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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."

DEMPSTER, George (1732-1818), of Dunnichen, Forfar.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1754-1790, ed. L. Namier, J. Brooke., 1964. Available from Boydell and Brewer

Family and Education

b. 8 Dec. 1732, 1st of John Dempster of Dunnichen, Dundee merchant, by his 1st w. Isobel Ogilvie. educ. Dundee g.s., Leuchars; St. Andrews Univ.; Edinburgh Univ.; Academie Royale, Brussels; adv. 1755. m. 24 Sept. 1774, Rose, da. of Richard Heming of Jamaica, s.p. suc. fa. 3 Nov. 1754.

Offices Held

Sec. to the Order of the Thistle Aug. 1765- d.; director, E.I. Co. 1769, 1772-3.


Dempster inherited some 6,000 acres in Forfarshire (worth £769 p.a.) and a considerable fortune, founded by his grandfather, a grain merchant. He began the Grand Tour with his life-long friend Adam Fergusson but, summoned home by family affairs, returned to Edinburgh to practise law. An attractive, humorous young man, of vigorous mind, much influenced by Hume, Rousseau and Montesquieu, Dempster was a member of the Select Society, an independent Whig, rating ‘intrinsic merit’ high above rank or wealth, a ‘true blue Scot’, dedicated to the encouragement of agriculture, industry and the arts, and to the establishment of a Scottish militia.

In 1761 Dempster stood for Perth Burghs, and, after a contest which severely strained his finances, defeated Thomas Leslie, Newcastle’s candidate. He at once made his mark in the House when on 13 Nov., in the debate on the Address, he spoke ‘with an assurance that for its unexampled novelty gave great entertainment ... pleaded the extension of the militia to Scotland ... censured the German war ... and condemned faction’. Lord George Sackville wrote:

A new Scotch Member, a Mr. Dempster, showed a strong desire of speaking and seems to have abilities sufficient to make him an object. In short, he promises well, and though he diverted the House by a becoming ignorance of its forms, yet he proved that he neither wanted language, manner, nor matter.
Dempster was now approached by Sir Harry Erskine, who wrote to Bute, 28 Nov. 1761:

After showing him the necessity of attaching himself to some person or body of men, and entering on your Lordship’s character, I asked him if he had made any connexion with any other person ... he declared he had not. I advised him if he meant to attach himself to you to tell you so ... he said he chose to do it in writing ... as an evidence to produce against him if he should act contrary to his professions.
Having affirmed his adherence Dempster, hostile to Pitt, on 11 Dec. attacked Beckford’s motion for Spanish papers as ‘foolish and factious’. When, through the illness of Gilbert Elliot, the promised motion for a Scottish militia was delayed, Dempster was prepared to move for it himself. ‘One ought to squeak when his toes are trod on’, he wrote to Alexander Carlyle on 20 Jan. 1762. Exasperated when, on Bute’s advice, the scheme was dropped, he intervened in the English militia debate of 18 Mar. to accuse defecting counties of cowardice. Dempster soon became restive in the Government camp and at variance with most of his Scots colleagues. His breach with Bute’s friends became complete when on 9 and 10 Dec. he spoke and voted against the peace.

He was not, however, engrossed in politics; he collaborated with Boswell and Andrew Erskine in a critique of a play by Mallet; became active with his friends the Johnstones in East India Company affairs; and in summer 1763 founded the first Dundee bank, ‘George Dempster Co.’ As a patriotic Scot he resented Wilkes’s attacks in the North Briton, and voted 15 Nov. 1763 against him; but, opposed in principle to general warrants, in February 1764 spoke and voted against Administration. Yet Dempster was still essentially unconnected; in May Newcastle listed him and ‘doubtful’, in June Robert Nugent sought to secure him for Grenville. On 9 Jan. 1765 he attended the Cockpit meeting to hear the speech and address, but on 6 Feb. spoke and voted against the Stamp Act. During the Regency bill debates Dempster on 9 May eulogized the King, deferring to his judgment in the selection of a Regent; but on 11 May he supported Pryse Campbell’s motion against any female regent’s marrying a Catholic.

Under the Rockingham Administration Dempster accepted the office of secretary to the Thistle, though he had ‘neither the head nor heart of a truly ambitious man’. He spoke and voted for the repeal of the Stamp Act and, according to Boswell, acquired ‘a real ministerial look’.

On Rockingham’s fall he expressed to Adam Fergusson his distrust of the new Administration under Chatham, whose wartime extravagance he had always deplored:

Pitt is now sovereign arbiter ... His object from the first moment of his former resignation was to attain this perch of power ... I myself believe he will not pay off our debts ... will not help the constitution and ... will break his neck upon the backstairs.

