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Dalrymple, John, first earl of Stairfree

  • John R. Young

John Dalrymple, first earl of Stair (1648–1707)

by Sir John Baptiste de Medina

photograph by kind permission of The National Trust for Scotland

Dalrymple, John, first earl of Stair (1648–1707), politician and lord advocate, was the eldest son of James Dalrymple, first Viscount Stair (1619–1695), and Margaret Ross (d. 1692), widow of Fergus Kennedy of Knockdaw, and daughter of James Ross of Balneil. Among his brothers were Sir James Dalrymple (1650–1719), Sir Hew Dalrymple (1652–1737), and Sir David Dalrymple (c. 1665–1721).

Early career and marriage

Little is known of Dalrymple's early life. In 1667, while travelling in England with his friend and companion Sir Andrew Ramsay of Abbotshall, he was introduced to Charles II in London by John Maitland, first duke of Lauderdale. Arriving at Chatham just as the Dutch fleet sailed up the Medway Dalrymple is said to have assisted in preventing an English man-of-war from being blown up, and as a result, or possibly as a mark of respect to his father, he was knighted by the king that year as Sir John Dalrymple of Stair.

On 3 September 1668 Dalrymple was appointed as a commissioner for levying the militia in Renfrewshire and Ayrshire. By contract dated 17 and 19 January 1669 he married Elizabeth (d. 1731), daughter and heir of Sir John Dundas of Newliston. Two years earlier Elizabeth appears to have been forcibly abducted and possibly raped by one William Dundas, an advocate, and soldiers, including an officer in the earl of Linlithgow's regiment. This was the subject of a privy council investigation, but 'no further proceedings of consequence were taken in the affair' and Elizabeth 'proved herself in after-years an excellent wife to Sir John Dalrymple, distinguished alike for her good management at home and knowledge of country matters, and for her strict profession of religion' (Annals of Stair, 118). The couple had six sons and four daughters.

Appointed as an excise commissioner and a justice of the peace for Linlithgowshire on 11 July 1671 Sir John was admitted as an advocate to the Scottish bar on 27 February 1672. He appears to have been a gifted lawyer and he gained a reputation for 'giving no quarter to his adversaries,—a quality in his speaking which continued with him throughout life' (Annals of Stair, 119). In January 1675 he acted for the defence against Sir John Nisbet of Dirleton, the current king's advocate, in a dispute over a disorderly election concerning Rutherglen burgh council. In November 1678 Dalrymple was a spokesman for the College of Justice in a dispute with Edinburgh town council over the payment of annuities, while on 10 August 1680 he was recorded as the convener of the excise commissioners in the stewartry of Kirkcudbright.

Dalrymple gained particular notice in 1681 as junior counsel to the king's advocate, Sir George Lockhart, in the defence of Archibald Campbell, ninth earl of Argyll, over his opposition to the controversial Test Act, recently passed by the Scottish parliament. Sir John acquitted himself well, despite the fact that Argyll was found guilty of treason and sentenced to death. Dalrymple's pleading 'displayed great logical ability and power of argument; and his whole conduct in the defence … marked him in the eyes of his countrymen and of the Government to be possessed of abundant talent and resource' (Annals of Stair, 120). Sir John himself had subscribed the Test Act by 4 November 1681, when his name was included on lists of those who had signed.

Conflict with Claverhouse

Sir John's fortunes changed for the worse in 1682 when he was subjected to harassment by the Scottish administration of James, duke of York. That year his father, Lord Stair, president of the court of session, had been deprived of his judgeship following his refusal to take the test oath and had gone into exile in the Netherlands. On 27 January John Graham of Claverhouse, as a captain of dragoons in the king's forces, was issued with an official warrant to quarter his forces at Dalrymple's house, as well as at the house of one Sir Robert Maxwell at Kirkcudbright. Claverhouse's instructions and orders were part of a military operation in Galloway against covenanting rebels and activities, but a dispute quickly arose between Claverhouse and the Dalrymple family interest. On 31 August Sir John supplicated the privy council in the name of himself and his father on behalf of some of their tenants in the regality of Glenluce who had been fined and imprisoned by Claverhouse for non-attendance at church and involvement in conventicles, having already been judged and fined for those offences by Sir John, as baillie of the regality. Indeed, he argued that they were 'all persones who doe actually goe to church and live regularly and are willing to enact themselves so to doe' (Reg. PCS, 7.546). Observing that Sir John had prevented Claverhouse from exercising his jurisdiction, the privy council none the less ordered that Dalrymple's tenants were to be set at liberty, as long as they first paid the fines imposed by Claverhouse. According to Sir John Lauder of Fountainhall, Dalrymple was given 'a chek and reprimande, that heritable Bailzies or Shireffs, who are negligent themselfes in putting the laws to execution, should not offer to compete with the Shireffs commissionat and put in by the Privy Counsell, who executed vigorously the King's laws' (Historical Notices, 1.374).

