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Significant Scots
Dr Robert Watson


WATSON, (DR) ROBERT, author of the History of the Reign of Philip II. of Spain, was born at St Andrews about the year 1730. He was the son of an apothecary of that city, who was also a brewer. He studied successively at the universities of St Andrews, Glasgow, and Edinburgh, with a view to the ministry, availing himself of the leisure which a course of theology leaves to the student to cultivate English literature and rhetoric, upon which subjects he delivered a series of lectures in Edinburgh, to an audience comprising the principal literary and philosophical men of the day.

Soon after he had been licensed to preach, a vacancy occurred in one of the churches of his native city, and for this he became a candidate, but was disappointed. About this time, however, Mr Rymer, the professor of logic in St Salvador’s college, feeling the infirmities of old age advancing upon him, was inclined to enter into a negotiation for retiring, and, according to a prevailing though not a laudable custom, Watson obtained his chair for the payment of a small sum of money, and on the condition that the retiring professor should continue to enjoy his salary. The subject of our memoir obtained at the same time a patent from the crown, constituting him professor of rhetoric and belles lettres. The study of logic, in St Andrews, as in most other places, was confined to syllogisms, modes, and figures. Watson, whose mind had been expanded by intercourse with the most enlightened men of his day, and by the study of the best modern literature, prepared and read to his students a course of metaphysics and logic on an improved plan; in which he analyzed the powers of the mind, and entered deeply into the nature of the different species of evidence of truth or knowledge.

After having fully arranged the course of his professional duties, Watson was induced by the success of Robertson and Hume in the composition of history, as well as by the natural tendencies of his mind, to attempt a work emulating theirs in labour and utility. The reign of Philip II. of Spain presented itself to him as a proper subject, not only on account of its intrinsic interest, but as a continuation of the admired work of Robertson on the preceding reign. Having therefore prepared this composition with all due care, it was published at London in 1777, in two volumes quarto. A periodical critic thus characterizes the work: "The style and narration of this history deserve much praise; it is easy, flowing, and natural, always correct, and well adapted to the different subjects which come under review; it possesses, however, more of the dignified simplicity and strength of the philosopher, than the flowing embellishments of the poet. Watson rests none of his merit upon external ornament; he is chiefly anxious to relate facts, clearly and completely in their due proportion and proper connexion, and to please and interest, rather by what he has to tell than by any adventitious colouring. But though he does not seem solicitous to decorate his narrative with beauty or sublimity of diction, we feel no want of it; we meet with nothing harsh, redundant, or inelegant; we can on no occasion say that he has not done justice to his subject, that his conceptions are ever inadequate, his views deficient, or his description feeble. * * * The whole series of events lies full and clear before us as they actually existed; nothing is heightened beyond truth by the false colourings of imagination, nor does anything appear without suitable dignity. The principal circumstances are selected with judgment, and displayed with the utmost perspicuity and order. On no occasion are we at a loss to apprehend his meaning, or follow the thread of his narrative; we are never fatigued with minute attentions, nor distracted with a multiplicity of things at once." [Bee, volumes vii and viii.]

On the death of principal Tullidelph, November 1777, Watson, now graced with the degree of doctor of laws, was, through the influence of the earl of Kinnoul, appointed to that respectable situation, and, at the same time, presented to the church and parish of St Leonard, in St Andrews, which had previously been enjoyed by Tullidelph. Dr Watson died March 31, 1781, leaving by his lady, who was a daughter of Mr Shaw, professor of divinity in St Mary’s college, five daughters. He also left the first four books of a history of the Reign of Philip III., being a continuation of his former work. The task of completing this by the addition of two books having been confided to Dr William Thomson, (see the life of that gentleman,) the work was published at London in 1783, in one volume quarto. Both of this and of the history of Philip II, there were subsequent editions in octavo.

Prevailing though not a laudable custom, Watson obtained his chair for the payment of a small sum of money, and on the condition that the retiring professor should continue to enjoy his salary. The subject of our memoir obtained at the same time a patent from the crown, constituting him professor of rhetoric and belles lettres. The study of logic, in St Andrews, as in most other places, was confined to syllogisms, niodes, and figures. Watson, whose mind haul been expanded by intercourse with the most enlightened men of his day, and by the study of the best modern literature, prepared and read to his students a course of nietaphysics and logic on an improved plan; in which he analyzed the powers of the mind, and entered deeply into the nature of the different species of evidence of truth or knowledge.

After having fully arranged the course of his professional duties, Watson was induced by the success of Robertson and Hume in the composition of history, as well as by the natural tendencies of his mind, to attempt a work emulating theirs in labour and utility. The reign of Philip II. of Spain presented itself to him as a proper subject, not only on account of its intrinsic interest, but as a continuation of the admired work of Robertson on the preceding reign. Having therefore prepared this composition with all due care, it was published at London in 1777, in two volumes quarto. A periodical critic thus characterizes the work : " The style and narration of this history deserve much praise; it is easy, flowing, and natural, always correct, and well adapted to the different subjects which come under review; it possesses, however, more of the dignified simplicity and strength of the philosopher, than the flowing embellishments of the poet. Watson rests none of his merit upon external ornament; he is chiefly anxious to relate facts, clearly and completely in their due proportion and proper connexion, and to please and interest, rather by what he has to tell than by any adventitious colouring. But though he does not seem solicitous to decorate his narrative with beauty or sublimity of diction, we feel no want of it; we meet with nothing harsh, redundant, or inelegant; we can on no occasion say that he has not done justice to his subject, that his conceptions are ever inadequate, his views deficient, or his description feeble. * * The whole series of events lies full and clear before us as they actually existed; nothing is heightened beyond truth by the false colourings of imagination, nor does anything appear without suitable dignity. The principal circumstances are selected with judgment, and displayed with the utmost perspicuity and order, On no occasion are we at a loss to apprebend his meaning, or follow the thread of his narrative; we are never fatigued with minute attentions, nor distracted with a multiplicity of things at once. [Bee, volumes vii and viii.]

On the death of principal Tullidelph, November 1777, Watson, now graced with the degree of doctor of laws, was, through the influence of the earl of Kinnoul, appointed to that respectable situation, and, at the same time, presented to the church and parish of St Leonard, in St Andrews, which had previously been enjoyed by Tullidelph. Dr Watson died March 31, 1781, leaving by his lady, who was a daughter of Mr Shaw, professor of divinity in St Mary’s college, five daughters. He also left the first four books of a history of the Reign of Philip 111., being a continuation of his former work. The task of completing this by the addition of two books having been confided to Dr William Thomson, (see the life of that gentleman,) the work was published at London in 1783, in one volume quarto. Both of this and of the history of Philip 11., there were subsequent editions in octavo.


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