From the Book of Eminent Burgesses of Dundee 1513 to 1885.

Magister George Dempster of Dunnichen - 29th September 1761



There are few of the burgesses of Dundee whose names are entered on the Roll at this date that have a higher claim to be remembered by the present generation as benefactors of the Burgh than GEORGE DEMPSTER of Dunnichen. His family had been connected with the commercial prosperity of Dundee for a century before the enrolment of his name as a Burgess, and for more than half a century afterwards he was one of the foremost guardians and promoters of the welfare and advancement of his native Burgh. No elaborate biography of him is necessary here, since his life has been repeatedly written at various times. The following sketch is therefore intended merely to supply several facts regarding his career that have not hitherto been utilized.

GEORGE DEMPSTER was descended from the family of DEMPSTER of Auchterless and Muresk, and traced his genealogy from a contemporary of DAVID II. The grandfather of GEORGE DEMPSTER, after whom he was named and through whom he claims the privilege of his freedom, was the son of the Rev. JOHN DEMPSTER, last Episcopal incumbent of Monifieth, who died in 1708. The first GEORGE DEMPSTER was born at Monifieth in 1677, and came to Dundee at an early age, where he amassed a considerable fortune as a merchant and banker. His town house lately altered and included in Messrs KEILLER & SONS' confectionery works stood in Rankine's Court, off High Street, and he became proprietor by purchase of the estates of Dunnichen, Newbigging, Omachie, Laws, and Ethiebeaton all in the shire of Forfar. A portion of this fortune was made by exporting grain, and as the prevailing notion of the time was that exportation was the cause of dearth, Mr DEMPSTER came into serious conflict on one occasion with the populace. He had two vessels lying in the harbour of Dundee on 5th February, 1720, laden with barley destined for a foreign port. A mob gathered at the pier, took possession of the cargoes, and confiscated them for the public use. To avenge themselves upon Mr DEMPSTER, the rioters, attacked and gutted the house, shops, cellars, and lofts of that gentleman, carrying off everything of value they contained, including twelve silver spoons, a silver salver, and two silver boxes, one of them containing a gold chain and twelve gold rings some hair ones and others set with diamonds" (Chambers' Domestic Annals of Scotland, Vol. III., page 452). This incident affords some idea of the wealth and social position of GEORGE DEMPSTER, senr. on 2nd June, 1753, he died, leaving one Son, JOHN (born 1703*), to succeed him. JOHN DEMPSTER also resided in Dundee, and here his two sons by his first Wife, ISOBEL OGILVIE, were born the birth of the eldest, GEORGE, being recorded in the Register under date December, 1732. He was married a second time on 8th November, 1740, to Mrs STEWART HAMILTON, as is shown by the Register of Marriages in Dundee; and he was killed by a fall from his horse on 3rd November, 1754. A monument to his memory is erected in the Church of St Vigeans.* GEORGE DEMPSTER had thus reached his majority before his father's death.

The birthplace of GEORGE DEMPSTER was the mansion in Rankine's Court, and here he spent the days of childhood, receiving the rudiments of his education at the Grammar School of Dundee. His more advanced studies were begun at St Andrews University and completed at Edinburgh; and, having chosen the Law as his profession, he was admitted a member of the Faculty of Advocates on 1st March, 1755. It is, therefore, by his designation as Advocate that his name appears on the Burgess Roll. Whilst at Edinburgh he was thrown into the society of the most eminent literary men of his time, and numbered amongst his intimate acquaintances the learned PRINCIPAL ROBERTSON; DAVID HUME, the historian; JOHN HOME, the dramatist; ALEXANDER CARLYLE, the well known minister of Inveresk; and ADAM FERGUSSON, the renowned Professor of Moral Philosophy. He was one of the early members of the Select Society, the most famous of the many literary and convivial Associations of the period, and thus came constantly into contact with some of the advanced thinkers of the day. As the fortune which his father had left him was amply sufficient for his wants, he did not practise long at the Bar, but spent much of his time in foreign travel.

