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Significant Scots
George Dempster


DEMPSTER, GEORGE, of Dunnichen, (an estate near Dundee, which his grandfather, a merchant in that town, had acquired in trade), was born about the year 1735. He was educated at the grammar school of Dundee, and the university of St Andrews; after which he repaired to Edinburgh, where in 1755 he became a member of the faculty of advocates. Possessed of an ample fortune, and being of a social disposition, Mr Dempster entered eagerly into all the gayeties of the metropolis; and at the same time he cultivated the friendship of a group of young men conspicuous for their talents, and some of whom afterwards attained to eminence. In the number were William Robertson and David Hume, the future historians. Mr Dempster became a member of the "Poker Club" instituted by the celebrated Dr Adam Ferguson, which met in a house near the Nether-bow, and had for its object harmless conviviality: but a society which included David Hume, William Robertson, John Home (the author of ‘Douglas’), Alexander Carlyle, and George Dempster, must necessarily have conduced to the intellectual improvement of its members. It was succeeded, in the year 1756, by the "Select Society," a much more extensive association, consisting of most of the men of talent, rank, and learning in Scotland. The object of this society was the advancement of literature and the promotion of the study and speaking of the English language in Scotland, and Dempster was one of the ordinary directors. A list of the members of this society will be found in the appendix to professor Dugald Stewart’s life of Dr Robertson.

After travelling some time on the continent, Mr Dempster returned to Scotland, and practised for a short while at the bar. But, abandoning that profession early in life, he turned his attention to politics, and stood candidate for the Fife and Forfar district of burghs. His contest was a very arduous one, and cost him upwards of 10,000; but it was successful, for he was returned member to the twelfth parliament of Great Britain, which met on the 25th November, 1762. He entered the house of commons as an independent member unshackled by party. In the year 1765, he obtained the patent office of secretary to the Scottish order of the Thistle, an office more honourable than lucrative; and it was the only reward which he either sought or procured for twenty-eight years of faithful service in parliament. Mr Dempster was decidedly opposed to the contest with the American colonies, which ended in their independence; and concurred with Mr Pitt and Mr Fox, in maintaining, that taxes could not be constitutionally imposed without representation. He did not, however, enter into any factious opposition to the ministry during the continuance of the first American war; but on its conclusion he was strenuous in his endeavours to obtain an immediate reduction of the military establishment, and the abolition of sinecure places and pensions. He joined Mr Pitt, when that great statesman came into power, and supported him in his financial plans, particularly in the establishment of the sinking fund. Mr Dempster had directed much of his attention to the improvement of our national commerce and manufactures, which he desired to see freed from all restraint. But the object to which at this time and for many years afterwards he seems to have directed his chief attention, was the encouragement of the Scottish fisheries. This had been a favourite project with the people of Scotland, ever since the time when the duke of York, afterwards James II. patronized and became a subscriber to a company formed expressly for the purpose. At length Mr Dempster succeeded in rousing the British parliament to a due appreciation of the national benefits to be derived from the encouragement of the fisheries on the northern shores, and was allowed to nominate the committee for reporting to the house the best means of carrying his plans into execution.

About this period, Mr Dempster was elected one of the East India Company’s directors. It is believed that his election took place in opposition to the prevailing interest in the directory; and certainly his mistaken notions on the subject of oriental politics must have rendered him an inefficient member of that court. Misled by the commercial origin of the corporation, he would have had the company, after it had arrived at great political influence, and had acquired extensive territorial possessions in India, to resign its sovereign power and to confine itself to its mercantile speculations. The policy of relinquishing territorial dominion in India, has long been a cry got up for party purposes; but it seems very extraordinary that Dempster, controlled by no such influence, should have so violently opposed himself to the true interest of the country. The error into which he fell is now obvious; he wished to maintain an individual monopoly, when the great wealth of the country rendered it no longer necessary, while he proposed to destroy our sway over India, when it might be made the means of defending and extending our commerce. Finding himself unable to alter our Indian policy, he withdrew from the directory and became a violent parliamentary opponent of the company. He supported Mr Fox’s India bill, a measure designed chiefly for the purpose of consolidating a whig administration; and on one occasion he declared, that "all chartered rights should be held inviolable,—those derived from one charter only excepted. That is the sole and single charter which ought in my mind to be destroyed, for the sake of the country, for the sake of India, and for the sake of humanity."—"I for my part lament, that the navigation to India had ever been discovered, and I now conjure ministers to abandon all ideas of sovereignty in that quarter of the world: for it would be wiser to make some one of the native princes king of the country, and leave India to itself."

