OLIPHANT, Charles (1666-1719), of Edinburgh and London

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



1710 - 9 Dec. 1719

Family and Education

b. 1666, 2nd s. of Charles Oliphant of Langton and Fairnielaw, Edinburgh, a principal clerk of the ct. of session, by Barbara. da. of Patrick Kinloch of Alderston, Haddington.  educ. Edinburgh Univ., MA 1684, Leyden 1687, MD Rheims 1691.  m. bef. 1698, a da. (d. 1754) of Sir John Young of Leny, Edinburgh, 2da. 1 other ch. d.v.p.1

Offices Held

Fellow royal college of physicians, Edinburgh 1693; FRS, 1713.2

Burgess, Inveraray 1710.3

First physician to Prince of Wales, 1714–?d.4


An ‘eminent Scots physician’, Oliphant was the younger son of a legal official in Edinburgh. Distantly related to Lord Oliphant of Gask in Aberdeenshire, the family owned property in the barony of Calder-Clere in western Edinburghshire. Oliphant should not be confused with his namesake, Dr Francis Oliphant, a Scottish military physician on active service during this period. After receiving his doctorate at Rheims in 1691, Oliphant returned to Edinburgh where he established a medical practice, purchasing well-appointed accommodation in the newly built Writers’ Court on the north side of the High Street. He subscribed £200 to the Darien Company in February 1696.5

Following rumours of the death of a patient from an inappropriate prescription of emetics during a fever, Oliphant wrote A Short Discourse on Vomiting in 1699. This publication gave rise to a bitter pamphlet war. He was accused of using ‘scurrilous and abusive’ language that demonstrated ‘how little he is able to manage a debate without weapons from Billingsgate’. On Oliphant’s behalf a process of scandal was raised against his original detractor, Dr Archibald Pitcairne. The controversy, according to a peripheral commentator, was

handled with a little more heat and humour, than is consistent either with the import of the matter, or dignity of the members of so judicious a society [the college of physicians], who would be expected to treat all their matters . . . in candour, amity and peace.

Oliphant continued to reside in Edinburgh until after the Union, moving permanently to London in 1708. The Union was the direct cause of this decision, for he had realized at the time of the previous abortive negotiations in 1702 that the English would not grant ‘communication of trade’ without ‘union of laws, courts of judicature, etc., which by our remoteness from the centre of the government must certainly drain us, and carry all those that have ambulatory employments, or live by their industry, to live in England’. On 11 Dec. 1708 he informed his ‘dearest friend’ William Bennet*, that ‘the die is now thrown’: Oliphant had not only taken a London house, but also uprooted his family from Scotland.6

Before the 1710 election, Oliphant established himself as a client of the Duke of Argyll, being returned without a contest on his interest for Ayr Burghs. He was listed as a Court Tory by Richard Dongworth, chaplain to the Duchess of Buccleuch. He supported the ministry of Robert Harley*, being listed as a ‘worthy patriot’, who exposed the mismanagements of the previous administration, and as a ‘Tory patriot’, who opposed the continuance of the war. He was an occasional attender at Lord Ossulston’s Anglo-Scottish dining club, an informal group that included a number of Scottish Tories, but also several English Whigs.7

Oliphant was not particularly active in committee-work, but on several occasions took a leading role on Scottish affairs. On 31 Jan. 1711 the House voted a reduced duty on coal exported from England and Wales to Ireland or the Isle of Man. Oliphant successfully moved that the exception might be extended to the west of Scotland by changing the words ‘west of England’ into ‘west of Great Britain’. This amendment was reported from the committee of the whole the following day, but was mistakenly omitted at the engrossment (which, as George Lockhart* conceded, was a time ‘during which there’s usually so much noise and confusion no body can scarce hear a word’). Oliphant only noticed the error when he later consulted the printed Act. In high dudgeon, he ‘complained thereof to those who had the inspection and care of the money bills (from whom he got cold shuffling answers) and afterwards to the House’. Appointed in first place to the committee of inquiry into this matter on 13 Apr., he reported to the House on the 30th. Lockhart noted that, since even ‘the smallest variation in the engrossing of bills was of dangerous consequences, the House . . . did afterwards rectify the mistake (if it deserves so easy an appellation)’. Some Scots imputed malicious motives to ministers, who were ‘averse to extend the exception to Scotland’; and it was also believed that if an English Member had suffered the same injustice, the House would have delivered ‘a severe censure at least’ upon the perpetrator.8