The attention of Mr DEMPSTER had been specially directed towards politics as affording scope for the exercise of his exceptional talents, and, accordingly, he was the successful candidate for the representation of the Perth Burghs, including Forfar, Perth, Dundee, Cupar, and St Andrews, in the Parliament of 1761 8. The cost of this election is said to have amounted to over £10,000, and ultimately caused him to sell, in 1771, four of the estates which he had inherited. He entered Parliament as an independent member, and very soon attracted notice, even amongst the brilliant politicians who then adorned the Senate. The following interesting reference to his first

* The date is usually given as 1706, but the Register of Baptisms for 1703 records that "George Dempster's son was baptised in the Meeting house."

* The tombstone at St Vigeans bears the date 2nd November, 1753, but the correct date is given in tile Scots Magazine, where the death is announced.

appearance in the House of Commons occurs in a letter written by LORD GEORGE, SACKVILLF, son of the DUKE OF DORSET, to GENERAL IRWIN, dated 16th November 1761

"A new Scotch member, a Mr Dempster, show'd a strong desire of speaking, and seems to have abilitys sufficient to make him an object. In short, he promises well, and tho' he diverted the House by a becoming ignorance of its forms, yet he proved that he neither wanted language, manner, nor matter."

His candour and fearlessness were not always well received by his English political adversaries; and as the unpopularity of the EARL OF BUTE, then Prime Minister to the youthful KING GEORGE III., had been extended to allthat nobleman's fellow countrymen, GEORGE DEMPSTER was often hardly judged by them. Amongst his severest critics DR SAMUEL JOHNSON may be ranked, as is shown by the following extract from a letter to LORD HAILES, written by JAMES BOSWELL on 23rd July, 1763. Both LORD HAILES and BOSWELL had become acquainted with DEMPSTER through the Select Society, of which they were members:

"Mr Johnson did me the honour to sup with me at my chambers some nights ago. Entre nous, he said that Dempster, who was also with me, gave him more general displeasure than any man he has met with of a long time. He saw a Pupil of Hume and of Rosseau totally unsettled as to principles, and endeavouring to puzzle and shake other people with childish sophistry. I had infinite satisfaction in hearing solid truth confuting vain subtilty."

The Parliamentary career of GEORGE DEMPSTER extended continuously from 1761 till 1790, a period of nearly thirty years, during which time he represented the Perth Burghs almost without intermission. He was appointed Secretary to the Order of the Thistle on 17th January, 1766, which office he retained for fifty three years. In the official Returns of Members of Parliament for 1774 80 he is described as "Provost of St Andrews," a fact which has escaped the notice of his biographers. His services thus began almost with the reign of GEORGE III., and covered the stormiest portion of that Monarch's supremacy. To examine in detail his Parliamentary work during these years would require considerable space, but the following summary of his more important services, which is quoted from A Century of Banking in Dundee, by C. W. BOASE, will show how far his opinions were in advance of those of his contemporaries

"He opposed the contest with the American Colonies, maintaining that taxes could not be constitutionally imposed without representation. At the conclusion of the first American War he urged a reduction of the military establishment, and the abolishing of sinecures and of unmerited pensions. He supported PITT when he came into power, especially in respect to the establishment of a Sinking Fund. He attended much to the promotion of commerce and manufactures generally, but turned his attention particularly to the improvement of the deep sea fisheries on the coasts of Scotland. After many unsuccessful attempts, he obtained leave to nominate a Committee to consider this matter. Having been appointed a Director of the East India Company, in opposition to the usual House list, his acquaintance with their affairs led him to consider that the Company should give up their territorial acquisitions, and restrict themselves to commerce. Being thus opposed to the views of the majority of the Directors, he withdrew from the Board, and became a strong Parliamentary opponent of the Company. . . . He gave his support to the Grenville Act in 1785 for deciding contested elections by Committees chosen by ballot. He opposed the Ministry on the Regency Question in 1788 9, declaring such an executive would "resemble nothing that ever was conceived before an un Whig, un Tory, odd, awkward, anomalous monster."' Even from this incomplete list it will be seen that his attitude was similar to that of the extreme Liberal of the present day, and that at a time when such sentiments did not meet with much favour in Parliament. His constituents in Dundee, however, thoroughly approved of them, as is shown by the following Minute of the Town Council, dated 26th September, 1763:

"It was unanimously resolved that the Thanks of the Town Council be presented in the most respectful manner to Mr Dempster for his upright and steady Conduct in Parliament, where, despising ffaction, Party measures, and other low Pursuits, the true interest of his Country has been his sole aim; which not only reflects the greatest Honour upon himself, but also, in some measure, on the District of Burrows represented by him in that Assembly."

