ERSKINE (ARESKINE), Sir John, 3rd Bt. (1672-1739), of Alva, Stirling (now in Clackmannan)
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Family and Education
b. 1672, 2nd s. of Sir Charles Erskine, 1st Bt., MP [S], of Alva by Christian, da. of Sir James Dundas, MP [S], of Arniston, Midlothian, Ld. Arniston SCJ; bro. of Charles Erskine (Areskine)†, Ld. Tinwald SCJ. educ. adv. 1700. m. by 1708, Catherine (d. aft. 1719), da. of Henry St. Clair, 10th Ld. Sinclair [S], and sis. of John Sinclair*, 2s. suc. bro. as 3rd Bt. 23 July 1693.1
Commr. justiciary for Highlands [S] 1693, 1701, 1702, Equivalent [S] 1707–15.
MP [S] Clackmannanshire 1700–2, Burntisland 1702–7.
Curator, Fac. Adv. lib. 1704.2
Dir. Bank of Scotland 1706.3
Burgess, Edinburgh 1725.4
Erskine, whose tortuous political career was to end in Jacobitism, began from unimpeachable Presbyterian stock. Both his grandfathers had been vigorous opponents of Charles I and episcopacy. Sir Charles Erskine served in the army of the Covenant and as one of the commissioners sent to England in 1644, while Sir James Dundas had resigned as a lord of session in 1663 rather than abjure the Solemn League and Covenant. More recently, Erskine’s father (d. 1689) welcomed the Revolution, and his elder brother was killed fighting the French at Landen in 1693. An investor of £300 in the Darien scheme, Erskine was returned to the Scottish parliament at a by-election for Clackmannanshire in 1700. He became a prominent supporter of the Country party, making himself heard in debate and consistently voting against the Court. At the beginning of Queen Anne’s reign he was heavily involved in the agitation over the calling of the old parliament, and he stayed resolutely in opposition until the votes on the Union, so much so that the Jacobite agent, Scot, considered him in 1706 to be ‘honest’ and ‘well affected’. At some point, however, he had been recruited into the connexion of the Squadrone peer the Duke of Montrose, possibly through the intercession of his brother-in-law John Haldane*. With the benefit of a little hindsight, George Lockhart* listed Erskine as a supporter of the ‘New Party’ ministry in 1704. Against this testimony should be set his vote in favour of the Duke of Hamilton’s motion to postpone settling the succession, but Montrose himself and a number of his adherents, including Haldane, had done likewise. By 1706 Erskine was certainly counted as a Squadrone man, one whom the Earl of Rothes could heartily recommend to Lord Treasurer Godolphin (Sidney†) for a vacant judgeship in the court of session. Erskine’s votes on the Union strictly followed the Squadrone pattern, and he was rewarded with a place on the Equivalent commission and a seat in the first Parliament of Great Britain.5
Welcomed into the Commons with nomination on 10 Nov. 1707 to the committee on the Address, Erskine proved as energetic and loquacious a Member at Westminster as he had in Edinburgh. With George Baillie* on 29 Nov. 1707 he opened the Squadrone campaign for the abolition of the Scottish privy council. On 12 Dec. he told against the Court, on a motion to refer to a committee of the whole the bill repealing the Scottish act of security and act anent peace and war. He also signed the letter from the commissioners of the Equivalent in January 1708 to complain at the lack of provision for their salaries and expenses. National interests and political expediency combined on 31 Jan. 1708, when, in a debate on the report from ways and means concerning the £1,200,000 to be advanced to the government by the East India Company, he proved the only opposition speaker able to suggest a specific method by which the loan might be increased, arguing that a further £200,000 could be secured ‘by admitting a subscription of North Britain, for a proportionable share of the trade’. The poor response of the House to this suggestion doubtless prompted him to tell for a motion to adjourn the debate before a decision