Peter McLagan, MP Linlithgowshire: Scotland’s first non-white MP, and “suffragetist in trousers”
Peter McLagan MP, was an extraordinary local character, and the longest-serving MP (next to Tam Dalyell) that this area had in 300 years.
Peter McLagan was born in 1823 in Demarara, the then-colony of British Guyana in South America. His father - also known as Peter - jointly owned a plantation there.
Of his mother we know nothing, only that his father had a 'relationship' from which he and an elder brother, John, were born. As a result of a decision by the British Parliament to compensate slave owners after the emancipation of 'their' slaves, his father came to Scotland with his sons where he purchased the estates of Calderbank and Pumpherston.
John studied to become a doctor at the University of Edinburgh, and after graduation returned to Demarara where unfortunately he died in 1851. Peter also went to Edinburgh University, where he cultivated a great interest and knowledge of farming, both practical and theoretical. Indeed, so esteemed was he that he was invited along with several others to set up the “Scottish Agricultural Association” – the first of its kind in the world and an exemplar for the English and all other succeeding bodies.
When his father died in 1860, Peter became the Laird of Pumpherston. He invested in shale oil works although didn’t make any significant money from it, and he continued with his agricultural interests - which ranged from the types of manure to be used in growing turnips to the best measures to control disease in cattle. We don’t know when or how his political interests were aroused, but he was elected in 1865 as MP for the county of Linlithgowshire* – a position which he was to hold for the next twenty eight years, thereby making him the longest serving MP next to Tam Dalyell that this area has had in 300 years.
He called for the creation of the post of Secretary of State for Scotland and for that post to be a Cabinet one
During his parliamentary career he was amongst the first to call for the establishment of a separate Minister for Agriculture. He had a range of opinions on such topics as the education of children in rural areas (he regarded rural education as every bit as important as that to be found in towns, and when primary education became free in 1870 he wanted all educational endowments to be made over to the State for the sole purpose of the establishment of secondary education for the ‘poorer classes’); he called for the creation of the post of Secretary of State for Scotland and for that post to be a Cabinet one, as well as for the number of Scottish MPs to be increased to reflect the growth in the Scottish population and the amount raised in tax in Scotland (he thought that there should be 70 MPs, which was near to the actual figure of 72 before the creation of the Scottish Parliament); or whether MPs who were atheists should still be allowed to take their seats in Parliament simply by swearing an ‘Oath of Affirmation' (he thought that that should suffice – indeed, he admits that if he had his way, he would do away with all such oaths).
His support for women’s suffrage earned him the sobriquet of being a 'suffragetist in trousers' – a rare honour indeed.
But even more controversial where his views on women’s suffrage. He believed earnestly that women should be given the right to vote and, more, that anyone who paid rates irrespective of how much they paid should be allowed to vote in local council elections. However it is his support for women’s suffrage which earned him the sobriquet of being a 'suffragetist in trousers' – a rare honour indeed.
There is no record of how many times he visited his constituents here, but what we can gather from newspaper reports of meetings he held in Bathgate, Armadale, Linlithgow and Bo’ness, to name a few, he is described as being a 'household name' and a man for whom there was no real need for an introduction since he was so well known to all them all – remember this is at a time when there was little in the way of mass communication, except newspapers.
That he was well thought of by his constituents is best exemplified by the outpouring of sympathy and compassion when he was declared bankrupt in June 1893. Although his income by his own calculations stood at some £4000 per annum, his annual expenditures were almost as much. In addition both he and his wife (Elizabeth Anne Taylor a widow whom he had married in 1876 but who died in 1882) were both know for their support of numerous charities and helped build various halls throughout the county. Mr McLagan fell in with bad company commercially speaking, and ended up over £110,000 in debt – an enormous sum in those days.
Whilst the Pumpherston estate was not listed as an asset, all his shares and farm were taken away from him and sold off to help pay his creditors. He was left virtually penniless and as a result of his bankruptcy resigned as the county’s MP on the 2nd June; only three weeks later his political rival for the past eight years Captain James Hope was elected in his stead.
A few weeks after his resignation and his bankruptcy a testimonial was organised to provide him with some means of comfort for his old age (he was already 70). Within a few weeks the sum of over £1800 was raised in his honour. The last seven years of his life appear to have passed in virtual anonymity, as aside from an obituary notice when he died on the 31st August 1900 there are no other reports.
He was buried in Mid Calder churchyard, and his funeral attended by various local 'grandees' was a dignified and solemn occasion; Lord Torphichen himself was one of the pall bearers.
Published in Konect August 2019 and October 2020
Author: David Main
*Editor’s note: Peter’s election as MP was directly related to his inheritance, which sprang from the compensation his father had received as a slave owner. He would not have been able to stand for election without the land holdings of a certain value.