WEMYSS, David (1678-1720)

WEMYSS, David (1678–1720)

styled 1678-1705 Ld. Elcho; suc. mo. 11 Mar. 1705 as 4th earl of WEMYSS [S]

RP [S] 1707–10

First sat 23 Oct. 1707; last sat 18 July 1710

bap. 29 Apr 1678, 1st s. of Sir James Wemyss, Ld. Burntisland [S] (d.1682) of Burntisland, Fife, and Margaret Wemyss, da. and h. of David Wemyss, 2nd earl of Wemyss [S], and suo jure Countess of Wemyss [S]. educ. privately in England. m. (1) contr. 13 Aug. 1697 (with 100,000 merks), Anne (d.1700), da. of William Douglas, duke of Queensberry [S], 2s. (1 d.v.p.); (2) 5 Jan. 1709, Mary (d. bef. 8 Sept. 1712), da. and coh. of Sir John Robinson, 2nd bt., of Farming Woods, Northants.; (3) contr. 5 July 1716 (with 9,000 merks), Elizabeth (d.1721), da. of Henry Sinclair (St. Clair), 10th Ld. Sinclair [S], sis. of John Sinclair (St. Clair), Master of Sinclair, 1s. 2da. d. 13 Mar. 1720.1

PC [S] 1705.

Commr. supply Perth 1698, Fife 1704, union with England 1706-7.

Ensign, R. coy. archers 1703, lt.-gen. 1713, capt.-gen. 1715-d.; ld. high adm. [S] 1706­-7; v.-adm. [S] 1707­-14; council of ld. high adm. Apr.-Oct.1708.

Fell. Coll. of Physicians, Edinburgh 1705.

Associated with: Wemyss Castle, Fife, and Soho Sq., London.2

Wemyss was ‘a very fine gentleman’, according to the characterization by Gilbert Burnet, bishop of Salisbury, included in John Macky’s Memoirs: ‘very beautiful, hath good sense, and a man of honour’. Burnet also paid tribute to his ‘Revolution principles’: ‘he, as his family hath ever been, is zealous for the liberty of the people, and for bringing down the power of the crown.’3 However, Wemyss’s parliamentary career seems to have been influenced primarily by family connections, and by ongoing financial difficulties which were not dispelled by a succession of marriages and necessitated his acquiring the emoluments of office.

After the death of his maternal grandfather in 1679 Wemyss was accorded the courtesy title of Lord Elcho, since, in accordance with a novodamus of 1672, the earldom of Wemyss and the family estates passed to his mother (his father’s barony of Burntisland had been granted only for life). Little is known of his early education, but from the age of 17 he was in England, where he acquired the gentlemanly accomplishments of riding, fencing and dancing, enabling his admission in due course to the Royal Company of Archers, the monarch’s ceremonial bodyguard in Scotland.4 He briefly showed an interest in English politics, attending the opening of the English Parliament in November 1695, and some of the ensuing debates, and going to Court in May 1696, when he found the rooms ‘so thronged, that it was difficult to kiss his majesty’s hand’.5 After he had returned to Scotland and had made an advantageous match with the sister of James Douglas, 2nd duke of Queensberry [S], his mother resigned to him her interest in the bulk of the Wemyss estates. He worked hard to develop the natural resources on the property, which included coal deposits and salt pans, and attempted to establish a glass manufacture.6 But things did not go well: he confessed to his mother in January 1705 that ‘my circumstances run very parallel with the country’s, both very low at present’, so much so that he could not afford to go to court. Despite his brother-in-law’s prominence in the Edinburgh administration, he was not as yet active in Scottish politics; and as late as the spring of 1705 he was writing to his stepfather, George Mackenzie, earl of Cromartie [S] (who had married Lady Wemyss in 1700), that

folks here are gaping to know how they are to be disposed of, and all sides knowing nothing of the matter … only poor I live here close in the country in the same morose solitude and unconcern as ever. The greatest satisfaction proceeds from a view of not being an actor where there’s danger, but one may come to suffer by others’ procurement, though we are in most profound tranquillity hitherto.7

