William Robertson

From Citizendium, the Citizens' Compendium
Jump to: navigation, search
This article is developing and not approved.
Main Article
Related Articles  [?]
Bibliography  [?]
External Links  [?]
Citable Version  [?]
This editable Main Article is under development and not meant to be cited; by editing it you can help to improve it towards a future approved, citable version. These unapproved articles are subject to a disclaimer.

William Robertson (September 19, 1721 – June 11, 1793) was a Scottish historian and a significant figure in the Scottish Enlightenment; he was the author of four major historical works which represented a "grand narrative" of the emergence of Great Britain, of the rise of the European nation states, of the European empires in the Americas and of the beginnings of a British Empire in India. His works were widely read and admired as much for their clarity and style as for their scope and vision, and those who admired him included Voltaire, Edmund Burke and Catherine the Great.[1]

As a historian, Robertson achieved acclaim with his first major work The History of Scotland during the Reigns of Queen Mary and James VI, published in 1758; followed in 1759 by his History of Scotland 1542-1603.[2] Edward Gibbon is quoted as saying "The Praise which has ever been the most flattering to my ear is to find my own name associated with the names of Robertson and Hume."

He was a member of the Poker Club.[3], whose members included Joseph Black, Adam Ferguson, John Home, David Hume and Adam Smith

"The transactions in Mary's reign gave rise to two parties, which were animated against each other with the fiercest political hatred, embittered by religious zeal. Each of these produced historians of considerable merit, who adopted all their sentiments, and defended all their actions. Truth was not the sole object of these authors. Blinded by prejudices, and heated by the part which they themselves had acted in the scenes they describe, they wrote an apology for a faction, rather than the history of their country. Succeeding Historians have followed these guides almost implicitly, and have repeated their errors and misrepresentations. But as the same passions which inflamed parties in that age have descended to their posterity; as almost every event in Mary's reign has become the object of doubt or of dispute; the eager spirit of controversy soon discovered, that without some evidence more authentic and more impartial than that of Historians, none of the points in question could be decided with certainty."

(sample of Robertson's writing, taken from the preface to his 'History of Scotland')[4]


Robertson was born at Borthwick, Midlothian and educated in Dalkeith. In 1735, he entered the University of Edinburgh, where he studied divinity. In 1743 he became minister at Gladsmuir in Haddington, East Lothian) and later at Lady Yester's Kirk and Greyfriars Kirk in Edinburgh. A staunch Presbyterian and Whig, in 1745 he volunteered to defend the city against the Jacobites led by Prince Charles Edward Stuart. He became Royal Chaplain to George III (1761).

Robertson’s political connections and academic standing led the Edinburgh town council to elected him as Principal of the University of Edinburgh on 10 March 1762. This event is often viewed as a significant step towards institutionalising enlightenment in Edinburgh during the eighteenth century. He presided over the University for thirty years, years that have been said to "perhaps represent the highest point in its history".[5] In 1763, he became also Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland in 1763, and Royal Historiographer in 1764.

He is buried at Greyfriars Kirkyard, Edinburgh, close to the 'William Robertson Building' on George Square, part of the University of Edinburgh.


  1. Stewart J. Brown (ed.) (1997) William Robertson and the Expansion of Empire Cambridge University Press ISBN-10: 0521570832
  2. See recent edition online
  3. [1]
  4. from Robertson: The history of Scotland during the reigns of Queen Mary and of King James VI
  5. Horn DB(1967, p.76) "A Short History of the University of Edinburgh: 1556-1889"