Sir Robert Sibbald, 1641 - 1722 by Charles W. J. Withers

Sir Robert Sibbald's involvement with Timothy Pont's manuscript maps and written descriptions centres upon the fact that Sibbald's papers, including Pont's work, were deposited in the Advocates Library, the forerunner to the National Library of Scotland, after Sibbald's death in 1722. Sibbald's motives were not altruistic. A leading figure in the intellectual life of early enlightenment Scotland, Sibbald was interested in Pont's work as part of his own geographical endeavours (1).

Sir Robert Sibbald was appointed Geographer Royal to King Charles II (and Physician in Ordinary to His Majesty) in 1682. Sibbald's commission in 1682 was to produce not only a natural history of Scotland, but also a geographical description that would combine historical data with the results of contemporary survey. Sibbald's intentions, outlined in his 1683 'Account of the Scotish Atlas, or the Description of Scotland', centred upon a two-volume work: Scotia Antiqua would embrace the historical development of the Scottish nation, the customs of the people and their antiquities, and Scotia Moderna would describe the country's resources as a matter of contemporary chorography or regional description, on a county-by-county basis. In the event, this 'Atlas' was never completed. Only the natural history, Scotia Illustrata, was ever published.

Sibbald collected his geographical and other information in several ways: by using his position to gather together extant maps and manuscripts; by cajoling friends like Sir Andrew Balfour (who had collected geographical descriptions undertaken in the 1630s), James Gordon and Robert Gordon to pass relevant papers to him; by appointing John Adair to survey new maps; by securing funding from the Scots Parliament and the Privy Council; by circulating questionnaires to appropriate credible respondents throughout Scotland; and, of course, by making use of Pont's maps and texts (2).

In a letter of 1707 to Robert Wodrow, Librarian of the University of Glasgow, in which Sibbald indicated 'I have been more as these threttie [thirty] years past preparing the Geographicall descriptions of this country', Sibbald wrote 'I have all the originall maps and surveys and descriptions of Mr. Pont, the Gordons and others, who have laboured that way, and severall mapps never printed' (3). Exactly when and how Sibbald took possession of Pont's original material is not known. It is likely, however, that the material came to Sibbald from James Gordon some time after 1683 and before James Gordon died in 1686: Sibbald tells us 'The Reverend Mr James Gordon parson of Rothemay ...sent me all the papers relating to the description of Scotland he had, viz all Timothee Ponts papers originall & [tho]se he had transcraved' (4). Sibbald thus provides a useful near-contemporary commentary on Pont's endeavours.

In a 1710 work, Sibbald notes that Pont made 'Surveys where ever he came, as appears from the papers he left: many of which I have of his own hand-writing, with Draughts of the places, and remarks upon them. And I have also the Copies taken from his Papers by Straloch and his Son, in whose hands they were put, to draw the Maps out of them: I have the Maps, the Originals done by T. Pont, and these which were drawn out of his Papers. I find everywhere he took Notes of the distances of the Places: he observed the Houses of the Nobility and the Gentry, and marked down the Products of the Place, and what was remarkable as to old Buildings. So I have the form of the Wall drawn by him [Sibbald is here referring to the Antonine Wall], and his accounts of the Roman Forts and Camps. The most compleat Paper he left was the Description of Cuningham, I find it amongst a Collection of Notes for the Description of this Countrey so Entitled' (5). In another manuscript, Sibbald compiled lists of the maps received from his correspondents, one such list noting sixty-five 'Maps done by Timothy Pont M.S'. He also listed materials received from the Gordons and from other sources.

Sibbald's work was the basis to Macfarlane's 'Geographical Collections', undertaken in 1748 and 1749 by Walter Macfarlane and themselves secured for the Advocates Library in 1785 by George Paton, the Librarian and antiquarian, and it has been argued by Mitchell that many of the textual descriptions collated by Macfarlane were the work of Pont (6).

Sibbald's own work on Scotland's Roman antiquities acknowledges the debt he owed to Pont (7). Modern scholars of Pont's work should acknowledge the debt we collectively owe to Sibbald since, although his motives had much to do with his own personal authority as Geographer Royal, the fact that he drew together others' works as part of his 'new' geographical description of Scotland played a vital role in securing for posterity part of Pont's remarkable work.

(1) For a discussion of Sibbald's role in the intellectual life of early enlightenment Scotland, see R. L. Emerson, 'Sir Robert Sibbald, Kt, the Royal Society of Scotland and the Origins of the Scottish Enlightenment', Annals of Science, 45 (1988), 41-72. back
(2) For a discussion of Sibbald's geographical work in Scotland, see Charles W. J. Withers, 'Geography, Science and National Identity in Early Modern Britain: The Case of Scotland and the Work of Sir Robert Sibbald (1641-1722)', Annals of Science, 53 (1996)', 29-73, and Charles W.J. Withers, 'Geography, Science and National Identity: Scotland Since 1520 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001)', 70-84. back
(3) Quoted in Withers, op. cit., 53. back
(4) National Library of Scotland, Adv. MS. 33.3.16, f.16. back
(5) R. Sibbald, An Account of the Writers Antient and Modern ... , (Edinburgh, 1710), 20. back
(6) A. Mitchell (ed.), Geographical Collections Relating to Scotland made by Walter Macfarlane (Scottish History Society, Edinburgh, 1907), Volume 2. back
(7) R. Sibbald, Historical Inquiries Concerning the Roman Monuments and Antiquities in the North-Part of Britain (Edinburgh, 1707), 29-31. back