The remarkable career of Peter McLagan MP
The career of a man born in Demerara who embarked upon a political career thousands of miles from his homeland
Sometimes searching into the past can lead down paths that you had no idea even existed. So it was with the subject of this article, Mr Peter McLagan. I was doing some research on the provision of a clean source of drinking water for my hometown of Bathgate, West Lothian, when I came across references to a Peter McLagan, who had been the local MP between 1865 and 1893. It was his wife, Elizabeth Anne Taylor whom he had married in 1876, who is credited with donating to the town its first ever public fountain in 1878, in celebration of the fact that the then town council had secured the supply of a reliable source of drinking water for the town. So, initially, we had what simply looked like another example of Victorian philanthropy.
However, when I began to look into the life of Peter McLagan himself, it gradually became apparent that he actually has the distinction of being Scotland’s first – and to date, only – Black MP.
McLagan also has the further distinction of being Scotland’s longest serving MP during the reign of Queen Victoria.
So how did it come about that a child of mixed-race origins born in Demerara in what became British Guyana (now Guyana) ended up becoming a MP for the seat of Linlithgowshire in the central belt of Scotland, not only winning it in 1865, but retaining it for a total of 28 years?
McLagan’s early years
The exact circumstances surrounding McLagan’s birth are a mystery. For instance, I only found out his actual date of birth by visiting the grave of his wife Elizabeth, who had predeceased him by some eighteen years, having died in 1882. Both share the same plot at Mid-Calder parish churchyard. (Elizabeth’s gravestone has an additional interesting feature in that it carries her image – the only one I have been able to track down – sculpted on the top of her gravestone). So, from this memorial I found out the date of McLagan’s birth: 1 January 1823.
Having established a date of birth, the next thing was to try to ascertain some information with regards to McLagan’s mother. Here there were mixed results, for it would appear that his mother was a free born woman, since one of the ordinances in force in the territory
How did it come about that a child of mixed race origins born in Demerara ended up becoming a MP for the seat of Linlithgowshire?
at that time required ‘all whites and free coloured persons’ to register the birth of their children within fourteen days of their birth.
I have been unable to retrieve her actual name in any of the sources I consulted and since McLagan had no children of his own – his wife had been married before and had two children by her first husband – there are no clues to be had from there. However, it is recorded that McLagan’s elder brother, Henry, had one daughter who was named Emma Eugenie so it could just be possible that his birth mother may have been named Emma or Eugenie. There is mention of a third brother of whom there is no further information. That there is no mention of a Christian name would lead me to suspect that he died whilst very young, or at least before his baptism.
Better informed writers than I have studied the subject of the British empire and slavery so I shall not say too much myself about that except for what relates to Peter McLagan (1775-1860), the father who named his son after himself.We do know that he part-owned a coffee plantation in Demarara on which some 200 enslaved people worked. He was still living at the plantation in 1825, but by 1827 he had returned to Scotland, married and at that date resided with a niece and his younger son at Great King Street in Edinburgh.
With the emancipation of slaves throughout the British empire in 1833 and as a result of receiving over £21,000 as compensation from the British government for the freeing of 400-plus enslaved people that he jointly owned in 1835, in 1842 he was able to acquire the estates of Calderbank and Pumpherston in Mid-Calder. In the interim both his sons were educated at Edinburgh University after attending schools in Tillicoutry and Peebles. It was remarked that Peter was ‘interested in the science class’. Although
it is reported that McLagan graduated from Edinburgh in 1842, university records only indicate that he attended several classes there between 1839 and 1844-45. He did not ‘graduate’ as such – a fairly common occurrence at that time. His brother Henry, however, had graduated from Edinburgh in medicine in 1836 and went back to Demerara to practice medicine. However, not much else is known about him except that he died there in November 1850. In April 1860 their father also died, leaving the estate to his son Peter.
It was whilst helping to manage this estate that Peter McLagan developed a keen interest in agriculture – both theoretical and practical – an interest that led him and several others to establish the Scottish Chamber of Agriculture in 1864. That year he was also elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in recognition of several of his scientific papers on agriculture.
In 1865, he was invited by his local liberal association to stand as their candidate in that year’s general election.With some surprise, which he later admitted to in a speech, he accepted and thus began a stint in parliament that was to see him stand and win seven general elections, thereby becoming the longest serving Scottish MP during the reign of Queen Victoria – a remarkable achievement for anyone, let alone for a man of mixed race at that time.
Racism rears its head
The fact McLagan was subjected to racism is revealed in a comment by his rival, John Pender, for the seat in 1867, who exclaimed that since McLagan was born in Demerara he was not a ‘true Scotchman’. It was further reported that at that same election hustings, which were held at the village of Kirkliston, a ‘disgusting image’ of McLagan was paraded through the village before he was due to speak.
However in spite of these and other comments in the press referring to his ‘dark blood’, there were rumours of him being elevated to the House of Lords owing to his services to the liberal party a few months before he was declared bankrupt.
McLagan sat on two royal commissions, one relating to the law on hypothec and another on the Grocers’ Licences (Scotland) Act. He was also on various select committees to do with tenants’ rights, fire safety measures and animal welfare. During this time he was also noted as a key advocate in the temperance movement.
However, McLagan also held less orthodox views. In a speech he gave to his constituents, for instance, he advocated the need for the creation of the Scottish Office and for that to be a cabinet post. In addition, he was a staunch upholder of the enfranchisement of women for which he was given the sobriquet of a ‘suffragetist in trousers’. He also argued for the reform of the vote as well as the lowering of property qualifications to vote, and for MPs to be paid, so as to allow working class members to stand for parliament.
On one of the key issues of the day – home rule for Ireland – he decided in the end that that should happen, although not full independence.
Another issue of which he was a noted supporter was that of primary and secondary education. He believed that regardless of distance or locale, all children should receive the same education. Furthermore, he also suggested that all existing educational endowments should be used to establish a system of national secondary education. In addition, he was a fervent believer that education should be nondenominational. In line with this, he also proposed a non-religious oath to be applied in court to enable atheists to take their seats in the House of Commons. In the language of his day he was a ‘Gladstonian Liberal’ but also very much his own man and not always reliable as such, indeed in one of the cartoons printed in the 1860s he is depicted looking left and right!
Due to bad business advice
McLagan was declared bankrupt in April 1893 and so unable to continue as a MP. In tribute to him a testimonial was organised and within six months of his resignation, over £1,800 was raised (£400 from fellow MPs from both sides of the House). During the next seven years until his death on 31 August 1900, very little is recorded of McLagan although we do know that he was a frequent listener to the debates in the House of Commons from the lobby, which as a former MP he was allowed to do.
At his funeral, the-then Lord Torphichen was one of the pall bearers, as was McLagan’s stepson. The schools in Mid-Calder were closed for the afternoon and business was suspended as a mark of respect and final tribute to Peter McLagan. I conclude this brief article by wondering why there has not been some memorial to McLagan to honour the man and his singular achievements
Why is it that to date the only tangible monument I have found to him is the one that his wife gave to the town of Bathgate in 1878 which is only popularly known as ‘McLagan’s Fountain’? Can we not do better than that for such a man?
McLagan believed that, regardless of distance or locale, all children should receive the same education