The Dundas despotism is the name, derived from Henry Cockburn, given to the half-century of Scottish government straddling 1800. It was dominated by two cadets, father and son, of the family of Dundas of Arniston, later elevated to the peerage as Viscounts Melville. The system over which they presided, though perfectly satisfactory to Scots of the time, has in ours attracted a peculiar degree of academic opprobrium; about the least damning judgment of it, by Christopher Smout, was that it grew 'so moribund as to be scarcely relevant any longer to a general history of Scottish society'. One of my main aims in the story told below is to prove him and others wrong: to show not only that Scotland's political experience during the period was significant, but also that it can be convincingly linked to those contemporary experiences which have won scholarly interest and approval, and which go collectively under the name of the Scottish Enlightenment. With this established, it will be natural to assert that the political experience was worthy of note in a wider context too. Here I shall offer a contribution to the recent efforts, made mostly outside Scotland, to rewrite British history as something more than the activities of a few hundred people in London. Further, since this was an era when, largely through the Dundases' agency, their countrymen played a part out of all proportion to numbers in the Empire and in war, I hope to demonstrate that Scottish influences were also channelled into imperial policy and generally into Britain's conception of her place in the world. Altogether, I should like to assist in rescuing the modern history of Scotland from the parochialism often imputed to it by non-Scots, in which it just as often confines itself.
The influences did not, of course, flow only in the one direction. The Dundases, the first home-based Scots since 1707 to rise to and stay at the summit of politics in the United Kingdom, completed the Union in a certain sense, by more equitable distribution of its benefits and by finding a definition of their nation's role in it acceptable on both sides of the border. Scotland regretted what of herself she had to sacrifice. The Dundases compensated by helping to establish new identities for her and for Britain, identities so durable that they have come into question only with the loss of Empire. The father, Henry Dundas, was thus by any standards a key figure in Scottish history and a major one in British history. Yet there has been no full-length study of him since a pair of biographies in the 1930s, each anyway limited in scope. Given the advances meanwhile in the historiography of the eighteenth century, a fresh look at him is long overdue.