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Significant Scots
William Roy


ROY (MAJOR-GENERAL), WILLIAM, a distinguished practical mathematician and antiquary, was born in Carluke parish, May 4, 1726. John, the father, who was born April 15, 1697, at Milton-head, must have been an active and intelligent man, if we may judge from the many references made to him by the heritors of the parish. He is variously designated as gardener, factor, &c., to Sir William Gordon, and to Charles Hamilton Gordon, of Hallcraig. John, the grandfather, seems to have been succeeded in office by his son John. The earliest notice of the elder John Roy is in the "Roll of polleable persons in Carluke parish, 1695," and the entry there is in these terms:—"Jo roy, servitor to my Lord hallcraig, 00 .19. 04." The general, and his brother James, afterwards minister of Prestonpans, were educated partly at the school of their native parish, and partly at the grammar-school of Lanark, the latter having been a bursar in Glasgow college on the foundation of the countess of Forfar, from 1737 till 1751. A characteristic anecdote of Roy is still current. An old woman, a native of Carluke, who had all her life been a servant at Lee, used to relate with pride that, in her young days, Roy came to Lee as attendant on great men; shortly afterwards he came again, but in a higher office; after the lapse of years, he came a third time, and now he sat at the right hand of the laird!

The birthplace of general Roy is accidentally marked in a singular manner. The buildings of Milton-head have long been cleared away. An old willow that grew near the end of the steading, no longer able to bear the weight of its own arms, bent under the burden, and now represents an arch of fair proportions. The tree in this position continues to grow, and is itself an object of interest; but, marking as it does the birthplace of an eminent man, it is doubly worthy of notice and preservation.

No record has been discovered of the early career of general Roy. He was first brought into notice in 1746, when he was employed by government to make an actual survey of Scotland. This arduous and difficult duty he performed in a meritorious manner, and gave the world the result in what goes under the name of the "Duke of Cumberland’s Map." Upon this map, which is a very large sheet, the sites of all ascertainable Roman camps or stations were accurately and distinctly laid down. It was afterwards reduced by the general to a smaller size, under the title of "Mappa Britanniae Septentrionalis," &c.

The first geodesic survey executed in England was undertaken with the immediate object of establishing a trigonometrical connection between the observations of Paris and Greenwich, in order to determine the difference of longitude. This was executed by general Roy, who began his operations by measuring a base of 27,404 feet on Hounslow Heath, in the summer of 1784. Amongst the numerous and valuable papers contributed to the Transactions of the Royal Society by general Roy, was an account of these operations, which obtained for him the Copley medal. To this paper was appended an account of the mode proposed to be followed in determining the relative situations of the Greenwich and Paris observatories, which led to the author’s being employed by royal command to ascertain this point by the method thus suggested, from actual experiment. In obedience to his majesty’s mandate, the general completed an exceedingly curious, accurate, and elaborate set of trigonometrical experiments and observations, to determine the true and exact latitude and longitude of the two observatories, illustrated by tables computed from actual measurement; to enable him to accomplish which, he was furnished by the king with several costly trigonometrical instruments. General Roy presented an account of these interesting proceedings to the Royal Society, and was employed in superintending its publication in the Society’s Transactions, when he was seized with an illness which carried him off in two hours. He died at his house, Argyle Street, London, July 1, 1790. General Roy’s investigations laid the groundwork of the trigonometrical survey of the three kingdoms, which is still in progress. In the History of the Royal Society by Weld (1848), it is expressly stated that this survey was commenced by general Roy in 1784. It was subsequently conducted, under the direction of the master-general of the ordnance, by colonel Williams, and captain, afterwards general Mudge, of the Royal Engineers, and Mr Dalby, who had previously assisted general Roy. Three years after his death, general Roy’s elaborate antiquarian work was published at the expense of the Antiquarian Society of London, under the title of "Military Antiquities of the Romans in Britain." General Roy was deputy quartermaster-general of his majesty’s forces; surveyor of the coasts and batteries; colonel of the 30th Regiment of Foot; F.R.S., &c.


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