on the resolution had been reached. A further tellership two days later may also have had political overtones, despite the fact that it concerned a private bill: again, Erskine’s colleague was a Tory while the tellers on the other side of the division were both Whigs. However, on 25 Feb., when he told once again, the context was more obvious. In a division concerning the Equivalent, Erskine favoured an instruction to the committee that was to draft the bill to direct further payment, to include a clause guaranteeing disbursement to all persons on the military list in equal proportion. He was subsequently named on 11 Mar. to the drafting committee on the bill to discharge Highland clansmen of their obligations to disloyal chieftains.6
Despite some preliminary moves towards making an interest in Clackmannanshire prior to the 1708 general election, Erskine did not offer himself as a candidate. Instead he gave his support to Hon. Charles Rosse*, acting as his chief agent at the freeholders’ court and managing his subsequent petition. His own hopes of election were placed in the adjacent county of Stirling, where Montrose had recommended him. Unfortunately, the Duke had been slow in deciding whom to support, which had permitted other candidates to steal a march, and eventually Erskine was instructed to support Henry Cunningham*.7
The succeeding summer witnessed a concerted effort by Erskine to obtain a judicial post, either in the court of session or as lord clerk register. Neither Montrose nor Lord Ross made headway with their recommendations, probably because of the antagonism of Queensberry’s Court party. All that could be obtained was the renewal of his place on the Equivalent commission in June 1709. Impressed by the evident superiority of Mar’s interest over that of Montrose and aware that in the changed political circumstances of 1710 Mar was likely to enjoy even greater influence, Erskine decided to rejoin the family ‘name’ and switch to his kinsman’s patronage. A suitable occasion to set in motion a rapprochement came with the arrest for murder of Lady Erskine’s brother the Master of Sinclair (John Sinclair), after the killing of two of Sinclair’s fellow army officers in Flanders. Anxious to obtain clemency, Erskine approached Mar to beg that the Earl would not withhold his favour from the Master ‘on my account’. Whether Mar’s acquiescence conveyed an obligation sufficient to bind Erskine to him thereafter, as one historian has deduced, is open to question, but it is at any rate clear that in the run-up to the 1710 general election Mar considered himself quite ‘sure’ of Erskine; so much so that he counted on being able to employ his assistance for Sir Hugh Paterson, 2nd Bt., without even a pretence at consultation. For his part, Erskine declared that he would be ‘guided’ by Mar, and in other counties besides Stirlingshire did not refuse requests for his interest for High Tory and quasi-Jacobite candidates. Although he informed Mar’s brother Lord Grange (Hon. James Erskine†) that he wished to remain ‘an honest farmer . . . at home, without meddling in politics’, the reality was quite otherwise. Far from coveting rusticity, at this stage of his life he avoided Scotland altogether, so he told one of his brothers, unless he ‘had occasion for a bill of exchange’. Instead, calculations of personal advantage were the mainspring of his motives. He wrote that he had been deterred from approaching another old friend, Lord Rothes, to put him in for Dysart Burghs, solely on grounds of political propriety:
It’s pretty plain what was my design . . . that . . . I might in the smoothest and handsomest way have got myself shuffled altogether into my Lord Mar’s interest . . . it would be the most agreeable thing that could happen for me to be so, but how to bring that about in such a way as would neither be too remarkable nor seem blameable in me was what I resolved to refer to time to furnish me a full opportunity of doing.