When invited by Conway to attend the pre-Parliament meeting to hear the King’s speech, Dempster sought direction from Rockingham:

It will give me pleasure to regulate my parliamentary conduct in whatever shape is agreeable to you. Let me say even more pleasure now than when your Lordship was at the head of the Treasury. While in that situation the strongest declarations of attachment might admit of a double construction; at present your Lordship will not think I flatter when I express my very high esteem both of your public and private conduct.

Dempster therefore followed the Rockinghams into opposition and voted with them on the land tax, 27 Feb. 1767. Having opposed Beckford’s motion in December 1766 for a parliamentary inquiry into East India Company affairs, Dempster in the court of proprietors on 12 Mar. 1767 followed Laurence Sulivan in objecting to the terms negotiated by the directors for the renewal of the charter: ‘a letting the Government into a partnership with the Company would soon end in the absolute dependency and ruin of the latter’. On 6 May he was a leader of the proprietors who in defiance of both ministry and the direction increased the dividend to 12%.

Dempster’s alliance with Sulivan and the Johnstones in the East India Company incurred the hostility of the Clive party, who now sent Robert Mackintosh to oppose him in his burghs. During the campaign Dempster was arrested for bribery, but on his plea of parliamentary privilege the case was adjourned. He returned to Parliament, voted with Opposition on nullum tempus, 17 Feb. 1768, but, with a criminal prosecution pending against him, withdrew his candidature in favour of his friend William (Johnstone) Pulteney, who was returned. Pulteney was also successful in Cromarty, for which he elected to sit, and Dempster, when the case against him had been dismissed, was returned again for his burghs. The campaign and litigation had cost him over £10,000; he was obliged to sell all his estates except Dunnichen and thereafter was justly reckoned poor. In April 1769 the Sulivan party secured his election to the direction of the East India Company.

Faithful to the Rockinghams in opposition, he voted with them on the Middlesex election, 8 May 1769, and in November, when Sulivan went over to Administration, scotched rumours that he would follow suit. Burke wrote to Rockingham, 9 Nov. 1769:

Dempster thought as I do about Sulivan’s coalition. He told me that it should make no difference in his line in India House; that there he would stand as firmly by him as he would continue to oppose his new friends in Parliament. That his political connexion was with your Lordship and would always be so; but that if Mr. Sulivan should find that course of conduct prejudicial to his interests in Leadenhall Street, that he would at an hour’s notice disqualify for the directorship. This was what I expected from Dempster ... not to sacrifice one duty to another; but to keep both if possible—if not, to put it out of his power to violate the principal.

Under North’s Administration Dempster maintained his reputation for candour in opposition; strongly protested on 7 Dec. 1770 against the recruitment of German and Irish Catholic troops, advocating compulsory service, if necessary, and the creation of a Scottish militia; he was equally emphatic in the debates of 19 Feb. and 4 Mar. 1771 against the plan to raise German and Irish regiments for the service of the East India Company ‘as increasing the influence of the Crown and creating a new standing army of foreigners’.

During the debates on the printers’ case in March 1771 he censured the Commons’ ‘avidity for prosecution’ as below the dignity of Parliament: ‘I see a new scene opened that affects the liberty of the press ... I do not like to see people so passionately fond of privilege’; and he contended that the public had a right to printed reports of parliamentary proceedings. In the heated debates over the conduct of Alderman Oliver and Brass Crosby he urged moderation, and voted against their commitment to the Tower.

In 1772 Dempster was elected a director of the East India Company, not on the house list but as the popular choice of the proprietors. He was closely concerned in the Company’s proposed reforms and in the selection of supervisors to be sent out to India; when Parliament rejected the plan Dempster, strongly objecting to Government intervention, early in March ‘disqualified as a director ... that he might be more at liberty in Parliament’; with the Duke of Richmond and the Johnstones he headed a group of dissident proprietors and was a frequent Opposition speaker in the debates of March-June 1773 on North’s Regulating Act. ‘I would rather return the territory to the Mogul than suffer it to be taken by the Crown.’ He opposed North’s American policy, and spoke against the Boston port bill and the Quebec bill.

During the recess Dempster married, but got little money with his wife, and after his unopposed return at the general election decided, mainly for reasons of economy, not to attend the next parliamentary session. He wrote to Sir Adam Fergusson, 26 Jan. 1775:

I have long thought ... that unless one preserves a little freedom and independency in Parliament to act in every question and to vote agreeably to ... one’s own mind, a seat in Parliament is a seat of thorns and rusty nails. That this cannot be attained without some ease in your affairs ... either you must be very rich or very frugal ... When single I lived on my salary in London the year round—as a married man this is impossible.

