I recently came across conclusive evidence that Rev. William Robb, a Scottish Episcopal clergyman and published poet, was my 4th great uncle, the elder brother of my 3rd great grandfather, Charles Edward Stuart Robb (1779 – 1853).
The original source for Rev. William Robb’s connection to my Robb ancestors is the memorandum written in 1885 by his nephew, also named William. This William Robb (1813 – 1888), a law stationer’s clerk in London, was my great great grandfather, the son of Rev. William Robb’s brother Charles. His son Charles Edward Robb (1851 – 1934) was my great grandfather, the father of my grandfather Arthur Ernest Robb (1897 – 1979).
In his memorandum, the younger William Robb writes as follows:
I don’t know much about my own Uncles and Aunts but I know my Father’s eldest brother Revd. William Robb was for some time Professor of Greek in the College of St. Andrews, Fifeshire. He never was married [….] The last I remember of my Uncle William is when I was 3 or 4 years of age seeing him on a visit to my Father’s at Malton in Yorkshire, when he stopped some time and used to take me on his knee and tell me to be a good boy and he would make a Gentleman of me. Since that time when he left Malton to return home I never heard anything of him till on my Father’s death in 1853 I found among his papers a letter from Bishop Low, Primo of Scotland telling him of the death of my Uncle which happened about 1830.
Taking this memorandum as my starting-point, I’ve pursued Rev. William Robb through online sources, published books, and information sent to me by fellow researchers, and have slowly pieced together the chronology of his life, career and publications. As far as I’m aware, no biography of William Robb exists, so I thought it would be useful to gather together what I’ve found out about his life and work, and summarise it here.
Birth and early life
The record of his death in 1830 states that William Robb was 67 years old when he died, so he must have been born in 1763 or thereabouts. David Bertie’s book on the Scottish Episcopal Clergy states that William was ‘of family of Buthlaw, Aberdeenshire’. Mains of Buthlaw farm is close to the northeastern coast of Aberdeenshire, about five miles inland from Peterhead. However, I’ve always associated my Robb ancestors with the parish of Auchterless, about 25 miles further inland, since his nephew’s memorandum mentions a property in Fisherford, in that parish, that ‘on my Uncle William’s death’ was taken over by another uncle, James. Perhaps the Robb family were originally from Buthlaw, but moved to Auchterless before William’s birth?
Record of William Robb’s christening in the Auchterless parish register
The date of William Robb’s birth matches that of the firstborn son of George Robb and Jean Syme, who were married in Auchterless in 1762. According to his nephew’s memorandum, George was involved ‘in the affair of Prince Charles’ attempt to gain the crown [in] 1745/6’, but as yet I’ve found no evidence to confirm this. George and Jean Robb’s son William was born at Logie Newton, two miles north of Fisherford, and baptised at Auchterless on 23rd August 1763. He was the eldest of at least nine children who would be born to his parents over the next sixteen years, including John (1765); Alexander (1767); George (1769); James (1772); Jean (1774); Mary and Isobel (1776); and Charles (1779). All of these were born at Logie Newton, except for Charles (my 3rd great grandfather), who was born at Fisherford. According to later records, the latter’s full name was Charles Edward Stuart Robb, providing some confirmation of his father’s support for the Jacobite cause, even if his actual involvement in the 1745 uprising remains difficult to prove.
Farmland in the parish of Auchterless, Aberdeenshire
We know very little about the Robb family of Auchterless. Contemporary records suggest that they were small farmers, though the death certificate of William’s younger brother James in 1857 describes his late father George as a ‘flesher’ or butcher. However, George Robb must have been sufficiently wealthy to provide at least some of his children with a decent education. His son George would become a merchant of some means in Glasgow, while Charles would be employed, among other things, as an accountant, engraver, and legal clerk. There is also the family tradition, to be found in the memorandum already mentioned, that Charles married into a family with ties to the aristocracy: his wife (my 3rd great grandmother) Margaret Ricketts Monteith was said to be the granddaughter of Viscount Stormont, though once again I’ve yet to find any firm evidence of this.
