Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Sibbald, Robert
SIBBALD, Sir ROBERT (1641–1722), physician and antiquary, was the fifth child and third son of David Sibbald, third brother of Sir David Sibbald, knight-baronet of Rankeillour, Fifeshire, and keeper of the great seal under the chancellorship of the Earl of Kinnoull, by Margaret Boyd, eldest daughter of Robert Boyd of Kippis, advocate. He was born in Edinburgh on 15 April 1641, according to his own statement in his ‘Autobiography,’ ‘in a house near to the head of Blackfriars Wynd upon the left side.’ Since his ‘older brothers and sisters had died hectic,’ he was, on the advice of his uncle, Dr. George Sibbald of Gibleston, suckled for two years, and to this circumstance he ascribed both the preservation of his life and his robust health. At an early age he showed great aptitude for study. In 1650 his parents being then resident in Fife, he was sent to the burgh school of Cupar. Next year they removed to Dundee, and during the siege of that town by Monck, Sibbald narrowly escaped with his life, and his father was severely wounded. During the pillage of the town the family were robbed of nearly everything they possessed, and had to return to Fife on foot. He was next sent to the high school of Edinburgh, and thence to the university, where he remained five years. Partly through the influence of Leighton, who was then principal, he became possessed of ‘strong inclinations to a serious and good life,’ ‘shunned the plays and divertissements’ the other students followed, and read much ‘in his study, for which’ his fellows gave him ‘the name of “Diogenes in dolo.”’ For a time he studied theology, and cherished some intention of entering the church; but because he ‘preferred a quiet life,’ where he ‘might not be engaged in factions of church or state,’ he finally fixed upon medicine, and that he might also ‘see the world and know men,’ he resolved to prosecute the study of it abroad. In 1660 he went to Leyden, where he remained a year and a half, and in 1661 took the degree of M.D., his dissertation on the occasion being published under the title ‘De Variis Tabis Speciebus.’ From Leyden he went to Paris, and, during a sojourn there of nine months, made the acquaintance of Guido and Patin. He then proceeded to Angers, and, after taking his doctor's degree there on 12 June 1662, went to London, where he remained three months. In October he returned to Edinburgh and began the practice of medicine, with the determination to pass quietly through the world, and content himself with ‘a moderate fortune.’
With a view to investigating what materia medica in the way of herbs Scotland was capable of producing, Sibbald, along with Dr. Andrew Balfour, resolved, about 1667, to institute a botanical garden in Edinburgh, and for this purpose they obtained a piece of ground belonging to Holyrood House—‘of some forty feet every way’—which they stocked with about eight or nine hundred plants. The scheme, having attracted the attention of the other physicians in the city, soon obtained more general support, and from the town council they secured the lease of the garden belonging to Trinity Hospital, with adjacent grounds. Sibbald was also chiefly instrumental in founding the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh, for which a charter was obtained on 2 Nov. 1681. On 30 Sept. 1682 he was appointed physician to Charles II, and on 30 Dec. of the same year geographer of Scotland. This latter appointment he obtained through the Earl of Perth, at whose instance and by whose help he had for some time begun to make collections for a geographical and statistical account of Scotland, with a description of the natural history of the kingdom. ‘This,’ he says, ‘was the cause of great pains and very much expense to me in buying all the books and manuscripts I could gather for that use, and procuring information from all parts of the country, even the remote isles.’ He also employed an assistant, John Adair, to whom he ‘paid a guinea for each double of the maps he made,’ and who was further subsidised by the gentry and the public. The most elaborate work of Sibbald, referring to the natural history of Scotland, was his ‘Scotia Illustrata; sive Prodromus Historiæ Naturalis; in quo regionis natura, incolarum ingenia et mores, morbi iisque medendi methodus, et medicina indigena, accurate explicantur,’ Edinburgh, 1684. The work was severely attacked by Dr. Pitcairne in 1696; and many of his strictures are deserved, for much of its information was based on the communications of ignorant and credulous correspondents. Sibbald replied in 1710 in a pamphlet entitled ‘Vindiciæ Scotiæ Illustratæ, sive Prodromi Naturalis Historiæ Scotiæ, contra Prodromastiges, sub larva libelli de legibus historiæ naturalis, latentes.’ Although commanded by the king to publish the natural history of the country, Sibbald, according to his own account, received nothing for his pains but a payment of a hundred guineas from James VII as his physician, on 5 March 1685.
In December 1684 Sibbald was elected president of the Royal College of Physicians, Edinburgh, and in March 1685 he was appointed by the town council of Edinburgh the first professor of medicine in the university. The same year occurred what he terms the ‘difficultest passage of my life,’ when, through intercourse with his patron, the Earl of Perth, and the perusal of the lives of certain saintly catholics, he resolved to become a convert to catholicism. In consequence of his change of faith his house in Carrubers Close was broken into by a fanatic mob, who swore they would ‘rathillet’ (i.e. assassinate) him, and probably would have done so had he not made his escape by a back yard. Unable to continue his practice in Edinburgh, he went for a time to London, where, on 29 March 1686, he was elected a member of the College of Physicians. But either because he found London uncongenial, or because, as he states, his personal contact with the jesuits there, and the knowledge of the evil influence they exercised over the mind of the king, caused a strong reaction, his religious views underwent a sudden change: ‘I repented of my rashness,’ he says, ‘and resolved to come home and return to the church I was born in.’