Oliphant had also spoken on 21 Feb. 1711, in favour of repealing the Act prohibiting the importation of French wines. Reports of this idiosyncratic speech indicate that Oliphant perhaps took himself rather seriously, but his remarks may equally have been tongue in cheek:

The stress of his argument lay in this, that nothing was to be laid in the balance with health, which was like to be much impaired by the drinking of bad and compounded wine, so pernicious to the body that, seeing the luxury of the world was not likely to be cured, the next remedy was to allow people to drink that which would be least noxious, and concluded that, as no peace would be acceptable to everybody, so men were like to agree best when they came to drink together.

No other speeches are known, but Oliphant told, on 9 June, against a Lords’ amendment to a bill regulating Scottish linen manufacture. He contrived to be absent, though known to be in town, for a division on the controversial Scottish toleration bill on 7 Feb., but was a teller, on 13 Mar. against the election of Sir John Anstruther for Anstruther Easter Burghs.9

During the malt tax crisis and the consequent campaign for a motion to dissolve the Union in 1713, Oliphant followed his patron’s line. Argyll’s motives were not entirely pure, for he hoped to create embarrassment for the Scottish Court peers. Although Oliphant joined in the early enthusiasm, he was lukewarm about the ultimate objective. He perhaps foresaw adverse professional consequences from a dissolution of the Union: his medical practice would certainly suffer, perhaps even to the extent of forcing a return to Scotland. On the French commerce bill, Oliphant carried his hostility to the ministry only so far as to abstain on the second-reading division on 4 June, but voted in favour in the engrossment on the 18th. One modern historian has connected this pattern of behaviour (for Jacobites) with the presumed receipt in the interim of a letter from the Pretender urging support for administration. In the case of Oliphant, a straightforward explanation in terms of self-interest is more plausible. Certainly, Lord Polwarth’s classification of Oliphant as a Jacobite in his analysis of Scottish returns in 1713 should not be taken literally. Shortly after Oliphant’s uncontested re-election for Ayr Burghs, it was reported by an anonymous but confidential agent of Lord Oxford (formerly Harley) that

Dr Oliphant has been very ill these several months . . . and though he is chosen by the Duke of Argyll’s interest you may assure yourself that he shall always vote with the Church party, of which he hath given me leave to give you assurance . . . He should have some douceur, he is a man that can speak and will speak, who is established in England and should not be reckoned upon the Scots repartition.

The informant also pointed out that ‘there hath been several attempts by the Whigs to bring him over’, both of carrot and stick, the latter comprising a virtual boycott of his medical practice because of his political conduct. Oliphant himself received no direct assistance from ministers, but his elder brother (following pressure from Lockhart) did obtain a minor Household place. This office, however, was granted for the purpose of bolstering Lockhart’s electoral interest in Edinburghshire and does not appear to have influenced Oliphant’s loyalties, which remained focused upon Argyll. As the Duke’s pro-Hanoverian activities gathered pace in the final years of Anne’s reign, Oliphant, far from voting Tory as had been predicted, voted squarely with the Whigs. Such was the effect of this conduct that in the Worsley list, Oliphant’s Tory sympathies were relegated to second place, for he was listed as a Whig who had sometimes voted with the Tories. His Tory votes were not only isolated, but virtually obliterated by his having voted against the expulsion of Richard Steele on 18 Mar. 1714, and having spoken against the Court on 15 Apr. over whether the succession was in danger. In return for his service to the Hanoverian cause, and at Argyll’s instigation, Oliphant was appointed first physician to Prince George in October 1714. Oliphant was re-elected without a contest in 1715. One comparative analysis of the two Parliaments simply listed him as a Whig.10