Schoolmaster in Culsalmond
As for William, the eldest son, he was sufficiently well-educated to find employment initially as schoolmaster in Culsalmond, two miles to the south of Fisherford. This would have been in the early 1780s, when William was in his early twenties. A degree of confusion surrounds the religious history of the Robb family. On the one hand, we know that support for the Jacobite cause was almost exclusively confined to Catholics and Episcopalians, and we also know that other members of the Robb family were loyal to the Episcopal church. (The Scottish bishops had refused to swear allegiance to William of Orange after the military coup of 1689 – the so-called ‘Glorious Revolution’ – which ousted King James VII of Scotland and II of England. As a result, the Presbyterians were established as the official Church of Scotland and the Episcopalians, who were loyal to the Stuarts, became an oppressed minority.) For example, William’s brother James brought his children up as Episcopalians, and his brother Charles, my ancestor, had at least one of his children baptised in an Episcopalian chapel. On the other hand, William and his siblings were all christened in the Presbyterian parish church in Auchterless. And then we have the following entry, dated 26th March 1784, in the diary of the priest at St. George’s Episcopal chapel in Meiklefolla, just a few miles from Fisherford:
Mr. William Robb, Schoolmaster at Culsalmond is desirous of further instruction in the principles of our Church. He has attended worship in Bishop Skinner’s chapel throughout the winter. As he is dependent on the emoluments of his school prudence requires that he should conceal his views for a while especially from his parish Minister until he is fully resolved as to the part he is to act.
So was William a convert to the Episcopal faith? Or had his originally Episcopalian family conformed to the Presbyterian Church of Scotland after the suppression of the 1745 rebellion, when Penal Laws were introduced against the Episcopal church, and William was simply returning to the faith of his ancestors?
Aberdeen, c. 1800 (painting by Alexander Nasmyth, via scran.ac.uk)
The Bishop John Skinner mentioned here was the priest at Ellon before moving to Aberdeen, where he became assistant bishop (1782 -6) and then bishop (1786 – 1816). Apparently, the Episcopalians of Aberdeen had a meeting-house in Guest Row that was burned down in 1746, in the aftermath of the Jacobite rebellion, but was later rebuilt. In 1776 the upper floor of John Skinner’s house in Longacre was fitted up as a meeting-house. It seems likely, then, that during the winter of 1783-4, William Robb was making the journey from Culsalmond, or wherever in that vicinity he was living, to Aberdeen, to attend services in Skinner’s makeshift chapel.
William would have been about twenty-one years old when he sought instruction ‘in the principles of our Church’. If, as the diary entry suggests, William was a convert (or revert) from Presbyterianism to Episcopalianism, then his progress in his new faith was certainly rapid: by the age of twenty-four, just three years later, he would be serving as an Episcopal clergyman. In 1787, William was appointed as minister at Pittenweem, a fishing village on the southeastern coast of Fife, where he would remain for two years.
It was during William’s time at Pittenweem that Prince Charles Edward Stuart – ‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’ – died in Rome, leaving no viable Stuart heir to the throne, and making it possible for the Scottish Episcopal Church to recognise George III as king. Episcopal clergymen debated whether it was now legitimate to offer prayers to King George, and I understand that Rev William Robb was one of those who were initially reluctant, perhaps reflecting his family’s attachment to the Jacobite cause. However, in a letter to Bishop Skinner dated 17th May 1788, his fellow minister Rev Strachan notes that ‘Mr Robb too had his scruples but they are now removed – he is to read the intimation tomorrow at St Andrews’. According to John Thompson’s history of the Episcopal congregation in St Andrews:
The bishops of the church met that same year in Aberdeen and almost unanimously agreed to petition parliament ‘to repeal the Penal Laws and to urge the clergy to pray for King George’. The petition, which was supported by most of the clergy, was successful and the disabilities imposed on the church were gradually removed: for example, Episcopal congregations could now ‘assemble legally in any number’ and ‘hold property as a corporate body’.
