William Robertson (historian)

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William Robertson

Portrait painting of William Robertson (1721–93), seated at a desk.
William Robertson (1721–93)
Born(1721-09-19)19 September 1721
Died11 June 1793(1793-06-11) (aged 71)
Edinburgh, Scotland
EducationDalkeith Grammar School
Alma materUniversity of Edinburgh
Known forPrincipal of the University of Edinburgh;
Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland;
Historiographer Royal
The mausoleum of William Robertson, Greyfriars Kirkyard

William Robertson FRSE FSA Scot (19 September 1721 – 11 June 1793) was a Scottish historian, minister in the Church of Scotland, and Principal of the University of Edinburgh. "The thirty years during which [he] presided over the University perhaps represent the highest point in its history."[1] He made significant contributions to the writing of Scottish history and the history of Spain and Spanish America.[2]

He was Chaplain of Stirling Castle and one of the King's Chaplains in Scotland.

Early life[edit]

Robertson was born at the manse of Borthwick, Midlothian, the son of Rev William Robertson (1686–1745), the local minister, and his wife Eleanor Pitcairn, daughter of David Pitcairne of Dreghorn.[3][4] He was educated at Borthwick Parish School and Dalkeith Grammar School. The family moved to Edinburgh when his father became appointed minister of Lady Yester's Church in 1733. His father moved to Old Greyfriars Kirk in Edinburgh in 1736.[5]

He studied divinity at the University of Edinburgh (1733–41), and was licensed to preach in 1741. He received a Doctor of Divinity in 1759.[6]

The educationalist and writer James Burgh, who founded a dissenting academy on the outskirts of London, was his cousin, describing him as his "much esteemed friend and relation".[7]


He became minister at Gladsmuir (East Lothian) in 1743 and in 1759 at Lady Yester's Kirk and Greyfriars Kirk in Edinburgh. A staunch Presbyterian and Whig, he volunteered to defend the city against the Jacobites led by Prince Charles Edward Stuart in 1745.

In 1754 he was an original member of The Select Society, also referred to as the Edinburgh Select Society.[8]

A bust of William Robertson, which sits in the 17th-century King James Library at the University of St Andrews
Cameo of Rev. William Robertson (1721–93), 1791, Scottish National Portrait Gallery

Robertson became royal chaplain to George III (1761), principal of the University of Edinburgh (1762), Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland in 1763, and Historiographer Royal in 1764, reviving a role within the Royal household in Scotland that had been in abeyance from 1709 until 1763. He was also a member of The Poker Club.[9]


One of his most notable works is his History of Scotland 1542–1603, begun in 1753 and first published in 1759.[10] Robertson also contributed, not always fortunately,[11] to the history of Spain and Spanish America in his History of America (1777), "the first sustained attempt to describe the discovery, conquest and settlement of Spanish America since Herrera's Décadas"[12] and his biography of Charles V. In that work he had "provided a masterly survey of the progress of European society, in which he traced the erosion of the 'feudal system' caused by the rise of free towns, the revival of learning and Roman law, and by the emergence of royal authority and the balance of power between states. It was the development of commerce, assisted by law and private property, which was held to be chiefly responsible for the advance in civilisation."[13]

Later life[edit]

He was a significant figure in the Scottish Enlightenment and also of the moderates in the Church of Scotland.[14]

In 1783 he was a founding member of the Royal Society of Edinburgh.

He died of jaundice[15] on 11 June 1793, at Grange House in south Edinburgh (the large, now-demolished mansion which gave its name to the Grange district).[8] Robertson is buried at Greyfriars Kirkyard, Edinburgh. The grave is within a large stone mausoleum, second only to William Adam's mausoleum immediately to the south. Both stand to the south-west of the church, near the entrance to the Covenanters' Prison.