The authority of Claverhouse appears to have been upheld, but the issue continued to rumble on throughout the winter of 1682–3. On 6 January 1683 the privy council refused to allow Dalrymple to examine witnesses over the free quartering of Claverhouse's soldiers.

On 12 February, following complaints and counter-complaints of obstruction, it found Dalrymple guilty on six specific counts. First he had employed Alexander Baillie and John Dunbar to be his clerks and baillies of Glenluce regality when they had been formerly convened before Claverhouse and had confessed to 'their conversing with and resetting of rebells and traitoures and guilty of disorderly withdrawing from the church and of disorderly baptizing of their children' (Reg. PCS, 8.53). Second he had imposed inadequate fines on those guilty of disorders, failed to exact the fines, and obstructed Claverhouse in his commission. Third he had prohibited people within his regality from appearing before Claverhouse, despite the fact that the latter was sheriff of Galloway, with a privy council commission for dealing with delinquents cited to his court. Fourth Dalrymple had employed one of his servants, one Samuel McAdam, to enter into 'a most tumultuary and seditious instrument or manifesto in his oune name and in name of the gentlemen of the shyre' against Claverhouse's soldiers for alleged exaction and oppression, despite the fact that no complaint had been made to either Claverhouse or his officers, in order to 'breid private dislike and animosity betuixt the countrey people and the Kings sojours and these intrusted to serve him'. Fifth Dalrymple had misrepresented Claverhouse to the privy council as guilty of several acts of exaction and oppression; he had in fact proceeded legally. Finally Dalrymple had 'murmured' against Claverhouse as sheriff of Galloway and misrepresented his judicial proceedings.

As a result Sir John was formally deprived of the jurisdiction and office as baillie of Glenluce regality, fined £500 sterling (£6000 Scots), ordered to pay the expenses of witnesses, and was subjected to imprisonment at the privy council's pleasure. Claverhouse, on the other hand, was instructed to fulfil his commission and continue uplifting fines in Galloway. Imprisoned in Edinburgh Castle Dalrymple was released on 20 February, following payment of his fine.

From prisoner to lord advocate

On 11 September 1684 Fountainhall noted that Dalrymple had been arrested during the night at his house at Newliston and his papers seized and examined. He was taken 'like a malefactor' from Holyrood Abbey by a 'greit guard of souldiers' in broad daylight and was imprisoned in Edinburgh tolbooth; his brothers Hew and James were put under bail to answer when called. No incriminating information was found in Sir John's papers, but the lord treasurer was 'incensed' that Sir John refused to provide any information regarding the late chancellor, the earl of Aberdeen, then under suspicion, and that through his father's exile Dalrymple 'had secured his estate from ther grips' (Historical Notices, 2.558). He remained imprisoned for almost three months. On 13 September the privy council granted permission to his wife, Dame Elizabeth Dundas, to visit him in prison with her maidservant, although the keepers of the tolbooth were specifically instructed that they were to 'suffer no other person to see, speak or converse with him, till further order' (Reg. PCS, 9.172). He was liberated on 11 December but was cautioned to present himself whenever called for under the pain of £5000 sterling (£60,000 Scots) and confined to Edinburgh. At the time of the death of Charles II in February 1685 Sir John was still more or less a state prisoner, although on 2 March 1685 Fountainhall records that his liberty was extended to a 10-mile radius around Edinburgh. On 30 November James VII authorized his release on condition that the Scottish privy council found that he had not been in correspondence with people involved in the 1685 Argyll rebellion, but according to Fountainhall his confinement was not fully taken off until 29 January 1686.

