William Robertson (historian)

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search
This article is about the Scottish historian. For other people of the same name, see William Robertson (disambiguation).
William Robertson
William Robertson (1721-93)
Born (1721-09-19)19 September 1721
Borthwick, Midlothian,
Died 11 June 1793(1793-06-11) (aged 71)
Nationality Scottish
Education Dalkeith Grammar School
Alma mater University of Edinburgh
Known for Principal of the University of Edinburgh;
Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland;
Historiographer Royal
The mausoleum of William Robertson, Greyfriars Kirkyard

Rev William Robertson FRSE FSA Scot DD (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 was Chaplain of Stirling Castle and one of the King's Chaplains in Scotland.


Robertson was born at the manse of Borthwick, Midlothian, and educated at Borthwick Parish School and Dalkeith Grammar School. He was the son of Rev William Robertson and his wife Eleanor Pitcairn. The family moved to Edinburgh when his father became appointed minister of Old Greyfriars Kirk.

He studied Divinity at the University of Edinburgh (1733–41), and was licensed to preach in 1741. He was granted a Doctor of Divinity in 1759.[2] 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 Edinburgh Select Society.[3]

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.[4]

His most notable work was his History of Scotland 1542 - 1603, begun in 1753 and first published in 1759.[5]

He was a significant figure in the Scottish Enlightenment and also of the moderates in the Church of Scotland.[6]

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

He died at Grange House in south Edinburgh (the huge now-demolished mansion which gave its name to the Grange district in Edinburgh) on 11 June 1793.[7] Robertson is buried at Greyfriars Kirkyard, Edinburgh. The grave is within a very 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.


Robertson married Mary Nisbet in 1751. They had three sons:

  • Hon William Robertson, Lord Robertson FRSE, Senator of the College of Justice (1753-1835)
  • General James Robertson (d.1845)
  • Lt Col David Robertson McDonald FRSE (1761-1845)

All three sons are buried in Greyfriars Kirkyard in individual plots behind their father's mausoleum.

One of his daughters married the author Patrick Brydone FRSE and another to John Russell co-founder of the Royal Society of Edinburgh.



  1. ^ Horn, D. B., A Short History of the University of Edinburgh: 1556-1889, 1967, p.76
  2. ^ Waterston, Charles D; Macmillan Shearer, A (July 2006). Former Fellows of the Royal Society of Edinburgh 1783-2002: Biographical Index (PDF) II. Edinburgh: The Royal Society of Edinburgh. ISBN 978-0-902198-84-5. Retrieved 29 September 2010. 
  3. ^ https://www.royalsoced.org.uk/cms/files/fellows/biographical_index/fells_indexp2.pdf
  4. ^ The Poker Club
  5. ^ David J. Womersley, "The historical writings of William Robertson." Journal of the History of Ideas (1986): 497-506. in JSTOR
  6. ^ Shefr, R. B., Church and Society in the Scottish Enlightenment: The Moderate Literati of Edinburgh, Princeton, 1985.
  7. ^ https://www.royalsoced.org.uk/cms/files/fellows/biographical_index/fells_indexp2.pdf

Further reading[edit]

  • Brown, S. J. (ed.), William Robertson and the Expansion of Empire, Cambridge, 1997

External links[edit]

Preceded by
John Gowdie
Principal, University of Edinburgh
Succeeded by
George Husband Baird