Perth Burghs


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

Background Information

Perth (1790, 1812); Dundee, Forfarshire (1796, 1818); St. Andrews (1802), Cupar (1806), Fifeshire; Forfar (1807)


12 July 1790GEORGE MURRAY4
 Colin Campbell1
4 Apr. 1796 DAVID SCOTT I vice Murray, vacated his seat 
20 June 1796DAVID SCOTT I 
31 July 1802DAVID SCOTT I 
27 Nov. 1805 SIR DAVID WEDDERBURN, Bt. vice Scott, deceased3
 David Scott II2

Main Article

In 1788 George Dempster of Dunnichen, a leading independent backbencher, who had represented this venal district for almost 30 years, decided to retire at the next general election. Two candidates offered themselves: George Murray of Pitkeathly, uncle of the 4th Duke of Atholl, and Colin Campbell of Carwhin, brother of the Whig 4th Earl of Breadalbane who, in conjunction with the 10th Earl of Kinnoull, hoped to ‘render Mr [Henry] Dundas’s attempt for those boroughs fruitless’. Murray clearly had Dundas’s approval and was easily returned, with only Perth voting for Campbell. Before Murray went on active naval service in 1794 he gave Robert Dundas, the lord advocate, a letter resigning the seat, to be used whenever seemed most appropriate, and by early 1796 Atholl had, according to Dundas, ‘relinquished all further views on the burghs’.1

In the summer of 1795 Patrick Rigg of Downfield, a Cupar magistrate, and Baillie Watt of Forfar opened negotiations with the Dundases. Rigg successfully requested £200 to ensure the success of the ministerial party at the forthcoming Cupar elections and duly established a majority on the council. He was given the recommendation to the vacant commissariat of St. Andrews, a favour also requested of the Duke of Portland by Breadalbane, who claimed ‘a strong interest in the town’ and promised to put up ‘a steady friend to government’ at the next election. Breadalbane’s candidate was his kinsman Gen. Alexander Campbell* of Monzie, who was apparently acceptable to Dundas; but it had become clear that Dundas’s close friend and coadjutor in the administration of India, David Scott of Dunninald, faced almost certain defeat in Forfarshire at the next general election. Dundas assured him that there would be no difficulty in finding him a seat elsewhere, presumably in England, but in November 1795 Scott received allegedly ‘spontaneous’ offers of support from ‘one or two’ of the burghs. Dundas, who commented that the district acknowledged no allegiance to Breadalbane and forecast that if he were to persuade Scott to decline it was ‘ten to one some other candidate will be adopted by them, who will run away with it from us all’, persuaded Campbell to stand aside, with a promise that he would procure him a seat elsewhere at no extra cost. The minister evidently obtained Scott’s slightly grudging agreement to meet the expense of seating Campbell, who went to the West Indies in 1796. Murray’s letter of resignation was made use of in March, and Scott, whose access to Indian patronage made him an attractive proposition for the burghs, came in without opposition.2

At the ensuing general election Breadalbane nominated Campbell in absentia. Dundas wanted Scott to compromise, but his friend, claiming the committed support of four burghs including Perth and thinking that he had already gone quite far enough towards accommodating Campbell, would have none of it. Although Kinnoull questioned Scott’s claim to be assured of Perth, he agreed to mediate with Breadalbane, who eventually gave way. When Campbell came home in 1797 he complained bitterly to Dundas of betrayal, but the minister was able to seat him for the Anstruther burghs almost immediately.3

On 1 Feb. 1799 Thomas Erskine of Cambo told Dundas that he had accepted an invitation to take over the political management of St. Andrews and pledged himself ‘to keep up the politics of the town as they are at present, attached to you and ministry’. He succeeded his nephew as 9th Earl of Kellie later in the year and established a strong position in both St. Andrews and Cupar. By this time Breadalbane’s influence had been reduced to a rump in Perth. Scott, who had built up a personal interest in Dundee and Forfar, was returned unopposed in 1802. His health was failing and in 1804 Sir David Wedderburn of Ballindean, a West India merchant, made soundings, but eventually told Lord Melville, his kinsman, that he had decided not to persevere, lest he occasion conflict with Kellie.4

