Scottish County

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

Alternated with Buteshire

Number of voters:

about 141



Main Article

The estates of the earldom of Caithness had passed in 1672 into the hands of the absentee Earl of Breadalbane, but ‘considerable parts’ had subsequently been alienated to the local gentry. The relative prosperity of these lesser barons (in a county where the fertility of the land, the profits from fisheries and the cheapness of provisions enabled many proprietors to save at least part of their rental income), and the corresponding feebleness of the Caithness and Breadalbane interests, effectively emancipated the electorate from any aristocratic direction. With little or no property left to them, the 8th and 9th Earls of Caithness were extinct as a political force, and although they sought to play a part in parliamentary elections both before and after the Union were barely taken notice of. As for Breadalbane, his debts had been such that in 1704 he had been obliged to make over some of his rental income from Caithness lands to the satisfaction of his creditors. He seems then to have delegated responsibility for managing the family’s remaining property there to his second son Lord Glenorchy, but to no avail. Glenorchy’s refusal to settle in Caithness started him off at a disadvantage, given the inaccessibility of the county, and his conduct of affairs was further hampered by the internecine intrigues of his agents and blighted by his own indebtedness, which led him to embrace short-term solutions and neglect sound advice. At one point he was accused of doing nothing more in the county than making ‘an empty show’. As he confessed to his father, ‘the gentlemen’ of Caithness, ‘being men that knows the extent of [the] law and have money’, were a different proposition from ‘the poor men with us at home’, in the highlands of Perthshire.2

Thus in 1708, when ‘the shire of Caithness . . . resolved to apply to the Parliament for redress of the wrong done them in their representation’, by alternating the county with Buteshire, the gentlemen bypassed Breadalbane and applied themselves to the patronage of the Earl of Cromarty; though without effect. Two years later, when an opportunity at last arose for the barons to exercise their franchise, Breadalbane and Glenorchy were similarly ignored, even though Breadalbane was sheriff of the county and able to exert an immediate influence over the return. Only Lord Reay, canvassing hard for the young John Sinclair of Ulbster, applied to Glenorchy. The two main candidates, Sir James Dunbar, 1st Bt., of Hempriggs, and Sir James Sinclair, 3rd Bt., of Dunbeath, former commissioners for Caithness in the Union parliament, relied on their own efforts. Glenorchy complained to his father that

I know none within the shire . . . we can influence to vote as we would have them, all are I believe alike exclined [sic] against us . . . I fear the barons have not that deference to us, that our letters would have any weight with them, nor no fit person there to instruct in managing anything with them, and so but expose our weakness . . . our jurisdiction is laughed at there as it is managed . . .3

The 1710 election carried no obvious party-political connotations (in a county which the Jacobite agent Scot had described in 1706, albeit with his customary optimism, as ‘entirely loyal’). Sinclair of Ulbster was a high-flying episcopalian, Sinclair of Dunbeath an anti-Unionist from a cavalier background, and Dunbar a member of a Jacobite family who was himself currently occupied in making court to Lord Mar. Ulbster did not put his canvass to the test of a poll, and two other rumoured candidacies simply faded away. Sinclair of Dunbeath, who had acted as the county’s agent in its application to Parliament in 1708, was deemed by Glenorchy to have the strongest interest. ‘Dunbeath . . . will get the most votes’, he wrote in August 1710, ‘and, if he wants, his vanity will allow of his being at the expense of making four new barons . . . which he gives out he will do’. No mention, however, was made by Breadalbane’s agent of any new voters waiting to be enrolled when he reported shortly before the Michaelmas head court. He simply stated that ‘all the barons, their votes, are secured one way or other’. Naming 11 voters (including one who ‘does not bother to appear’ and another who had ‘never qualified himself’), he nevertheless admitted that he had been unable to ascertain which candidate had secured a majority. Only one new voter had appeared since the roll of April 1707, but five of the 14 barons then listed were not mentioned in this letter (and may perhaps have sold up or died in the interim). The suspicion that Dunbeath declined to create extra votes by legal contrivance is confirmed by his withdrawal from the election, either before or at the meeting of the electoral court. Dunbar was returned unopposed, according to the manuscript return.4

Author: D. W. Hayton


  • 1. SRO, Wick sheriff ct. recs. SC14/63/5, roll of barons, 15 Apr. 1707.
  • 2. J. Brand, A Brief Description of Orkney, Zetland, Pightland Firth and Caithness (1701), 147-9, 153; SRO, Breadalbane mss GD112/39/266/22, [?M.] Campbell to Breadalbane, 24 Sept. 1702; GD112/39/225/3, [Glenorchy] to [same], 2 Feb. [1709]; GD112/39/244/18, Duncan Toshach to same, 19 Sept. 1710; SRO, Campbell of Barcaldine mss GD170/630/2, 6, John to Alexander Campbell, 29 July 1707, 2 July 1711; GD170/630/4-5, 7-8, 13, Glenorchy to same, 26 June [-], 5 Feb. [-], n.d., ‘Saturday night’, 6 Dec. [-].
  • 3. SRO, Cromartie mss GD305 addit./bdle. 12, Sir James Mackenzie of Royston to Cromarty, 14 June 1708; Breadalbane mss GD112/39/243/36, Glenorchy to Breadalbane, 26 Aug. 1710; GD112/39/244/18, Toshach to same, 19 Sept. 1710; GD112/39/271/37, Sir John Sinclair of Ulbster to [?same], 20 Sept. 1714.
  • 4. Orig. Pprs. ed. Macpherson, ii. 18; J. Henderson, Caithness Fam. Hist. 71-72; J. B. Craven, Hist. of Episcopal Church in Dioc. of Caithness, 188, 210; Hist. Scot. Parl. 643; P. W. J. Riley, Union, 333; HMC Portland, viii. 440; Breadalbane mss GD112/39/244/18, Toshach to Breadalbane, 19 Sept. 1710; GD112/39/262/4/1, same to [same], 7 Jan. 1712; Wick sheriff ct. recs. SC14/63/5, roll of barons, 15 Apr. 1707; C219/110; Scots Courant, 13-15, 15-17 Nov. 1710.