None of this prevented him from putting a final squeeze on Mar as the Earl seemed to be running into difficulties in Stirlingshire. Erskine pressed Mar for office and hinted that in the event of a close contest he might well hold the balance. He was easily mollified by promises, and as praeses of the electoral court duly supported Mar’s candidate at this and the next election.8
In 1713 Erskine resumed his place in the Commons, having been unopposed in Clackmannanshire, where Mar’s interest was added to his own and proved sufficient to ward off the malevolent designs of the Duke of Argyll. Although chosen as Mar’s ‘creature’, Erskine was classed as a ‘Hanoverian’, that is a Whig, in Lord Polwarth’s list of the new Scottish Members, presumably on the basis of his Squadrone past. His two tellerships on election cases saw him acting with the Tories, however, and he spoke on the ministerial side in the ‘succession in danger’ debate of 15 Apr. He presented the Equivalent commissioners’ accounts on 7 May. When a bill was introduced to discharge the commissioners from liability for money expended, a politically diverse group of Scottish Members sought to add a clause imposing interest on the £14,000 appropriated to the woollen industry. Erskine responded with what Lockhart described as an ‘ingenious’ riposte that encouraged a number of Scottish Whigs to desert at the vote. Erskine found himself in opposition to Lockhart over two other issues in this session. Following Mar’s lead, he disapproved of the sweeping nature of Lockhart’s draft bill to resume bishops’ rents in Scotland for the relief of the episcopalian clergy. Private interest also affected Erskine’s judgment, since his brother Charles and his friend Patrick Haldane† (John’s brother) were both paid their salaries as university professors from this fund. Erskine therefore supported the ministerial compromise of a bill merely appointing commissioners of inquiry, telling in its favour on 3 July. This dispute should be understood in connexion with another over the Scottish militia bill during June, Erskine as a courtier taking the opposite side to Lockhart over the abolition of the Duke of Argyll’s hereditary rights.9
In the crisis following the Hanoverian succession Erskine’s fate remained fastened closely to Mar’s. Though he does not appear to have considered standing in 1715, he assisted in the campaign to obtain Paterson’s re-election for Stirlingshire, in the teeth of vigorous opposition from Montrose and the Haldanes. Then, as Mar turned towards armed rebellion, Erskine joined him, a decision which the Master of Sinclair, a Jacobite of much longer standing, ridiculed in his Memoirs with hearty contempt. No one, Sinclair recalled, had been
of a more opposite principle to us all his life . . . and tho’ it were hard to blame him for having a great hand in the Union, because his capacity nor influence was not great, yet he gave his vote to each article of it; for it’s not his way to hesitate on those occasions, nor dare the boldest of those who promoted it say he bellowed so loud in that cause as Sir John Erskine . . . or maintained so long that the Union was a good thing . . . and to my certain knowledge was of that opinion not one year before, and for what I know . . . continued so till the very day of joining his friend Mar; for by that time he had lost all expectation of doing his work with the Whigs, both parties of that set being offended at him for his too great levity, and his endeavouring to make up his want of sufficiency by going betwixt them; nor had he ever been constant in anything but being our and his country’s enemy. So it may be said that his chief was turned out by the Whigs for being so intolerable a knave, and he thrown out of expectation for being so intolerable a fool.
Erskine’s participation in the Fifteen was in an auxiliary rather than a military role. One of his cant names in Jacobite correspondence, ‘the Pope’, though it was a nickname of long standing, may suggest that his new confederates did not see him as a man of action. In January 1715 he lost a valuable cargo of gold and arms when the ship in which he had sailed from the Continent was stranded on a sandbank near Dundee, and the following month he was sent back again to France by the Pretender. Subsequent diplomatic ventures proved equally unsuccessful, including a mission to Sweden to negotiate a treaty between the Jacobites and King Charles XII; money was short, and when, in the summer of 1716, Erskine was given an inkling that he might be able to make his peace with the Hanoverian regime and return to Scotland, he responded with cautious interest. The key to his rehabilitation was the large deposit