DUNDAS, Robert (1713-87), of Arniston, Edinburghshire.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1754-1790, ed. L. Namier, J. Brooke., 1964
Available from Boydell and Brewer



Family and Education

b. 18 July 1713, 1st surv. s. of Robert Dundas, M.P., of Arniston, ld. pres. of the court of session, by his 1st w. Elizabeth, da. of Robert Watson of Muirhouse Edinburghshire; half-bro. of Henry Dundas. educ. Edinburgh Univ.; Utrecht, Frankfurt, Paris 1733-7; adv. 1738. m. (1) 17 Oct. 1741, Henrietta Baillie (d. 13 May 1755), da. and h. of Sir James Carmichael, 4th Bt., of Bonnington, Lanark, 1s. d.v.p. 4da; (2) 7 Sept. 1756, Jean, da. of William Grant, Lord Prestongrange, 4s. 2da. suc. fa. 26 Aug. 1753.

Offices Held

Solicitor-gen. [S] Aug. 1742-Jan. 1746; dean of faculty of advocates 1746-54; ld. adv. Aug. 1754-60; trustee for fisheries and manufactures 1755; ld. pres. of court of session June 1760- d.


Dundas, the fourth of a line of distinguished lawyers, was brought up as an anti-Walpole Whig, sharing his father’s antipathy to Islay as manager for Scotland. A high-spirited, sociable young man, he returned home in November 1737 after four years’ study abroad with little taste for literature or metaphysical subtleties, but a keen determination to gain fame and fortune at the Scottish bar. His marriage to an heiress worth £2,000 p.a. was a turning point in his career. ‘In money it made me independent, set me out in a high sphere of life and laid the foundation of all my future success.’1

On Walpole’s fall he obtained, through his father’s connexion with Tweeddale, the office of solicitor-general under the Wilmington Administration, working in close harmony with his friend Andrew Mitchell. After the outbreak of the ’45 he was obliged to flee from Edinburgh to Berwick; he returned in November 1745 but, bitterly at odds with Lord Justice Clerk Milton and the Argyll party, resigned with Tweeddale in January 1746, much against his father’s wishes.2

He resumed his lucrative bar practice and, disgusted with politics, refused to stand for Edinburghshire at the 1747 election. Connected through his wife with Hyndford and Findlater, hitherto inimical to his father, Dundas did not share his dislike of Newcastle and Pelham, but again in 1750 declined to contest Lanarkshire, though assured by Charles Hope Weir of Pelham’s support.3 After his father’s death, however, Dundas accepted the offer of the sitting Member for Edinburghshire to stand down in his favour at the general election, and having secured the approval of Pelham and Hardwicke, also sought to placate Argyll, who wrote to Pelham, 15 Oct. 1753:4

Mr. Dundas of Arniston and I are in all human appearance on a very good footing; he was so good as to say ... that he would not stand unless I approved of it. He came to see me at Edinburgh and I then returned the compliment by begging him to stand ... We have since corresponded ... [on] the great utility it would be to the Government if we could make peace and prevent quarrels among the Whigs of distinction; he seems to be a sensible pretty kind of man; but some of his own friends say he is as hot as his father, though I think that cannot be true to such an extent.

After Dundas’s unopposed return, his friend General Bland, commander-in-chief in Scotland, urged Hardwicke and Newcastle to promote William Grant to the bench and appoint Dundas his successor as lord advocate. ‘The business of the Crown suffers by not having an able man ... who is solely attached to the King and owes his preferment purely to the English ministers and not to any of the leading men here.’ On receiving the office Dundas showed his anti-Jacobite zeal by a tour of investigation in the Highlands, and wrote to Hardwicke, 14 Sept.: ‘I have the satisfaction of believing myself detached from every private party or faction.’5 He remained in Scotland until his unopposed re-election in December, maintained a close correspondence with Hardwicke and Newcastle, and though outwardly in concert with Argyll was soon involved with Bland and Findlater’s son Deskford in the ‘English’ ministry’s intrigues to increase their influence in Scotland at the expense of the ‘Viceroy.’ When Dundas left for London after Christmas Bland sent to Newcastle a glowing tribute to his ‘unusual spirit and success’ in office:6

Neither the favours nor frowns of the great men in this country can bias him from telling the truth ... He is free from the underhand low cunning peculiar to his countrymen, an enemy to the jobbing so much practised ... to the destruction of justice and the ruin of this kingdom.

