William Robertson DD (1721-1793)

1] William Robertson DD (1721-1793) was one of the leading figures of the Scottish Enlightenment.  As a member of two of Edinburgh’s most intellectual societies, the Poker Club and the Speculative Society, he mixed with many of the scholarly individuals of the day.  He was a son of the manse and studied divinity at Edinburgh University which he entered at the age of twelve.  After occupying a number of charges he became one of the ministers at Greyfriar’s Kirk from 1761-93 and was a powerful and eloquent speaker in the affairs of the Church of Scotland, serving as moderator of the Church Assembly for many years.  A colleague, Dr John Erskine, said of him: 

a pleasant old-looking old man; with an eye of great vivacity and intelligence, a large projecting chin, a small hearing trumpet fastened by a black ribbon to a buttonhole of his coat, and a rather large wig, powdered and curled,  he struck us boys, …as being evidently fond of a good dinner;…when his eye told him that there was something interesting, it was delightful to observe the animation with which he instantly applied his trumpet, when having caught the scent, he followed it up, and was the leader of the pack.[i]  

James Boswell, who met Robertson in London in 1763, became a friend.  Henry Cockburn, who as a boy was a frequent visitor to the Robertson house, said of him:

Few minds were naturally so large and capacious as Dr Robertson’s or stored by study, experience, and observation, with so rich furniture.  His imagination was correct, his judgment sound, his memory tenacious, his temper agreeable, his knowledge extensive, and his acquaintance with the world and the heart of man very remarkable.

William Robertson by Raeburn, with ear trumpet on table. Courtesy of Edinburgh University

Robertson was the author of several historical books including History of Scotland (1759) The History of the Reign of Charles V (1769) and The History of America (1777). Horace Walpole pronounced the History of Scotland ‘the best modern history written by a man, whose dialect I scarce understood,…in the purest English’.[ii] The Empress Catherine of Russia was so delighted with Robertson’s works, that she presented him with a handsome gold enamelled snuffbox, richly set with diamonds.[iii]  George III appointed him as a Royal Chaplain and Historiographer Royal.  Robertson became Principal of Edinburgh University from 1762-1793.  He campaigned vigorously and successfully for the rebuilding of the University, and his cousin Robert Adam, was appointed architect.  Adam died in 1792, soon after the commencement of the building, which was further delayed by the war with France.  Building recommenced in 1816 under the supervision of the architect William Playfair.   

[i] Cockburn’s  Memorials p43-4

[ii] Quoted in Thomson, D The Art of Sir Henry Raeburn 1756-1823 p

[iii] Kay’s Portraits  I  p95