In 1785, Mr Dempster gave his support to the Grenville act, by which provision was made for the decision of contested elections by committees chosen by ballot. On the regency question of 1788-9, he was opposed to ministry; declaring that an executive so constituted would "resemble nothing that ever was conceived before; an un-whig, un-tory, odd, awkward, anomalous monster."

In the year 1790, Mr Dempster retired from parliamentary duties. Whether this was owing to his own inclination, or forced upon him by the superior influence of the Athole family, a branch of which succeeded him in the representation of his district of burghs, seems doubtful. He now devoted his undivided attention to the advancement of the interests of his native country. It was chiefly through his means that an act of Parliament had been obtained, affording protection and giving bounties to the fisheries in Scotland; and that a joint stock company had been formed for their prosecution. In the year 1788, he had been elected one of the directors of this association, and on that occasion he delivered a powerful speech to the members, in which he gave historical account of the proceedings for extending the fisheries on the coasts of Great Britain. He then showed them that the encouragement of the fisheries was intimately connected with the improvement of the Highlands; and in this manner, by his zeal and activity in the cause, Mr Dempster succeeded in engaging the people of Scotland to the enthusiastic prosecution of this undertaking. The stock raised, or expected to be raised, by voluntary contribution, was estimated at 150,000. Even from India considerable aid was supplied by the Scotsmen resident in that country. The company purchased large tracts of land at Tobermory in Mull, on Loch-Broom in Ross-shire, and on Loch-Bay and Loch-Folliart in the isle of Sky; at all of these stations they built harbours or quays and erected storehouses. Every thing bore a promising aspect, when the war of 1793 with France broke out, and involved the project in ruin. The price of their stock fell rapidly, and many became severe sufferers by the depreciation. Still, however, although the undertaking proved disastrous to the shareholders, yet the country at large is deeply indebted to Mr Dempster for the great national benefit which has since accrued from the parliamentary encouragement given to our fisheries.

In farther prosecution of his patriotic designs, Mr Dempster attempted to establish a manufacturing village at Skibo, on the coast of Caithness; but the local disadvantages, in spite of the cheapness of labour and provisions, were insuperable obstacles to its prosperity; and the consequence was, that he not only involved himself, but his brother also, in heavy pecuniary loss, without conferring any lasting benefit on the district.

On the close of his parliamentary career, Mr Dempster had discontinued his practice of passing the winter in London, and spent his time partly at his seat of Dunnichen, and partly in St Andrews. In that ancient city he enjoyed the society of his old friend Dr Adam Ferguson, and of the learned professors of the university; and we have a pleasing picture of the happy serenity in which this excellent and truly patriotic statesman passed the evening of his life, in the fact that he was in use to send round a vehicle, which he facetiously denominated ""the route coach," in order to convey some old ladies to his house, who, like himself, excelled in the game of whist, an amusement in which he took singular pleasure. His time while at Dunnichen was more usefully employed. When Mr Dempster first directed his attention to the improvement of his estate, the tenantry in the north of Scotland were still subject to many of the worst evils of the feudal system. "I found," he says (speaking of the condition of his own farmers), "my few tenants without leases, subject to the blacksmith of the barony; thirled to its mills; wedded to the wretched system of out-field and in; bound to pay kain and to perform personal services; clothed in hodden, and lodged in hovels." The Highland proprietors, instead of attempting to improve the condition of their farmers and peasantry, were driving them into exile, converting the cultivated lands on their estates into pasturage, and supplying the place of their tenantry with black cattle. Mr Dempster, in order to find employment for the population thus cruelly driven from their native country, became more strenuous in his endeavours for the encouragement of our fisheries; while, in the course he pursued on his own estate, he held out a praise-worthy example to the neighbouring proprietors, of the mode which they ought to pursue in the improvement of their estates. He granted long leases to his tenants, and freed them from all personal services or unnecessary restrictions in the cultivation of their grounds; he inclosed and drained his lands; he built the neat village of Letham; he drained and improved the loch or moss of Dunnichen, and the peat bog of Restennet, by which he added greatly to the extent and value of his property, and rendered the air more salubrious. And having ascertained by experiments that his land abounded in marl, he immediately rendered the discovery available; in so much, it is estimated, that he acquired a quantity of that valuable manure of the value of 14,000 pounds. But nothing can prove more encouraging to the patriotic endeavours of proprietors for the promotion of agriculture and the improvement of their estates, than the following letter, addressed by Mr Dempster to the editor of the Farmer’s Magazine—a work which had been dedicated to himself:

