Areskine’s mishandling of what Lockhart dismissed as a ‘scrub cause’:

His friends were much out in the debate, for he concealed the weakest parts of it from them, so that they were surprised and knew not what to say. As, for example, he assured us the sheriff’s precept was given to the eldest bailie in Pittenweem at that time in town, and we did not doubt but we might make good his calling the council. But alas it appeared that only the second bailie was out of town and the eldest was actually in town though indisposed.

Despite these problems, Hamilton’s supporters had won the first division by a majority of 12 votes on whether to accept in evidence the unofficial minutes from Pittenweem (‘a writing . . . signed by a notary public in the absence of the town clerk’). As the case continued, however, this support dwindled away. According to a report by L’Hermitage, several Court supporters voted against Hamilton because of the strength of the evidence in favour of Anstruther, whose success was guaranteed by ‘l’absence de plusieurs Membres qui étoient sortis devant que cette affaire fut entierement décidé’. Lockhart put a characteristic gloss on these desertions:

Bad as the cause was we might have carried it, had not the Tories run away to their dinners and the Whigs attended to a man. Now these deserters did not go away because of the badness of the cause, but an English Tory would not over-roast his beef to save the nation from ruin, and so Sir John Anstruther carried it by nine votes. This and the conduct of the ministry is fine encouragement for Scottish Tories.

Although Lockhart inaccurately recalled the size of the majority which was in fact one vote fewer, a comparison between the two divisions broadly confirms his interpretation both with respect to numerical losses and party politics. Hamilton’s vote slipped from 137 in the first division to 101 in the second, as compared with a lesser decline from 125 to 109 for Anstruther. The tellers for Hamilton were all Tories (three Scottish: Sir Alexander Cumming, George Yeaman, Sir James Stewart, 1st Bt.; and one English: Charles Aldworth). Those for Anstruther were all Hanoverian Scots, only one of whom, however, was a thoroughgoing Squadrone Member, John Cockburn. The other Whigs were of various pedigrees: Alexander Abercromby (whose increasing disillusionment with the ministry outweighed his Court connexion through his patron Seafield), Alexander Grant (son-in-law of John Smith I*, and an army officer whose professional career had not prospered under the Tories), and Sir James Stewart (an officer-holder recently removed for political disobedience). The voting pattern on this electoral case therefore reflected the increasing unanimity of formerly disparate Whig interests in the prelude to the Hanoverian succession. Thereafter, Anstruther benefited from the collapse of the Tory interest in Scotland. In 1715, he successfully put up his son for the burghs district and captured the county seat for himself, retaining control of both until 1741.4

Author: David Wilkinson


  • 1. Hist. Scot. Parl. 20-21, 51-52, 503, 647; Sir R. Sibbald, Hist. Sheriffdoms of Fife and Kinross (1710), 130-2; Brunton and Haig, Senators Coll. Justice, 443-5; Add. 61289, ff. 17-24; Marlborough Dispatches ed. Murray, iii. 281-2; Wood, 46-47, 245, 263; P. W. J. Riley, Union, 329, 332-5.
  • 2. SRO, Mar and Kellie mss GD124/15/1011/1, Areskine to Mar, 17 Sept. 1710; State of the Controverted Election for the District of Pittenweem [c.1710]; Election for the District of Pittenweem &c. [c.1710]; Case of the Royal Burghs [1712]; Extracts Glasgow Recs. 461, 466; T. Pagan, Convention of R. Burghs, 64-65.
  • 3. NLS, ms 1392, f. 82, Robert Munro* to John Mackenzie, 23 Feb. 1712; Mar and Kellie mss GD124/15/1011/1, Areskine to Mar, 17 Sept. 1710; Scots Courant, 23-25 July, 30 July-1 Aug., 12-15 Sept. 1712.
  • 4. Lockhart Letters ed. Szechi, 72-73 (misdated); Add. 17677 HHH, ff. 205-6.