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The Burns Encyclopedia
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Robertson, The Reverend Dr William (1721-93)

Son of the parish minister of Borthwick, Midlothian, Robertson was educated at Dalkeith Grammar School and Edinburgh University, where John Home, the author of Douglas, was one of his friends. He was soon acknowledged to be the leader of the Moderates in the Church of Scotland, and considered the crowning intellectual ornament of the Capital during the first phase of her late eighteenth - and early nineteenth century brilliance. In 1743 he became minister of Gladsrnuir, near Prestonpans, and in 1745 offered his services as a volunteer to Sir John Cope, an offer which was declined. In 1758 he was called to a church in Edinburgh. He won his reputation in 1759 when his History of Scotland was published. This was followed in 1769 by a History of the Reign of the Emperor Charles V, and in 1777 by The History of America. He was Principal of Edinburgh University from 1761 to 1792, and Moderator of the General Assembly in 1763, in which year he also became Historiographer Royal for Scotland. Although his literary reputation extended to London circles, he remained a modest, honest and friendly man. He retired from the management of Church affairs in 1780, but continued to preach at Greyfriars and to direct the affairs of the University until shortly before his death.

Henry Mackenzie said of him: 'His talents for conversation were remarkable. When introducing strangers to him I often heard him conversing with them on subjects with which they were particularly conversant, and by that means gained their good opinion of him by giving them a good opinion of themselves.' Lord Cockburn has preserved a vivid picture of Robertson as an old man: 'He was a pleasant-looking old man; with an eye of great vivacity and intelligence, a large projecting chin, a small hearing trumpet fastened by a black ribbon to a button-hole of his coat, and a rather large wig, powdered and curled. He struck us boys, even from the side-table, as being evidently fond of a good dinner; at which he sat with his chin near his plate, intent upon the real business of the occasion. This appearance, however, must have been produced partly by his deafness; because, when his eye told him that there was something interesting, it was delightful to observe the animation with which he instantly applied his trumpet, when, having caught the scent, he followed it up, and was the leader of the Pack.'

Robertson, who was sixty-five when Burns arrived in Edinburgh, was in ill-health, and does not seem to have taken much notice of the poet. Later, however, through friends, Burns tried to enlist his support in the affair of Clarke, the Moffat schoolmaster threatened with dismissal because of alleged cruelty to his pupils.

But Burns and Robertson certainly met. Robertson recorded that he had: 'scarcely met with any man whose conversation displayed greater vigour than that of Burns'. Burns's poems, he said, had surprised him; the poet's prose had struck him as being finer; but his conversation surpassed both.

Burns refers to Robertson and Hume - rival historians, though good friends — in his 'Prologue Spoken by Mr Woods on his Benefit Night' :

"Here history paints with elegance and force

The tide of Empire's fluctuating course."

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Complete Burns Songs

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