Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1790-1820, ed. R. Thorne, 1986
Available from Boydell and Brewer

Background Information

Number of voters:

108 in 1790, 39 in 1794, 35 in 1811


2 July 1790SIR JAMES GRANT, Bt. 
24 July 1795 DAVID MCDOWALL GRANT vice Grant, appointed to office 
10 Dec. 1798 GRANT re-elected after appointment to office 
2 Aug. 1799 (SIR) WILLIAM GRANT re-elected after vacating his seat 
10 Mar. 1801 GRANT re-elected after vacating his seat 
15 June 1801 GRANT re-elected after appointment to office 
19 July 1802(SIR) WILLIAM GRANT 
22 Nov. 1806(SIR) WILLIAM GRANT15
 James Duff4
6 July 1818JAMES DUFF, Earl Fife [I] 
2 Apr. 1819 FIFE re-elected after appointment to office 

Main Article

Banffshire was dominated in the mid 1780s by James Duff, 2nd Earl Fife, whose family had enjoyed supremacy for some 60 years. Fife himself had won the Elginshire seat in 1784, turning over Banffshire to his illegitimate son Sir James Duff of Kinstair; as his influence extended also to Aberdeenshire and Elgin Burghs he was a major electoral force in north-east Scotland, where his chief rival was the 4th Duke of Gordon. In 1787 Henry Dundas, recognizing that Fife was well placed to carry three counties at the next general election, responded to his ‘strong advances’, though he suspected that self-interest was behind Fife’s ‘declarations of sincere attachment’ to Pitt’s government. Dundas rejected one proposal from Fife because his stipulated price, freedom of action in Banffshire, was too high, but worked instead to effect an electoral alliance between Fife, Gordon, the Grants and the 7th Earl of Findlater which would guarantee the return of ministerialists for the three north-eastern counties and for Elgin Burghs. He forced this arrangement on a very reluctant Gordon in September 1787.1

In December 1788 Fife compelled Sir James Duff to vacate because he sided with opposition on the Regency and replaced him with James Ferguson of Pitfour, a friend of Dundas and Gordon, who was destined to come in for Aberdeenshire at the general election. There was no opposition, but Andrew Hay of Rannes, who died later in 1789, sounded a warning note with his comment that ‘gentlemen will think it somewhat off that the two great men should coalesce without consulting the gentlemen of the county’. Fife received a long-coveted British peerage in 1790, when Ferguson transferred to Aberdeenshire and the Banffshire seat was filled by Sir James Grant, the chief of his clan and husband of Fife’s niece. Shortly before the election it was rumoured that, following the recent court of session ruling against nominal votes, Sir George Abercromby of Birkenbog, sheriff of Elginshire and one of Banffshire’s leading independent proprietors, would stand with the backing of Gordon, who was said to be unhappy about the arrangement of seats, but nothing came of this. According to a newspaper report, ‘several nominals were present, but thought it prudent not to vote’. The number of voters on the roll fell by almost two-thirds in the next four years.2

The alliance between Fife and Gordon was clearly uneasy, but in 1791 Fife’s agent, William Rose, reported a satisfactory meeting with Dundas and the duke at Gordon Castle. There were recurrent rumours that Grant was to vacate, and on 9 May 1793 Fife told Dundas that he wished to return his son, with whom he had recently been reconciled. Dundas evidently asked Fife to give his support instead to William Grant of Beldornie, a rising ministerial lawyer, who was currently without a seat, but Fife, observing that Sir James Grant had not £20 a year in the county and had never consulted him about his plans, insisted that he must give preference to Duff. In reply Dundas wrote that he and Pitt

have both an accurate recollection of all the professions your lordship made to us at the time you solicited a British peerage, and we find it difficult to reconcile them with the reception you have given to the first opportunity you have had of manifesting the sincerity of them.

