Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1820-1832, ed. D.R. Fisher, 2009
Available from Cambridge University Press

Background Information

Alternated with Caithness

Number of enrolled freeholders:

14 in 1820; 18 in 1826; 21 in 1830


21 Aug. 1830SIR WILLIAM RAE, bt.

Main Article

Buteshire was a small, sparsely cultivated county, surrounded by the Firth of Clyde and consisting of the islands of Bute, Arran, Big and Little Cumbrae, Holy Isle, Inchmarnuck and Pladda. There were cotton mills at Rothesay (Bute), the only royal burgh.1 There was no challenge in this period to the electoral control of John Crichton Stuart, 2nd marquess of Bute, who had a residence at Mountstuart on Bute.2 At the general election of 1820 he offered the seat to Samuel Anderson, a supporter of the Liverpool administration, provided his younger brother Lord Patrick Crichton Stuart was able to secure a seat elsewhere. This he failed to do, and the plan to return Anderson for Buteshire was ‘abandoned’.3 In 1830 Lord Bute accommodated Sir William Rae, lord advocate in the Wellington ministry.4 The inhabitants of Arran petitioned the Commons, 24 Apr. 1823, 16 Mar. 1831, and the Lords, 17 Apr. 1823, for protection for domestic barilla producers.5 The heritors and justices of the county petitioned both Houses in March 1826 against alteration of the Scottish banking system.6

The Grey ministry’s first Scottish reform bill of March 1831 proposed to unite Buteshire with Dunbartonshire to return one Member.7 When alluding to this plan in the House, 1 Mar., Lord John Russell asserted that of the 19 nominal freeholders, only two were genuine ‘landed proprietors’ of the county. Francis Jeffrey, the lord advocate, expanded on this when moving the second reading of the Scottish bill, 23 Sept. 1831. Citing a parliamentary return of March, he said that Buteshire, with its ‘inconsiderable’ population of about 14,000, had only 21 enrolled freeholders, of whom 20 had no real stake in the county:

The real proprietor is like a sovereign ... [At] one election ... within the memory of man ... there was no person to attend but one, and he was the sheriff, or returning officer. This respectable person, being also a freeholder, first read the writ to the meeting as sheriff; he then constituted the meeting, by calling over the roll, duly answered to his own name, and faithfully took down the sederunt ... He put the vote for the election of praeses and clerk, and reported himself duly elected as praeses; as such ... he read over the minutes of the last meeting and confirmed them ... he put the candidate in nomination and seconded his own proposal; he then gravely took the vote by calling over the roll a second time, and having given his own voice for his nominee, reported to himself that the candidate was unanimously elected, and forthwith made the return in his favour ... This may well be called a farce; and yet it is probably the least exceptionable election that has since been had in the county; for the sheriff was a proprietor, and the absence of the other 20 [freeholders] could only exclude the nominal and fictitious voters.

Three days later ministers announced that as part of their concession of an additional three Members to Scotland, Buteshire was to return one on its own. To make it a viable constituency, not completely in Lord Bute’s pocket, Rothesay was to be removed from the Ayr district of burghs and thrown into the county, while Cowal, the Argyllshire peninsula between Loch Lyne and the Firth of Clyde, was to be annexed to Buteshire - ‘to the great benefit of the villa proprietors of Dunoon’, as one observer put it.8 These proposals aroused great local opposition, and the Scottish solicitor-general, Henry Cockburn, one of the authors of the original bill, fretted that ministers might give way and even revert to ‘the system of alternate election’ by linking Buteshire with Shetland; without Cowal, he believed, it would remain ‘a neat little nomination county’ for Bute.9 In January 1832 householders of Rothesay memorialized ministers against the annexation of Cowal and the ‘disfranchisement’ of their burgh, with the blessing of Bute, who commented to his brother that

the number of proprietors in Rothesay who would be entitled to vote for the county ... under the late bill is more than three times greater than all the tenants on my Bute estate who would earn that privilege, which is a pretty effectual check to my control; not to mention all the new voters in the other islands.10

During a Rothesay meeting to get up a counter-memorial Lady Bute, who was driving through the town, was barracked and had a window of her carriage smashed by young mill hands employed by one Thom, the meeting’s chief promoter. He sent a written apology to Bute and promised to discover and sack the culprits; but Bute made light of the incident and persuaded him not to penalize ‘the mere ebullition of a few thoughtless children’.11 In the final reform bill ministers scrapped the annexation of Cowal but retained the inclusion of Rothesay in the county.12 At the 1832 general election, when there were 294 registered electors, Bute’s second cousin Captain Charles Stuart was returned unopposed. Rae came in again in 1833, won a contest with another Conservative in 1841 and on his death in 1842 was replaced by another of Bute’s second cousins, James Archibald Stuart Wortley, who sat undisturbed until 1859.13

Author: David R. Fisher


  • 1. Ordnance Gazetteer of Scotland (1895), i. 205-6.
  • 2. Key to Both Houses (1832), 305.
  • 3. NLS mss 11, ff. 14, 24, 41.
  • 4. Glasgow Herald, 3 Sept. 1830.
  • 5. CJ, lxxviii. 251; lxxxvi. 388; LJ, lv. 626.
  • 6. CJ, lxxxi. 181; LJ, lviii. 94.
  • 7. N. Gash, Politics in Age of Peel, 46.
  • 8. Glasgow Herald, 30 Sept. 1831.
  • 9. Cockburn Letters, 358, 384, 386, 393-4.
  • 10. Brougham mss, Bute to Lord J. Crichton Stuart, 12 Jan., enc. in Stuart to Brougham, 16 Jan. 1832.
  • 11. Glasgow Herald, 23 Jan. 1832.
  • 12. Cockburn Letters, 401-2.
  • 13. Scottish Electoral Politics, 221, 234, 249.