GORDON, John (1661-1733)

GORDON (afterwards SUTHERLAND), John (1661–1733)

styled 1679-1703 Ld. Strathnaver; suc. fa. 4 Mar. 1703 as 16th earl of SUTHERLAND [S]

RP [S] 13 Feb. 1707, 1715, 1722, 1727

First sat 23 Oct. 1707; last sat 4 June 1733

bap. 2 Mar. 1661, 1st s. of George Gordon, 15th earl of Sutherland [S], and Jean, da. of David Wemyss, 2nd earl of Wemyss [S]. m. (1) 28 Apr. 1680 (with £30,000 Scots), Helen (d.1690), da. of William, Ld. Cochrane [S], 1s. d.v.p. 3da. (2 d.v.p.); (2) Catherine (d.1705), da. of Sir Lionel Tollemache, 3rd bt., of Helmingham, Suff., wid. of James Stuart, Ld. Doune [S] (1st s. d.v.p. of Alexander Stuart, 5th earl of Moray [S]), s.p.; (3) contr. 11 Aug. 1727, Frances (d.1732), da. and coh. of Sir Thomas Hodgson of Bramwith, Yorks., and wid. of Sir Thomas Travell of Milborne Wick, Som., s.p. KT 1716. d. 27 June 1733; 1 will intestate, admon. 3 Oct. 1733 to grandson William Sutherland, 17th earl of Sutherland [S].2

PC [S] 1687–8, 1690–1708; commr. union [S] 1706, justiciary, Highlands [S] 1697, 1701, police [S] 1714; pres. bd. of trade [S] 1715;3 PC 3 Jan. 1721-d.

Sheriff, Sutherland 1681–d.; commr. supply, Sutherland 1685, 1689, 1690, 1704, Inverness 1704; ld. lt. Caithness, Cromarty, Moray, Nairn, Ross and Sutherland 1715-25, stewartry of Orkney 1716-25; chamberlain, Ross 1721.

Col. regt. of ft. 1689-90, 1693-c.1701; lt.-gen. 1715.

Associated with: Dunrobin Castle, Golspie, Sutherland; Chelsea, Mdx.

According to Gilbert Burnet, bishop of Salisbury, in the biographical sketches included in Spring Macky’s edition of his father’s memoirs, Sutherland was a rough-hewn soldier, and an uncomplicated Whig: ‘a very honest man, a great asserter of the liberties of the people; hath a rough, good, sense; is open and free; a great lover of his bottle and his friend; brave in his person ... too familiar for his quality, and often keeps company below it’.4 In fact, Sutherland’s early connections were far from Whiggish. After he took over the management of the family estates in June 1681, his father resigning them to him by a crown charter, he attached himself to the arch-loyalist George Gordon, marquess of Huntly (later duke of Gordon [S]). Sutherland himself raised a troop of men in his own county to oppose Argyll’s rebellion in 1685.5 But after the Revolution, and Huntly’s departure for the continent, Sutherland judged it politic to raise forces for William and Mary.6 His past was not quickly forgotten, and his regiment was disbanded the following year, but in 1693 he was given a new commission, and after a period stationed in Scotland was sent to Flanders in 1694.7 Following the peace of Ryswick the regiment returned to the continent and in 1698 was in the service of the United Provinces, where it remained until at least the summer of 1701.8 Thereafter Sutherland left active soldiering to his son, William Sutherland, styled Lord Strathnaver, who was given a colonel’s commission for a foot regiment in May 1702. Sutherland himself concentrated on trying to secure promotion in his own military rank, and on pursuing his regimental arrears, which by 1716, with interest, amounted to over £24,000.9

Sutherland took his seat in the Scottish Parliament in 1704, on the encouragement of John Campbell, 2nd duke of Argyll [S]. After the death of his second wife in the following year he considered withdrawal from public life, informing Argyll that ‘my late unexpressably great loss has made me very indifferent to the world’. He added, ‘I have, I thank God, a competency to live a retired life, though the soldier trade by not being justly paid ... and being too much at court … has impaired my fortune not a little, so that now, unless to serve my queen, country or friend, I resolve never to stir out of Sutherland’. He was, however, concerned for his son’s commission, having heard rumours that the ruling ‘juncto’ in Scotland intended the regiment for another, and allowed himself expressions of bile against those who ‘cover their Jacobitish and self-interested designs’ with pretences of patriotism.10 In consequence he seems not to have fully carried out his threat to shun public affairs. He was certainly present in Edinburgh in April 1705 where – either from patriotism or pragmatism – he did nothing at the Privy Council to assist the court party to secure a reprieve from execution for the English merchantman Captain Thomas Green.11