Fife complained to Rose of Dundas’s high-handedness, but decided that ‘if we could carry Sir Jas. through, it would be the best way to bring Mr Dundas into good humour’.3

There were apparently three other aspirants to the seat, who manoeuvred for position during the next two years: Abercromby, Col. Patrick (‘Tiger’) Duff of Carnousie, an East India officer currently on furlough, and David McDowall Grant, a Renfrewshire man who had married a Banffshire heiress. In January 1795 the latter told his brother that he was the best placed, but that Duff of Carnousie was a major threat. In April 1795 McDowall Grant, on hearing from Sir James Grant that he was to receive an excise appointment, made a bid for Dundas’s support and gave his version of events since 1793. The introduction of William Grant had prompted a number of resident proprietors, notably Abercromby, Andrew Hay of Mountblairy, John Innes of Edingight, William Leslie of Denlugas and Peter Garden of Troup, ‘to form a joint interest’, known as the Banffshire Association, ‘which will carry the county for, or against, any man who may, or may not, meet their approbation’. Abercromby secured their support and McDowall Grant waived his own pretensions, but when Abercromby later decided that he was not prepared to surrender his sheriffship ‘on an uncertainty’ or ‘without the promise of an equivalent’, McDowall Grant stepped into his shoes. He told the lord advocate: ‘it is impossible to bring in Mr William Grant, or even Sir James Duff. In my opinion it now rests with Mr Dundas, to start a new candidate, or to give his support, and interest, to Colonel Duff or myself.’ Dundas remained neutral. It is not clear how far Duff persisted, and McDowall Grant was returned.4

After the election, according to Andrew Hay’s brother James, the Association circulated resolutions designed ‘to get rid of Lord Fife’s influence and the nominal votes’. On 9 Sept. 1795 Dundas wrote to Gen. James Grant* of Ballindalloch of his plan to start William Grant at the next election with the support of Fife, disregarding the Association:

I never read so contemptible a piece of illegality and absurdity as their paper contains ... [it] has not one rational cement to keep it together, and must from its nature dissolve very soon into as many fragments as it consists of members.

James Hay told Dundas, 27 Oct., that neither he nor his brother approved of the resolutions, that many members of the Association were repenting of them and beginning to realize that there was ‘no way of getting the better of Lord Fife except they would unite in a body with the government interest’, and that a proposition of this nature was likely soon to be made to Dundas. An anonymous letter to Fife, 12 Mar. 1796, which he transmitted to Dundas, contended that ‘if your lordship and Mr Dundas were to arrange matters you could for the present bring in Mr Grant or any other person’ without reference to the Association. Fife evidently acquiesced in William Grant’s return in 1796 and the Association seems to have lost its formal identity.5

Yet Fife remained restive and in May 1797 complained to Dundas of Pitt’s neglect of his repeated requests for the extension of his British peerage to his nephews. In 1800 the elder of these, James Duff, an associate of the Prince of Wales, solicited Dundas’s support at the next election, but was told curtly that Grant, who was now solicitor-general, had been assured of government backing. Another complaint from Fife, coupled with an attempt to advance his nephew’s claims, exhausted Dundas’s patience, as he told Fife’s intermediary Alexander Brodie, 5 May 1800:

by my means and no very common exertions, against many prejudices, he got a British peerage, which at the time ... he certainly did receive as the sum of all his wishes. He has since been urgent to get the peerage extended ... and I have repeatedly mentioned it to Mr Pitt, but from the way Lord Fife has always treated his request ... it appears to me that in place of soliciting the greatest favour the King can give ... he considers it little more than asking a tidewaiter’s place ... and last of all without any communication of any kind with any one servant of the crown, he has begun a canvass against one of the most able and confidential servants of the King.

In short ... Lord Fife and I are not made to deal together, and I recommend in future that he will go directly either to Mr Pitt or to the minister of the department with which the business lies, and then no misapprehensions or grievances of any kind can take place in his intercourse with me.6

Grant, who became master of the rolls in 1801, was unopposed in 1802. He took a prominent part in the defence of Lord Melville (as Dundas had become) in the Commons in 1805 and early in June 1806 attacked the Grenville ministry’s limited enlistment plan. Soon afterwards, Fife wrote to Grenville, Earl Spencer and Fox, soliciting ministerial support for his nephew, who was abroad. Grenville offered his ‘best wishes’ for Duff’s success, while Spencer authorized Fife to make it known that he had ‘the full support of whatever interest government can command’. In October 1806 Fife informed Grenville that Grant

attended one of the county meetings lately, and delivered a studied speech, which is not so usual to the natives here as in Parliament, and I don’t think it will do him so much service as in the proper place. It was a composition beginning first with a libel against me for interfering as a peer, then his great self-importance despising the opposition to him in this county, and ministerial support ... However, we shall beat him at the election.