Newcastle and Hardwicke, equally impressed by Dundas’s competence, concerted with him the Scottish legislation for the session. His chief task was to introduce and carry through the Government bill for continuing indefinitely the expiring Act of 1747, under which sheriffs depute were appointed during pleasure. Dundas himself had originally been opposed to the principle but for some two years past had been convinced of its necessity. But when he ably moved the bill on 20 Feb. 1755 the occasion was not a triumph for him but for Gilbert Elliot, whose brilliant opposition forced the ministry to a compromise. Alarmed by the support gained by ‘the Scotch Cabal’, the ministry dropped three other controversial bills which Dundas was to have introduced, but expressed ‘entire satisfaction’ with his conduct. Hardwicke wrote to Lord President Craigie, 1 Apr. 1755:

His great knowledge, politeness and candour have amply recommended him to all friends of Government and gained him a thorough confidence; and in the House of Commons he has succeeded beyond expectation for so short a time.7

At the end of March Dundas was summoned home by the illness of his wife, whose death in May deprived him of control of the Baillie-Carmichael fortune. ‘In an awkward and ticklish situation’, with his paternal estate encumbered with debt, Dundas applied to the Government for provision for his stepmother and her family, as compensation for his father’s losses in the ’15.8 Relying upon his English patrons, he made no compromise with his Scottish critics. Violently anti-Jacobite, narrowly Presbyterian, Dundas by his illiberal views made many enemies among the moderate church party and the literati.9 Well aware that his secret reports on the jobbery not only of the ruling Argyll party, but of the Marchmonts, Dalrymples and other groups, would ‘if discovered render him obnoxious’,10 Dundas urged Newcastle and Hardwicke to bolster his own prestige. He made almost a test case of his recommendation for the place of King’s apothecary against Argyll’s candidate, and wrote to Newcastle, 24 June 1755:11

This being given to one known to be under my influence increases ... your Grace’s interest and weight ... It is well known that I have declared my principles of promoting your Grace’s interest and influence ... and that I depend entirely on your countenance and support. Since my return to Scotland these declarations are not agreeable to many.

He was bitterly chagrined when Newcastle, alarmed by the gathering opposition to the subsidy treaties, called off all attempts to undermine Argyll’s authority, and instructed Dundas to wait upon the Duke and ‘give him full assurance of acting in concert with him to strengthen Administration and cultivate harmony among all the King’s servants in Scotland’.12 He had, however, his reward. With the backing of Argyll, once more unchallenged ‘viceroy’ in the reconstructed Administration, he secured provision for his family out of Scottish revenues.13

In the new session Dundas spoke on 2 Dec. against the Opposition bill for speedily manning the navy, refuting charges made by Gilbert Elliot concerning the Scottish press gangs. A fluent and forceful speaker, he was listed by Walpole among the 30 outstanding orators in the House, but few speeches of his are recorded.14

He retained his office under the Devonshire-Pitt Administration, but remained faithful to Newcastle and voted in his defence in the debate of 2 May 1757 on the loss of Minorca. Under this Administration he concentrated on his official work in Scotland, and in Church affairs further incurred the enmity of the liberal minded by his condemnation of Rev. John Home as the author of ‘Douglas’, and of the clergymen who attended theatrical performances. Alexander Carlyle attributed his conduct to bigotry, ‘want of taste, ... a certain violence of temper which could endure no one that did not bend to him’, and to his jealousy of Sir Gilbert Elliot and Milton, warm partisans of Home.15

Dundas was absent from Parliament for most, if not all, of the 1757-8 session;16 obtained permission from Newcastle to remain in Scotland during the winter of 1758; but attended in February 1759, and on 14 May spoke well in support of the bill for the augmentation of judges’ salaries.17

During the summer of 1759 Dundas, although not concerned in the Bute-Argyll quarrel, became alarmed by Charles Townshend’s attempts to make capital out of the affair, and to gain through Milton an ascendancy in Scottish affairs, particularly when the Dundas interest in Midlothian was threatened by a proposal to set up John Dalrymple, Townshend’s friend, as candidate at the next election.18 Once more he appealed to Newcastle for support:19 ‘Without obtaining some ... reward to those who serve me I shall soon be forsaken by others.’