"Sir,—How much depends upon mankind thinking soundly and wisely on agricultural topics, which, in point of extent, surpass all others, and which may be said to embrace the whole surface of the globe we inhabit! I would still be more lavish in my commendation of your design, were it not that I should thereby indirectly make a panegyric on myself. For these last forty years of my life, I have acted in the management of my little rural concerns on the principles you so strenuously inculcate. I found my few tenants without leases, subject to the blacksmith of the barony; thirled to its mills; wedded to the wretched system of out-field and in: bound to pay kain, and to perform personal services; clothed in hodden, and lodged in hovels. You have enriched the magazine with the result of your farming excursions. Pray, direct one of them to the county I write from; peep in upon Dunnichen, and if you find one of the evils I have enumerated existing; if you can trace a question, at my instance, in a court of law, with any tenant as to how he labours his farm; or find one of them not secured by a lease of nineteen years at least, and his life,— the barony shall be yours You will find me engaged in a controversy of the most amiable kind with lord Carrington, defending the freedom of the English tenants from the foolish restrictions with which their industry is shackled; prohibitions to break up meadow land, to sow flax, to plant tobacco, &c., all imposed by foolish fears, or by ignorance; and confirmed by the selfish views of land stewards, who naturally wish the dependence of farmers on their will and pleasure. God knows, Scotland is physically barren enough, situated in a high latitude, composed of ridges of high mountains; yet, in my opinion, moral causes contribute still more to its sterility.

"I urge the zealous prosecution of your labours, as a general change of system and sentiment is only to be effected slowly; your maxims are destined, first, to revolt mankind, and, long after, to reform them. There never was a less successful apostle than I have been. In a mission of forty years, I cannot boast of one convert. I still find the tenants of my nearest neighbours and best friends, cutting down the laird’s corn, while their own crops are imperiously calling for their sickles. I am much pleased with the rotations you suggest; and as those topics are very favourite ones with me, they occupy no small portion of my leisure moments.

"The Highland Society’s being silent on the subject of the emigration of the Highlanders, who are gone, going, and preparing to go in whole clans, can only be accounted for by those who are more intimately acquainted with the state of the Highlands than I pretend to be. One would think the society were disciples of Pinkerton, who says, the best thing we could do, would be to get rid entirely of the Celtic tribe, and people their country with inhabitants from the low country. How little does he know the valour, the frugality, the industry of those inestimable people, or their attachment to their friends and country! I would not give a little Highland child for ten of the highest Highland mountains in all Lochaber. With proper encouragement to its present inhabitants, the next century might see the highlands of Scotland cultivated to its summits, like Wales or Switzerland; its valleys teeming with soldiers for our army, its bays, lakes, and friths with seamen for our navy.

"At the height of four hundred feet above the level of the sea, and ten miles removed from it, I dare not venture on spring wheat, but I have had one advantage from my elevation; my autumn wheat has been covered with snow most of the winter, through which its green shoots peep very prettily. I have sometimes believed that this hardy grain is better calculated for our cold climate than is generally thought, if sown on well cleaned and dunged land, very early, perhaps by the end of September, so as to be in ear when we get our short scorch of heat from 15th July to 15th August, and to profit by it.

"I was pleased with your recommending married farm servants. I don’t value mine a rush till they marry the lass they like. On my farm of 120 acres, I can show such a crop of thriving human stock as delights me. From five to seven years of age, they gather my potatoes at 1d, 2d, and 3d per day, and the sight of such a joyous busy field of industrious happy creatures revives my old age. Our dairy fattens them like pigs; our cupboard is their apothecary’s shop; and the old casten clothes of the family, by the industry of their mothers, look like birthday suits on them. Some of them attend the groom to water his horses; some the carpenter’s shop, and all go to the parish school in the winter time, whenever they can crawl the length."

There is something extremely delightful in the complacency with which the good old man thus views the improvements he had wrought on his estate, and the happiness he had diffused among those around him.

After having enjoyed much good health, and a cheerful old age, until his last illness, Mr Dempster died on the 13th of February, 1818, in the 84th year of his age. We cannot more appropriately finish our imperfect sketch of this good and able patriot, than by subjoining an extract from one of his letters to his friend Sir John Sinclair—"I was lately on my death-bed, and no retrospect afforded me more satisfaction than that of having made some scores—hundreds of poor Highlanders happy, and put them in the way of being rich themselves, and of enriching the future lairds of Skibo and Portrossie. —Dunnichen, 2nd Nov. 1807."


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