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Significant Scots
Robert Renwick



Mr. Robert Renwick
Depute Town Clerk, Glasgow

TIME was when the antiquary, archaeologist, or historian was looked upon as something outwith the common run of humanity, and he was considered to be a man who was so immersed in the affairs of the past that he had little or no interest in the living present. But all that is now changed, and he stands forth as a man of broad sympathies, whose ability to make the past live again arises to a large extent from his thorough knowledge of human nature. We are all attracted by antiquarian research now-a-days, in fact it stands in danger of becoming fashionable. This changed attitude of the general public owes its existence almost entirely to the small band of patient investigators, who have spared no pains to rescue the story of the past from the oblivion into which it had passed. Too often their task was a thankless one, and their efforts to preserve the precious relics of antiquity were too often thwarted by the unthinking iconoclasts who never hesitated to pull down a thousand-year-old ruin to use the material for building a pig-stye or a garden wall.

Mr Robert Renwick, the subject of our sketch, stands in the very front rank of antiquarians and historians, but his work has come more under the notice of the specialist than that of the general reader, and this has kept him to a large extent from the glare of publicity. We are proud of him as a Borderer, and believing that our readers will be pleased to know more of him, and our young men feel inspired by the record of his unselfish and painstaking research, we present this short biography.

Mr Renwick was born at Torbank, Peeblesshire, on 4th March, 1841. Having passed through the usual course of education in the Parish and Burgh Schools, he entered, in 1856, the office of Messrs Stuart <fe Blackwood, writers, Peebles, who, besides having a large private practice, had the chief share in the public business of the county. After being thoroughly grounded in the rudiments of his profession during some eight years’ experience in the county lawyers’ office, he left for Edinburgh, having obtained an appointment in the office of Mr (now Sir James) Marwick, then Town Clerk of that city. In 1868 Sir James founded the Scottish Burgh Records Society, .and he was ably supported by Mr Renwick in the prosecution of this valuable work. A few years later, when Sir James Marwick was appointed Town Clerk of Glasgow, Mr Renwick also came west, and since 1873 he has had charge of the conveyancing department in the Town Clerk’s Office of St Mungo’8 City.

In 1885 Mr Renwick was appointed Depute Town Clerk and Keeper of the Burgh Register of Sasines. Referring to this Register, a Glasgow paper says:—“In this register all transfers of property within the burgh are recorded. It serves, in the present day, the purpose of the protocol books of the sixteenth century. As custodier of the City’s titles, Mr Renwick has charge of an extensive collection of documents, ranging from parchments, hundreds of years old, down to the conveyance of the most recent purchase. As befits one occupying such a responsible position, Mr Renwick is a keen and accomplished student of the days of old. He reads the mysterious caligraphy, with its puzzling contractions, of scribes who wrote in the Scottish and Latin tongues centuries ago, as easily as the average citizen cons his daily newspaper. He possesses, too, the gift of clear and accurate expression of his thoughts. Before recording these, however, this law-trained historian takes nothing for granted. He must have chapter and verse for what he has to say. Endowed with a penetrating insight, and an enviable faculty of taking infinite pains, Mr Renwick has throughout his career been an enthusiastic and unwearied worker in the field of old Scottish and old Glasgow' history. Consequently his writings are accurate and reliable to the last degree.”

The same paper, “The Bailie,” referring further to the subject of our sketch, continues: —“ To give an indication of what Mr Renwick had done in unveiling and recording the past, the "Bailie" has pleasure in enumerating the undernoted publications: (1) Half-a-dozen books dealing with the history and antiquities of the Burgh and Shire of Peebles, the last being—“Peebles during the Reign of Queen Mary,” published in 1903; accurate, and full of interest. It goes without saying that what Mr Renwick is ignorant of regarding Peebles and its shire is not worth knowing. (2) Stirling Charters and Records, in three volumes, 1884-89. (3) Lanark Charters and Records, 1893. The Sons of the Rock, and the lieges of Lanark, have good reason to feel proud of these carefully executed memorials of the past. (4) Glasgow Protocols, eleven volumes, published in 1894-1900; full of the most curious reading, and illustrated and dominated by a series of -interesting notes. i(b). “Historical Glasgow,” issued as a handbook for the British Association in 1901; a work which ought to find a place on the shelves of §very private library in Glasgow. (6) The.Barony of Gorbals; an able and exhausjtive paper, forming part first of the fourth series of the publications of the Regality. Club published in 1900. It is illustrated by two excellent etchings from the needle of our foremost Scottish master of the art, Mr D. Y. Cameron, and by two interesting plans compiled by Mr A. B. Macdonald, our capable city engineer. (7) In recent days Mr Renwick' was conjoined with Sir James Marwick in editing the Records of Glasgow-, comprising the period from 1663 to 1690, already referred to. (8) Many and varied contributions to magazines and newspapers on historical and topographical subjects, all bearing the hall-mark of thoroughness and accuracy, combined with clear and perspicuous writing. In addition to this excellent record of work, there remains to be noted Mr Renwick’s in valuable services to the Old Glasgow Exhibition, held under the auspices of the Glasgow Institute of the Fine Arts in 1894. It was he who placed in ordered sequence a long series of ancient documents, the property of the Corporation, throwing much light on Glasgow’s past. He rendered similar service to the City’s great International Exhibition of 1901. The article in the memorial catalogue of the former of these notable shows, on “Charters and Manuscripts,” and that in “Scottish History and Life,” the sumptuous memorial volume of the latter, were both from the pen of Mr Renwick. The Corporation of Glasgow has reason to feel proud of having such an able scholar and lawyer to take charge of her ancient and interesting documents.