William left Pittenweem in 1789, to take up an appointment as curate at St Andrews, ten miles or so to the north. He was succeeded at Pittenweem by David Low, the future bishop. Like William Robb, Low was in his early twenties and unmarried when he arrived there. The following description, in William Blatch’s memoir of Low, describes the latter’s relationship with the local gentry, and gives us some idea of what William’s life may have been like at this time:
He became at once a welcome visitor, and at length a cherished friend, at almost every county mansion for miles around […] Mr. Low being unmarried became more than a frequent casual visitor at the houses of the gentry: he was received there as a member of their families, residing the whole week at one mansion, and the next week at another, and thus traversing the range from Cambo in the east to Largo in the west, and finding himself everywhere a welcome guest.
On arriving in St. Andrews, William Robb served as curate to Rev. David Lindsay until the latter’s death in 1791, when William was promoted to parish priest. He would remain at St. Andrews for the rest of his career.
St. Andrews from Regulus Tower (via geograph.org.uk)
John Thompson’s book includes a number of anecdotes that throw light on William’s character, making him spring to life from the otherwise dry pages of the official records. For example, the author describes the ways in which the stipends of the clergy were supplemented by payments from the better-off members of the congregation:
Even with this supplement to whatever small stipend the incumbent received he was not rich. Dr. Hay Fleming tells a story he had from an old man in the town about Mr. Robb who was incumbent at the end of the 18th century. He was asked by one of the parish ministers how he managed to make ends meet with his small stipend when the questioner had enough to do with his large one. Mr. Robb replied that it was just with them as with the Israelites in the wilderness. He who gathered much manna had nothing over, and he who gathered little had no lack.
Thompson also reproduces a story from Oliphant’s earlier history of St Andrews to illustrate how, even after the abolition of the Penal Laws, Episcopal congregations were forced to meet in private homes and public halls:
Oliphant learned, at second hand admittedly, that the Episcopalians met in ‘Tam Couper’s big room’ in a house on the site of the present Town Hall. He tells, too of a later meeting place, ‘St. Leonard’s Hall – the large upper room still to be seen in the old part of St. Leonards School.’ In a service there, his informant told him, something occurred which illustrates plainly how in the troubled time seemliness of service had been lost. ‘The sermon was long, and may have been dry; the minister certainly was, as he suddenly startled the congregation by calling to his servant to bring him a bottle of ale; “and mind, Betty” he added, “that it’s well corked”. The ale having been produced and consumed, Mr. Robb – it was he who was then the minister – continued his discourse’.
A note written around this time describes William as a fine-looking, portly man, with kind manners. Thompson also informs us that ‘during Mr. Robb’s ministry the congregation met in several different houses’ in St Andrews and that ‘in 1804 Mr. Robb bought Queen Mary’s house, erecting an outside stair to give access to a chapel on the first floor.’
The memorandum written by William’s nephew claims that he was ‘for some time Professor of Greek in the College of St. Andrews, Fifeshire’, the forerunner of the modern university. However, I’ve failed to find any evidence of this, though it does suggest that William was proficient in Greek, and almost certainly received a classical education.
It must have been soon after his arrival in St Andrews that William became chaplain to Lord Elibank, since this title was included in an announcement for the first of his poems to be published, in 1793. It’s likely that this was Alexander Murray, the 7th lord, who was born in 1747 and served as an army officer and M.P. for Peebles, before succeeding to the title, on the death of his uncle in 1785. He was lord-lieutenant of the county and colonel of the local militia. I’m not sure whether there was any connection between the Murrays of Elibank, and the Murrays of Stormont, with whom William’s brother Charles would supposedly be connected by marriage.
Rev. William Robb, poet
Two books of poetry by Rev. William Robb were published in 1793, when their author would have been twenty-six years old, one primarily religious in orientation, the other political. The first was Two didactic essays on human happiness and the government of the passions, published by Vernor. I’ve yet to see a copy of this, though The Monthly Review might be said to have damned it with faint praise:
We find in these small pieces many just and important moral reflections, but we cannot perceive that they derive much advantage from the kind of poetical dress in which they appear. They have indeed so little of poetry in them, that, had not the writer given himself the trouble of arranging his words in lines of ten syllables each, and in one of the pieces in stringing them into rhyming couplets, we could easily have fancied ourselves perusing two very good prose essays.