By 1706, however, Sutherland was prepared to accept appointment to the Union commission as a duty he should not shirk.12 In January of that year the court of session had finally ruled against him in a lawsuit that he had inherited from his father, against John Lindsay, 19th earl of Crawford [S], over precedence in the Scottish peerage.13 He attended nearly all the joint meetings of the Union commissioners in London, and during the negotiations forged friendships with the Junto Whig lords John Somers, Baron Somers, and Charles Spencer, 3rd earl of Sunderland.14 In October, with the Scottish parliament about to meet, Sunderland wrote to say that he was ‘overjoyed to find things have begun with so good a face in your Parliament, and that there is so much reason to hope for success in this great affair of the Union. I assure you our great dependence is upon your lordship and your friends’.15 Privately, Sutherland wrote to James Hamilton, 4th duke of Hamilton [S], that in his opinion a federal arrangement would be easier to secure than an incorporating union, and for that reason preferable.16 In public, however, he supported the treaty throughout the ratification debates, voting for every clause, generally alongside Argyll, the Squadrone and the court. He was also in close touch with Daniel Defoe, the pro-Union agent in Edinburgh of Robert Harley, later earl of Oxford.17 His conduct so impressed the leader of the court party, James Douglas, 2nd duke of Queensberry [S], that he was happy to recommend Sutherland on this basis to John Churchill, duke of Marlborough, for promotion to lieutenant-general.18

By the time of Union Sutherland was owed some £1,650 in arrears on pension and salary from the Scottish government.19 In November 1706 he had reminded Marlborough of his request for a colonelcy in the Guards despite having been told that none would be disposed of until the Parliament in Edinburgh was over.20 Rebuffed, he turned for help to Sunderland, who was not only secretary of state but also Marlborough’s son-in-law. Sunderland reported that he had delivered a letter to Marlborough, ‘who expressed all the respect imaginable, for your lordship’, but repeated that the queen ‘was resolved to declare nothing of this kind, till everything was over in Scotland’.21 This answer did not satisfy Sutherland, who wrote to Marlborough’s secretary, Adam de Cardonnel, only to receive the same reply.22 Thus, unusually for a Union commissioner, he seems to have received no material benefit from the passage of the treaty, a point he was later to include among his grievances.23 More successful was his claim on 13 Feb. 1707 to a seat as one of the first representative peers.24 His contribution to the ratification of the Union was itself a strong recommendation, but his prospects were enhanced by support from Argyll. When Queensberry was drawing up a list of approved candidates his political lieutenant John Erskine, 22nd earl of Mar [S], noted that Argyll was very ‘desirous of Sutherland ... and he being one of the treaters and representing a very old family, we could not leave him out’.25 In the 1707 analysis of Patrick Hume, earl of Marchmont [S], he was described as ‘for Revolution by principle, influenced by Argyll’, and said to be able to influence William Morison in the Commons.

Sutherland first took his seat on 23 Oct. 1707 and was again present for the queen’s speech to the new Parliament of Great Britain on 6 November. His parliamentary career before 1715 comprised this one session of 1707-8, in which he attended 66 per cent of the sitting days and was named to 15 select committees, mostly on private bills. He did not attend after 1 Apr. 1708. His principal intervention in the session occurred during a debate on the bill to abolish the Scottish Privy Council. The House was in a committee of the whole on 5 Feb. when Sutherland spoke in favour of the bill, an intervention which went against the wishes of his former patron Argyll, and signalled alignment with the Squadrone. It was reported that James Graham, duke of Montrose [S], John Ker, duke of Roxburghe [S], and John Hay, 2nd marquess of Tweeddale [S], had joined Sutherland ‘for passing the bill, and that the duke of Argyll appeared the warmest against it’.26 On 4 Mar. 1708 Sutherland was named to the committee to prepare an address to the queen on the attempted French invasion.