‘Having discharged his duty last year to America very conscientiously and very fruitlessly’, he believed his attendance would not affect the issue. He wrote to Fergusson:

The ministry are ... determined to adhere to their system, the Americans to their natural rights ... I foretell it will begin with bloodshed in America and end with a change of ministers and measures in England.

To his American friend Ralph Izard he wrote, 7 June 1775:

In Scotland, myself and a very few more excepted, the whole body of the gentry and of the independent and enlightened class of people are to a man on the side of Administration ... There is a principle against America as well as for her, insomuch that it would not be easy for a ministry more favourable to her to bring the bulk of the House over to their opinion.

Dempster returned to London for the autumn session of 1775, urged conciliation, opposed the prohibition of trade with America, and supported Fox’s motion for an inquiry into the ill-success of British arms. Believing that the American crisis might induce the Government to concede a Scottish militia, he assisted in drafting Lord Mountstuart’s bill and strongly supported it in the debates of March 1776. Dempster also favoured the extension of the Scottish franchise ‘now engrossed by the great lords, the drunken laird and the drunkener baillie’, and did not approve Dundas’s abortive proposals for limiting the creation of county votes. He wrote to Carlyle:

Instead of curtailing the right by cutting off superiors, let it be extended to vassals and tenants ... but I am Whig enough to think that the most beneficial law should not be crammed down the throats of any people, but their minds gradually prepared for the alteration.

Throughout 1777 Dempster maintained his opposition; demanded an inquiry into the civil list debts, 18 Apr.; criticized, 15 May, North’s financial measures and the system of contracts; intervened in the East India debate on 22 May to attack the intrigues of the Nabob of Arcot; but affirmed his independent views on West India trade and the Scottish militia.

Dempster’s finances had now been augmented by £1,000 p.a. bequeathed to him under the will of Sir Robert Fletcher. In December 1777 he went to France, and did not return to Parliament until spring 1779. Convinced that ‘the influence of the Crown is the true cause of the origin and absurd conduct of this American war’, Dempster supported Burke on economical reform, 15 Dec. 1779, and was a prominent Opposition speaker in the debates on pensions and the civil list establishment.

At the general election of 1780 Dempster, labelled by his opponents ‘a traitor to Scotland’ for his vote on Dunning’s motion, was modestly surprised by ‘the successful issue of his short campaign’. In the new Parliament he took the lead in opposing concessions to Irish trade at the expense of Scotland; was prominent in the East India debates in support of the Company’s rights, and maintained to the end his objections to the Bengal judicature bill. His ‘proverbial candour’ occasionally disconcerted his Opposition colleagues. When Fox on 21 June 1781 attacked George Johnstone for incompetence, suggesting that his naval command was a reward for going over to Administration, Dempster, who ‘never framed his friendship on such sandy ground as party consideration,’ joined North in defending Johnstone’s ability and integrity.

Dempster does not appear to have attended the winter session 1781-2; he did not vote in any of the divisions leading to North’s fall. No speech of his is recorded until 18 Apr. 1782, when he intervened in the Bengal judicature debate in defence of his friend Sir Elijah Impey. Although in general supporting the Rockingham Administration, Dempster maintained his independence in Indian, West Indian and Scottish affairs, and continued to press for a Scottish militia.

He voted for Shelburne’s peace preliminaries, 18 Feb. 1783, ‘as a thing absolutely necessary for the country’. He supported the Coalition with considerable reserve and remained uncompromisingly hostile to North. Although in 1782 he had supported Pitt’s motion for an inquiry into parliamentary representation and urged its extension to Scotland, he did not approve his proposed reforms of 7 May 1783: ‘As the representative of a borough he could not assent to give a vote that would lessen the influence of his constituents.’

Seeking nothing for himself, he disliked soliciting for friends. He wrote to Fergusson on 22 Sept. 1783:42

When you ask a minister to do a favour ... it founds an expectation that you will in return confer a favour upon him ... But the true spirit of our constitution ought to make it criminal in a Member of Parliament to offer any constituent the smallest personal favour. We shall never sit quite at our ease in Parliament till it may be said ... that we never obtained the slightest favour at court either for ourselves or others.

