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Sibbald, Sir Robertlocked

  • Charles W. J. Withers

Sir Robert Sibbald (1641–1722)

by John Alexander, 1721

Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh

Sibbald, Sir Robert (1641–1722), physician and geographer, was born on 15 April 1641 in Blackfriars Wynd off Edinburgh's High Street, the fifth child and third son of David Sibbald (1589–1660), of Rankeillour, Fife, keeper of the great seal of Scotland, and his wife, Margaret Boyd (1606–1672), eldest daughter of Robert Boyd (1575–1645), advocate, of Kippis, near Torphichen, Linlithgowshire. Little is known of Sibbald's early days. His autobiography (which is incomplete and selective) relates how, although 'a tender child', he managed to get 'past all the diseases commonly incident to children without any manifest hazard' (Memoirs). In 1645 the family fled Linlithgow because of the plague. In 1650, as the family estate was in Fife, Sibbald was sent to the high school in Cupar. During the following year he witnessed Monck's sacking of Dundee. Sibbald was also educated at the Royal High School in Edinburgh and was a student at the university there from 1653 to 1659, studying under William Tweedy. After receiving his MA on 14 July 1659 Sibbald studied divinity at Edinburgh for about six months, stimulated mainly by Principal Robert Leighton, later archbishop of Glasgow. Sibbald's scholarly habits—'I shunned the playes and divertissements the other students followed' (Memoirs)—earned him the nickname ‘Diogenes in dolio’.

Leighton's influence turned Sibbald aside from the factionalism of church and state, and in March 1660 he sailed to Leiden to study medicine. He stayed in Leiden for eighteen months, and studied anatomy and surgery under Van Horne and Franciscus Sylvius, botany under Adolphus Vorstius, and chemistry under Christian Marcgraf. Sibbald also met Niels Stenson, who, as Nicolaus Steno, later became professor of anatomy at Padua, and theorist on the earth sciences. Sibbald was also familiar with chemistry and materia medica. Each of these influences helped to shape his later interests. From Leiden he went to Paris, and after a nine-month stay, in which he met Gui Patin, he moved to Angers, where he graduated MD on 17 June 1662. He then briefly resided in London, where he met Sir Robert Moray and other virtuosi introduced to him by his cousins, Andrew Balfour (1630–1694), a pupil of William Harvey and a later scientific associate of Sibbald, and Patrick Drummond. Sibbald returned to Scotland on 30 October 1662.

Sibbald's intentions on settling in Edinburgh were not ambitious: 'The designe I proposed to myself was to passe quietly through the world, and content myself with a moderate fortune' (Memoirs). But from this period he began to develop a deeper interest in natural history, geography, and antiquarianism, which were all to form parts of his vision for the creation of useful natural knowledge. By late 1667 he and Balfour had established a botanical garden in Edinburgh, in grounds belonging to Holyroodhouse. Both there and in the second site in the Trinity Hospital the garden became a major site for plants of use in materia medica. It was run by James Sutherland, later first professor of botany at Edinburgh University and author, with Sibbald's assistance, of the unpublished 'Hortus medicus Edinburgensis'. Between 1679 and 1680, Sibbald, together with Balfour, Thomas Burnet, Alexander Stevenson, and Archibald Pitcairne, founded a medical virtuoso club, which became from 1681 the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh (RCPE). Like the botanic garden, the RCPE owed much of its success to political influence, particularly that of James Drummond, fourth earl of Perth and chancellor of Scotland, through whose patronage Sibbald was knighted on 30 September 1682, appointed physician-in-ordinary to the king, and made geographer royal for Scotland.

In 1684 Sibbald produced a Pharmacopoia Edinburgensis and on 4 December of that year was elected president of the RCPE. On 5 March 1685 he was appointed the first professor of medicine at Edinburgh University. Influenced by his patron, Sibbald became a Roman Catholic in 1685, a conversion which shocked his contemporaries, prompted a riotous mob to storm his house in Edinburgh's Carrubers Close, and led him to resign his presidency of the RCPE and flee to London. There he met Sir Robert Boyle, Samuel Collins, Thomas Witherley, Walter Charleton, and other members of the Royal Society, and on 29 March 1686 was elected a fellow of the Royal College of Physicians. Sibbald later renounced Catholicism and re-joined the Protestant church. Boswell claimed later that Sibbald's return to Protestantism was because 'he found the rigid fasting prescribed by the Church very severe upon him' (TLS, 8 Dec 1932). However, what was perceived as his lack of principle harmed his reputation; and these events, together with the fact that he had no salary guaranteed, influenced him not to take up the chair at Edinburgh.

Sibbald formally began his geographical work in 1682, although he had already been collecting chorographical and antiquarian material with a view to the description of Scotland. During that year he published an Advertisement and a broadside circular requesting geographical information for an intended two-volume description of Scotland. Some of this never-completed work appeared in his 1683 Nuncius Scoto-Britannus, sive, Admonitio de Atlante Scotio, seu, Descriptione Scotiae antiquae et modernae. In 1684 he published his most elaborate work, Scotia illustrata, sive, Prodromus historiae naturalis, an essay on Scotland's natural history in the widest sense, from natural phenomena, through the plant and animal kingdoms, to human disease. From then until his death Sibbald was active in the fields of natural history, chorographical description, and Roman antiquities, and in promoting useful knowledge as the basis of Scotland's national identity. His cabinet of natural history specimens, gathered together with those of Balfour, was presented to the University of Edinburgh with a catalogue, Auctarium Musaei Balfouriani e Musaeo Sibbaldino (published 1697), modelled on Nehemiah Grew's catalogue of the Royal Society's Repository. This collection became an important part of Edinburgh University's Natural History Museum. Between 1698 and 1701 Sibbald twice proposed the founding of a Royal Society of Scotland, an institution to mirror the Royal Society of London and the Dublin Philosophical Society. His 1699 pamphlet on Provision for the Poor in Time of Dearth and Scarcity and his unpublished 'A discourse anent the improvements may be made in Scotland for advancing the wealth of the kingdom' (1698) show Sibbald to have been concerned with promoting Scotland's interests through moral enlightenment and economic improvement.