He gives his name to the William Robertson Building of the Old Medical School buildings at the University of Edinburgh on Teviot Place, home to the School of History, Classics and Archaeology. There is also an endowed chair at Edinburgh in his name, the William Robertson Chair of History, for a specialist in non-European modern history.[16]


Robertson married his cousin Mary Nisbet (daughter of Rev James Nisbet of Old Kirk, St Giles) in 1751.[17] They had six children, two daughters and four sons. Three of his children are buried in Greyfriars Kirkyard in individual plots behind their father's mausoleum:

One of his daughters, Mary, married the author Patrick Brydone FRSE.[3][18] In 1778 his daughter, Eleanora (or Eleanor) Robertson, married John Russell[3] WS FRSE (1753–1792), a Director of the Royal Bank of Scotland. Their children included John Russell WS FRSE (1780–1862), Principal Clerk of Session.[19]

He was great uncle to Dr William Robertson FRSE (1818-1882).



  1. ^ Horn, D. B., A Short History of the University of Edinburgh: 1556–1889, 1967, p.76
  2. ^ R. A. Humphreys, William Robertson and his History of America. London 1954.
  3. ^ a b c Matthew, H. C. G.; Harrison, B., eds. (23 September 2004). "The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. pp. ref:odnb/23817. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/23817. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  4. ^ "Collection: Certificates, Diplomas etc of Principal William Robertson | University of Edinburgh Archive and Manuscript Collections". archives.collections.ed.ac.uk. Retrieved 11 October 2018.
  5. ^ Fasti Ecclesiastae Scoticana by Hew Scott
  6. ^ Waterston, Charles D; Macmillan Shearer, A (July 2006). Former Fellows of the Royal Society of Edinburgh 1783–2002: Biographical Index (PDF). Vol. II. Edinburgh: The Royal Society of Edinburgh. ISBN 978-0-902198-84-5. Archived from the original (PDF) on 4 October 2006. Retrieved 29 September 2010.
  7. ^ "Burgh, James (1714–1775), educationist and author". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. 2004. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/3992. ISBN 978-0-19-861412-8. Retrieved 5 March 2019. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  8. ^ a b "Account Suspended" (PDF). Royalsoced.org.uk. Retrieved 23 February 2020.
  9. ^ "The Poker Club | James Boswell .info". jamesboswell.info. Retrieved 16 August 2016.
  10. ^ David J. Womersley, "The historical writings of William Robertson". Journal of the History of Ideas (1986): 497–506. in JSTOR
  11. ^ See John L. Stephens, Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan, New York: Dover Publications, 1969, v. I, p. 97 (first published in 1841), which quotes Robertson's History of America, the "houses of the people [of pre-conquest Mexico] were mere huts, built with turf, or mud, or the branches of trees," and "there is not, in all the extent of that vast empire, a single monument or vestige of any building more ancient that the conquest."
  12. ^ David Brading, The First America: The Spanish Monarchy, Creole Patriots, and the Liberal State 1492–1867. New York: Cambridge University Press 1991, p. 432.
  13. ^ Brading, The First America, p. 433.
  14. ^ Shefr, R. B., Church and Society in the Scottish Enlightenment: The Moderate Literati of Edinburgh, Princeton, 1985.
  15. ^ "Collection: Certificates, Diplomas etc of Principal William Robertson | University of Edinburgh Archive and Manuscript Collections". archives.collections.ed.ac.uk. Retrieved 17 November 2019.
  16. ^ "William Robertson Chair of History". scholarshipdb.net. 2015. Archived from the original on 23 February 2021. Retrieved 23 February 2021.
  17. ^ Fasti Ecclesiastae Scoticana by Hew Scott
  18. ^ "Dr. William Robertson". geni_family_tree. Retrieved 17 November 2019.
  19. ^ Biographical Index of Former Fellows of the Royal Society of Edinburgh 1783–2002 (PDF). The Royal Society of Edinburgh. July 2006. ISBN 0-902-198-84-X.

Further reading[edit]

  • Brown, S. J. (ed.), William Robertson and the Expansion of Empire, Cambridge, 1997
  • László Kontler, Translations, Histories, Enlightenments: William Robertson in Germany, 1760–1795, 978-1-349-47575-9, 978-1-137-37172-0, 978-1-137-37171-3 Palgrave Macmillan US 2014

External links[edit]

Preceded by Principal, University of Edinburgh
Succeeded by