subject of his maiden speech and of one of his earliest pamphlets. The even balance of parties towards the close of North's administration gave considerable influence to independent members, and in 1782 Sinclair obtained a grant of 15,000l. towards the relief of a serious famine in the north of Scotland. Although his attitude as a party politician was never very decisive, he was through life an ardent advocate of parliamentary reform (Lucubrations during a Short Recess, 1782; Thoughts on Parliamentary Reform, 1831), and he was so strongly in favour of peace with America and France as to suggest the expediency of surrendering Gibraltar (Propriety of retaining Gibraltar considered, 1783). Caithness having only alternate representation with Bute, Sinclair contested Kirkwall unsuccessfully against Fox at the election of 1784; but he secured the seat for Lostwithiel in Cornwall.
In 1785 Sinclair lost his first wife, and, abandoning public life for a time, started on a foreign tour, in the course of which he met Necker and Buffon. Next year he made a seven months' journey through the north of Europe. He visited the courts of most of the northern states, and had audiences with Gustavus III of Sweden, the Empress Catherine of Russia, Stanislaus, king of Poland, and the Emperor Joseph. Shortly after his return Sinclair married (6 March 1788) Diana, the daughter of Lord Macdonald, by whom he had a numerous family.
On 14 Feb. 1786 his attachment to Pitt had been rewarded by a baronetcy, together with the almost unique privilege that the patent should include the male posterity of his daughters in case of his dying without an heir (Mem. i. 130). But disagreements with the minister followed. Sinclair disapproved of Pitt's plan for a commercial union with Ireland and of some points in his East India Bill, and he regarded several of the taxes for defraying the interest of the funded debt as ill-advised and impolitic. On the impeachnent of Warren Hastings, and subsequently on the regency question, he openly opposed Pitt, and attempted to form a third party. Of this party, known at the time as the ‘armed neutrality,’ the chief members were, besides Sinclair, Lord Rawdon, John (afterwards Baron) Rolle [q. v.], and Sir John Macpherson [q. v.], formerly governor-general of India.
Meanwhile, as president of a special committee of the Highland Society, Sinclair had been investigating the comparative merits of the wool of different breeds of sheep, and especially of the Shetland flocks. He went further, and inaugurated the British Wool Society at a grand sheep-shearing festival held on 1 July 1791 at Newhalls Inn, Queensferry. To Sinclair belongs the credit of initiating those sheep-shearings which were developed by Francis Russell, fifth duke of Bedford, Coke of Holkham, Lord Somerville, and Curwen of Workington. The collection of statistics was another subject to which Sinclair devoted much energy. He was one of our earliest statisticians, and it was he who first introduced into the language the words ‘statistics’ and ‘statistical.’ In 1790, following to some extent on the track already marked out by Sir Robert Sibbald, Lord Kames, Dr. Webster, Dr. John Campbell, William Smellie [q. v.], and others (Public Characters, i. 40), he designed a ‘Statistical Account of Scotland.’ He memorialised all the parish ministers of Scotland for information on the natural history, population, and productions of their parishes. The result of these inquiries was published at various periods during the next ten years, and the value of the work was recognised by Jeremy Bentham, Malthus, and Washington. It seems to have encouraged, if not suggested, the idea of a general census. ‘While we smile at his harmless egotism,’ says a writer in the ‘Quarterly Review,’ ‘we are free to acknowledge the debt of gratitude we owe him, who, from men of various qualifications, sometimes indisposed, oftener inert, extracted a really unparalleled mass of statistical information’ (see Quarterly Review, 1847, lxxxii. 355–6).
Despite his public engagements, Sinclair contrived to give much time and trouble to the improvement of his extensive estates in Caithness. The land there was still to a large extent cultivated on the primitive ‘open-field’ system, known in the highlands of Scotland as the ‘rig and rennel’ method. Many of the feudal services, and even the name of thirlage (thraldom), still survived. These were abolished by Sinclair, and an improved method of tillage was introduced by him, founded on a regular rotation of crops and the cultivation of turnips, clover, and rye-grass. He also improved the breeds of live stock, encouraged sheep-farming, and introduced Cheviot sheep into Caithness. He planted trees, began to rebuild Thurso, founded the herring-fishery at Wick, and established manufactures in both these towns (see the Account of the Improvements carried on by Sir John Sinclair on his Estates in Scotland, London, 1812). One of his chief schemes was a general enclosure bill, a favourite toast being ‘May a common become an uncommon spectacle in Caithness.’ In 1796 Sinclair secured the passage of a general enclosure bill through the commons, but it was rejected by the lords.