The poetic qualities of William’s next verse publication, which appeared in the same year, were perhaps more obvious. The patriotic wolves: a fable, originally attributed simply to ‘a Scotch Episcopal clergyman’, was published by Cheyne and Guthrie in Edinburgh, and Vernor and Hood, and Burn, in London. It’s a long, allegorical poem, with an overtly polemical purpose. John Thompson describes it as ‘an elegant little fable designed to warn its readers against attempts to subvert the constitution’. According to its author’s advertisement or preface:
This poem was written in the beginning of December 1792, when the agents of France, and those seditious societies, falsely styling themselves ‘The Friends of the People’, threatened the subversion of our happy constitution; and had so far proceeded in the dissemination of their pernicious principles, that it was found necessary to summon the Parliament, in order to provide for the safety of the country.
The historical background to the poem is the aftermath of the French Revolution and anxieties about the threat of Jacobinism closer to home. 1792 saw the formation of the radical London Corresponding Society and the publication of Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man, a response to Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, with which the central message of William Robb’s poem has much in common. In William’s fable the sheep, representing the general population, are tricked by a band of wolves, representing radical agitators, pretending to be their friends, but in reality plotting death and destruction. The poem demonstrates its author’s loyalty to the ‘fair Land of Liberty and peace’ that is Britain, and (despite his youthful Jacobite sympathies) to its king:
Long may thy monarch wear the crown!
His foes be to destruction hurl’d!
Cover of The Anti-Jacobin Review, 1807
It would be another fourteen years before William published another poem. In September 1807 his Elegiac verses on the ruins of St Andrews were published in The Anti-Jacobin Review, described by the scholar Emily Lorraine de Montluzin as ‘a vehicle for religious and political propaganda’ which ‘evolved into an increasingly strident mouthpiece for anti-Catholic rhetoric and worked to inflame resistance to Catholic emancipation among the diehard Protestant readers to whom it catered.’ According to Wikipedia, the journal was ultra-Tory, often scurrilous, and ‘a vocal element of the British Anti-Jacobin backlash against the ideals of the French Revolution.’ Extending to four pages of the journal, and with copious footnotes, William’s poem is a paeon to the saints who first brought the Gospel to the pagan shores of Scotland, a lament for the lost glories of medieval Christendom, and an excoriation of the ‘fanatic phrenzy’ of those who allowed the cathedral at St. Andrews to fall into ruin at the Reformation. From this, one might assume that William would have been out of sympathy with the anti-Catholic rhetoric of the journal in which his poem was published, even if he found himself in agreement with its conservative political stance.
William Robb’s other publication of that year, in the same journal, was Verses on education, written by desire of the Right Honourable the Countess of Kelly. Anne, Countess of Kelly, was married to Thomas, the 9th Earl of Kelly, and they lived at Cambo House, near St. Andrews. The Kellys were generous supporters of the local Episcopal church, contributing for example to the building of the chapel at Pittenweem. The letter from Rev. Strachan to Bishop Skinner cited earlier notes that, in his time at Pittenweem, William Robb was keen to encourage Lords Kelly and Balcarres to attend his church (The Earl of Balcarres was an army officer, from an old Jacobite family).
The poem that William addressed to Lady Kelly, which appears to reflect a conversation between them about education, is much shorter, and to my mind shows more evidence of poetic invention and discipline than many of his other published works, so I’m reproducing it below as an example of his poetry.
In the following year, 1808, William Robb published two more poems in The Anti-Jacobin Review. The first, Jeu d’esprit: on the meeting of the imperial plunderers at Erfurth, was another short piece, consisting of only two stanzas, in which the author returns to the use of animal metaphors, mocking the alliance between Napoleonic France and Tsarist Russia sealed at the Congress of Erfurt – ‘The monkey and the bear / Have met at Erfurth fair’ – and ending with a warning to ‘Let them our British bull-dogs fear / And mastiffs bold.’
