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

Background Information

Alternated with Buteshire

Number of voters:

21 in 1790 and in 1811


22 July 1802SIR JOHN SINCLAIR, Bt.
26 Aug. 1811 GEORGE SINCLAIR vice Sinclair, appointed to office

Main Article

Sir John Sinclair of Ulbster, who had established the dominant single interest in Caithness with his unopposed return in 1780, concluded from the canvass which he undertook in 1787 when he was sitting for Lostwithiel that he was certain of ‘an unanimous election whenever that event takes place’. Of the 23 voters on the roll at Michaelmas 1788 he was calculated by Lawrence Hill to command about 15; and he himself later observed:

As I have about a fourth of the county in my possession, many relations with considerable property there, and had taken pains to lay every individual of consequence in it under some obligation or another, I thought that no minister could have ventured to interfere with, or oppose me.

Yet his defection on Hastings’s impeachment and the Regency question prompted Henry Dundas to consider attacking him in Caithness. According to a statement written in 1793, Sir Robert Anstruther of Balcaskie, who had purchased property in the county which carried a vote, made an offer to Dundas to run his eldest son against Sinclair. Preliminary examination of the roll showed the plan to be impracticable because Sir John Sinclair of Murkle, potentially the most promising focus of opposition to Ulbster, had ‘rashly engaged himself’ to his namesake; but when Murkle died in April 1789 his son and successor Sir Robert, son-in-law of Dundas’s ally the Duke of Gordon and ‘under no tie’, was selected as the candidate most likely to succeed. Robert Dundas of Arniston wrote that his uncle Henry was ‘pushed pretty closely’ by a disappointed Anstruther to ‘give him some assurances of supporting his son one day or other’, but the minister refused.1

In July 1789 it was brought to Dundas’s attention that John Sinclair of Barrock who, being in financial difficulties, was under pressure from Ulbster to sell him property which carried a vote, would be willing, in return for a pension for his wife and provision for his son, to refuse the sale, separate the superiority from the land, and place that vote and those which he already commanded at Murkle’s disposal. Dundas’s first reaction was cautious, but some sort of bargain was evidently concluded, for Barrock did not sell the superiority and created a new vote on it for his son Alexander in August 1789. Yet the vote matured too late for the 1790 election and in 1791 Barrock was pressing claims on Dundas which were thought to go beyond the terms of ‘the original budget’. Ulbster, soliciting the backing of the Prince of Wales, alleged that his opponents were

carrying on the contest with all the arts that rage, revenge, and malice can invest. They give it out ... that a large sum of money has been issued from the Treasury to carry it on, and that no possible pains or exertion will be wanting to ensure their success.

As neither side had had time to acquire fresh parchment votes the crucial struggle took place on the validity of the existing ones at the head court, 29 Sept. 1789. After a protracted and acrimonious legal wrangle Ulbster carried his own election as praeses against his cousin John Campbell Sutherland of Forse by 11 votes to eight and, despite some setbacks and defections, managed to exclude Murkle from the roll and emerge with a narrow but decisive majority. He later reported that his opponents were ‘thinking of giving up the attempt’, as it would cost them ‘from £8,000 to £10,000’ and even then be unsuccessful. The court of session overruled the exclusion of Murkle, whose campaign Ulbster maintained was subsidized ‘at the public expense’, but this and other adjustments were neutralized by two new Ulbster votes which had become valid when Parliament was dissolved.2