Mr Renwick is closely bound up in the work of his department and the historical studies of his hours of leisure. Earnest workers in old Glasgow history find themselves ever and again compelled to fly to him for information and advice, and from his stores of knowledge they invariably receive what they are in search of. His kindly nature is esteemed by all who know him—most deeply by those who know him best. A crack with him on Old Glasgow is a tieat of a high order to the student of the history of Saint Mungo’s City.

At a meeting of the Corporation a letter, addressed to the Lord Provost by the ex-Town Clerk, Sir James Marwick, was read, suggesting the desirability of having the Charters and other constitutional documents of the City continued till the passing of the Burgh Reform Act, and advancing good reasons for this being done. The suggestion received the unanimous approval of the members present, and authority was given for the preparing, printing, and issuing a third volume of the Charters of Glasgow. That is, from every point of view, a wise resolution.

Peeblesshire gave Mr Renwick the chief credit in compiling that valuable work. While the volume was passing through the press Mr Renwick contributed a series of supplementary extracts from Peebles records (1652-1714) to the “Peeblesshire Advertiser,” and when the work was issued, he contributed to the same newspaper, in a series of articles, a valuable analytical summary of its contents.

Readers who are not acquainted with the publications of the Scottish Burgh Records Society will understand their scope and purpose if we refer to the prospectus which was prefixed to the earlier volumes issued by the Society. It is there stated that the purpose was to extend to municipal institutions the scientific system of historical investigation which had been pursued in other channels by the Bannatyne, Maitland, Abbotsford, Spalding, and other Clubs. The Society’s work, both directly and indirectly, has corrected and amplified our knowledge in its chosen field in & way which has fully justified its existence.

In his letter Sir James speaks of Mr Renwick as one "who knows more of Old Glasgow, I believe, than any living person.”

To Borderers Mr Renwick’s works on Peebles have a special interest, and for that reason we give their titles as follows:—“Gleanings from the Burgh Records of Peebles, 1604-52;” “Historical Notes on Peeblesshire Localities;” “A Peebles Aisle and Monastery;” “Peebles: Burgh and Parish in Early History,” and "Peebles during the Reign of Queen Mary.” In 1872, when the Scottish Burgh Records Society published the Burgh Records of Peebles, the editor, Dr William Chambers (another prefixed to the earlier volumes issued by the Society. It is there stated that the purpose was to extend ta municipal institutions the scientific system of historical investigation which had been pursued in other channels by the Bannatyne, Maitland, Abbotsford, Spalding, and other Clubs. The Society’s work, both directly and indirectly, has corrected and amplified our knowledge in its chosen field in & way which has fully justified its existence.

Mr Renwick is an untiring worked, and future historians will bless him for the great amount of valuable material he has placed at their disposal. Although he has dug so deep in the mine o! ancient lore, he is full of that geniality of character which makes conversation with him peculiarly pleasant. Mr Ren-wick makes no parade of his vast knowledge, but can introduce his favourite topics in such an unassuming way that the listener feels as if he were the speaker instead of Mr Renwick. The geniality we have referred to is shared by Mrs Renwick and their family of sons and daughters, and those who are privileged to meet them in their house are instantly made to feel at home in an atmosphere of intellectual hospitality.

On 11th October, 1897, the Royal Burgh of Peebles, recognising the deep indebtedness of the town to its honoured son, conferred upon Mr Renwick the freedom of the Burgh at a special meeting of the Town Council held in the Town Hall. The Burgess ticket was enclosed in a silver casket, bearing the following inscription: —"Presented to Robert Renwick, Esq., Depute Town Clerk of Glasgow, 11th October, 1897, with the freedom of the Royal Burgh of Peebles, conferred on him in recognition of his services in historical research, and specially in connection with the records of the Burgh of Peebles.”

Bailie Ramsay, in making the presentation, said: —It gave him very great pleasure to be the mouthpiece of the Council on that important and interesting occasion. They had many men on their burgess roll of whom they were proud. Such an one was Mr Gladstone, who was honoured and revered by all, no matter of wbat political opinion. Of men of letters they had the late Professor Veitch, the late Dr William Chambers, who wrote a “History of Peeblesshire,” and others. Important as was Dr Chambers’ History, he (Bailie Ramsay) believed that Mr Renwick’s “Gleanings from the Burgh Records,” went much deeper and further. All honour to Mr Renwick for that, for Dr Chambers was a man of great determination, and had great resources, both of time and money, and did everything well. Mr Renwick’s "Records” must have taken much labour and many months to complete, and while it might not be considered the most congenial reading by many, yet other works, which were now read with great eagerness, would be flung aside as useless when Mr Renwick’s were becoming more interesting. For centuries to come Mr Renwick’s books would be reckoned interesting and instructive. He had pleasure in presenting the casket to Mr Renwick, who, he hoped, would not, like the Provost of Leith and the Jubilee medal, look upon it in its intrinsic value, but would prize it because of the honour which it represented; and when it was handed down from generation to generation, those who came after him would see that the Renwicks had had the honour and goodwill of the chief town of their native county.

In his reply, Mr Renwick made an admirable speech, in which he thanked his fellow-towns-men for the honour they had done him, and gave interesting information regarding the Royal Burgh, which we produce as a separate article under the title of “Peebles Privileges,” quoted from the report of the proceedings which appeared in the “Peeblesshire Advertiser.”

We trust that Mr Renwick will be long spared in health and strength to pursue his favourite studies and make the Scottish nation more deeply indebted to him than ever for his valuable researches into the records of the past.


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