Nonetheless, when his mother died, Wemyss took his seat in the Scottish parliament, and in December 1705, while still declaring himself ‘a stranger to politics’, he was recommended by Queensberry as one of the Scots commissioners for the union negotiations.8 According to David Boyle, earl of Glasgow [S], Queensberry was concerned ‘that the earl of Wemyss should be named, he having made good advances to his grace’.9 Wemyss regularly attended the commissioners’ meetings, travelling down to London with Queensberry, and though he made no identifiable contribution to proceedings, he was rewarded in March 1706 with appointment as lord high admiral for Scotland, at a salary of £1,000 p.a.10 When the Scottish Parliament met in the autumn of 1706 Wemyss supported the Union in the two most important votes, but was absent for more than half the divisions, and on 21 Jan. 1707 joined in asserting the right of the Scottish parliament to decide for itself the manner of selecting Scotland’s representatives in the Parliament of Great Britain.11 At this time, together with Queensberry’s ally John Erskine, 22nd earl of Mar [S], he was engaged in meetings with James Hamilton, 4th duke of Hamilton [S], intended to bring Hamilton into support for the Union.12

Wemyss was returned on the court slate in 1707 as one of the first batch of Scottish representative peers in the British Parliament. Mar accounted for his inclusion through the Queensberry connection: ‘Lord Wemyss is in the queen’s service in a considerable post, was a treater, of a good family and of interest in the country, and he’s the only relation the commissioner has amongst them, upon all which reasons he could not be left out’.13 The 1707 analysis by Patrick Hume, earl of Marchmont [S], described him as ‘for Revolution but influenced by Queensberry’. At the same time, adverse popular reaction to the Union made Wemyss uncomfortable. In July he complained that

Our people grumble damnably at the coming of exchequer notes, and are mad at the thought of our wines being seized at London, or the necessity of giving bail … they are very angry with me too, because there’s privateers on the coast … my natural inclination is to be easy, and the surest way to purchase that is to hasten away so soon as ever I can, which I’m determined to do.14

Wemyss took his seat in the Lords on 23 October. He was present on 82 days of the session, 77 per cent of the total, and was named to 17 committees, including an address committee of 13 on 18 December. Otherwise, his only contribution of note was to sign the protest of 7 Feb. 1708 against passing the Squadrone-inspired bill to abolish the Scottish privy council. In May he was classed as a Whig on a printed list of the first Parliament of Great Britain.

While the Union may have adversely affected his own commercial activities (disrupting the established pattern of trade whereby coal from his estates had been exported to the United Provinces and Dutch goods imported in exchange) Wemyss drew some personal benefits.15 In compensation for the extinction of the office of lord high admiral of Scotland he was first awarded an annual pension of £1,000 p.a. and subsequently given a new office as vice-admiral for Scotland, at the same salary.16 On 9 Apr. 1708 Joseph Addison thought ‘the late intended invasion we hope may have a good influence on elections and recommend such as are entirely in the Revolution principles’ and linked this with the possibility that Wemyss would be appointed to the admiralty Council.17 Ten days later a commission was issued adding Wemyss to the council, although it lapsed in the following October with the death of Prince George, duke of Cumberland.

At the representative peers’ election on 17 June 1708 Wemyss appeared again as a court party candidate. His 51 votes were confined to the court list.18 The election, however, was hard fought, and several protests were made by defeated candidates. One derived from the fact that Cromartie had only voted for Wemyss and three other court peers; this gave rise to a petition to the Lords, backed by the Squadrone, alleging that the failure to cast all votes invalidated Cromartie’s participation.19 According to Marchmont, Wemyss only received 40 valid votes.20 On 21 June Wemyss dined with Sir Alexander Rigby, Mar, Glasgow, and Peregrine Osborne, marquess of Carmarthen (later 2nd duke of Leeds), who was also a Scottish peer (as Viscount Osborne of Dunblane [S]).21

