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Significant Scots
Sir Robert Sibbald


SIBBALD, (SIR) ROBERT, an eminent physician, naturalist, and antiquary, was descended of the ancient family of the Sibbalds of Balgonie in Fife. He received the principal part of his education, particularly in philosophy and languages, at the university of Edinburgh. Having completed himself in these branches of learning, he went to Leyden to study medicine, and in 1661, he obtained there a doctor’s degree. On this occasion he published an inaugural dissertation entitled, "De Variis Speciebus." Sir Robert immediately afterwards returned to his native country, and took up his residence in Edinburgh, from which, however, he occasionally retired to a rural retreat in the neighbourhood of the city, where he cultivated rare and exotic plants, and pursued, undisturbed, his favourite study of botany. The reputation which he soon afterwards acquired procured him the honour of knighthood from Charles II., who also appointed him his physician, natural historian, and geographer-royal for Scotland. In this capacity he received his majesty’s commands to write a general description of the whole kingdom, including a particular history of the different counties of Scotland. Of this undertaking, however, the only part which he ever executed was the History of Fife, published in 1710, a work of very considerable interest, and replete with curious antiquarian information. A new edition of this book, which had become exceedingly scarce, was published at Cupar in Fife in 1803.

In 1681, Sir Robert became a member of the Royal College of Physicians, then first incorporated, and in three years afterwards, he published a learned and elaborate work, on which twenty years had been employed, entitled "Scotia Illustrata, sive Prodromus Historiae Naturalis Scotiae," folio. A second edition of this valuable work, also in folio, was published in 1696. One part of the Scotia Illustrata, is devoted to the indigenous plants of Scotland, and amongst these there appear some rare species, one of which was subsequently called Sibbaldia, by Linnaeus, in honour of its discoverer. For some of the opinions expressed in this work on the mathematical principles of physic, Sir Robert was violently attacked by Dr Pitcairne, in a tract more remarkable for the severity of its satire than the fairness or solidity of its arguments, entitled, "De Legibus Historiae Naturalis," Edinburgh, 1696.

In 1694, this ingenious and versatile author published an interesting work on Zoology, entitled "Phalainologia nova, or Observations on some Animals of the Whale genus lately thrown on the Shores of Scotland." This was followed by "The Liberty and Independency of the Kingdom and Church of Scotland asserted from Ancient Records," in 3 parts, 4to, 1704; and in the same year in which his history of Fife appeared, he published another work, entitled "Miscellanea quaedam eruditae Antiquitatis."

Besides these works Sir Robert wrote a great number of learned and highly ingenious treatises and essays for the Royal Society, chiefly on subjects connected with the antiquities of his native country. These were collected and published after his death under the title of "A collection of several Treatises in folio, concerning Scotland, as it was of old, and also in later times," by Sir Robert Sibbald, M.D., Edinburgh, 1739. In his antiquarian researches he was greatly assisted by Sir Robert Gordon of Straloch, the first native of Scotland who turned his attention to the illustration of the antiquities of his native country. The subject of this memoir was the next. It is recorded of Sir Robert Sibbald, and by himself, that when the earl of Perth was chancellor of Scotland, the latter pressed him with much urgency and great perseverance to come over to the Roman catholic faith. For some time, Sir Robert says, he resisted all his grace’s arguments and entreaties, but at length found himself all at once convinced by the reasoning of the chancellor. Under this sudden sense of error, and in the fulness of his new-born contrition, he rushed, with tears in his eyes, into the arms of his converter, and formally embraced his religion. Soon afterwards, remaining still steady in the faith, he accompanied his lordship to London, and resided with him there for one winter. The long and frequent tastings, however, and extremely rigid discipline to which he was now subjected, induced him to reconsider the points of controversy between catholicism and protestantism, and the result was that he discovered he had done wrong in deserting the latter, and with a heart once more filled with contrition, he returned to his original faith. It may not be without its effect on those who shall consider this circumstance as an instance of weakness in Sir Robert Sibbald’s character, to learn, that Dr Johnson entertained a very different opinion of it. The great moralist considered it as an honest picture of human nature, and exclaimed, when the subject was discussed in his presence, "How often are the primary motives of our greatest actions as small as Sibbald’s for his re-conversion." Sir Robert Sibbald wrote several other works, and promoted the establishment of a botanical garden at Edinburgh. He died about the year 1712.


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