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May 29th 1811

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'King' Henry Dundas

Henry Dundas was the complete 18th Century politician. He had few original ideas, even fewer ideals, but was an expert in the art of political manipulation.

For over thirty years his powers in Scotland were almost complete and through the control of patronage he was able to deliver the votes of almost all the 45 Scottish MP’s. He was known as King Harry, the 9th of Scotland, but there were others who referred to his period of power rather less fulsomely as ‘Dundas Despotism’, while to Burns he was “slee Dundas.” 

Under William Pitt he became Secretary of State of the Home Department, President of the India Board, Secretary of State for War, Treasurer of the Navy and First lord of the Admiralty. Dundas at least deserves thanks for his efforts to improve conditions in the factories, and he was responsible for the final emancipation of the miners who had previously been in a condition of virtual slavery, being ‘tied’ with their wives and children to the mine owner.

The ferment of ideas produced by the Scottish Enlightenment passed Dundas by and his attitude towards the French Revolution was both negative and repressive. Already there were demands for parliamentary reform with a more representative electorate and the prevention of open bribery, but once again Dundas was uninterested. But things were changing in England and more particularly in Scotland. Here there had always been an egalitarian tradition which co-existed with what were in effect feudal institutions.

Now, spurred on by the success of the revolution in France, radical associations began to be formed in many Scottish towns coming together as ‘Societies of Friends of the People’. Dundas, as Home Secretary, conducted a vigorous campaign against the Associations. The leaders were arrested, charged with sedition and almost without exception sentenced to fourteen years transportation to Botany Bay. The power of ‘Friends of the People’ was broken but the power of the Tory administration was being eroded too.

In 1802 Dundas was created Baron Dunira and Viscount Melville, but only two years later, after a commission of enquiry reported on the finances of the Navy, Dundas was impeached for speculation. In Scotland, Henry Cockburn maintained, “people could scarcely believe their senses.”  In truth, the malpractices were not too venal by the standards of the times. Public funds were borrowed by a fellow Scot, Alexander Trotter, who was paymaster to the Navy. The money was later paid back and at no time did Dundas personally profit from the transactions. Nevertheless he was forced to resign and though he was later acquitted by his peers, he never again held public office.

In 1784 he bought the estate of Dunira between Comrie and Loch Earn and spent much money on improving it. He visited Dunira whenever possible and was personally popular in the district. After his death in May 1811 an obelisk of Glenlednock granite was erected on Dunmore hill, “by his personal friends in the county of Perth in grateful recollection of his public services and of his private virtues.” 

A magnificent view awaits those who are prepared to climb the hill. The Glenlednock Circular Walk, of which Dunmore is part, is also well worth a visit.

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