Wemyss arrived in London on 26 Aug. 1708 and thus was in good time for the new Parliament which met on 16 Nov., although there is some confusion as to whether he was actually present that day as he was not marked as having attended, only as having taken the oaths. Upon arrival he wrote to David Leslie, 5th earl of Leven [S] of ‘the extravagant heart of the Junto’, who would have to ‘spare sail else their party will never keep up with them’, and of their determination to enter a ‘strict enquiry into our elections.’22 He was present on 58 days of the session, 63 per cent of the total, and was named to 11 committees. Although Wemyss was named in the petition of 18 Nov. complaining of the undue return of four representative peers, on the basis that he had received only 40 valid votes, when the inquiry into the election reported on 1 Feb. 1709, his vote was reduced by only seven and he retained his seat.23 He had been present on 19 Nov. 1708 when Queensberry was introduced into the House as duke of Dover, and when Queensberry’s right to participate in the election of representative peers was questioned by Hamilton on 21 Jan. 1709, Wemyss rallied to his brother-in-law’s defence and voted in his favour.24

The last weeks of the session saw Wemyss active on a matter of acute concern to all Scottish peers: the bill extending English treason laws to Scotland. He was present on 23 Mar. 1709 when the bill passed its third reading and on the 28th signed two protests against it. He was also in the House on 11 Apr. when the bill came back from the Commons and almost certainly attended a meeting two days later of members of the Scottish court interest with lord treasurer Sidney Godolphin, earl of Godolphin, to consider how to respond to the Commons’ amendments. On 14 Apr. he was again present when Charles Montagu, Baron Halifax, moved a further amendment, that the first clause should come into effect after the death of the Pretender rather than on 1 July 1709. Although ‘all the Scots went one way’ they could not prevent this alteration and were equally powerless to stop the second clause from being similarly amended.25

Wemyss remained in London after Parliament was prorogued on 21 Apr. 1709. When Cromartie urged him to reduce his expenditure by returning to live in Scotland he detailed his frugal lifestyle, which, he argued, was less burdensome to his estate than living directly upon it. 

I have reduced my family to as narrow a compass as is possible, and I’m sure nobody lives more private. My cook has no occasion to show his skill, and my equipage cannot be plainer then it is. I keep no table, nor no company eats with me but very rarely, when I desire it, and these only the admirals and gentlemen that are concerned in the sea and Admiralty Office, and with this design only—not to lose my friendship and interest with them, so as I may still be as serviceable as I can to serve my country or countrymen … As for the rattle and pleasures of London, nobody is or can be less affected with these then I am, and my wife has as little taste of them as one could wish. Plays and operas and park are places either of us are very seldom seen in, and, baiting visits, which we have no fondness for, but must just keep up mannerly with the world, we live as retired as if we were in the Highlands of Scotland. But the main thing of all is, how could I pretend to retire from the Parliament so long as I am in the queen’s service, and favour too, I hope. That would indeed be an effectual way to lose both; and then, I doubt, my estate would suffer more by my being thrown upon it, then all the advantage my overseeing of it could amount to … no earl of Wemyss ever was, that spent so little out of his own estate by a half and more than I’ve done these four year past, which I reckon very good service done the family. And should I now retire, when, suppose I’m not very young, yet but in a manner entering into the world, I know and you know, both that one is pretty much forgot, and often more neglected. This is not [to] say I’ve turned my back upon Scotland, for I do resolve to be as much and as often there as I can.26

His obvious need for further preferment presumably explains why in January 1709 he was thought likely to be given a vacancy on the Board of Trade; and why in the summer he was paid £250 as ‘royal bounty’ and granted a civil list pension of £500 p.a. in addition to his salary as vice-admiral.27

Wemyss attended the prorogation of 6 Oct. 1709. During the winter session of 1709-10, perhaps aware of his need to be visible, Wemyss attended 74 per cent of the sittings and was named to 22 committees. However, by this time Queensberry’s party was disintegrating. Queensberry himself was being sidelined while his former lieutenant, Mar, was moving into alignment with Robert Harley, (later earl of Oxford). Wemyss had always been on close terms with Mar, and seems to have sensed a shift in the political wind. In mid-January 1710 Richard Dongworth informed William Wake, bishop of Lincoln that Wemyss was one of those Scottish peers ‘not disaffected’ to Episcopalianism.28 Sacheverell’s impeachment trial indicated some movement. On 14 Mar. 1710, Wemyss joined Hamilton, Mar, David Carnegie, 4th earl of Northesk (Wemyss’s brother-in-law), John Campbell, 2nd duke of Argyll [S], and Archibald Campbell, earl of Ilay [S], in voting and protesting against the decision not to adjourn the House following the report of the committee charged with investigating precedents that in impeachments for high crimes and misdemeanors, it was necessary to specify expressly the particular words supposed to be criminal. However, when the substantive question was put, Wemyss and the Campbell brothers voted the other way.29 On 16 Mar. Wemyss voted along with Hamilton, Mar, and Northesk against putting the question that the Commons had made good the first article of the impeachment, on the grounds that ‘there are no reflections therein contained on the memory of the late King William, nor the Revolution; and that there is no offence charged therein upon Doctor Sacheverell against any known law of the land’. He signed the subsequent protest.30 However, he did not subscribe the protest after the question had been put and resolved in the affirmative. On 20 Mar., to the surprise of John Churchill, duke of Marlborough, Wemyss voted Sacheverell not guilty.31 The next day Wemyss again divided in favour of Sacheverell, on the question of denying him future preferment.32 On 30 Mar. 1710 he was named as one of the conference managers on the Eddystone Lighthouse Bill.