No subject calculated to advance the commercial welfare of Scotland escaped his notice; and on 13th July, 1786, the Convention of Royal Burghs presented him with a service of silver plate in acknowledgment of his patriotic labours. About the same time the Burgh of Dundee engaged GEORGE WILLISON to paint Mr DEMPSTER'S portrait,* which was hung up in the Council Chamber, and is now placed in the Permanent Collection of Pictures in the Albert Institute. The feelings of admiration with which he was regarded by his Dundee constituents twenty seven years after his first election were expressed in the Minute of Town Council, dated 22nd November, 1788, in these terms:

"The Provost [Alex. Riddoch] produced in Council a Letter from Mr Dempster, their Representative in Parliament, signifying his intention of not offering himself a Candidate at the next General Election, and mentioning his indifferent health as a reason. The Letter being read, the Council unanimously expressed the most sensible regret on account of the resolution Mr Dempster had taken, and which was particularly heightened by the cause of it. They in the warmest terms declared their sense of Mr Dempster's distinguished conduct in Parliament, and of the important services which he had rendered to the public in general, and the Trade and Manufactures of this part of the country in a particular manner. And the Council request the Provost in their name to communicate these their unanimous sentiments to Mr Dempster, with every grateful acknowledgement so justly due to him."

Mr DEMPSTER'S Parliamentary duties did not sever his connection with his native Burgh, nor prevent him from taking an active part in municipal affairs. Immediately after his admission as a Burgess 29th September, 1761 he was elected a member of the Town Council of Dundee, as Councillor to the Guild, and though a protest was lodged against his election on the ground that he was then Provost of St Andrews, this objection was over ruled, and he continued to serve on the Council in this capacity almost without interruption from 1761 till 1782. He held the honourable post of Bailie in Dundee from 1762 till 1768, and on various occasions was made Kirk master and Shore master. His services to the Burgh were eminently practical. In March, 1766, he acquired ten acres' of vacant ground which belonged to the Hospital, lying "west of the Windmill," and these he feued out for building purposes, at reasonable rates, to speculative builders, so as to encourage the extension of the town westwards. His position also as principal partner of the banking firm of GEORGE DEMPSTER & Co. enabled him to assist the Council with advances of money on easy terms, at a period when the financial department was in a critical state.

* This portrait has been erroneously ascribed to Gainsborough. It was painted by George Willidon, a grandson of John Willison, the well known minister of Dundee, and a nephew, name son, and protege of George Dempster. The latter, perceiving his talent, sent him to Italy, where he studied for some time; and ultimately, through Mr Dempster's influence, he went to India, where he amassed a considerable fortune by portrait painting. One of his pictures, a full length portrait of the Nabob of Arcot, was sent by that Prince to George III., and was placed in the Royal Collection at Hampton Court.

The development of the manufactures of Scotland engaged much of Mr DEMPSTER'S attention, and he was frequently appealed to as arbitrator in disputes betwixt capital and labour. On more than one occasion he acted in this capacity as a peacemaker betwixt the weavers of Glasgow and their employers; and the Magistrates of that city, recognising that his intervention had averted a serious riot, perpetuated his memory by naming a newly opened street after him. He greatly assisted the advancement of commercial prosperity in Dundee by projecting and establishing the Dundee Banking Company in 1763 a venture which was first known under the designation of "Messrs George Dempster & Co.," and which, after a very prosperous career, was amalgamated with the Royal Bank of Scotland in 1864. The practical encouragement of the Fisheries in Scotland was effected by him through the founding of a joint stock company, of which he latterly became chairman, and directed the expenditure of the capital in the erection of harbours, quays, and storehouses on the islands of the Hebrides. The unfortunate outbreak of the war with France in 1793 arrested the development of this industry, and brought the company into serious difficulties.

