Sir Robert Sibbald, eminent physician, geographer, natural historian, botanist and antiquary, was born in Edinburgh on the 15th of April, 1641.
Robert Sibbald had a decent list of achievements on which to report. With his favoured botanist’s hat on, he was responsible for establishing the first botanical garden in Edinburgh, along with his mate, Andrew Balfour. Wearing his physician’s robe, Sibbald was appointed first Professor of Medicine at Edinburgh University, in 1685, after playing a leading part in establishing the Royal College of Physicians in Edinburgh, four years previously. In addition, he was elected president of the Royal College, in 1684, and was Physician in Ordinary to Charles II and James VII. As a geographer, he became Cartographer Royal in Scotland for King Charles, from 1682. Furthermore, his numerous and miscellaneous writings deal with historical and antiquarian as well as geographical, botanical and medical subjects. A clever mannie, yon Sibbald.
Notwithstanding the variety of skills he displayed, Sibbald’s favourite pastime was the study of botany and he spent his spare time cultivating rare and exotic plants in the rural neighbourhood of Edinburgh. His reputation brought him to the attention of Charles II, who granted him a knighthood and appointed him his physician. Charles also commissioned him as Natural Historian and Geographer Royal for Scotland. So now he was a very busy clever mannie.
Sibbald’s commission from the King was to produce a natural history – combined with a geographical description – of Scotland. Sibbald’s intentions were to produce a two-volume work: ‘Scotia Antiqua’ to embrace the historical development of the Scottish nation, the customs of the people and their antiquities; and ‘Scotia Moderna’ to describe the country's resources on a county-by-county basis. In the event, these tasks were never fully completed. He published two ‘county histories’ – ‘A History Ancient and Modern of the Sheriffdoms of Fife and Kinross’ and ‘…the Sheriffdoms of Linlithgow and Stirling’. He also published a natural history, ‘Scotia Illustrata, sive Prodromus Historiae Naturalis Scotiae’, a learned and elaborate work on which he spent over twenty years.
Unsurprisingly, given his interest in botany, one section of his ‘Scotia Illustrata’ is devoted to the indigenous plants of Scotland, amongst which appear some rare species of wildflower. One of these was subsequently given the genus name ‘Sibbaldia’, by Linnaeus, in 1753, in honour of its discoverer. It is a member of the rose family, known as Creeping Sibbaldia. In 1694, Sibbald published a work, entitled ‘Observations on some Animals of the Whale genus lately thrown on the Shores of Scotland’. As a prize for the longest Zoology title of the year, the Blue Whale was named ‘Sibbaldus’, after him and commonly referred to as ‘Sibbald’s Rorqual’.
In his role as Cartographer Royal and with funding from the Scots Parliament and the Privy Council, Sibbald made it his business to accumulate a massive collection of extant maps and manuscripts. He appointed John Adair to survey new maps and circulated questionnaires to a number of credible respondents within Scotland. It’s also important to note that Sibbald based much of his cartographical studies on the maps and texts of Timothy Pont. Summing up his labours in 1707, after several decades of collecting, Sibbald wrote to Robert Woodrow, the Librarian of the University of Glasgow, saying, “I have been more as these threttie [thirty] years past preparing the Geographicall descriptions of this country.”
Sibbald went on to state that he had “all the originall maps and surveys and descriptions of Mr. Pont, the Gordons and others …and severall mapps never printed.” A key source was the Reverend Mr. James Gordon, Parson of Rothemay, who sent Sibbald “all the papers relating to the description of Scotland he had, viz all Timothee Ponts papers originall & [tho]se he had transcraved.” Sibbald acknowledged his debt to Pont and modern scholars of Pont should acknowledge the debt owed to Sibbald, who played a vital role in securing that remarkable body of work for posterity.
Robert Sibbald was born in Edinburgh on the 15th of April, 1641, however, in 1645, the family fled to Linlithgow, to avoid the plague. Robert was educated initially in Cupar, but he soon made it back to Edinburgh to further his education. He attended first, the famous High School and thereafter, amongst other subjects, he studied philosophy and languages at the University of Edinburgh. Not content with that little lot, Sibbald went on the Universities of Leiden (Leyden) and Paris. After that, concluding in 1662, he took his doctor’s degree at the University of Angers. Giving a hint as to his priorities, his inaugural dissertation was entitled, ‘De Variis Speciebus’. Soon afterwards, he was back in Edinburgh, working as a physician, where he came to the attention of the King.
In late 17th Century Scotland there was a sizeable community, which Sibbald belonged to, that kept up to date with European developments in history science and philosophy. These guys were laying much of the foundation for the Scottish Enlightenment and Sir Robert Sibblad was prominent amongst them. He attempted to organise a learned Royal Society of Scotland modelled upon others in Europe, including London's Royal Society. His dream wasn’t realised, but the academic ideals, which he advocated, came to fruition in the Philosophical Society of Edinburgh, the Royal Society of Edinburgh, and the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland.
In 1704, Sibbald also published a book entitled, ‘The Liberty and Independency of the Kingdom and Church of Scotland asserted from Ancient Records’. On the subject of his own religious convictions, Munk’s Roll contains an interesting item. Brought up as a Protestant in the Kirk, Sibbald lived a life of philosophical virtue, but was unsure about the nature of his religious leanings. He was persuaded, by the Earl of Perth, to convert to the Catholic faith. Unsettled over how he had succumbed to persuasion, and after spending time in London attending a theology class, he turned again. Back in Scotland, he openly repented and returned to the communion of the Kirk. This religious ‘versatility’ of his led to his work being sarcastically criticised by the Jacobite physician Archibald Pitcairne.
Amongst Sibbald’s other historical and antiquarian works, we can mention: ‘An Account of the Scottish Atlas’ (1683); ‘Description of the Isles of Orkney and Shetland (Zetland)’ (1711); ‘Historical Inquiries concerning the Roman Monuments and Antiquities in the North part of Britain called Scotland’ (1707); and ‘Vindiciæ Prodromi Naturalis Historiæ Scotiæ’ (1710). He was gey fond of lang-winded titles, was oor Sibbald. Robert Sibbald died in August of 1712.