Yet by the end of that year Dalrymple's position was dramatically transformed. In December he departed for London and in February 1687 returned to Scotland as lord advocate. Warrants issued from Whitehall on 21 January, 2 February, and 5 February respectively appointed him at a salary of £400 sterling (£4800 Scots), awarded £200 sterling (£2400 Scots) to cover his expenses in London, absolved him from a requirement to subscribe to the Test Act, and added Sir John to a Scottish privy council committee for auditing Treasury accounts. Additionally he received a comprehensive pardon for his father's family, including his mother, brother, and sisters. He was formally admitted as lord advocate at a privy council meeting on 17 February at which the king's suspension of the Test Act was announced. As lord advocate Sir John was at the forefront of the prosecution early in May 1687 of participants in the 1679 covenanting rebellion at Bothwell Bridge, and on 20 May he was included on the new privy council. His financial position was further improved when, on 15 August, a royal warrant authorized the discharge of the outstanding sum (£166 13s. 4d. Scots) of the fine of £500 sterling (£6000 Scots) which had been previously imposed by Charles II's privy council. Following the death, on 19 January 1688, of Sir James Foulis of Colingtoun, Dalrymple replaced him as justice clerk, with a salary of £400 sterling (£4800 Scots), increased on 29 February to £600 sterling (£7200 Scots). This probably helped his purchase that year of Castle Kennedy. As the political crisis escalated, on 18 October he was added to the secret committee of the privy council.

The revolution of 1689–1690

It has been argued that 'from the very beginning of the revolution, if not before' Sir John and his father were 'planning the re-establishment and expansion of the family's interest'. Sir John's tenure of office as lord advocate under King James had associated him 'with some of the administration's more dubious measures' and thus had not endeared him to 'the new men of the revolution', but as 'an able lawyer and administrator' and a pragmatic political operator Sir John was 'prepared to serve the new court as he had done the previous one as long as the rewards were forthcoming' (Riley, King William, 16).

Sir John sat as MP for the burgh of Stranraer in the 1689 convention, and played an important role in its political business and committees. He subscribed the legislation of 16 March which stated that the meeting of the estates was free and lawful. On 20 March he was added to the committee which dealt with issues of strategic security. On 21 March Dalrymple was among those deputed to continue negotiations with the Catholic George Gordon, first duke of Gordon, who was still in control of Edinburgh Castle. Dalrymple was a member of the crucial committee for settling the government established on 27 March, and of its subcommittee which was instructed to 'draw the Reasons of Vacancy' (Balfour-Melville, 1.24) of the Scottish crown and which drew up the two leading constitutional documents of the Scottish settlement, namely the claim of right and the articles of grievance.

On 30 March Dalrymple was named as part of the militia in Wigtownshire, and on 27 April as a commissioner of supply there and in Ayrshire. On 16 April he was among those appointed to draw up a letter from the estates to be presented to William with the offer of the Scottish crown. On 23 April Dalrymple was appointed as a commissioner for the burghs in the negotiations for union with England and as one of three envoys to London to attend William and Mary with the offer of the Scottish crown; their formal instructions were issued on 25 April. However, Dalrymple's behaviour at the coronation ceremony at the Banqueting House in Whitehall on 11 May caused controversy in parliament in July. William Johnston, fourth earl of Annandale, accused Dalrymple of subverting the wishes of the Convention by ensuring that the Scottish coronation oath was tendered and accepted by William and Mary before they accepted the claim of right and the articles of grievance. Sir James Stewart of Goodtrees, writing to William Denholm of Westshields in London on 13 July, noted that the 'designe' of a vote the previous day 'was clearly to reatch the Kings Advocat' (Leven and Melville Papers, 168); 'the Parliament yesterday was more hott than ever' observed the parliamentary high commissioner, William Douglas, third duke of Hamilton, to Melville (ibid., 170). Hamilton had intervened to defend Dalrymple, 'his Majesties only Officer of State here', and had adjourned parliament to a later date. Had he not done so, Hamilton informed Melville, 'I believe they had votted him to prisone'.

Prior to the meeting of the first session of the Williamite parliament on 5 June 1689 Sir John, who received the most royal favour of the three commissioners who had offered the Scottish crown to William and Mary, was reappointed as lord advocate. The marquess of Argyll and Sir James Montgomerie of Skelmorlie had to be satisfied with places on the privy council. As lord advocate Dalrymple was 'virtually the sole spokesman for the court' (Riley, King William, 23) in parliament due to the absence of the secretary of state, Melville, in London and the political ineffectiveness of its president, William Lindsay, eighteenth earl of Crawford. Due to his association with the court and the unpopularity of his family, throughout the session Sir John was 'under violent and incessant attack' from 'the club', the constitutional reform group which sought to restrict the royal prerogative (ibid., 22). Sir Patrick Hume of Polwarth informed Melville on 29 June that 'there is great disgust against Sir John Dalrymple, because he is brought in office' (Leven and Melville Papers, 106). None the less, he continued as a leading spokesman for the court in the 1690 parliamentary session.