of silver ore he had found on his estate some four years earlier, and which he had until 1715 mined in secret, with the help of a servant, and one or two of his ‘poorer tenants’. The servant, the only member of the workforce who had understood what it was that they were digging, informed the government of the existence of the mine. Immediately various friends and relations, most notably John Haldane, began to try and exploit the situation to wheedle a pardon for Erskine, provided that he made a full discovery of the whereabouts and extent of the mine, the incentive for the King being the share in the profits which according to Scottish law would fall to the crown. Erskine’s own sensitivities in the matter were acute: he mistrusted the Hanoverians, was anxious not to alienate his Jacobite friends, and ultimately feared the loss of his mine. His intense secretiveness on the subject had communicated itself to his wife, with whom he had left orders on his original departure for France to bury the ore he had already extracted, and who now, to Haldane’s frustration, disclaimed all knowledge of the existence of the mine. Eventually a kinsman, Sir Harry Stirling, was dispatched to the Continent with a firm offer of a pardon, which Erskine accepted because of lack of funds and the demands of creditors. Mar, in reassuring the Pretender of Erskine’s ‘honesty’, explained the pardon with the gloss that Erskine ‘made conditions with them that there should be no oaths nor questions put to him, which they have kept’; and although the Earl’s enemies made what play they could of Erskine’s defection others continued to regard him as true. Erskine himself kept in touch with the Pretender, occasionally exchanging jocose letters, and, while largely inactive (promising nothing more than help with organizing the collection of money) remained in contact with Jacobite circles, even after Mar’s fall from grace. As late as the mid-1720s Lockhart regarded him as ‘very honest’, though still ‘too much attached to the Earl of Mar’.10
Granted a licence to work his mine, Erskine failed to make the fortune he had promised himself, largely through his chronic incapacity to resist any opportunity to speculate. Agricultural improvement, in which he showed a love of ‘the English husbandry’ (though ‘he had little partiality for the personal manners of that people’), canal building and further mining enterprises swallowed the profit from the silver. In his later years, when showing a visitor around his estate, he ‘pointed out a great hole and remarked, “Out of that hole I took £50,000”; then, presently walking on, he came to another excavation, and, continued he, “I put it all into that hole.”’ When reproached for the extravagance of his schemes, he was wont to excuse himself by recalling the intoxicating effect of the great wealth the mines had first brought him, with which ‘I could not help looking upon the Elector of Hanover as a small man’. At the end, however, he was obliged to sell the entire property to his brother Charles.11
Contemporaries recognized in the history of Erskine’s life a minor tragedy of overreaching ambition. Ramsay of Ochtertyre considered him to be potentially the ablest of his remarkable family, outshining not only Charles, the lord justice clerk, but also a younger brother Robert, who became court physician to Peter the Great. Unhappily, however, Erskine proved to be ‘a man of more genius than conduct, of more wit than wisdom’. The verdict of the Master of Sinclair was essentially the same, though more bitterly expressed:
I must say that his darling passion, of being fond of desperate projects, was . . . none of his least motives; the force of his imagination hinders the stretching the views of his spirit to make a just judgment of anything . . . He imagines he can put a thing in execution sooner than one who has thrice his sense to conceive it; nor has all the different experiments failing, that he ever tried in his life, convinced him one bit of his own insufficiency. He still has the misfortune to imagine he’s born to be a great man, and when all fails, nothing but want of wings can hinder him from undertaking the voyage of the moon.
Erskine died, in his 67th year, after a fall from his horse in the Isle of Man on 12 Mar. 1739. Both sons took army commissions: the eldest, Charles, was killed at the battle of Lauffeld in 1747; the second, Henry, sat for Ayr and Anstruther Easter Burghs, 1749–65.12
Ref Volumes: 1690-1715
Author: D. W. Hayton
- 1. Hist. Scot. Parl. 228–9; Scots Peerage ed. Paul, vii. 587–8; Scot. Hist. Soc. Misc. ii. 400, 427–8.
- 2. Stair Soc. xxix. 248.
- 3. C. A. Malcolm, Bank of Scotland, 296.
- 4. Scot. Rec. Soc. lxii. 66.
