eminent divine resided within the old College, at the south gate, nearly
on the spot where the centre of the library now is. He was born in the
year 1721, in the manse of Borthwick, of which parish his father, also
called William, was then minister, but who was afterwards presented to
the Old Greyfriars' Church, Edinburgh. His mother was Eleanor, daughter
of David Pitcairn, Esq., of Dreghorn; by the father's side he was
descended from the Robertsons of Gladney, in Fife, a branch of the
ancient house of Strowan. Dr. Robertson received the first rudiments of
his education at Dalkeith, under Mr. Leslie; and in 1733, when his
father removed to Edinburgh, he commenced his course of academical
study, which he completed at the University of Edinburgh in 1741. In the
same year he was licensed to preach by the Presbetery of Dalkeith; and,
in 1743 was, by the Earl of Hopetoun, presented to the living of
Gladsmuir, in East Lothian. Soon after this, his father and mother died
within a few hours of each other, when six sisters and a younger brother
were left almost wholly dependent on him. He immediately took them home
to his humble residence at Gladsmuir, where his stipend amounted to
little more than £60 a-year, and devoted his leisure hours to the
superintendence of their education. After seeing them all respectably
settled in the world, he married, in 1751, his cousin Mary, daughter of
the Rev. Mr. Nisbet, one of the ministers of Edinburgh.
In the Rebellion of 1745, when Edinburgh was threatened by the
Highlanders, he hastened into the city, and joined a corps of Volunteers
raised for its defence; and when it was resolved to deliver up the city
without resistance, he, with a small band, tendered his assistance to
General Cope, who lay with the Royal army at Haddington—an offer which
the General (fortunately for the Doctor and his party) declined. He then
returned to the sacred duties of his parish, where he was much beloved;
and soon afterwards began to display his talents in the General Assembly
of the Church of Scotland, where he became the object of universal
attention and applause. It was about this time that Dr. Robertson so
ably defended his friend Mr. Home, the author of the tragedy of Douglas,
from the proceedings adopted against him in the clerical courts.
The first publication of Dr. Robertson was a sermon, which was preached
by him before the Society for Propagating Christian Knowledge, in 1755;
and to it may be attributed the unanimity of his call to the charge of
Lady Yester's Church in Edinburgh, to which he was translated in 1758.
In February, 1759, appeared his "History of Scotland during the Reigns
of Queen Mary and James VI." The effect of this work produced was
instantaneous and extraordinary—congratulatory letters of praise, from
the most eminent men of the time, poured in upon him; and it is said
that the emoluments derived from it exceeded .£600. Preferment
immediately followed, which changed at once the whole aspect of his
fortunes; for in the same year he was appointed Chaplain to the
Garrison of Stirling Castle, in the room of Mr. William Campbell. Next
year he was nominated one of his Majesty's Chaplains for Scotland; in
the year following (1761), on the death of Principal Goldie, he was
elected Principal of the University of Edinburgh, and translated to the Greyfriars' Church. Two years afterwards he was appointed by the King
Historiographer for Scotland, with a salary of £200 a-year.
In 1779, Dr. Robertson published, in three volumes 4to, a "History of
the Reign of Charles V.," which still further increased the reputation
of its author. For the copyright he received no less than £4500, the
largest sum then known to have been paid for a single work; and which,
according to the calculation of the Rev. Dr. Nisbet, of Montrose,
amounted exactly to twopence-halfpenny for each word in the work.
Dr. Robertson, in 1778, gave to the world his "History of America," in
two volumes quarto, a work which was well received at the time, and
which still continues to be popular. On this occasion he was elected an
honorary member of the Royal Academy of History in Madrid, who appointed
one of their members to translate the work into Spanish; but, after it
was considerably advanced, the Spanish Government interfered and
In the year 1781, he was elected one of
the Foreign Members of the Academy of Sciences at Padua, and, in 1783,
one of the Foreign Members of the Imperial Academy of Sciences at St.
In 1791 appeared his last work, also in
quarto, entitled, "Historical Disquisitions concerning the Knowledge
which the Ancients had of India, and the Progress of Trade with that
Country, prior to the Discovery of the Cape of Good Hope."
The Doctor's powerful and persuasive eloquence had gained him an
influence in the General Assembly which intimately and conspicuously
associated his name with the Ecclesiastical affairs of Scotland. He was
a long time leader of the Court party in our Ecclesiastical Parliament,
and as a speaker, it is said, he might have ranked with the first names
in the British Senate. He retired from the business of the Church Courts
in 1780, but still continued his pastoral duties, preaching when his
health permitted, till within a few months of his death, which took
place at Grange House, near Edinburgh, on the 11th June, 1793.
His colleague Dr. John Erskine, in a sermon preached after his death,
said, "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."
Dr. Robertson is said to have excited the enmity of Dr. Gilbert Stuart,
in consequence of his assumed opposition to the appointment of that
clever but vindictive personage, to one of the Law Chairs in the
University. Whether the Principal really interfered is not certain, but
Stuart believed he had done so, and that was quite sufficient to induce
him to take every means in his power to annoy his imagined enemy. The
"View of Society in Europe," is in direct opposition to the luminous
introduction to Dr. Robertson's "History of Charles V.," and the
"History of Scotland, from the Reformation to the Death of Queen Mary,"
is an undisguised and virulent hypercritical attack on the "History of
Scotland" by the same eminent writer, and does no great credit to the
talents of Dr. Stuart. The Empress Catherine of Russia was so delighted
with Dr. Robertson's works, that she presented him with a handsome gold
enamelled snuff-box, richly set with diamonds, through Dr. Rogerson,
which is still in possession of the family.
Robertson left three sons and two daughters. The eldest son was a Lord
of Session. He lived in Charlotte Square, and died about the year 1836.
The second son, Lieutenant-General James, who distinguished himself
under Lord Cornwallis, resided, in 1841, at Canaan Bank, near Edinburgh.
The third son was also in the army, but, having married the heiress of
Kinloch-Moidart, he retired, and afterward lived almost entirely upon
his estate. The eldest daughter married Patrick Brydone, Esq. of Lennel
House, author of a "Tour through Sicily and Malta," one of whose
daughters became Countess of Minto; and another, the wife of Admiral Sir
Charles Adam, K.B. The youngest daughter married John Russell, Esq.,
Writer to the Signet.