A Highland canvass in a ‘pocket county’: Ronald Gower (1845-1916) and the 1867 Sutherland by-election

Continuing our series on Scotland, Dr Martin Spychal, research fellow for the House of Commons 1832-1868 project, uses Ronald Gower’s diaries to provide some rare insights into mid-Victorian electioneering in the ‘pocket county’ of Sutherland.

If there was a History of Parliament award for ‘constituency most under the thumb of an aristocratic patron’, the Highland county of Sutherland would be a top contender. Following the Act of Union in 1707 a succession of earls, ladies, dukes and duchesses of Sutherland effectively controlled who would represent the county at Westminster.

G. Burnett & W. Scott, Map of the County of Sutherland (1853 Revision), CC NLS

The 1832 Reform Act, which extended Sutherland’s electorate from 20 life-rent tenants to a mere 104 voters (or around 2% of adult males) did little to challenge this influence. Most of the county’s electorate lived on land owned by the Sutherlands (the family owned 80% of the county), leaving one commentator to dismiss the constituency in 1838 as a ‘pocket county’ containing nothing but ‘serf voters’.

1860s carte-de-visite of Sutherland’s patron, the Duchess of Sutherland (1806-1868) CC NPG

Little had changed by February 1867, when Sutherland’s incumbent MP, David Dundas (1799-1877), advised his patrons, the Duchess of Sutherland (1806-1868), and her son, the 3rd duke of Sutherland (1828-1892), that he wanted to retire from Parliament. Over family discussions at the dinner tables of two of London’s most exclusive residences, Stafford House (now Lancaster House) and Chiswick House, the family settled on a new nominee – the duchess’s fourth son, Lord Ronald Gower (1845-1916).

While Gower’s return for Sutherland was all but guaranteed, it was still felt necessary that he embark on a full canvass of the county. Gower’s diary, which I’ve discussed elsewhere, offers a rare glimpse into electioneering in a constituency usually dismissed for its political inactivity. His account offers intriguing insights into how the Sutherland family maintained a network of relationships with the county’s voters and non-voters, the transformative role that the railways had on increasing connectivity between Westminster and the furthest reaches of the United Kingdom, and Sutherland’s breathtaking landscape.

After being informed by his brother on 13 May 1867 that he was to stand as the family’s nominee for Sutherland, Gower had to make hasty plans to complete the 600-mile trip to his family’s estate in Dunrobin.

1865 Albumen print of Lord Ronald Gower (1845-1916) by by Camille Silvy. CC NPG

I shall start for Dunrobin [from London] by Limited Mail tomorrow. I have written to all of the principal tenants to let them know what has and what will take place; and an address (by Sir D[avid Dundas]) will probably be published in some of the northern papers in a few hours.

London to Inverness train timetable June 1867. Gower took the 8.40 p.m. limited mail from London to Inverness. Elgin Courier, 7 June 1867

Gower left London Euston by train at 8.40 p.m. on Tuesday 14 May and arrived at Bonar Bridge at 6 p.m. the following evening, taking an ‘intensely cold’ ride on the top of a coach for the final leg of the trip to Dunrobin Castle. Over dinner Gower ‘had a chat about plans for the canvassing’ with his election agents, Joseph Peacock, the factor of the Dunrobin estate, and Donald Gray, a banker in nearby Golspie.

Over the following ten days Gower met Sutherland’s electors and non-electors in towns and villages across the south-east of the county before travelling north to meet electors around Tongue.

The Sutherland family seat, Dunrobin Castle CC Wikimedia

The first visit of his canvass on Thursday 16 May was to ‘old Mrs Houston’ of Kintradwell, likely the mother of William Houston of Kintradwell (1819-1898), who had started a preliminary canvass of the county when a vacancy appeared in 1861. Gower recorded that Mrs Houston ‘was highly delighted at seeing me and was a very amiable poor old lady. She is 88 and has still a marvellous memory’. Later in the day he visited Crakaig, before meeting ‘about 20’ voters at Helmsdale where ‘old Dr [Thomas] Rutherford was of great use’ as ‘he knew where all the electors lived and all about them’.

G. Reid, Dornoch (1877) CC Royal Scottish Academy of Art & Architecture

On Friday 17 May he canvassed in Dornoch and Little Ferry, and on Saturday endured ‘one very long day’s work from 10 a.m. till near 10 p.m’, visiting Lairg, Skibo, Achany and Bonar, when ‘it poured all the afternoon, and the east wind was bad’. Gower noted in his diary that it was ‘quite a relief waking on Sunday to remember that it was a no canvassing day’.