In 1805 Scott’s son David, encouraged by his father to seek the succession to the seat, which he intended to vacate, made preliminary enquiries. He was confident of the support of Dundee and Forfar and hopeful of that of Cupar and St. Andrews, through Melville’s intervention with Kellie. His father’s death, 4 Oct. 1805, caught him unprepared in London and Wedderburn came forward immediately. Kellie, despite an earlier promise to support Scott in the event of his father’s retirement, strongly pressed Wedderburn’s claims on Melville, though he paid lip-service to the notion that ‘whoever you determine for will be successful’. By 15 Oct. Wedderburn was boasting of the guaranteed support of Cupar and Perth and pressing Melville to persuade Scott to give up. Melville took Scott’s side, but Kellie, who clearly preferred Wedderburn, asked Melville to extricate him from the scrape by telling Scott that he, Kellie, had resolved to leave the burghs to decide for themselves, without interference from himself. Melville insisted that they were both inextricably committed to supporting Scott, but Kellie, while professing willingness to assist him, represented the situation as having passed beyond his control, as Wedderburn had secured firm promises of support from Cupar, St. Andrews and Perth. Melville presented Scott with the facts and strongly recommended him to acknowledge that the chapter of accidents had almost certainly ruined his chances. Scott, who believed that Kellie had betrayed him and had used deception and bribery to procure Cupar and St. Andrews for Wedderburn, tried to reach a compromise with his opponent, whereby he was to sit for the remainder of the current Parliament, in return for a pledge of his support for Wedderburn next time. Kellie endorsed the proposal but Wedderburn rejected it, and Scott went to a poll ‘to vindicate my father’s memory and my own rights’. Wedderburn was returned and Scott was found a seat elsewhere soon afterwards.5

In 1806 the Scottish Whigs had hopes of dislodging Wedderburn and planned to put up one of the Elphinstones or the brother of William Maule*, but they discovered that Wedderburn had secured the district ‘beyond redemption’ and in the event made no challenge.6 Wedderburn was unmolested in 1807 and 1812. When he decided to retire in 1818 he was replaced by Archibald Campbell of Blythswood who, endorsed by the 2nd Lord Melville and supported by Kellie, encountered no opposition. He ‘contrived to spend £1,500’, more than twice as much as he had been led to believe would be required, on ‘unnecessary jollification’, and soon wearied of his new constituents’ insatiable appetite for patronage.7

In 1817 the burgesses of Dundee, inspired by the example of Montrose, began to agitate for a liberalization of the sett. After months of abortive negotiations with the council a petition was presented in 1818 to the convention of royal burghs. In response to it, certain modifications were granted, but discontent continued unabated and in 1819 the burgesses petitioned the Commons. The report of the select committee to which the petition was referred strongly criticized the self-perpetuating rule and financial mismanagement of the council, but no immediate steps were taken to reform the constitution of the burgh.8

Author: David R. Fisher


  • 1. Letters of Geo. Dempster to Sir Adam Fergusson, 192-4; Fitzwilliam mss, Drummond to Fitzwilliam, 1 Nov. 1788; Edinburgh Advertiser, 22-25 June, 13-16 July 1790; Atholl Chrons. iv. 156; SRO GD51/5/364/8, Dundas to Atholl, 4 Feb. 1796.
  • 2. SRO GD51/1/198/10/41-45, 54; GD51/1/198/21/21-23; Portland mss PwF2513; Scott Corresp. (Cam. Soc. ser. 3, lxxv), i. 64-65, 73-74.
  • 3. Scott Corresp. i. 73-74; SRO GD51/1/198/10/51; GD51/1/198/21/24.
  • 4. SRO GD51/5/42; GD51/1/198/21/25, 26.
  • 5. SRO GD51/1/198/21/27-36; GD51/5/54; GD124/15/1707/4; NLS mss 9370, f. 91.
  • 6. P. Jupp, British and Irish Elections, 149; Blair Adam mss, Adam to Gibson, 1 Oct., Maule to Adam, 24 Oct., Gibson to same, 27 Oct. 1806.
  • 7. SRO GD51/1/198/10/73; GD51/1/198/21/60, 61, 64.
  • 8. Edinburgh Advertiser, 20 Feb., 12 May, 17 July 1818; Parl. Deb. xxxix. 1122; CJ, lxxiv. 260; J. M. Beatts, Reminiscences (1883), 19-23; J. Thomson, Hist. Dundee, 248-51; PP (1819), vi. 4, 28-31, 373-429.