The sudden dissolution, which found Duff in Vienna and a number of new voters still unqualified, severely jolted the hopes of Fife, who alleged that Melville and Abercromby, by now a figure of considerable influence in the county, were straining every nerve against him. William Adam canvassed for Duff in the name of government, but made little headway. There was evidently an attempt to delay the writ, which prompted Grant to demand that Adam should ‘interpose whatever authority you may have to put an end to this unworthy artifice’. Grant had an easy victory. The minutes of the election meeting give the lie to Fife’s subsequent claim that he had secured only ‘a narrow majority, owing to the absence of some of Colonel Duff’s friends and others of them being improperly kept off the roll’.7

Fife tried to bolster his interest for the next election, but the early dissolution of 1807 scotched his plans, as he told Grenville, 10 June:

the junto who under the management of Lord Melville have for years past had possession of the county were allowed without opposition to return ... Grant. There is now however every reason to expect that before another general election happens the Earl of Fife’s family interest will be restored and the more especially as the 14 or 15 freeholders who have so long been subservient to the nod of Lord Melville and Sir George Abercromby his deputy in the county are now beginning to quarrel amongst themselves.8

Fife died in 1809, when he was succeeded in the Irish peerage by his brother, on whose death in 1811 it passed to James Duff, who was on active service in Spain. Grant decided to retire in 1812 and recommended as his successor Abercromby’s son, who reported to the 2nd Viscount Melville, 16 Sept.:

there appears a very formidable party against me in the interests of the Fife family, and there is a third party, which appears to be at present undecided but which if united with the Duff interest, would run an election extremely close.9

In the event there was no opposition to his election. When Fife came home in 1813 he professed his attachment to government and was made lord lieutenant of Banffshire, to the disappointment of Abercromby, whose father had filled the position in an acting capacity since 1809 and who still regarded Fife as a potential enemy.10 Financial problems forced Abercromby to give up his seat in 1818, when Fife came in without opposition.

Author: David R. Fisher


  • 1. PRO 30/8/157, ff. 53, 59; NLS mss 5, ff. 16, 41; SRO GD51/1/198/1/2-4; HMC Laing, ii. 525; HMC Fortescue, iii. 421; Sir W. Fraser, Chiefs of Grant, ii. 496; H. Furber, Henry Dundas, 206-13.
  • 2. A. and H. Tayler, Jacobite Exile, 200-1; Macpherson Grant mss 384, Mackenzie to Gen. Grant, 20 May (NRA [S] 771); Edinburgh Advertiser, 2-6 July 1790.
  • 3. Dom. Pprs. Rose Fam. ed. Tayler, 33-34; Lord Fife and his Factor, 245-7; SRO GD51/1/198/4/1; NLS, Gordon Cumming mss 3974.
  • 4. Fife and his Factor, 247; SRO GD51/1/198/4/2-5; NLS mss 1, ff. 31, 35; Oracle, 1 Aug. 1795.
  • 5. SRO GD51/1/198/4/7, 8; Macpherson Grant mss 461.
  • 6. SRO GD51/1/54/1, 2; 51/1/198/4/10; 51/1/885.
  • 7. Fortescue mss, Fife to Fox, 5, to Grenville, 11 June, 10, 24 Oct. 1806, 10 June 1807, Grenville to Fife, 12 June 1806; Spencer mss, Fife to Spencer and reply, 14 June; Blair Adam mss, Fife to Adam, 3 Nov., Grant to same, 4 Nov., McDowall Grant to same, 8 Nov., Adam to Morison, 6 Nov. 1806; SRO GD51/1/198/12/26; SC2/69/10.
  • 8. Fortescue mss.
  • 9. NLI, Melville mss.
  • 10. Ibid. Abercromby to Melville, 7 June 1813.