Lord Elgin was born in 1776 into a Scottish aristocratic family, inheriting the title of Earl. After his education, he joined the military and without any combat experience reached the rank of a Lieutenant Colonel.
However his true intention was always to become a diplomat and to be involved in politics.
Aged 24 he was elected to the House of Lords, and in 1791 appointed Envoy Extraordinary to Austria, and for the period 1791-1793 he served as a delegate in Brussels. Consistently failing to fulfill his duties, his mission was ultimately deemed ineffective. From 1793 until 1796 he was appointed as the Deputy Minister of the British government in the Prussian court and head of the British diplomatic delegation in Berlin. Despite suffering from serious medical problems, he did not cease arranging regular parties.