William’s second poem of 1808 was God save the King, with additions and alterations suited to the times, another patriotic rallying cry, complete with references to ‘murd’rous Huns’ and the tyrant ‘Buony’. Each stanza ends with a variation on the line ‘Since George is King’, once again reflecting William’s full-throated support for the British monarchy.
This was obviously a productive period for William Robb, since the following year saw the appearance of his collection Poems illustrative of the genius and influence of Christianity: to which are subjoined some fugitive pieces, advertised as being ‘by William Robb, Episcopal Clergyman in St. Andrew’s, and Chaplain to the Right Honourable Lord Elibank’, printed in St Andrew’s, Edinburgh and London.
Following this, however, there would be a significant gap before William’s name appeared in print again, and I’ll take up that story below.
We know very little about William Robb’s personal life, except for the fact that he never married. However, we have three glimpses of his interactions with other members of the Robb family. The first, as already mentioned, is the suggestion in his nephew’s memorandum that, as the eldest son, William inherited ownership of the family property in Fisherford, on his father’s death, though there is no evidence that he was ever actively involved in its management. The second is the record of the wedding of his brother George to Penelope Thomson, which took place in 1805 in Glasgow, at which William officiated. We can imagine William making a journey from St Andrews, seventy or so miles away, for this special occasion, which was probably also attended by his other brother, Charles, my ancestor, who had been married in the same city three years earlier: though since no record of that event can be found, it’s not known whether William was also the officiant then.
Glasgow, early 19th century
William’s brother George died at a relatively young age in about 1811, leaving his widow Penelope with four young children: she soon remarried, to John Young, another Glasgow merchant and former Receiver General of Jamaica. Henceforth, William Robb’s closest family tie seems to have been with his youngest sibling, Charles, my 3rd great grandfather. We have the description by Charles’ son William, in his memorandum of 1885, of a visit that his uncle made to Malton, Yorkshire, where the family was then living, ‘when I was 3 or 4 years of age’, which would have been in about 1816 or 1817, ‘when he stopped some time and used to take me on his knee and tell me to be a good boy and he would make a Gentleman of me.’
It’s possible that the younger William Robb was here confusing this with a later visit, since we know that Rev. William Robb was in Malton in 1819, when he was suffering from a serious illness. The evidence for this visit can be found in William’s last poem, A monody in the prospect of death, while labouring under a dangerous illness, which was published in 1822, by Macredie, Skelly and Company of Edinburgh. Two of the pieces that make up this collection are described as having been written in Malton in 1819, one in May and the other in July, while a third was composed in nearby Scarborough in September. In the very extensive notes to this poem, William Robb explains that the ‘nervous fever’ from which he was suffering, with its physical side effects including giddiness, stupor and the threat of blindness, was caused by mercury poisoning, resulting from the use of a lotion to cure a skin complaint. Before the onset of his illness, William claims that ‘I was hale, stout and active, of a full habit, and equal to my duties…but the fever left me a complete wreck – a walking skeleton’. As for the poem itself, the editor of The Edinburgh Review, quoted in the same notes, thought that it ‘indicates both genius and feeling’, praise which William says was ‘like cordial to a fainting heart’.
William’s nervous complaint meant that he had to give up his duties at St. Andrews in 1818, though he remained the incumbent and continued to draw his salary until 1820. He would live for another ten years, but we have no record of his life during this final period. The notes to the Monody suggest that he may have spent at least two years living with his brother Charles in Malton, and that he may even have accompanied Charles and his family when they moved to London. The notes refer to a lost poem ‘the composition of which had employed my solitary hours for nearly two years when at Malton’, and William adds: ‘I unfortunately left it, and several other manuscripts, with my books in London’.
What we do know is that William moved to Aberdeen at some point before his death. The archives of St Nicholas Episcopal Chapel in that city note that William Robb, ‘late Episcopal Clergyman, in St. Andrews’, died at Chapel Street, Aberdeen on 19th February, 1830, age 67 years. The cause of death is given as ‘paralysis and mental disease’.