Although he was still on good terms with Argyll, Sutherland’s new connection with the Squadrone tightened after Parliament was dissolved.27 He enjoyed an overpowering territorial influence in his namesake county (where the voters were his vassals), and deployed this in favour of the Squadrone in the 1708 general election, when he returned a distant kinsman, Sir William Gordon, bt.28 At the same time, his son and heir Strathnaver, was chosen for the local burgh district. Sutherland was delighted to be able to report to Sunderland that, in regard to the Commons, ‘our elections go pretty well’.29 His late arrival in Edinburgh for the election of the representative peers on 17 June caused anxiety for both Hamilton and Montrose, as Sutherland held the proxies of James Hamilton, 6th earl of Abercorn [S], Thomas Fairfax, Lord Fairfax of Cameron [S] and Peregrine Osborne, Viscount Osborne of Dunblane [S] (later 2nd duke of Leeds). Sutherland was himself included in the list agreed between the Squadrone and Hamilton, but he was not elected. He received only 47 votes, only slightly more than Marchmont, William Johnston, marquess of Annandale [S] and William Ross, 12th Lord Ross [S]. Writing to Sunderland he attributed his defeat to his votes against the Scottish Privy Council, which made him ‘obnoxious’ to the Scottish court interest, and concluded that ‘I should never have made a struggle but to serve the queen, my family and friends. I am not afraid of being now dropped’. 30 In July, though, he received an encouraging letter from Roxburghe: considering the protests that had been lodged against the election, ‘I believe there will be no difficulty of your Lordship’s and some more of our friends getting into Parliament’.31 Somers gave similar assurances.32 Taking encouragement, he joined Marchmont, Annandale and Ross in requesting information from the clerks on proper election procedures.33 This was followed by a paper in which they insisted that they had good ground to believe that ‘we and several others of the peers not returned by the clerks were legally chosen to be of the number of the 16 peers to represent the peers of … Scotland in the ensuing Parliament of Great Britain by a plurality of the most legal … votes’.34 This was the foundation of a petition which was to be presented at the beginning of the new Parliament.

In the meantime, Sutherland continued to solicit Marlborough for preferment, on his own behalf and his son’s. On 26 Oct. 1708 he was informed by Sunderland that ‘you may depend always upon everything I can do towards serving your lordship or anybody that belongs to you, and shall write to my Lord Marlborough, in relation to my Lord Strathnaver’s pretentions’. As the parliamentary session was imminent, Sunderland hoped that he would ‘lose no time in coming up, and you may depend upon all the assistance we can give, towards doing you justice, and bringing you into the House’.35 Sutherland replied from Edinburgh on 9 Nov., explaining that, although hitherto prevented from travelling south by a cold, he intended to be in London as soon as possible and sent his service to ‘all your lordship’s … friends’.36

The days preceding the opening of the Parliament on 16 Nov. 1708 were filled with frantic lobbying by the Scottish peers Sutherland, Annandale and Ross (Marchmont was absent in Scotland) and their ‘friends’ among the English Junto lords such as Sunderland, Somers and Thomas Wharton, earl (later marquess) of Wharton.37 Their petition claiming that the election of William Kerr, 2nd marquess of Lothian [S], David Wemyss, 4th earl of Wemyss [S], Hugh Campbell, 3rd earl of Loudoun [S], and David Boyle, earl of Glasgow [S], was invalid was presented on 18 November. It was not considered until 10 Jan. 1709, after the relevant papers had been brought from Edinburgh. A committee was appointed to investigate the peers’ election, which first reported on 17 Jan. and completed its proceedings at the end of the month. The votes were recalculated, according to resolutions already passed, and Sutherland’s total fell from 47 to 43, still insufficient to secure election. 

Following the ministerial revolution of 1710, Sutherland was among the allies of the Squadrone who boycotted the peers’ election on 10 Nov., although he did receive a vote from Glasgow holding the proxy of Osborne of Dunblane.38 Nor was Sutherland a candidate at the election of 8 Oct. 1713, although again at least one peer, George Mackay, 3rd Lord Reay [S], thought he was and entrusted his proxy to James Ogilvy, 4th earl of Findlater [S], with special instructions to vote for him. The family remained active in Commons’ elections, however, as both Sutherland and, increasingly, Lord Strathnaver continued to be the dominant, indeed the only, electoral force for the county of Sutherland.39 The earl was present in London in September 1714 at George I’s arrival, and according to the Whig Flying Post was insulted by some disaffected elements for ‘celebrating King William’s birthday’ with other gentlemen.40 He had an important ceremonial part in the coronation of the new king the following month.41 A contemporary Jacobite satire on the Scottish Whigs called him ‘the bravo of the party’ and suggested that his hard drinking had left him ‘much decayed in grace’.42 Although his regimental arrears remained unpaid, he was rewarded with several local appointments, including the lord lieutenancy of the six northern counties of Scotland, and, at last, promotion to lieutenant-general.43 When Mar raised the Pretender’s standard in Scotland Sutherland proceeded to his own county. He arrived at Dunrobin Castle in late September 1715 and immediately raised troops (partly at his own expense) which were then equipped by the government. His forces played a significant part in the containment and defeat of the Jacobite forces, including taking the important post of Inverness and overseeing the surrender of the Alexander Gordon, styled marquess of Huntly [S], son of his former patron.44 By that time he had already resumed his place as a representative peer following the election of 3 Mar. 1715. His later political and parliamentary career under the Hanoverian kings will be examined in the second part of this work. Sutherland died at Chelsea on 27 June 1733 and was buried at Dornoch in Sutherland.