Having acquired the estate of Skibo, on the coast of Sutherlandshire, in 1786, he endeavoured to establish the manufacturing, of cotton there; but the remoteness of the locality and the difficulty of transit prevented this scheme from meeting the success which it merited, and the project caused a considerable loss both to himself and his brother. His agricultural improvements were more successful, and he found employment on his estates for many of the crofters who had been evicted by neighbouring proprietors. "He granted long, leases to his tenants, freed them from all personal services, and from unnecessary restrictions in the cultivation of their farms; he enclosed and drained the lands; he built the neat village of Letham; he drained and improved the moss of Dunnichen and the peat bog of Restennet, by which he added greatly to the extent and value of his property, and rendered the air more salubrious."

The interest of Mr DEMPSTER in political affairs did not terminate with his Parliamentary career. He was President of the Whig Club of Dundee, and in that capacity he forwarded a congratulatory Address to TRIELHARD, President of the National Assembly in Paris on 4th June, 179o. At that time the French Revolution was regarded as it is described in this Address, as " the triumph of liberty and reason over despotism, ignorance, and superstition "and though the members of the Whig Club expressed sympathy with the release of the French nation from bondage, they also asserted their devotion to the KING. "Our Sovereign," they wrote, ', the guardian of our constitution and the father of his people, is almost an object of our adoration; and our nobility and clergy form useful and illustrious members of a state where all are subject to the laws." The Address, together with the reply from PRESIDENT TRIELHARD, is printed in the Scots Magazine, Vol. LII., page 457, and has very unjustly been made the ground of an accusation of Jacobinism against Mr DEMPSTER.

After his retirement from public life Mr DEMPSTER resided mostly at Dunnichen and St Andrews, spending much of his time in the congenial company of some of his early associates.

He survived till 1818, and died at Dunnichen House on 30th February of that year, aged eighty six. The following notice of him appears in the Scots Magazine, Vol. LXXXI., page 296:

"In early youth Alr Dempster succeeded to the family estate ; and during the course of a life extended beyond the usual period, exhibited in his conduct on all occasions the finished picture of a complete Gentleman. He was a scholar, a man of science, an accomplished courtier, and a benevolent man. His very favourable exterior reflected the image of the powerful and benevolent mind within; his kindness to his tenants and dependents, and his extreme courtesy to all, were universally acknowledged and admired. There was no subject within the compass of human knowledge of which he was ignorant. The ancient, as well as many of the modern, languages were familiar to him. He made the tour of Europe. The learned sent him their works to revise, and artists their plans to examine, before presenting them to the public.

His own printed treatises, and his essays in numerous publications, and especially his speeches in Parliament, show how profoundly he was skilled in the business of every department of his own country, as well as in what regarded our foreign relations; and, withal, how much he ever had the benefit of mankind at heart. The valuable improvement which he suggested on the fisheries, and the inexhaustible treasure of manure which he discovered in his own county, will make him be long and gratefully remembered. To him agriculture is indebted for many most important and valuable improvements. He had a peculiar felicity of expressing his thoughts in writing ; and in speaking on any important subject his manner, tone of voice, good humour, and benevolent look, all operated like a charm, and gained on every heart. It may be safely said that no man in the present generation has left the world more generally and deservedly applauded and admired than Mr Dempster of Dunnichen."

Mr DEMPSTER, was never married, and at his death he was succeeded in the estate of Dunnichen by his sister HELEN, widow of GENERAL BURRINGTON, of the East India Company's Service, who resumed her maiden name. HELFN DEMPSTER died in 1831, and her daughter, HELEN, Wife of FRANCIS HAWKINS, Esq., of the East India Company's Civil Service, became proprietrix of Dunnichen, and also took the family name of DEMPSTER. Her eldest SOD, JAMES WHITSHED RAWKINS (nat. 1796, ob. 1841), was married to his cousin, CHARLOTTE DEMPSTER of Skibo, and, as he predeceased his mother, she was succeeded, at her death in 1854, by his son, GEORGE HAWKINS DEMPSTER of Dunnichen. On the demise of the latter without issue, the estate came into the possession of his sister, LADY KATHERINE HAWKINS DEMPSTER, widow of the late SIR THEOPHILUS JOHN METCALFE, Bart., of Fern Hill, Berks. The remains of GEORGE DEMPSTER of Dunnichen were deposited in the Chancel of the ruined Priory of Restennet.