Disapproving from its inception the agitation for a Scottish militia bill, which he believed would provide arms for the disaffected, he did not openly oppose it.20 He did not attend the autumn session and was still absent in Scotland when the militia motion was moved on 4 Mar. 1760. When his own county freeholders demanded a meeting to concert plans for carrying the bill, Lauderdale the high sheriff was obliged to agree, otherwise, Lauderdale wrote to Newcastle, ‘they would have got the lord advocate for the sake of their votes to prevail on the sheriff substitutes to call a meeting without consulting me’.21 It had long been known that Dundas, having declined an ordinary gown, aimed at the lord presidency of the court of session. When Lord President Craigie fell ill in February 1760 Dundas had at once written to Hardwicke putting in his claim to the succession,22 and immediately Craigie died, posted to London. Arriving on 13 Mar., he conferred with Hardwicke and Newcastle who, with Argyll’s conditional approval, were ready to press his promotion with the King.23 By 15 Mar. he had obtained his objective24 and at once threw himself into Newcastle’s campaign to fling out the militia bill. In the debate of 15 Apr., in defiance of his own constituency’s instructions, he spoke strongly against the bill, the only Scot to do so.25 ‘Universally applauded’ by the Newcastle party for his ‘great firmness and dignity’, he was bitterly attacked and lampooned in Scotland where his speech was regarded as the price paid for the presidency.26 Kinnoull wrote to Newcastle, 10 July 1760:27

Our friend the advocate is a man of that spirit and resolution that he will always speak his opinion whatever the consequences ... But as I love the man I cannot but think the conjunction was unfortunate, and I should be sorry if those who do not wish him well succeed in making people in general think that the part he acted proceeded more from motives of interest than conviction. Whatever unpopularity may arise from his opposition to the militia bill his ... upright conduct in the seat of justice will in a short time acquire him the good opinion of his fellow subjects.

Dundas proved, indeed, the most able and energetic president of the century. He remained connected with Newcastle, who in 1765 offered him the management of Scotland ‘in some shape or other’ under the Rockingham Administration. This Dundas declined as ‘improper for any judge’.28 Yet he did not scruple to exert all the influence of his office in intervening in Scottish elections, extended his family’s interest in numerous constituencies and laid the foundations of the ‘empire’ exercised by his half brother Henry Dundas.

He died 13 Dec. 1787.

Ref Volumes: 1754-1790

Author: Edith Lady Haden-Guest


  • 1. G. W. T. Omond, Arniston Mems. 168.
  • 2. Ibid. 138-41.
  • 3. Ibid. 146-9.
  • 4. Newcastle (Clumber) mss.
  • 5. Add. 35448, ff. 120, 156.
  • 6. Add. 32737, f. 483.
  • 7. Add. 35448, ff. 174, 245.
  • 8. Arniston Mems. 167.
  • 9. Letters of D. Hume, ed. Greig. i. 165-7, 210, 212.
  • 10. Dundas to Hardwicke, 4 June 1755, Add. 35448, f. 259.
  • 11. Add. 32856, f. 173.
  • 12. Dupplin to Dundas, 30 July 1755, Add. 32857, f. 470.
  • 13. Add. 33055, ff. 135, 137, 254, 255.
  • 14. Parlty. Hist. xv. 561-5; Walpole, Mems. Geo. II, ii. 79-80, 144.
  • 15. Carlyle, Autobiog. 334.
  • 16. Add. 32876, f. 234; 35449, f. 86.
  • 17. Add. 32891, f. 129.
  • 18. John Campbell to Townshend, 25 Sept.; Dalrymple to Townshend, 5 Oct.; Sir Alex. Dick to Townshend, 4 Oct. 1759, Buccleuch mss.
  • 19. Add. 32894, f. 183.
  • 20. Elibank to Townshend, 21 Dec. 1759, 7 Jan. 1760, Buccleuch mss.
  • 21. Add. 32903, f. 106.
  • 22. Add. 35449, f. 210.
  • 23. Add. 32903, ff. 128, 272.
  • 24. Arniston Mems. 162.
  • 25. Add. 32904, f. 392.
  • 26. Carlyle, Autobiog. 419-20.
  • 27. Add. 32908, f. 165.
  • 28. Arniston Mems. 177-9.