As lord advocate Dalrymple was actively involved, by autumn 1689, in the deprivation of ministers who refused to accept the presbyterian settlement of the Church of Scotland and declined to pray for King William and Queen Mary or publicly supported the cause of the forfeited King James. On 15 August 1689 Dalrymple appeared personally before the privy council to present the crown's case against Patrick Trent, a minister in Linlithgow, for such behaviour. A privy councillor himself since 27 May, he played an important role in its affairs throughout 1690. Already an exchequer commissioner, on 21 January 1690 Dalrymple was appointed to a committee to investigate inmates and conditions in the several prisons of Edinburgh and the Canongate, while on 28 January he became a regulator of the printing and reprinting of pamphlets throughout the kingdom. On 8 February he was among those commissioned to invite King William to come to Scotland to convene parliament.

Dalrymple was also closely involved in monitoring Jacobite activity. On 18 February the privy council appointed Dalrymple, Archibald Campbell, tenth earl of Argyll, and Sir James Montgomerie of Skelmorlie to examine one Alexander Strachan, brought as a prisoner from Glasgow and promised his life and freedom from torture as long as he gave a full confession of his knowledge of the activities of the forfeited King James or any of his party in Ireland who were in contact with any person in Scotland or England. Two days later Dalrymple was appointed to a committee for the security of the country, on 28 February to a similar committee preparing for a military campaign against Jacobite activity in Scotland, and by 11 April he had joined a committee dealing with the escape of prisoners from the Canongate tolbooth in Edinburgh. It was in this month that Sir John became master of Stair, following his father's elevation to the peerage.

Stair's prominence brought him into danger. On 4 August the privy council ordered that several prisoners, including one Henry Neville Payne, previously described as 'a traffequing papist' (Reg. PCS, 15.358), be tortured for their involvement in a 'treasonable and hellish plot' (ibid., 356) against King William and Queen Mary in Scotland and England. Two days later a letter in 'ane unknowen hand' dropped at Stair's door held him responsible for the decision to torture this 'English Gentleman of considerable Quality' and threatened that if the procedure went ahead the lord advocate should be 'pistolled' (Balfour-Melville, 2.252–3). Privy council records indicate that Payne was eventually tortured on 10 and 11 December, and on 30 December confined as a close prisoner in Edinburgh Castle.

Stair and the 1692 massacre of Glencoe

Stair's rising political ascendancy was further recognized by his appointment as joint secretary of state for Scotland with Lord Melville on 10 January 1691. He accompanied King William to continental Europe that year and he wrote letters to Scottish politicians from The Hague, Brussels, and other places in the Low Countries between February and August. Throughout this period he kept in close touch with the government's highland policy in the aftermath of the first Jacobite rising. In a letter from William's camp at 'Gerpines' on 23 July Stair instructed Sir Thomas Livingston, commander-in-chief of his majesty's forces in Scotland, that 'non under your command doe committ any acts of hostilitie against the Highlanders' (Leven and Melville Papers, 631). However, while prepared to pardon those who submitted the Williamite government adopted a hardline stance in a proclamation of 27 August 1691, which 'threatened the utmost extremity of the law against chiefs who did not take the oath of allegiance' by 1 January 1692 (Donaldson, 220). Writing on 2 December to John Campbell, first earl of Breadalbane, Stair expressed the view that 'the clan Donell must be rooted out' (ibid., 221), and he played a key role in planning their destruction. The next day he wrote to Lieutenant-Colonel James Hamilton, deputy governor of the garrison of Fort William, asking 'whether you think that this is the proper season to maul them in the cold long nights, and what force will be necessary'. Stair was overjoyed to hear from Archibald Campbell, earl of Argyll, that the chief of the MacDonalds had failed, in technical terms, to take the oath of allegiance by the required date and wrote on 11 January 1692 to Sir Thomas Livingston that 'it's a great work of charity to be exact in rooting out that damnable sect, the worst in all the Highlands' (ibid., 222). A further letter of 30 January expressed their shared conviction that 'it were a great advantage to the nation that thieving tribe were rooted out' (Carstares State Papers, 250).

