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Significant Scots
Robert Gordon


Robert GordonGORDON, ROBERT, of Straloch, an eminent geographer and antiquary, was born at Kinnundy in Aberdeenshire, on the 14th September, 1580. He was the second son of Sir John Gordon of Pitlurg, a gentleman who long stood high in the favouor of his sovereign, James VI., as appears, amongst other circumstances, from some curious letters addressed to him by that monarch, in one of which he is laid under contribution, though in the most affectionate terms, for a horse for the king’s approaching marriage, and in another is warmly invited to the baptism of the unfortunate Charles I.

Robert Gordon received the first rudiments of his education at Aberdeen, and having passed the usual course of the humanity, mathematical, and philosophical classes, was the first graduate of the Marischal university, then recently founded by George earl of Marischal. In 1598, being in his eighteenth year, he was sent to Paris to complete his education. Here he remained for two years. On his father’s death, which happened in 1600, he returned to Scotland, and in 1608, having married a daughter of Alexander Irvine of Lenturk, he bought the estate of Straloch, ten miles north of Aberdeen, and now devoted himself to the pursuit of his favourite studies, geography, history, and the antiquities of Britain. To the first of these he seems to have been especially attached, and it was his perseverance, industry, and accuracy in this science, then in an extremely rude state, which first obtained him the celebrity which he afterwards enjoyed. There were only at this time three maps of Scotland in existence, all of them so rude and inaccurate as to be wholly useless. The inaccuracy of these sketches had been long known, and was the subject of great and universal complaint. Urged on by this, and the general dissatisfaction, Mr Gordon employed himself in making geographical surveys by actual mensuration; a labour which none of his predecessors had ever subjected themselves to. He has, therefore, the merit of being the first who applied this indispensable but tedious and laborious process for securing accuracy in topographical surveys, to Scotland.

One consequence of Mr Gordon’s zeal and industry in these patriotic pursuits, was a great extension of his celebrity, which at length even reached the royal ear. In 1641, king Charles was applied to by the celebrated map and atlas publishers, the Bleaus of Amsterdam, for his patronage of an atlas of Scotland, which they were then contemplating, and requesting his majesty to appoint some qualified persons to assist them with information for the intended work; and, in especial, to arrange and amend certain geographic sketches of one Timothy Pont, [Son of Mr Robert Pont, minister of the West Kirk, Edinburgh.] of which they had been previously put in possession, but in a confused and mutilated state. This task, king Charles, in the following flattering letter, devolved upon Mr Gordon. "Having lately seen certain charts of divers shires of this our ancient kingdom, sent here from Amsterdam, to be corrected and helpit in the defects thereof, and being informed of your sufficiency in that art, and of your love both to learning and to the credit of your nation; we have therefore thought fit hereby, earnestly to entreat you to take so much pains as to revise the said charts, and to help them in such things as you find deficient thereuntil, that they may be sent back by the direction of our chancellor to Holland; which, as the same will be honourable for yourself, so shall it do us good and acceptable service, and if occasion present we shall not be unmindful thereof. From our palace of Holyrood house, the 8th October, 1641."

Mr Gordon readily undertook the task thus imposed upon him, and in 1648, the atlas was published with a dedication from Mr Gordon to Sir John Scott of Scotstarvit, who had greatly encouraged and forwarded the work. A second edition of this atlas, which was long the standard book of reference for Scotland, and its numerous islands, was published in 1655, and a third in 1664. It is now, of course, superseded by later and more scientific surveys.

The work consists of 46 maps, general and particular, with ample descriptions and detached treatises on the antiquities of Scotland. Of such importance was this undertaking considered, that, wild and disordered as the times were, Mr Gordon was during its progress made a special object of the care and protection of the legislature. An act of parliament was passed exempting him from all new taxations, and relieving him from the quartering of soldiers. To carry this law into effect, orders were issued from tine to time by the various commanders of the forces in North Britain, discharging all officers and soldiers, as well horse as foot, from troubling or molesting, or quartering on Mr Robert Gordon of Straloch, his house, lands, or tenants, and from levying any public dues on the said Mr Robert Gordon, or on any of his possessions.