Oliphant supported government until his death on 19 Dec. 1719, whereupon his library of some 1,200 volumes was sold. His widow needed to take this action because she was only entitled to a meagre pension. After living for some years in ‘a garret’, her situation was improved in 1731 by the marriage of one of her daughters to Lord Strathmore. This match was frowned upon by his family, not merely on account of the bride’s poverty, but also because Oliphant had been ‘a man of the worst character that ever was’.11

Ref Volumes: 1690-1715

Author: David Wilkinson


  • 1. Album Studiosorum Academiae Lugduno Batavae, ed. Du Rieu, 692; R. W. Innes-Smith, English-Speaking Students of Medicine at Univ. of Leyden, 173; P. J. and R. V. Wallis, 18th Cent. Medics. 442; Services of Heirs (ser. 1), i. 1710–19, p. 21; Scot. Rec. Soc. xxvii. 525; xxvi. 498; iii. 210; Edinburgh Graduates, 124; Scot. Mag. 1754, p. 596.
  • 2. Innes-Smith, 173.
  • 3. Scot. Rec. Soc. n.s. xiv. 9.
  • 4. Glasgow mss at Kelburn Castle, 3/11/22, William Boyle to Glasgow, 19 Oct. 1714.
  • 5. Boyer, Pol. State, xviii. 583; Scots Peerage ed. Paul, vi. 545; Services of Heirs, 21; Bk. of Old Edinburgh Club, xxix. 127; Darien Pprs. (Bannatyne Club, xc), 373.
  • 6. C. Oliphant, A Defence of Dr Oliphant’s Short Discourse; A. Brown, Epilogue to the Five Papers; H. Chamberlen, Remarks on the Giving Vomits in Fevers; G. Cheyne, Remarks on Two Late Pamphlets; J.J., M.D., A Reply to Dr Oliphant’s Refutation of Short Answer; J.J., M.D., A Short Answer to a Late Pamphlet; A. Pitcairne, A. Pitcarnii Dissertationes Medicae; Scot. Rec. Soc. xxxiv. 8; SRO, Ogilvy of Inverquharity mss GD205/34/4, Oliphant to Bennet, 11 Dec. 1702, 11 Dec. 1708.
  • 7. SHR, lx. 63; lxxi. 125.
  • 8. Lockhart Pprs. i. 337–8.
  • 9. NLS, Advocates’ mss, Wodrow pprs. letters Quarto 5, ff. 138, 141–2.
  • 10. Aberdeen Univ. Lib. Duff House (Montcoffer) mss, 3175/2380, ‘Resolution of the Commons to call a meeting of the Lords, [23] May 1713’; Parlty. Hist. i. 69; D. Szechi, Jacobitism and Tory Pol. 137–8, 202; Add. 70299, [–] to Oxford, 10 Dec. [1713]; Lockhart Letters ed. Szechi, 43, 67, 70, 82, 85–88; Scot. Rec. Soc. lxxvi. 167; Wodrow pprs. letters Quarto 8, f. 65; Glasgow mss, 3/C11/22, Boyle to Glasgow, 19 Oct. 1714; Ayr burgh recs. B6/36/2, council and police pprs. 1714, provost of Ayr to Oliphant, 25 Sept. 1714; Scots Courant, 29 Oct.–1 Nov. 1714.
  • 11. Hist. Reg. Chron. 1719, p. 42; Bibliotheca Oliphanta; Scots Peerage, viii. 308; Roxburghe mss at Floors Castle, bdle. 753, R. Hay to [Countess of Roxburghe], 10 [Mar. 1731].