It nevertheless seems likely that Dundas had come to terms with Ulbster before this, and that he made no attempt to prevent the disintegration of Murkle’s party, some of whom were defecting because of ministerial inattention. In a memorandum of 1823 it was alleged that when certain ‘circumstances’ were explained to Dundas he ‘insisted that the contest should be given up’ on Murkle’s ‘being indemnified for the expenses he had incurred; and without any stipulations for Sir John Sinclair’s support in Parliament when he was re-elected’. The truth of this statement is partially confirmed by the documentary evidence of 1790. Some sort of arrangement was reached between Dundas and Ulbster on 3 Apr. Nine days later Ulbster told Dundas in confidence that if he were appointed a baron of Exchequer, he would ‘quit the field’ and abandon politics. Dundas was unable or unwilling to comply, but a letter from Ulbster written between the dissolution and the election makes it clear that the minister was party to an attempt to reach a settlement regarding Caithness, which possibly turned on Ulbster’s wish to retire from Parliament if provided with a suitably lucrative office:

I ... met the Duchess of Gordon, Sir Robert Sinclair, etc. at Pitmain on Sunday night. I ... found no disposition to come to any understanding respecting Caithness politics, and I dare say you will get very little thanks for interfering in their behalf. At the same time, I do not see what they can do, or how they can mend themselves. If, however, they should be mad enough to go on with the contest, it would be necessary to destroy any paper that has passed, and you may rely upon our understanding each other in that matter. The reference also should be put an end to, and they will soon find that without your assistance, they would have made a very poor and pitiful figure in the matter.

In the event Murkle did not persevere and Ulcer was returned without opposition.3

He continued to conduct secret negotiations with Dundas in 1791 and 1792. The exact terms of their understanding regarding Caithness are not clear, but Ulbster initially promised the vote of Wick at the next election for Tain Burghs; suggested in November 1791 an elaborate scheme which, by opening Elgin Burghs, ‘might obviate certain difficulties’ and enable ‘our agreement’ to be ‘immediately concluded’; and finally, 5 May 1792, when he informed Dundas that he had changed his mind about retiring from the House the following year, promised to try to secure a seat ‘in some other place’ for any friend in need of a berth, ‘at the conclusion of the session 1793’.4

In 1792 Sir Robert Anstruther canvassed Caithness for his son, but it was without Dundas’s permission and his conduct was called to account against him when he solicited naval promotion for his younger son the following year. Caithness did not return in 1796 but Ulbster, who went into independent opposition to Pitt in 1797, eventually found an opening at Petersfield. William Sinclair of Lochend, who objected to Ulbster’s ‘making a property’ of the county but was willing to support him if he struck off his fictitious votes, was in correspondence with Dundas on the subject of Caithness in 1798 and 1799. Anstruther of Balcaskie continued to show an interest, but in 1799, when Ulbster decisively strengthened his hand by purchasing the dormant Scott superiority, both Robert and William Dundas concluded that an attack on him, ‘at any expense’, would be futile. William Sinclair tried in 1800 to interest Henry Dundas in backing Anstruther, but the minister had clearly decided that the exercise would be pointless.5 Ulbster encountered no opposition in 1802 and 1807.

The financial embarrassments which drove him to retire from Parliament in 1811 and to sell some of his Caithness estates did not immediately damage his interest and his son’s return was unchallenged, even though he was under age and had only just acquired a qualification. There were forces at work which posed a serious threat to the dominance of Ulbster, but they did not come to a head until 1826.6

Author: David R. Fisher


  • 1. Add. 38222, f. 119; Pol. State of Scotland 1788, pp. 77-80; Prince of Wales Corresp. ii. 472; NLS mss 6, ff. 101-8; H. Furber, Henry Dundas, 244-6.
  • 2. SRO GD51/1/198/6/4-6; NLS mss 1, f. 19; R. Mitchison, Agricultural Sir John, 69-80; Prince of Wales Corresp. ii. 472, 478; Add 29172, f. 4.
  • 3. SRO GD51/1/198/6/1, 2, 9, 10, 21.
  • 4. SRO GD51/1/198/6/7, 8, 12; NLS mss 6, ff. 27, 29.
  • 5. NLS mss 6, ff. 101-8; 8, f. 37; SRO GD51/1/198/6/13-15; 51/5/374; Mitchison, 81.
  • 6. See Mitchison, 225-32.