Ayr 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

Ayr (1708), Irvine (1710), Ayrshire; Rothesay (1713), Buteshire; Inveraray, Campbeltown, Argyllshire



Main Article

The Duke of Argyll’s influence over the two Highland burghs of Inveraray and Campbeltown, together with the electoral passivity of magnate interests in the remaining burghs, placed this district effectively under the Duke’s control. Although no contests are known in this period, each of the returns was noted as ‘by plurality’ (rather than as ‘unanimous’), which may indicate token resistance to Argathelian dominance. No serious challenges, however, were mounted against Argyll’s nominees: neither by the Earl of Eglintoun, who possessed a strong interest at Irvine, nor by the Earl of Loudoun, whose opinions carried some weight in Ayr. As for Rothesay, which was controlled by the earls of Bute, this burgh fell into line with Argyll’s wishes.1

Of the former commissioners to the Scottish parliament, there were three potential candidates in 1708, two of whom had sat for Scotland in the first Parliament of Great Britain. But Dougal Stewart* (Rothesay) set his sights on the counties of Buteshire and Perthshire; and Daniel Campbell* (Inveraray) looked to his local interest with Glasgow Burghs. It is conceivable that, with stronger backing, John Muir (Ayr) might have stood. He was a Court supporter, who had earned a secret service payment of £100 for his role in the passage of the Union. Yet no challenge by him is known. The commissioners to the last Scottish parliament for Campbeltown and Irvine were completely out of the running: the former, Hon. Charles Campbell, was an uncle of Argyll, whereas the latter, George Munro, was a local merchant whose lacklustre support for the Union had faded into absenteeism. The preparations for the 1708 election were therefore relatively straightforward. The Duke of Argyll, having decided to nominate another of his uncles, Hon. James Campbell, obtained the support of the 1st Earl of Bute (d.1710). Campbell was made a burgess of Rothesay to capacitate him for election as commissioner for the burgh; he thereafter voted in his own favour at the district election, where he was assured of the votes of Campbeltown and Inveraray. In a five-burgh district, this united front by three burghs made the election a foregone conclusion, rendering Ayr’s role as presiding burgh of no account.2

The pattern was virtually repeated at the 1710 election, and no noticeable influence was exerted by Irvine as presiding burgh. Charles Oliphant succeeded Campbell as Argyll’s nominee, and was returned without a contest. He possessed no natural interest, but was made a burgess of Inveraray prior to the election, and as an eminent Scottish physician, already resident in London, was an entirely respectable and practical choice. The subsequent penalization of Irvine in the apportionment of land tax (or cess) in the convention of royal burghs in 1711 does not obviously accord with allegations of political retribution that are valid in other instances (see GLASGOW BURGHS). It may possibly be the case that adverse notice was being taken of the election of a London-based representative rather than a local merchant, since the election of another non-resident by Dumfries Burghs was similarly punished. As a deterrent, if it was indeed intended as such, the punishment proved utterly ineffective. Oliphant was re-elected without a contest in 1713, Argyll’s control of the district having become even stronger as a result of the marriage of his sister to the 2nd Earl of Bute two years previously. The relationship between the constituency and its parliamentary representative does not appear to have been particularly close. Occasional requests for assistance were made to Oliphant, as in 1714, when the provosts of Ayr and Irvine asked him to lobby for improvements in the postal service. The impression is one of acquiescence in, rather than enthusiasm for, his tenure of the seat. In September 1714, Ayr chose to send its loyal address on the succession to the Earl of Loudoun for presentation, rather than to Oliphant. Only a covering letter was sent to the Member, explaining that the decision was motivated by the constant proofs of the Earl’s ‘respect and kindness’ towards the burgh. Oliphant was accorded a supporting role: his ‘presence at presenting’ was requested, and it was added, by way of compliment, that his ‘countenance’ would ‘much oblige’. Although the address was not inserted in the London Gazette, one Scottish newspaper recorded that Oliphant had in fact presented it. Having followed Argyll’s line over the succession in the 1714 session, Oliphant was secure from any backlash against him as a former supporter of the Oxford ministry. Moreover, the Duke’s continuing support guaranteed that Oliphant would retain the seat until his death in 1719.3

Author: David Wilkinson


  • 1. C219/106, 110, 114.
  • 2. Hist. Scot. Parl. 100-2, 163-4, 514, 518, 662; P. W. J. Riley, Union, 331; Lockhart Mems. ed. Szechi, 148-50, 257; Carnegie Lib. Ayr, Ayr burgh recs. B6/39/29, commn. for Rothesay to John Campbell, 17 May 1708.
  • 3. Case of the Royal Burghs [1712]; Extracts Glasgow Recs. 461, 466; T. Pagan, Convention of R. Burghs, 64-65; Ayr burgh recs. B6/36/2, council and police pprs. 1714, provosts of Ayr and Irvine to [Oliphant], n.d., provost of Ayr to same, 25 Sept. 1714; Scots Courant, 29 Oct.-1 Nov. 1714.