Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Robertson, William (1740-1799)
ROBERTSON, WILLIAM (1740–1799), deputy keeper of the records of Scotland, born in 1740 at Fordyce in Banffshire, was the son of James Robertson, a feuar in that town, by Isabella (Taylor). He was educated at Fordyce grammar school, where he formed a friendship with George Chalmers [q. v.], the author of ‘Caledonia.’ After spending two years at King's College, Aberdeen, he was in 1757 apprenticed to an advocate of Aberdeen; at the end of thirteen months his master, Mr. Turner, generously cancelled his articles, so that he might accompany James Burnett [q. v.], of Monboddo, on his visits to France in connection with the famous Douglas cause. In 1766 Burnett recommended him as secretary to James Ogilvy, sixth earl of Findlater and third earl of Seafield [q. v.] Two years later he published at Edinburgh ‘The History of Greece from the Earliest Times till it became a Roman Province,’ a digest adapted for educational purposes from the French of Alletz. In 1769 he issued a political jeu d'esprit, entitled ‘A North Briton Extraordinary, by a Young Scotsman in the Corsican Service,’ which was ‘designed to repel the illiberal invectives of Mr. Wilkes against the people of Scotland,’ and attracted sufficient notice to be attributed, in error, to Smollett. In the autumn of 1773 Lord Findlater's seat, Cullen House, was visited by Dr. Johnson, for whose benefit Robertson arranged a breakfast of boiled haddocks and a walk through the finely wooded park; but Johnson ordered the haddocks off the table in disgust, and declined to walk through the park, on the ground that he came to Scotland to see not meadows, but rocks and mountains. In 1777 Robertson received a commission from Lord Frederick Campbell, then lord clerk register of Scotland, to act as the colleague of his brother Alexander (1745–1818), who had been appointed deputy keeper of the records of Scotland in 1773. From the time of his appointment until 1790 Robertson was much employed in inquiring into the state of the Scottish peerage. The knowledge that he acquired of this complex subject was embodied in a quarto volume published in 1794, and entitled ‘Proceedings relative to the Peerage of Scotland from 16 Jan. 1707 to 20 April 1788;’ the work has been found of great service in conducting the elections of the representative peers in Scotland. In August 1787 he had, with his fellow deputy, taken possession of the new general register house, and was instrumental in moving the records thither from the two vaults under the court of session, called the ‘Laigh Parliament House’ (October 1791).
At Robertson's suggestion searches were made in the state paper office in London for ancient records of Scotland which had been removed by Edward I. In August 1793 Thomas Astle [q. v.], the antiquary, and a trustee of the British Museum, discovered among the Harleian manuscripts (No. 4609) a curious index of Scottish charters; shortly afterwards a transcript on vellum of certain deeds relative to Scottish history (mainly of the reigns of Robert I, David II, and Robert II, together with a few instruments of earlier date), constituting the ‘most ancient Book of Scottish Record now known to exist,’ was found in the state paper office in London and removed to Edinburgh. To stimulate the discovery of other records of early Scottish history, Robertson published from a manuscript found at Wishaw in 1794 (and anterior to the Harleian draft discovered by Astle), ‘An Index drawn up about the year 1629 of many Records of Charters granted by the different sovereigns of Scotland between 1309 and 1413, most of which records have been long missing, with an introduction giving a State, founded on authentic documents still preserved, of the Ancient Records of Scotland which were in that kingdom in 1292,’ Edinburgh, 1798, 4to. Shortly after the conclusion of this laborious task Robertson set to work upon ‘The Records of the Parliament of Scotland,’ of which he had at the time of his death completed one folio volume, printed in 1804. Robertson's suggestions in the ‘Reports’ to the parliamentary commissioners appointed to inquire into the state of the records have been largely acted upon by successive deputy keepers.
At a general meeting of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, held on 28 Jan. 1799, Robertson was elected a member. He died at his house in St. Andrews Square, Edinburgh, on 4 March 1803. He married, in 1773, Margaret, only daughter of Captain Alexander Donald, of the 89th or Gordon highlanders.[Life prefixed to the 9th edit. of Robertson's Hist. of Greece, Edinburgh, 1839, 8vo; Scots Mag. April 1803; Fasti Aberdonenses, ed. Anderson (New Spalding Club); Preface to Index of Charters; Lowndes's Bibl. Man. (Bohn); Notes and Queries, 1st ser. vii. 101; Brit. Mus. Cat.]