Over East India affairs Dempster during the long controversies had modified his views. He now wished to abandon all territorial claims and confine the Company’s activities to commerce. On Fox’s East India bill he expressed on 27 Nov. 1783 considerable misgivings:

All chartered rights should be held inviolable, one charter only excepted ... The charter of the E.I. Co ... ought to be destroyed for the sake of this country ... of India ... and of humanity. He ... conjured ministers to abandon all idea of sovereignty in that quarter of the globe. It would be much wiser ... to make some one of the native princes King ... and to leave India to itself. [But] ... he saw which way the House was inclined and therefore he should withdraw, as he would not vote, against his principles, for the throne of Delhi.

Shortly afterwards he left for Scotland, was absent during the change of Administration, and on his return in January 1784 was listed by Robinson as an opponent of Pitt. On 23 Jan. he strongly protested against a dissolution and welcomed Fox’s motion to reintroduce his bill. ‘He would now be able to modify it in respect of patronage and ... make it generally palatable.’ Dempster remained loyal to Fox, but as a member of the St. Alban’s Tavern group favoured a union of parties and preached moderation so that ‘something decisive’ might be done for India.

Returned unopposed at the general election, Dempster now became increasingly ‘elevated above all party views’. He was conciliatory to Pitt who, respecting his views on trade and finance, supported his motion for a committee on fisheries, which now became Dempster’s major interest. Over India he maintained his individual view that he would rather see Indian affairs ‘egregiously mismanaged’ by the court of directors than well managed by the Crown, and that it was impracticable to govern India from England. In the debate of 16 July 1784 he proposed:

That his Majesty should be requested to send over one of his sons and make him King of that country; we might then make an alliance or federal union with him and then we could enjoy all the advantage that could be derived from the possession of the East Indies by Europeans—the benefit of commerce.
Dempster was critical of Opposition attacks on Warren Hastings ‘to whom alone he imputed the salvation of India’.

In the new session he supported Pitt’s Irish propositions, although uneasy about their effect on Scottish trade and industry, and voted for them 13 May 1785; but in February 1786 he spoke and voted against Richmond’s fortification plans as unnecessary and extravagant. During the East India debates of 1786-7 Dempster remained a vehement defender both of Warren Hastings and of Impey; rebutted all Opposition charges against a governor general whom he eulogized for his integrity as statesman, soldier and financier; and justified even his severities. But he joined with Opposition leaders in pressing the complaints of the East India Company servants in Bengal; on 19 Mar. he moved for the repeal of the East India Acts of 1784-6 and proposed a new system of government under a viceroy, council, and a representative assembly of resident Europeans. Although frequently an advocate of free institutions and better representation, especially in Scotland, Dempster now seems to have limited his proposals to county representation, and on 28 May 1787 declined to support petitions for the reform of Scottish burghs.

In the House Dempster was respected as ‘one of the most conscientious men who ever sat in Parliament’, particularly for his efforts to curb taxation and reduce the national debt, and for his championship of the distressed, whether famine-stricken Highlanders, poor hawkers, or American loyalists. In Scotland he was honoured for his exertions both in and out of Parliament to encourage Scottish trade, agriculture, manufactures and fisheries. In furtherance of his schemes he purchased in 1786 the estate of Skibo, and on his Angus estate embarked upon plans for building the new village of Letham. During the summer of 1788 he decided not to seek re-election, and in November informed his constituents. He wrote, 10 July 1788, to Alexander Carlyle: ‘It is now twenty years since I have found my opposition to any measure one of the necessary accompaniments of its success’, and listed as examples the American war and Hastings’s prosecution.

He returned to Parliament for the new session and was a leading Opposition speaker in the Regency debates. On the King’s recovery he resumed his customary strictures on Government expenditure, seconded the motion for toleration for Scottish Episcopalians, but opposed the abolition of the slave trade without full compensation to the planters and traders affected. He made his last recorded speech on 22 July in favour of supplying corn to revolutionary France.

For the rest of his life he devoted himself to the development of Scottish fisheries, industries and communications, and the improvement of his own estates. He wrote to Adam Fergusson, 2 Aug. 1793:50

I am full of occupation from morning till night ... Although I don’t get into debt, I am pretty near as bare of money as I used to be ... I have ... the satisfaction of considering that I am done with Parliament after a service of thirty years neither suited to my fortune nor genius, where I never was metaphysician enough to settle to my own satisfaction the bounds of the several duties a Member owes to his King, his country, to purity or Puritanism rather, and to party, to myself and those who depended upon my protection ... but went on floundering like a blind horse in a deep road and a long journey.

He died 13 Feb. 1818.

Author: Edith Lady Haden-Guest

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