Sep 01 2008

The Commission on Forfeited Estates, 1716: on this day

1 September marked the first meeting, in 1716, of the Scottish Commission on Forfeited Estates; in the words of one historian1, ‘a spectacular bureaucratic fiasco‘. This passage is from Chambers’ Domestic Annals of Scotland2:

This day met at Edinburgh a set of commissioners appointed under a late act ‘to inquire of the estates of certain traitors, and of popish recusants, and of estates given to superstitious uses, in order to raise money out of them for the use of the public3.’ The first and most prominent object was to appropriate the lands of the Scottish nobles and gentlemen who had taken part in the late insurrection for the House of Stuart. Four out of the six com­missioners were Englishmen, members of the House of Commons, and among these was the celebrated Sir Richard Steele, fresh from the literary glories he had achieved in the Tatler, Spectator, and Guardian, from his sufferings in the Whig cause under Anne, and the consolatory honours he attained under the new monarch.

It was a matter of course that strangers of such distinction should be honoured in a city which received few such guests; and doubtless the government officials in particular paid them many flattering attentions4. But the commissioners very soon found that their business was not an easy or agreeable one. There was in Scotland plenty of hatred to the Jacobite cause; but battling off its adherents at Sheriffmuir, and putting down its seminaries, the Episcopal chapels, was a different thing from seeing an order come from England which was to extinguish the names and fortunes of many old and honourable families, and turn a multitude of women and children out of house and home, and throw them upon the charity of their friends or the public. Most of the unfortunates, too, had connections among the Whigs themselves, with claims upon them for commiseration, if not assistance; and we all know the force of the old Scottish maxim—eternal blessings rest on the nameless man who first spoke it that bluid is thicker than water.

It was with no little surprise and no little irritation that these English Whig gentlemen discovered how hard it was to turn the forfeited estates into money, or indeed to make any decent pro­gress at all in the business they came about. The first and most vexatious discovery they made was, that there was a code of law and frame of legal procedure north of the Tweed different from what obtained to the south of it. The act was framed with a regard to the practices of English law, which were wholly unknown and could not be recognised in Scotland. Then as to special impedi­ments—first came the Scotch Court of Exchequer, with a claim under an act of the preceding year, imposing a penalty of five hundred pounds and loss of liferents and whole movables on every suspected man who did not deliver himself up before a certain day: all of the men engaged in the late insurrection had incurred this penalty; the affair came under the Exchequer department; and it was necessary to discriminate between what was forfeited by the one act and what was forfeited by the other.

There was something more obstructive, however, than even the Scottish Exchequer. The commissioners discovered this in the form of a body called the Court of Session, or, in common language, ‘the Fifteen,’ who sat periodically in Edinburgh, exer­cising a mysterious influence over property throughout the country, and indulging in certain phrases of marvelous potency, though utterly undreamed of in Southern Britain. Here is how it was. The act had, of course, admitted the preferable claims of the creditors of the traitors, and of those who had claims for marriage and other provisions on their estates. On petitions from these persons—in whose reality the commissioners had evidently a very imperfect faith—this Court of Session had passed what, in their barbarous jargon, they called sequestrations of the said estates, at the same time appointing factors to uplift the rents, for the benefit of the aforesaid persons in the first place, and only the commissioners in the second. What further seemed to the commissioners very strange was, that these factors were all of them men notedly disaffected to the Revolution interest, most of them confidential friends, some even the relatives, of the forfeited persons, and therefore all disposed to make the first department of the account as large, and the second as small, as possible. Nor was even this all, for, as had been pointed out to them by some of the Established clergy of Forfarshire, these factors were persons dangerous to the government. For example, Sir John Carnegie of Pitarrow, factor on the Earl of Southesk’s estate, was the man who, on the synod of Angus uttering a declaration in 1712 for the House of Hanover, had caused it to be burned at the head burgh of the shire. John Lumsdain, who was nominated to the charge of the estates of the Earl of Panmure, had greatly obstructed the establishment of the church in the district, and proved altogether ‘very uneasy to presbyteries and synods.’ Suppose the unruly king of Sweden5 should land on the east of Scotland, there were all the tenants of those large estates in the obedience of men who would hail his arrival and forward his objects!

The general result was, that the commissioners found them­selves stranded in Edinburgh, as powerless as so many porpoises on Cramond sands6, only treated with a little more outward respect. One proposal, indeed, they did receive (January 1717), that seemed at first to be a Scottish movement in their favour —namely, an offer from the Lord Advocate7, with their concurrence, to commence actions in the Court of Session for determining the claims of creditors; but, seeing in this only an endless vista of vexatious lawsuits, they declined it8’, preferring to leave the whole matter to be disposed of by further acts of the legislature.

  1. Margaret Sankey, ‘Jacobite Prisoners Of The 1715 Rebellion: Preventing And Punishing Insurrection In Early Hanoverian Britain‘, Ashgate, 2005, at page 138. [back]
  2. The whole of the ‘Domestic Annals’ are published online here. [back]
  3. By the Crown Lands (Forfeited Estates) Act 1714, the estates of rebels were forfeited to the crown; in 1719, commissioners were appointed as trustees for the sale of these estates. The Act was repealed by the Roman Catholic Relief Act 1926 [back]
  4. Steele, it should be said, seems to have been immune to this flattery, pointedly giving dinners to which he invited only the beggars of Edinburgh [back]
  5. King Charles XII of Sweden had in fact been planning an invasion of Scotland at this time, but that was thwarted when Hanoverian troops commanded by General Wade seized and ransacked the Swedish Embassy in London in January 1716, finding papers which revealed this plan. The whole papers were published by the British government as a ‘vindication of the very unusual step taken against a foreign ambassador‘ (Taylor’s History of Scotland, II, page 878). [back]
  6. A dolphin was stranded there in 2002, and a killer whale in about 1912, but I know of no mass stranding. [back]
  7. Sir David Dalrymple, son of Lord Stair and brother of Janet on whom Sir Walter Scott based Lucy Ashton, heroine of The Bride of Lammermoor. [back]
  8. Sankey quotes the offer, which she rightly describes as ‘smoothly insolent‘ [back]
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