The charts exclusively executed by Mr Gordon were,: 1st. A chart of Great Britam and Ireland, taken from Ptolemy, and the most ancient Roman authors. 2d. A map of ancient Scotland, as described in the Roman Itineraries. 3d. A map of modern Scotland. 4th. A map of the county of Fife, from actual Survey and mensuration. 5th. A map of the counties of Aberdeen and Banff, with part of the county of Kincardine. 6th. A large map or geographical view, taken from actual survey,of the most inland provinces of Scotland, lying between the river Tay and the Murray frith. 7. A large map, from actual survey, of eh most northern, mountainous, and inaccessible parts of Scotland, including part of the island of Sky. To all of these Mr Gordon appended treatises, descriptive of every thing remarkable contained within their various bounds – towns, castles, religious houses, antiquities, rivers, lakes, &c., and occasionally introducing some interesting accounts of the most distinguished families in the different counties.

One of the treatises alluded to is particularly curious, from its containing an attempt to overturn the commonly received opinion as to the ultima Thule of the Romans. This tract, which is entitled "De Insula Thule Dissertatio," endeavours to show that none of the Orkney or Shetland islands, and still less Iceland answers to Ptolemys chart of Thule; and Mr Gordon concludes it by giving it as his opinion, that the island of Lewis the most westerly of the Hebrides, is the real Thule of the ancient Romans. Besides these meritorious works, Mr Gordon wrote many detached pieces of much interest and value; none of which, however, though many extracts have been made from them, have yet been published. Amongst the most important of these are, a critical letter in Latin to Mr. David Buchanan, containing strictures on the histories of Boyce, Buchanan, and Knox, and on Buchanan’s treatise, "De jure Regni apud Scotos;" and a preface intended to be prefixed to a new edition of Spottiswood’s history. The 1ast work of any importance which he undertook, was a history of the family of Gordon. This work, however, is incorrect in many important particulars, and in many instances erroneous with regard to its historical facts, especially previous to the year 1403. When Mr Gordon undertook this work he was far advanced in years, led a retired life, and had no ready access to those documents and records which alone could have encured accuracy, circumstances which may be admitted as some apology in the case of a man who had already done so much, and had rendered such important services to his country. Mr Gordon finally closed a long and active life in August, 1661, having then attained the 8lst year of his age. It is much to be regretted, that he did not, as he appears to have contemplated, write an account of his own times, which embraces one of the most important periods of Scottish history. There was no one better fitted for this task, as well from the talents which he possessed, as from the uncommon opportunities which he enjoyed, of studying the leading characters and events of these stirring times, for his superior judgment, peaceable demeanour, and generally judicious conduct, gained him the confidence and esteem of all parties, and thus brought him often in contact, as an adviser and mediator, with the chief men of both the factions which then distracted the state. With the view of compiling such a work as has been alluded to, Mr Gordon had collected a vast quantity of ~interesting documents relative to the Montrose wars. These his son, Mr James Gordon, afterwards employed, in compiling such an account as his father had contemplated. This work, which was never published, and which contains the transactions of the northern part of Scotland beyond the Forth, from 1637 to 1643, is now in the Advocates’ Library, at Edinburgh.

As has been already said, Mr Gordon, though residing in the very midst of civil war and commotion, was not only permitted to live in quiet, and to pursue his studies without interruption, but was frequently summoned to attend the meetings of the commissioners appointed by parliament, and by the general assemblies of the church.

One of these invitations from the earl of Marischal and general Middleton, besides showing the importance which was attached to Mr Gordon’s advice, is sufficiently curious in itself. It is addressed "to the right honourable, the laird of Stralloch," and runs as follows:- "Right Honourable, in regard we are called to be here for the time, for taking course for what may concern the public, &c. these are, therefore, to desire that you will be here at Aberdeen on Friday next, the 3d of October, 1645, when we shall meet you there. So looking assuredly for your meeting us, as you will testify your affection to the business, and have us to remain your affectionate friends. (signed) MARISCHAL, JOHN MIDDLETON."

Another extract, still more interesting, from one of many letters addressed to Mr Gordon, by lord Gordon, craving his advice and assistance, will not only show the deference which was paid to his candour and judgment; but will also show how fully they were appreciated by both parties. Lord Gordon, who was afterwards killed at Alford, after earnestly soliciting a meeting for advice, adds, "If I be too far engaged, or be not well advised, my friends and I both may find the prejudice. In conscience this is no draught, but a mere necessity, which I hope you will consider. I do neither envy you in enjoying your furred gown nor the fireside, I promise you, but do earnestly wish to see you."

Besides his other accomplishments, Mr Gordon was a profound classical scholar, and wrote Latin with much readiness and elegance.


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