The Scottish Opposition to Sir Robert Walpole

Monday 24 June 2019

February 1742 signalled the end of Sir Robert Walpole’s twenty-year political career. His time in government was characterised by dominance in both domestic and foreign affairs. However, by 1741 this strong hold on the British Parliament was starting to unravel. This makes the period that I am studying, 1739-42, the final years of a long career and a time where parliamentary opposition strengthened and reached its pinnacle. In particular, I will be looking at the Scottish opposition to Walpole’s administration in relation to his fall from power. In addition, I will look to see whether the Scottish opposition was distinct from its southern counterpart and if being Scottish changed individual motivations when operating in Westminster against the Walpole regime.

Walpole had successfully managed a policy of peace abroad, despite tensions with Spain, for several years. Alongside this strategy of peace, Walpole aimed to reduce the national debt, exasperated by the South Sea Bubble Crisis, while reducing taxes for the landed gentry. Yet in October 1739 pressures led to war with Spain, and due to his poor conduct and the growing opposition towards his administration, Walpole won the 1741 general election but with such a reduced majority that in 1742 he resigned from all his positions. This short summary of the man of Walpole is the backdrop to my Laidlaw summer research and enables me to look at specific opposition from Scottish political families.

Sir Robert Walpole [1]
To begin dissecting these figures, their alliances, and their roles within the parliamentary opposition, my first week of research consisted mainly of background reading from secondary sources. Taking a step back and sifting through the various works on the eighteenth century helped give a broader understanding of the time. Things such as people’s place in society to the inner workings of the Scottish voting system. During my second week of research I moved on to the contemporary sources themselves, concentrating on the Scottish Whig political family, the Hume-Campbell’s, known more commonly as the Earls of Marchmont. Over this short time frame, the Marchmont family held political weight in both Scotland and England conversing with the likes of St John, Henry, first Viscount Bolingbroke, Alexander Pope and the great John Campbell, second Duke of Argyll. My main source due to this was the Collection of Papers of Alexander second Earl of Marchmont and his son Hugh Hume-Campbell, third Earl of Marchmont. Here the task was to pick up upon the main issues of Walpole’s government and in addition, the main ‘players’ in alliances in Scotland and England alike.

Alexander Hume, second Earl of Marchmont [2]
Going forward, the next few weeks of my first summer of research will take place at the National Records of Scotland (formerly the National Archives of Scotland) and the National Library of Scotland. Here my job will be to further my reading of contemporary sources, again from great Scottish opposition families, and their dealings with the other groups of anti-Walpole Whigs and Tories alike. When thinking about this part of the research I believe this is where I will be most challenged. The endless mass of sources could keep me occupied for years and years, but I only have two weeks. Therefore, being directive and honing down what I chose to concentrate on will be key. Yet, at the same time, researching in the archives is the aspect I am most looking forward to. To have the chance of studying the sources themselves adds another dimension to these men and women. So far I have loved the research, while overcoming the challenges that have arisen has made the experience more valuable.


I would first like to thank Lord Laidlaw for this great opportunity. In addition, my sincere thanks to my supervisor Dr Max Skjönsberg for his continued guidance throughout the process. Finally, I wish to thank the CAPOD staff for all their hard work.


[1] Jean Baptiste van Loo, Robert Walpole, 1st Earl of Orford, Palace of Westminster, 1740.

[2] Unknown, Alexander Hume Campbell, 2nd Earl of Marchmont, Paxton House, c.1710.

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