However the most important piece of legislation for Wemyss in this session related to his second marriage, in January 1709. This was a very favourable match, since his new wife, one of two daughters and coheiresses of a Northamptonshire baronet who had died in the early 1690s, was reputedly worth £15,000, and as Lady Pye put it, Wemyss ‘hath two sons and all his land tied.'33 The bill gave legal force to articles of partition between the earl and countess of Wemyss and the countess’s sister, Anne Robinson, of estates in Oxfordshire, Northamptonshire and Kent and for vesting their respective moieties in trustees to be sold. It was given a first reading on 24 Feb. 1710, was reported from committee on 13 Mar. by Laurence Hyde, earl of Rochester, and passed the following day. In the Commons the bill was managed by Rochester’s associate, Francis Gwyn, and after minor amendments, it received the royal assent at the end of the session.34 In November 1712, shortly after his wife’s death, Wemyss sold one of the estates, Nuneham Courtenay in Oxfordshire, to the lord keeper, Simon Harcourt, Baron Harcourt, but was forced to take a low offer: even at £17,000 the property was ‘the cheapest pennyworth that ever was bought in Oxfordshire’.35

Following the prorogation of 5 Apr., Wemyss attended a further seven prorogations between 18 Apr. and 18 July 1710. By this time he had become firmly attached to Mar’s interest, and, through Mar, to Harley, who in October 1710 obtained from him a detailed report on the administration of the Scottish customs. Wemyss co-operated with Mar in preparing for the peers’ election on 10 Nov. and was present at it (holding the proxies of William Forbes, 12th Lord Forbes [S] and Kenneth Sutherland, 3rd Lord Duffus [S]), but was not re-elected himself, and remained in Scotland.36 On 9 Jan. 1711 he wrote disconsolately to Harley, ‘the earl of Mar tells me you do me the honour to remember me, and it’s almost the only pleasure I have in this place to think I’m not forgot by those whom I honour and esteem’.37 In February Harley received a report from Daniel Defoe on the political attitudes of various Scottish peers which in reference to Wemyss read, ‘I cannot say for his steadiness so much, but he stands well enough with the ministers and is generally beloved.’38 Wemyss continued to cultivate Harley’s goodwill from afar. He was rewarded in 1713 when Harley, now earl of Oxford, afforded him ‘protection’ from inquiries in the Commons into his vice-admiral’s salary.39

On An Exact List Wemyss was noted as a ‘Tory patriot’, even though he was no longer in Parliament. Indeed, in Scottish politics he was now strongly identified with the Tory and Episcopalian interest.40 In the summer of 1712 he signed an address to the queen from the nobility and gentry of Fife, thanking her for communicating the peace terms, in the face of ‘factious and seditious practices at home, and ingratitude abroad’.41 Then in the following September it was reported that he and a group of Scots peers had gone from Mar’s house ‘in two coaches with six through Stirling to Mr Hunt’s meeting house, to the no small mortification of the Kirk there, where they joined with the most excellent service of the Church of England to their great satisfaction and pleasure, both forenoon and afternoon and heard two sermons’.42

Although Wemyss entertained thoughts of standing for election again in 1713, the political situation was unfavourable.43 At the Hanoverian succession he lost his office and his pension.44 Despite his closeness to Mar he did not turn to Jacobitism; he was to be found in Edinburgh in December 1715 with other pro-Hanoverian peers, while in his absence Wemyss Castle ‘held out’ against the Pretender’s forces.45 He signed a petition against the peerage bill in March 1719.46