- 5. APS, vi(1), 51, 159; (2), 9, 186; ix. 9, 20; x. 207, 246, 251, 269, 294; xi. 73, 102, 237; HMC 4th Rep. 521–3; Scot. Hist. Soc. (ser. 4), xviii. 60, 65; Brunton and Haig, Senators Coll. Justice, 380–2; info. from Dr P. W. J. Riley on members of Scot. parl.; P. W. J. Riley, King Wm. and Scot. Politicians, 171; Atholl mss at Blair Atholl, box 45, bdle. 1, no. 122, John Flemyng to Atholl, 3 June 1700; box 45, bdle. 2, no. 246, Erskine to [Tullibardine], 8 Dec. 1702; Darien Pprs. (Bannatyne Club, xc), 375; Crossrigg Diary, 19–20, 53, 62, 97–98, 128; Carstares, State Pprs. 691; Orig. Pprs. ed. Macpherson, ii. 14; Lockhart Mems. ed. Szechi, 67; Boyer, Anne Annals, iii. app. 42; v. 375; R. Walcott, Pol. Early 18th Cent. 235; HMC Laing, ii. 135; P. W. J. Riley, Union, 334; P. W. J. Riley, Eng. Ministers and Scotland, 209.
- 6. Atholl mss, box 45, bdle. 7, no.190, James Murray to Atholl, 5 Dec. 1707; Vernon–Shrewsbury Letters, iii. 331; Cal. Treas. Bks. xxii. 79.
- 7. SRO, Mar and Kellie mss GD124/15/762/9, George Erskine to Grange, 25 Mar. ; GD124/15/831/12 Mar to Ld. Nairne, 8 June 1708; Add. 61631, ff. 61–62, 80; 61628, ff. 148–50; SRO, Montrose mss GD220/5/154/2, Linlithgow to Montrose, 1708; Sunter thesis, 2–7.
- 8. Riley, Eng. Ministers and Scotland, 111; Add. 61628, ff. 148–50; 61631, ff. 71–72, 75, 80; Cal. Treas. Bks. xxiii. 234; Sunter thesis, 12–13, 18–19; Mar and Kellie mss GD124/15/985/2, John Erskine* to Grange, 17 Aug. 1710; 124/15/989/2–4, Erskine to same, , 21 Aug., 12 Sept. 1710; Scot. Hist. Soc. Misc. ii. 400.
- 9. NLS, Advocates’ mss, Wodrow pprs. letters Quarto 8, ff. 95–96, 133–4; Douglas diary (Hist. of Parl. trans.), 15 Apr. 1714; Lockhart Letters ed. Szechi, 107; Lockhart Pprs. i. 447–8.
- 10. Sunter thesis, 30; Master of Sinclair, Mems. Insurrection in Scotland (Abbotsford Club, xxx), 174–5; NLS, ms 5073, ff. 81; 5098, f. 6; 5116, ff. 1–8; HMC Stuart, i. 476, 486–7; ii. 64, 207, 308, 372, 376, 388–9, 396, 413–14, 422–3, 432, 437, 495–503; iii. 76, 90, 109, 169, 518; iv. 16, 31, 442–3; v. 127, 135, 350, 358; vi. 368–71; HMC Portland, vi. 207; Cal. Treas. Pprs. 1714–19, pp. 233, 239; Scot. Hist. Soc. Misc. ii. 383–5, 399, 414–17; HMC 8th Rep. I, 84–86; HMC 4th Rep. 521, 525–6; Lockhart Letters, 216–17, 251, 298.
- 11. Cal. Treas. Bks. xxx. 44, 442, 537–8; xxxii. 12, 114, 194, 541, 546; NLS, ms 5073, ff. 32–33, 220–222; D. Beveridge, Between Ochils and Forth, 258–60; Ramsay of Ochtertyre, Scotland and Scotsmen in 18th Cent. ii. 110–11; Ordnance Gazetteer of Scotland, i. 46.
- 12. Ramsay of Ochtertyre, 110–11; Master of Sinclair, 175–6.