In 1697 Sibbald presented his natural history collection to the university of Edinburgh, with a catalogue (which was printed at the expense of the university) entitled ‘Auctarium Musæi Balfouriani e Musæo Sibbaldino.’ He died in August 1722, and in the same year was printed at Edinburgh ‘A Catalogue of the Library of the late learned and ingenious Sir Robert Sibbald of Kippis, Doctor of Medicine, to be sold by auction.’ The library was sold on 5 Feb. 1723, a large number of his books and manuscripts being purchased for the Advocates' Library, Edinburgh. An engraving of his portrait, from the original picture in the Royal College of Physicians, is prefixed to his ‘Remains,’ 1837.
Sibbald is perhaps best known for his ‘History Ancient and Modern of the Sheriffdom of Fife and Kinross,’ Edinburgh, 1710; Cupar, Fifeshire, 1803. Belonging to a Fife family, he had a very special interest in, as well as an intimate acquaintance with, the shire. But he was the author of many other geographical and antiquarian works displaying wide and varied knowledge, and several of them still of interest from the contemporary information they contain. The principal are: 1. ‘Nuncius Scoto-Britannus, de Descriptione Scotiæ Antiquæ et Modernæ,’ Edinburgh, 1683. 2. ‘An Account of the Scottish Atlas,’ 1683. 3. ‘Phalainologia Nova, sive Observationes de rarioribus quibusdam Balænis in Scotiæ littus nuper ejectis,’ Edinburgh, 1692; London, 1773. 4. ‘An Essay concerning the Thule of the Ancients,’ Edinburgh, 1693. 5. ‘Rogatu Joannis Sletzeri rei tormentariæ in Scotia Præfecti Theatrum celebriorum urbium, arcium, templorum, et monasteriorum Scotiæ, lingua Latina scripsi, quod in linguam nostram versum edidit, cum Iconibus,’ London, 1693 [cf. SLEZER, JOHN]. 6. ‘Additions to Camden's “Britannia,”’ 1695. 7. ‘Introductio ad Historiam Rerum a Romanis gestarum, in ea Borealis Britanniæ parte, quæ ultra murum Picticum est: in qua veterum in hac plaga incolarum nomina et sedes explicantur,’ &c., Edinburgh, 1696. 8. ‘Provision for the Poor in the time of Dearth and Scarcity,’ Edinburgh, 1699. 9. ‘Georgii Sibbaldi, M.D., Domini de Giblistone, regulæ bene et salubriter vivendi, partim prosa partim metro expressæ nunc primum ex MSS. Autographis authoris in lucem editæ et notis illustratæ per R. S. M. D. ex fratre Davide nepotem,’ Edinburgh, 1701. 10. ‘The Liberty and Independence of the Kingdom and Church in Scotland asserted from Ancient Records,’ Edinburgh, 1703. 11. ‘An Answer to the Second Letter to the Lord Bishop of Carlisle, wherein the Scots Ancient Possessions in Britain is asserted,’ &c., Edinburgh, 1704. 12. ‘De Gestis Gulielmi Vallæ Herois Scoti Collectanea varia,’ Edinburgh, 1705. 13. ‘In Hippocratis Legem, et in ejus Epistolam ad Thessalum filium, Commentarii,’ Edinburgh, 1706. 14. ‘Historical Inquiries concerning the Roman Monuments in the North Part of Britain called Scotland,’ 1707; a similar work in Latin, entitled ‘Miscellanea quædam eruditæ Antiquitatis quæ ad borealem Britanniæ majoris partem pertinent; in quibus loci quidam historicorum Romanorum, variaque monumenta antiqua illustrantur,’ Edinburgh, 1710. 15. ‘The History, Ancient and Modern, of the Sheriffdoms of Linlithgow and Stirling; with an account of the Natural Products of the Land and Water, in two Books,’ Edinburgh, 1710. 16. ‘An Account of the Writers Ancient and Modern, printed and Manuscripts not printed, which treat of the description of North Britain, called Scotland, as it was of old, and is now at present, with a Catalogue of the Mapps and Prospects and Figures of the Ancient Monuments thereof, in two parts,’ Edinburgh, 1710. 17. ‘Description of the Islands of Orkney and Zetland with the Maps of them,’ Edinburgh, 1711. 18. ‘Commentarius in Julii Agricolæ Expeditiones 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, in vita ejus, per Cornelium Tacitum generum ejus, descriptas,’ &c., Edinburgh, 1711. 19. ‘Portus, Coloniæ, et Castella Romana, ad Bodotriam et ad Taum; or Conjectures concerning the Roman Ports, Colonies, and Forts in the Friths of Forth and Tay,’ Edinburgh, 1711. 20. ‘Specimen Glossarii de populis et locis Britanniæ borealis, in explicatione locorum quorundam difficilium apud scriptores veteres,’ Edinburgh, 1711. 21. ‘Series rerum a Romanis post avocatum Agricolam in Britannia boreali gestarum,’ Edinburgh, 1711.
Sibbald was also the author of several scientific papers in ‘Philosophical Transactions;’ and various of his essays read before the Royal Society on Scottish antiquities were published in a volume in 1739 under the title ‘A Collection of several Treatises in folio concerning Scotland.’ There also appeared at Edinburgh in 1837 ‘Remains of Sir Robert Sibbald, Knt., M.D., containing his Autobiography, Memoirs of the Royal College of Physicians, Portion of his Literary Correspondence, and account of his manuscripts.’[Remains ut supra; Life and Account of his writings prefixed to his History of Fife; Bower's History of the University of Edinburgh; Grant's History of the University of Edinburgh; A. H. Millar's Fife, Pictorial and Historical, 1895.]