Wemyss died at Wemyss Castle, 13 Mar. 1721, after a short illness.47 The family remained strongly Episcopalian, and in the ’Forty-Five his grandson David, Lord Elcho, heir apparent to the earldom, held a high command in the forces of Prince Charles Edward, and was subsequently attainted.48


  • 1 Elegy on the Much To Be Lamented Death of David Earl of Weems.
  • 2 Sir W. Fraser, Memorials of Fam. of Wemyss, iii. 176.
  • 3 Macky Mems. 250.
  • 4 Douglas, Scots Peerage, viii. 506; Fraser, i. 327.
  • 5 Fraser, iii. 152-3.
  • 6 CTB, xxxii. 217; J. Macky, Journey through Great Britain (1714-29), iii. 82-83.
  • 7 Fraser, iii. 168-9.
  • 8 APS, xi. 212; NAS, GD 124/15/271.
  • 9 HMC Mar and Kellie, i. 240.
  • 10 NAS, GD 124/15/461; HMC Mar and Kellie, i. 253; Luttrell, Brief Relation, vi. 31; CTB, xxii. 175, 369.
  • 11 APS, xi. 314, 326, 329, 332, 388, 404, 416; P.W.J. Riley, Union, 330.
  • 12 HMC Mar and Kellie, i. 341.
  • 13 HMC Mar and Kellie, i. 374; NLS, ms 1026, f. 4.
  • 14 HMC Mar and Kellie, i. 342.
  • 15 Riley, Union, 277.
  • 16 CTB, xxiii. 282; xxiv. 257, 414; CTP, 1708-14, pp. 193-4.
  • 17 Addison Letters, 107.
  • 18 NLS, ms 1026, ff. 28-35; TNA, SP 54/3/29; Add 28055, ff. 40­9-11; Add. 61628, ff. 114-17, 174-5; NAS, GD 158/1174/16, 18-21.
  • 19 Post Man, 24-26 June 1708; HMC Mar and Kellie, i. 453; HMC Lords, n.s. viii. 2; HMC Portland, x. 155.
  • 20 NAS, GD 158/1174/18-21.
  • 21 Add. 28055, ff. 410-11.
  • 22 Fraser, iii. 173.
  • 23 NAS, GD 158/1174/18-21.
  • 24 SHR, lviii. 173-4.
  • 25 NLS, ms. 7021, f. 171.
  • 26 Fraser, iii. 176-7.
  • 27 Luttrell, Brief Relation, vi. 400; CTB, xxiii. 300; xxvii. 546.
  • 28 Christ Church, Oxf. Wake mss 5, ff. 13-14.
  • 29 NLS, ms 7021, f. 209.
  • 30 Longleat, Bath mss, Thynne pprs. 46, ff. 259-60.
  • 31 Marlborough-Godolphin Corresp. 1445.
  • 32 G. Holmes, Trial of Sacheverell, 286.
  • 33 Luttrell, Brief Relation, vi. 395; Add. 70149, Lady A. Pye to A. Harley, 21 Jan. 1708/9.
  • 34 Douglas, Scots Peerage, viii. 507; HMC Lords, n.s. viii. 361­-2.
  • 35 HMC Portland, vii. 115.
  • 36 HMC Portland, x. 156, 181-2, 346-8; NLS, ms 1026, f. 62.
  • 37 Add. 70027, ff. 7-8.
  • 38 HMC Portland, iv. 661.
  • 39 HMC Portland, x. 185, 199-200, 206, 482.
  • 40 NAS, GD 112/39/268/34; GD 45/14/368.
  • 41 London Gazette, 2-5 Aug. 1712.
  • 42 Bodl. Ballard 36, f. 136.
  • 43 HMC Portland, v. 313.
  • 44 Riley, Eng. Ministers and Scotland, 258.
  • 45 British Weekly Mercury, 28 Dec. 1715-4 Jan. 1716; HMC Stuart, iii. 513.
  • 46 Add. 70269.
  • 47 Douglas, Scots Peerage, viii. 507.
  • 48 Fraser, iii. 196-7.