Resuming his canvass on Monday 20 May, Gower visited the Reid family at their Gordonbush estate, where he ‘fished at the top of the Brora and Blackwater but it was too cold for any sport’, and on the following day he returned to Little Ferry, before calling ‘on the electors at Golspie’. With a trip to the north of the county beckoning later in the week, he spent Wednesday 22 May meeting ‘about half a dozen electors’ at Brora, before ‘fishing again but not with the same success’. As he was leaving Brora he finally met William Houston, who Gower was disgruntled to find had caught ‘2 fine trout, rather aggravating’.

Gower tried his hand at fishing in Loch Brora and river Black Water, likely near Balnacoil where Black Water meets the Brora CC Andrew Tyron (2017)

Gower spent most of Thursday 23 May travelling the 40-mile journey via horse-drawn carriage from Dunrobin to Altnaharra, stopping on the way to meet voters at Lairg and Pittentrail. He arrived at Altnaharra Inn at 7 p.m. where he enjoyed ‘a very pleasant evening tete a tete … full of anecdotes and talk’ with Sutherland’s sheriff and returning officer, George Dingwall Fordyce (1809-1875). During dinner Gower was able to revel in:

the view of Clebrig [Ben Klibreck] from our sitting room window [which was] very fine and during sunset became of a deep purple; a cuckoo close to the house made it sound very spring like.

On the following morning [Friday 24 May] Gower travelled to Tongue, recording that the first leg of the journey ‘along Loch Loyal’ took in the ‘splendid view of Ben Loyal’ which ‘was almost covered with snow’. His guide at Tongue was John Crawford, of Tongue House, a long-serving factor for the Sutherland family estates. Gower travelled with Crawford to an auction at a farm in Borgie where he was ‘able to see many of the voters belonging to this Western part of the county, without having the time lost by going from one to the other’. He returned to the Altnaharra Inn that night.

Google Maps view of snow covered Ben Loyal on road from Altnaharra to Tongue in May 2015 Google Maps

Gower departed for Dunrobin the following morning [Saturday 25 May] at 9:30 a.m. stopping on the way at Lairg for a ‘lunch (of whisky)’ with the former MP for Ashburton, Thomas Matheson (1798-1873), of Achany House, before arriving home at Dunrobin Castle at 7 p.m. He enjoyed a leisurely Sunday – ‘there was no Kirk till 5’ – before preparing his election speech for the nomination, which had been arranged for the next day.  

As had always been expected, on Monday 27 May Gower was returned unopposed as MP for Sutherlandshire. He was elected at a brief, rain-soaked nomination outside Dornoch County Buildings, walking through the crowd to the hustings at 12:15 p.m., counting ‘fifty people or so formed [in] a semi-circle below’ who ‘looked imposing owing to the number of umbrellas’.

The 1867 nomination took place outside the Dornoch County Buildings and Court House, Highland Historic Environment Record

The nomination had concluded by 12:25 p.m., before the returning officer completed the legal formalities at Dornoch Court House. Gower then enjoyed a ‘large luncheon’ at Dornoch Inn with many of the electors he had met over the past ten days, before departing at 2 p.m. for Bonar Bridge to catch the 4 p.m. train to Inverness. Gower left Inverness at 10.18 a.m. the following morning, reaching London at 4.27 a.m. on Wednesday 29 May. He took his seat in the Commons the following day.


Further Reading

For details on how to access Sutherland’s draft constituency article for the History of Parliament’s Commons 1832-1868 see here.

For more on Ronald Gower see Martin’s blog series, ‘Lord Ronald Gower (1845-1916): the life of a queer MP at the time of the Second Reform Act’, Victorian Commons (2020)

For a history of the constituency of Sutherland between 1707 and 1832 see:

D. Hayton, ‘Sutherland’ HP Commons 1690-1715

E. Cruikshanks, ‘Sutherland’, HP Commons 1715-1754

J. Cannon, ‘Sutherland’, HP Commons 1754-1790

D. Fisher, ‘Sutherland’, HP Commons 1790-1820

T. Jenkins, ‘Sutherland’, HP Commons 1820-1832

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