Watson was a native
Gaelic-speaker, born in Milntown of New Tarbat (now known as Milton), Easter
Ross. He was the son of Hugh Watson, a blacksmith. He received his initial
education from his uncle, James Watson. William became well grounded in
Gaelic studies and the Classics. He went to study at the University of
Aberdeen and the University of Oxford.
Initially a school teacher in Glasgow, he was appointed Rector of the Royal
Academy, Inverness in 1894 and he then obtained the prestigious post as
Rector of the Royal High School, Edinburgh in 1909. It was while teaching in
Inverness that he began to contribute to the Transactions of the Gaelic
Society of Inverness and the Celtic Review.
In Edinburgh he lived at 17 Merchiston Avenue.
In 1910 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. His
proposers were Walter Biggar Blaikie, Sir William Leslie Mackenzie, John
Horne, and Ben Peach.
He took the chair of Celtic at the University of Edinburgh in 1914, despite
holding no prior university position. He remained in this prestigious
position until making way for his son James Carmichael Watson in 1935 (but
retaining a role in the university until 1938).
William died on 9 March 1948, aged 83.
He is best known for his The
Celtic Place-names of Scotland (1926),
based on 30 years of work. Watson's work, eight decades later, is still the
primary scholarly reference guide on the subject. The book is based on
extensive notes taken by Watson, which are unpublished and held by the University
Watson's great work was recently republished by Birlinn (2004).
Place-Names of Ross and Cromarty