Robert Gordon of Straloch, poet, mathematician, antiquary and geographer, was born on the 14th of September, 1580.
Robert Gordon of Straloch is remembered primarily for his cartography of Scotland and a funny wee letter in ‘Olde Inglis’, which Charles I wrote to him in 1641, when Gordon was sixty-one and ‘weel kent’ by reputation as a man of learning and substance. Indeed, some time shortly after his death in 1661, he was described as “One of the most worthy and learned Gentlemen of our Nation.” By the time he got the letter from King Charles, Robert Gordon had established a scholastic reputation and been involved in events surrounding the struggles and strife between the King and the National Covenanters. That suggests he played a substantial role in public life in post-Reformation Scotland, but details of that aspect of his own life and times are not readily available. Nevertheless, during his long career, he became an eminent cartographer and also published writings on the ancient history of Scotland and a family history of the Gordons.
The letter from Charles, which is often quoted, states in part, “to reveis the saidis cairtiss.” The purpose of the letter is a matter of dispute, but only in terms of detail as to the extent of the ‘reveis’ (revision) needed. The essential instruction was to provide input regarding Scotland to the noteworthy Jean Blaeu of Amsterdam, who was the publisher of a World Atlas. However, it seems the Dutchman wasn’t seeking an editorial revision of plates that he had already engraved from the work of Timothy Pont; rather, he was looking for Gordon to fill gaps in his coverage of Scotland. That may well have been because after Blaeu obtained Pont’s surviving original maps from Sir James Balfour, a number went missing during the printing process. The volume on which Gordon worked was completed in 1648 and it was subsequently published in 1654 under the title ‘Theatrum Scotiae’ as the fifth volume of Blaeu’s huge world atlas ‘Theatrum Orbis Terrarum sive Atlas Novus’, which became known as the ‘Atlas Major’. Keeping it in the family, Robert Gordon was assisted by his son, James Gordon of Rothiemay. A map of Fife, which appeared in Blaeu’s ‘Theatrum Scotiae’, was specifically credited to James Gordon. Even by modern standards the cartography in ‘Theatrum Scotiae’ is impressive, which suggests that Gordon accomplished his task very well. However, he can’t take all the glory, because Blaue formally credited thirty-six of the maps of Scotland in that fifth volume to Pont. Between Gordon and Pont, Scotland then became the best mapped country in the world.
Robert Gordon didn’t stop with his work for Blaeu as he completed an immense volume of work, a lot of which has survived and can be seen in the National Library of Scotland. Gordon’s ambitions, whatever his motivation, led him to produce at least the sixty-five extant manuscript maps held by the National Library, most of which bear no relation to either the maps published by Blaeu or to the gaps in his coverage. So it seems Gordon initiated his own map-making task and set about depicting Scotland quite independently of Blaeu. It is probably the case that his interest in Scotland and its history as evidenced elsewhere in his writings, led him to complete the cartographic exercise as a means of further illustrating the country and its environs, having been motivated in the first place by Blaue’s request and the King’s letter suggesting he get involved. His undoubted interest in the constitution and antiquities of Scotland is also evidenced by his prefixing an introduction in Blaeu’s atlas, which gives a comprehensive view of those aspects of the country.
What is mildly confusing is the seeming contradiction between statements in some biographies and the fact that Gordon was sixty-one when given the task of assisting Blaeu. On the one hand he is credited with being the first to make geographical surveys of Scotland by actual survey and measurement; quoted as being “a tedious and laborious process never undertaken by any of his predecessors.” On the other hand, he is supposed to have come into contact with Pont’s work relatively late in his life i.e., after Charles’ 1641 letter. If that was indeed the case, it’s hard to believe that Gordon would have set about surveying Scotland ‘on the ground’ at such an advanced age. It seems more likely that he developed his cartographic expertise prior to 1641, which is what led to him being asked by the King, in such capacity, to contribute to Blaeu’s atlas in the first place by editing Pont’s surviving work and supplying replacements for the lost maps.
Robert Gordon was born at Pitlurg in Aberdeenshire on the 14th of September, 1580. He was educated at the Marischal College of the University of Aberdeen, where he was its first graduate and he also studied at the University of Paris. His family was closely associated with the Gordon Earls of Huntly and he was the progenitor of the Gordons of Straloch, having purchased or acquired through marriage the estate, which lies near Inverurie. He later inherited his elder brother's estate of Pitlurg when John Gordon died without an heir and these landed possessions gave him the income he needed to pursue his academic interests.
Robert Gordon died on the 18th of August, 1661, and he was laid to rest in the family burial place in Newmachar. Before he died, he passed Pont's surviving maps into the care of his son James, with instructions “to be countable therfore to the publique, but because they are all imperfect, that they be weil corrected [before] any use [be] made of them.” Sometime shortly before James’ death in 1686, he in turn passed the carefully hoarded collection of Pont’s manuscript maps, together with the output of his own and his father’s activities, including textual and topographic descriptions of Scotland, to Sir Robert Sibbald.
Incidently, Robert Gordon was the grandfather of his namesake, who was the founder of Robert Gordon Hospital, which was the forerunner of Aberdeen’s Robert Gordon College, which is just a private co-educational day school.