This is my blog, intended to provide information relevant to the history of Edinburgh in the Georgian period. I would love to hear any comments you may have.

Friday, 4 January 2013

Harry the Ninth, King of Scotland

Following the political settlement of the Act of Union in 1707, Scotland lost its political identity whilst retaining only three social institutions that distinguished it from the rest of Britain; church, law and education. In political terms Scotland after 1707 was run very much as a county of England, with a representation in parliament less than that of Cornwall. Yet the particular problem posed by Scotland was understood well at Westminster, and during the eighteenth century the running of the country was effectively devolved to an oligarchy of law lords, and at times even to a single man. Under the premiership of William Pitt the Younger this supreme power fell upon Henry Dundas, created Viscount Melville in 1804. For over thirty years this man held all political power in Scotland, and all office and preferment came through him; judges, senior legal offices, sheriffs, Customs and Excise officials, university professors, and clergy all held their places through his approval. In this period Dundas was familiarly known in his fiefdom as 'Harry the Ninth'.

Henry Dundas was born in Dalkeith, Midlothian in 1742, the fourth son of Robert Dundas, Lord President of the Court of Session. The Dundas family had already held senior judicial and political offices for some generations; Henry's great-great-grandfather Sir James Dundas had governed Berwick-Upon-Tweed under King James VI and I. Henry's early career was conventional for his status and times. He attended the Royal High School and Edinburgh University, became a member of the Faculty of Advocates in the city in 1763 and then through family influence was appointed Solicitor General for Scotland in 1766. However his legal career was largely relinquished after his appointment as Lord Advocate in 1775. The Dundas family were high Tories, and under the political system of the day Henry as Lord Advocate had no trouble running Scotland exactly as the Tory leadership desired. The franchise was restricted to males of a certain established income (Scotland's electorate remained below 5,000 until the Reform Act of 1832), and it was not difficult to ensure that all Scottish MPs would toe the family line.

Under Dundas's jurisdiction there was in fact no representation of the people. With Town Councils self-elected and self-perpetuating, the Church of Scotland established and without rival, juries invariably voting according to the direction of the county sheriffs, and prosecuting counsels picked by judges for their likely submission to the establishment, all was imposed from above. There were no political meetings, and had any been attempted official revulsion would have seen them quickly dispersed. The press was restricted to a handful of journals. The long-established Caledonian Mercury, Scots Magazine and Courant carefully observed the establishment line, and those few new publications which failed to do likewise, such as the Gazeteer which reported the activities of the Friends of the People in 1792, were quickly suppressed. The fate of the Friends of the People and its leaders are dealt with elsewhere in this blog under the posts on Thomas Muir of Huntershill, but it is worth mentioning here that Dundas's suppression of this peaceful movement included brute force, show trials, rigged juries and Draconian sentences, all easily arranged under a system he controlled absolutely. The state suppression of political dissent in Britain eventually led to political radicalism being driven underground, and resulted in the development of fully blown revolutionary organisations such as the United Irishmen and United Scotsmen in the late 1790s. In Scotland the absolute control of the state was seen to be struggling with widespread popular discontent by 1806, even within the political establishment, when Lady Minto wrote:

'Scotland will be a thorn in the side of government till it is newly represented. This whole country considers Lord Melville [ie Henry Dundas] as its chief; and well they may, after 30 years' reign and entire power.'¹

During this 30 year reign 'King Harry' held a number of political appointments, beginning with Member of Parliament for Midlothian in 1774. He was a loyal supporter and close confidant of Pitt the Younger, becoming Home Secretary in 1791, War Secretary in 1794, and First Lord of the Admiralty in 1804. However, suspicion fell upon Dundas in his role at the Admiralty, and he was impeached in 1806 for the misappropriation of public monies. Although the result was an acquittal, Dundas never again held public office. He had been begging Pitt for some years to be allowed to retire on health grounds, and died in 1811 aged 69. A monument to Dundas, loosely modelled on Trajan's Column in Rome, stands in the centre of St Andrews Square in Edinburgh, completed in 1828.

¹ Lady Minto to Lord Minto, 30 May 1806, Life & Letters of Gilbert Elliot, 1st Earl of Minto, from 1751 to 1806 (London, 1874), III, 383f.

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