  • 1 Douglas, Scots Peerage, viii. 353-5, where he is misidentified as the 15th earl of Sutherland, owing to the title’s tenure in the 16th century by Elizabeth, suo jure countess of Sutherland.
  • 2 Edinburgh Commissary Court, CC8/8/96, 102.
  • 3 CSP Dom. 1689–90, p. 462; CSP Dom. 1696, p. 168; CSP Dom. 1698, p. 405; CSP Dom. 1702–3, pp. 571–2; NAS, GD 86/852; P.W.J. Riley, Eng. Ministers and Scotland, 258.
  • 4 Macky Mems. 201.
  • 5 W. Fraser, Sutherland Book, ii. 41; Douglas, Scots Peerage, viii. 353.
  • 6 Fraser, Sutherland Book, ii. 42; CSP Dom. 1689–90, p. 184.
  • 7 CSP Dom. 1693, p. 26; CSP Dom. 1695, p. 27; CSP Dom. 1696, p. 463; CSP Dom. 1697, p. 159; NAS, E 94/16; E 100/21/1, 30.
  • 8 CSP Dom. 1698, pp. 154, 352; Fraser, Sutherland Book, i. 312.
  • 9 NLS, Sutherland mss, Dep. 313/529, petition of Sutherland to [George I], [1716].
  • 10 Fraser, Sutherland Book, ii. 200–2.
  • 11 Baillie Corresp. 74; Seafield Letters, 24.
  • 12 HMC Mar and Kellie, i. 255.
  • 13 Douglas, Scots Peerage, viii. 353-4; Information for the Earl of Sutherland, against the Earl of Crawfurd (1706); Petition for John Earl of Crawfurd, against the Earl of Sutherland (1706).
  • 14 Fraser, Sutherland Book, ii. 202–3.
  • 15 NLS, Dep. 313/532, Sunderland to Sutherland, 11 Oct. 1706.
  • 16 NAS, GD 406/1/9730.
  • 17 Fraser, Sutherland Book, i. 326; Crossrig Diary, 174, 181; HMC Portland, iv. 357; P.W.J. Riley, Union, 277, 330.
  • 18 Fraser, Sutherland Book, i. 327.
  • 19 CTB 1709, p. 115.
  • 20 Add. 61288, ff. 77–78.
  • 21 NLS, Dep. 313/532, Sunderland to Sutherland, 18 Jan. 1707.
  • 22 Ibid. Cardonnel to Sutherland, 10 Mar. 1706/7.
  • 23 NLS, Dep. 313/529, petition of Sutherland to [George I], [1716].
  • 24 NLS, ms 1026, f. 4.
  • 25 HMC Mar and Kellie, i. 374.
  • 26 Addison Letters, 90; HMC Mar and Kellie, i. 427; P.W.J. Riley, Eng. Ministers and Scotland, 33, 35, 95.
  • 27 NLS, Dep. 313/533, Argyll to Sutherland, 13 Nov. [1708]; NAS, GD 220/5/172/5.
  • 28 Bodl. Carte 180, f. 219.
  • 29 HP Commons 1690–1715, ii. 894; Add. 61631, f. 56.
  • 30 NLS, ms 1026, ff. 23-6, 28-35; Add. 61628, ff. 98, 114-17, 135-7, 169, 174–5; Add. 61629, ff.120-1.
  • 31 NLS, Dep. 313/532, Roxburghe to Sutherland, 9 July 1708; Add. 28055, ff. 406-9.
  • 32 Fraser, Sutherland Book, ii. 202–3.
  • 33 NLS, ms 14415, f. 155; NAS, GD 158/1174/33-34.
  • 34 NLS, ms 1026, ff. 41, 43.
  • 35 NLS, Dep. 313/532, Sunderland to Sutherland, 26 Oct. 1708.
  • 36 Add. 61631, f. 152.
  • 37 NAS, GD 158/1174/33-34, 44-48, 51, 63.
  • 38 NLS, ms 1026, ff. 62-63, 65-67.
  • 39 HP Commons 1690–1715, ii. 894.
  • 40 Flying Post, 23-25 Sept. 1714.
  • 41 Post Boy, 19-21 Oct. 1714.
  • 42 Lockhart Pprs. i. 592–3.
  • 43 NAS, GD 139/196.
  • 44 HMC Laing, ii. 186-7; TNA, SP 42/14/113; Wodrow Corresp. ii. 87, 155, 168; NAS, 220/1764/5; Douglas, Scots Peerage, viii. 354; D. Szechi, 1715, pp. 117, 131, 133, 184–8.