The massacre of MacDonalds at Glencoe which took place on 13 February 1692 following instructions issued by William and Stair in January caused political outrage. In the following year a formal commission of inquiry exonerated the king, pointing the finger of blame primarily at Stair, who thereby became prey to attacks by his opponents. Glencoe was the main topic of business in the parliamentary session of 1695 (9 May–17 July) and on 24 June the Scottish parliament voted that 'the Execution & Slaughter of the Glencoe men' was a 'murder' (APS, 9.377). On 10 July a parliamentary address to King William, which again absolved him of blame for the massacre, formally attacked Stair, who was absent from proceedings. The estates found that Stair's correspondence had 'exceeded' the king's instructions 'towards the killing and destruction of the Glencoe men' (ibid., 424). An analysis of Stair's letters had revealed that he had 'absolutely and positively ordered' the Glencoe men 'to be destroyed' and had viewed the failure of MacDonald to take the oath on time as 'a happy incident since it afforded an opportunity to destroy them'. Furthermore he had urged it 'with a great deal of zeal as a thing acceptable and of public use'. They concluded that 'the Master of Stairs excess in his Letters against the Glencoe men has been the Original cause of this unhappy business' (ibid., 425). However, the estates referred to the king action 'for vindication of your Government', and the latter chose to support his servant. Stair lost his position as secretary of state, but following the death of his father on 25 November, succeeded as second Viscount Stair. Towards the end of the year, William issued him with a formal scroll of discharge, freeing him from the consequences of his role in the Glencoe massacre on the grounds that at the time of the massacre Stair was in London as secretary of state and 'being … many hundreds of miles distant, he could have no knowledge of, nor accession to, the method of execution' (MacDonald, 180–81, appx 13). Accordingly he was pardoned for 'any excess of zeal, or going beyond his instructions'.

Stair's political career after Glencoe

Despite royal rehabilitation Stair remained unpopular and he attended neither the 1696 nor 1698 parliamentary sessions. He first took his seat as a peer in the parliamentary session of 21–7 May 1700 and attended the ninth session, from 29 October 1700 to 1 February 1701, in which the crisis of the Darien project was an explosive political issue. On 5 November Stair was included on the important committee for the security of the kingdom and in the controversial vote of 16 January 1701 supported the presentation to the king of a relatively conciliatory parliamentary address, as opposed to a more critical act.

In the aftermath of William's death and the accession of Queen Anne, Stair attended the parliamentary session of 9–30 June 1702. As before he served on the committee for the security of the kingdom and was confirmed as a privy councillor. He was also a Scottish commissioner in the abortive union negotiations of 1702–3 and he attended all the sessions of the union parliament of 1703–7. By a patent dated 8 April 1703 and read in parliament on 6 July 1704 he was created by Queen Anne earl of Stair, Viscount Dalrymple, Lord Newliston, Glenluce, and Stranraer. Appointed on 22 August 1703 to the committee for examining public accounts, as earl of Stair he became a commissioner of supply for Wigtownshire on 5 August 1704 and a member of the important council of trade on 14 August 1705. A month later parliament passed an act in his favour for holding fairs twice a year at the burgh of barony of Glenluce. According to the Jacobite George Lockhart, in the winter of 1706 Stair, who was again serving as a commissioner for the treaty of union, Hugh Campbell, third earl of Loudoun, and David Boyle, first earl of Glasgow, used their collective influence in Ayrshire to prevent the gentlemen of that shire from presenting an address to parliament opposing the union. According to Bishop Gilbert Burnet, Stair played an important role for the court during the 'great and long debates' of the 1707 parliamentary session, managing the debates 'on the side of the union' with the chancellor, James Ogilvy, Viscount Seafield (Bishop Burnet's History, 163). Stair's last political act was a contribution to the heated debate over article 22 of the treaty of union, which was concerned with future Scottish representation within the new British parliament. After it had been finally approved on 7 January 1707 Stair retired to his lodgings. He died suddenly in bed during the early hours of 8 January, 'his spirits being quite exhausted by the length and vehemence of the debate' (ibid., 166). Hume of Crossrigg attributed Stair's death to apoplexy (Hume, 194). Stair was buried at Kirkliston, Linlithgowshire, three days later, on 11 January 1707. He was survived by his wife, who died on 25 May 1731, and was succeeded as second earl by his son John Dalrymple (1673–1747).


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  • J. B. de Medina, portrait, Newhailes, East Lothian [see illus.]
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