MP of the Month: James Lamont (1828-1913), Arctic explorer and scientist

Our MP of the Month blog for October comes from Dr Matthew McDowell, of the University of Edinburgh, who has contributed to our 1832-68 project with articles on Buteshire and its MPs. In this guest blog, he explores the career of James Lamont, better known for his exploits outside Parliament than in the Commons.

At only four years old, a frightened James Lamont witnessed the enormous crowds present in Edinburgh to celebrate the passing of the 1832 Reform Act throwing stones at his window: his father, a Tory, had refused to light up his window at night, which was taken as a signal that he did not support Reform. In contrast with his father’s views, Lamont sat as Liberal MP for Buteshire, 1865-8, but his political career was a brief and irregular interlude in his scientific and literary endeavours, and at odds with the more mobile, heroic, robust figure written about in his accounts of sea voyages to Svalbard and Novaya Zemlya. He was one of the pre-eminent Arctic explorers and celebrity scientists of his day, and his daughter Augusta, who followed her father into science rather than politics, would later note:

Three years in Parliament! – what a contrast to the roving outdoor life that he had hitherto led! His later ‘gloomy reflections’ suggest that there was regret for time so spent.

Contemporary accounts, however, cast a different light on Lamont’s otherwise unremarkable time as an MP, for his political campaigns themselves revealed much about the fault lines in Scottish society in the immediate run-up to the passing of the Second Reform Act in 1867.

James Lamont, Seasons with the Sea Horses (1861)

James Lamont, Seasons with the Sea Horses (1861)

Lamont was the son of Lt. Col. Alexander Lamont, of Knockdow Estate, in Toward, Argyll. He was educated at Rugby School and the Edinburgh Military Academy. Upon his uncle’s death in 1849, Lamont inherited a fortune which, as Stephen Mullen has noted, was largely based on government compensation for his uncle’s Trinidad slave plantations. He began to attend to his estates in both Scotland and the West Indies, at the same time devoting himself to travelling and exploration. Lamont’s many voyages included trips to Nova Scotia, Labrador, the Mediterranean and South Africa, but it was his trips to the Nordic and Russian Arctic that remain his defining explorations. In 1858 and 1859, Lamont, on board his schooner the Ginerva, sailed up to and explored areas of Svalbard. He was also a keen hunter of seals, walruses, grouse and polar bears. These adventures formed the basis of Lamont’s first book, Seasons with the Sea Horses; or, sporting adventures in the northern seas (1861).

In 1869, 1870 and 1871, upon a newly-constructed yacht, the Diana, Lamont went further: not only did he explore more of Svalbard and Jan Mayen, but he also went on extensive trips which documented Novaya Zemlya. These voyages were documented in his second book, Yachting in the Arctic Seas, or notes of five voyages of sport and discovery in the neighbourhood of Spitzbergen and Novaya Zemlya (1876). Both books are bloody reads: the hunting and slaughter of animals dominates Lamont’s stories. A recent article on Lamont by Leah Devlin has focused on his beliefs on the evolution of walruses and polar bears, as discussed in his books, as well as in correspondence with Charles Darwin. Certainly, his political opponents made much of his support for the theory of evolution.

Lamont’s brief political career was sandwiched in between these two major publications. He had been selected by the Liberals to run for the Paisley constituency in 1857, before his first voyage to the Arctic, but did not go to the poll. In 1859, he was selected as Liberal candidate for the island constituency of Buteshire, one of the Conservative Party’s safest Scottish seats, bordering Lamont’s ancestral home, but was defeated by nine votes. ‘The result’, he later recollected in Seasons with the Sea Horses, ‘proved unfortunate for the walrus, although perhaps the cynical reader may be disposed to add, “fortunate for the constituency”, and I was once more at liberty to proceed on my intended voyage’. Here, his political career was treated as an inconvenient footnote. It fared no better in Yachting in the Arctic Seas, where Lamont painted his 1868 retirement from Parliament as a chance to get back to his one true passion:

So completely did these ideas gain possession of me that at the general election of 1868 I abandoned a seat in Parliament … and set to work to build a vessel which should embody all Arctic requirements in a moderate compass.


Buteshire, from The Imperial gazetteer of Scotland. Vol. I, by Rev. John Marius Wilson

The reality of Lamont’s ‘abandonment’ of his political career was far messier. Standing again for Buteshire at a by-election in 1865, Lamont had launched a scathing attack on his Conservative opponent George Frederick Boyle, the local landlords’ preferred candidate, on account of his religious affiliations. Boyle was both a layman in the Scottish Episcopal Church and a well-known patron of Tractarianism, who famously built an Episcopal training college in Millport. Exploiting the sectarian rivalries between Scotland’s competing faiths, Lamont enlisted the support of local Free Church ministers and sought to portray Boyle as the ultimate nightmare: a Catholic landowner in disguise. ‘When our forefathers rose against the superstitions and mummeries of the Romish Church at the Reformation’, he declared on the hustings, ‘an ancestor of mine, also called James Lamont of Knockdow, pulled down a Roman Catholic Church on Loch Striven side, so that not one stone of it remained upon another’. Although he narrowly lost the by-election, Lamont used his speech at the declaration to charge local landlords with intimating crofter-electors, provoking a riot.

At the 1865 general election six months later Lamont rode the Liberal wave into Parliament. Reporting on his 1865 campaigns, the Tory Edinburgh Courant referred to him as a ‘Darwinite murderer of seals’, whose own graphic exploits, as written about by the man himself, displayed a lust for power. Once elected, however, Lamont failed to make his presence felt in the Commons, rarely speaking at any length in debate and voting infrequently in the division lobbies. After siding with the Conservatives against Gladstone on the question of Irish church disestablishment, to which he was bitterly opposed, Lamont was deselected by Buteshire’s Liberals, forcing his retirement at the 1868 election. That so little space was given to politics either by himself or his daughter in their accounts of his career confirms that unique celebrities of Lamont’s make were not necessarily suited to life at Westminster.

Further reading

  • Augusta Lamont, Records and Recollections of Sir James Lamont of Knockdow (self-published, 1950)
  • A.G.E. Jones, ‘Lamont, Sir James, first baronet (1828-1913)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography []
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1 Response to MP of the Month: James Lamont (1828-1913), Arctic explorer and scientist

  1. Pingback: MP of the Month: James Lamont (1828-1913), Arctic explorer and scientist – A SPECTACULAR TABLEAU

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