Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Dempster, George

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DEMPSTER, GEORGE (1732–1818), agriculturist, was born in February 1732 at Dundee in Forfarshire, the county in which his grandfather and father had amassed large fortunes by trade, and which Dempster inherited while young. He received his earlier education at the grammar school of Dundee, whence he proceeded to the university of St. Andrews, and completed his scholastic career at Edinburgh, where he became in 1755 a member of the Faculty of Advocates. Entering the best social circles of the city, he was made a member of the ‘Poker Club,’ which had David Hume, William Robertson, and Alexander Carlyle among its supporters. The social intercourse maintained by this club was kept up by the same men in the more numerous body called the ‘Select Society,’ established some years later.

After making the grand tour on the continent, Dempster for a brief period practised at the bar, but being possessed of an ample fortune he abandoned his profession and turned his attention to politics. In 1761 he was elected member of parliament for the Forfar and Fife burghs, after a heated contest, which cost him upwards of 10,000l. He served in parliament for twenty-nine years, and was appointed in 1765 secretary to the Scottish order of the Thistle. He was provost of St. Andrews in 1780. In the House of Commons Dempster supported the Rockingham party, and on the question of the American stamp taxing sided with Fox and Pitt in their opposition to the government. He supported Pitt in his financial plans, particularly in the establishment of the sinking fund. Being elected a director of the East India Company, he showed himself adverse to the great political influence exercised by the company, deeming it wiser to confine their action to commercial enterprise, and to leave the political government of Indian territory to the native princes. Unable to alter a policy already well established, he withdrew from the directorate, and became a parliamentary opponent of the company, giving his support to Fox's India Bill. On the question of the regency, 1788–9, he was opposed to the ministry, and declared that the executive proposed would ‘resemble nothing that ever was conceived before, an un-whig, un-tory, odd, awkward, anomalous monster.’

In 1786 Dempster purchased the estate of Skibo, Sutherland. In 1790 he retired from parliament, and turned his attention to Scottish agriculture and fisheries. He promoted the formation of a society for the extension and protection of the fisheries of Scotland. The company bought large tracts of land, built harbours, quays, and storehouses, when unfortunately the war with France of 1793 broke out, and the association was ruined. Dempster taught his countrymen the art of packing their fresh salmon in ice for transmission to London and other large towns. He spent the greater part of his latter days at his seat in Dunnichen, and at St. Andrews, where he enjoyed the society of his old friend Dr. Adam Ferguson, the founder of the ‘Poker Club.’ Dempster greatly improved the condition of his tenants and that of the Scottish peasantry generally. He resigned most of his feudal rights, improved the land by drainage, and discovered large beds of fertilising marl. In church matters he was inclined to bigotry. When Dr. A. Carlyle [q. v.] was condemned by the assembly for going to a theatrical performance, his ‘firm friend Dempster seconded an act declaratory forbidding the clergy to countenance the theatre’ (Autobiography, p. 322). His publications are: 1. ‘Discourses, containing a Summary of the Directors of the Society for Extending the Fisheries of Great Britain,’ 1789. 2. ‘Magnetic Mountains of Cannay,’ 8vo. 3. Papers in Transactions of the Roy. Soc. Edinburgh. 4. Letters in Agricultural Mag. 5. Speeches in Parliament. 6. ‘General View of the Agriculture of the County of Angus and Forfar,’ Lond., 1794, 4to. He died at Dunnichen on 13 Feb. 1818, in his eighty-sixth year.

[Annual Register; Scots Mag. new ser. ii. 206; Alexander Carlyle's Autobiography, 1860, p. 322; Chambers's Eminent Scotsmen, 1868, i. 441; Foster's Members of Parliament, Scotland, p. 95.]

R. H.