Sibbald's geographical and natural history work reflects but develops the chorographic traditions of Robert Plot, William Petty, William Camden, and others. He extended antiquarian chorographies by practising a Baconian empiricism as a means of consolidating royal authority and as a basis to inductive national and natural knowledge. Sibbald's commission on appointment as geographer royal was to produce a natural history of Scotland, and a geographical description that combined historical data with the results of contemporary survey, which was to be based on returns to his circulated questionnaire. Geography as a whole was for Sibbald not only 'of much use for the life of man' and 'a noble Science' (Nuncius Scoto-Britannus), it was also crucial to correct understanding 'in Theology, Natural Philosophy, History, … Merchandising and the Practice of Medicine'. Geography's place within a wider useful natural knowledge embracing natural history and medicine is perhaps unsurprising, given Sibbald's own interests and disciplinary training. But it is of interest to see how he undertook his work.

Sibbald knew and drew from ancient and classical geographers, as well as from contemporary scholars, and drew together existing manuscripts. He also collaborated with the map maker John Adair (although the two had an uneasy relationship). Sibbald worked with John Slezer in the production of his Theatrum Scotiae and was a contributor to the 1695 edition of William Camden's Britannia; through connections with Edward Lhuyd and the Royal Society he used Martin Martin, author of A Late Voyage to St Kilda (1698) and A Description of the Western Islands of Scotland (1703), as a source of knowledge on the Hebrides and the highlands. Sibbald also drew together many of the maps of Robert Gordon of Straloch, and some of those from Timothy Pont's geographical survey of Scotland in the late sixteenth century. There is no complete list of respondents to his 1682 enquiries, but surviving manuscript material records about sixty-five local respondents. Many were ministers. For example, James Wallace, who compiled a lengthy report for Sibbald on Orkney, was a Puritan natural historian and physician, and author of A Description of the Isles of Orkney (1693), to which Sibbald added an essay on ancient geography.

For various reasons—too little cash, confrontations with Adair and Slezer, too much material, lack of focus—Sibbald's intended 'Scottish Atlas' was never published. The 1683 Nuncius and his 1684 Scotia illustrata are the only major published expressions of Sibbald's view of geography as a means to national natural knowledge. The material contains Hippocratic discourses on the quality of places, sections on flora and fauna, mountains, forests, arable and other agricultural geographies, and topographical features. The inhabitants of Scotland are viewed as 'products of their country, fitted both for war and the practice of the arts by virtue of the roughness of their native soil and the purity of the air'. Some of the regional material was later expanded and separately published, notably his History Ancient and Modern of the Sheriffdom of Fife and Kinross (1710) and The Description of the Isles of Orkney and Zetland (1711).

As a physician Sibbald, who was physician to James VII, advocated what has been termed an ‘old-new’ medicine, a medicine improved by a return to classical principles, but supported by modern observations. He paid close attention to the predisposing causes of disease and to the nature of disease, and explored the efficacy of botanical cures by drawing on Scottish plant life. His lectures on medicine and natural history, advertised in 1706, were never given, as Sibbald considered the students ill prepared and his topics too advanced. His botanical work was admired by Linnaeus, who named the genus Sibbaldia in his honour, but Sibbald saw greater value in his natural and medical work, not as classificatory knowledge for its own sake, but as a means to advance both Scotland and the empirical natural sciences.

Sibbald's influence rests, then, in his attention to what he called 'the Knowledge of Natural things that are the products of this Country' as 'usefull to human lyfe' (Memoirs). Like his counterparts in Europe, Sibbald was concerned with contemporary survey as current knowledge and as a means to the future condition of the nation. Sibbald's manuscript 'Description of Scotland' pays considerable attention to the economic potential of the nation. His archaeological and antiquarian pursuits and numerous publications on Roman Scotland established the utility of artefacts to national identity. A similar set of interests informed his 1701 'Caetologia', an unpublished marine natural history. Sibbald was much interested in whales, commenting on specimens washed ashore in east Scotland in 1691 and 1701. The blue whale was once known as Balaenoptera Sibbaldi. In addition to natural observation, this 1701 work remarks on potential improvements in navigation and the connections between profitable fisheries and national well-being, issues he earlier explored in his 1698 'Discourse anent the improvements'. The focus here was on the state of the nation in the future; as Sibbald put it: 'What is wanting to make the people in all those places Happy'.

Sibbald's personal life was often less than happy. On 26 April 1677 he married Anna Lowes of Merchiston, who miscarried twin boys in a fall that year. A daughter, Katherine, born on 12 October 1678, died soon after, and his wife died on 27 December 1678. He married Anna Orrack in November 1682: a daughter, Elizabeth, born on 9 April 1685, died in 1686. A further daughter was stillborn in 1686. Two daughters survived—Elizabeth, born in November 1687, and Euphame, born 2 September 1688—but a further child, Jean, born on 4 September 1690, died of smallpox in 1692. He lost many personal papers in a house fire on 20 March 1694, was struck in the face by a golf club in October 1690, and had a serious fall in July 1692 after tangling his spurs; and financial difficulties forced him to sell a large proportion of his library in 1707–8.

Sibbald's work and ideas have enduring significance. They are representative of contemporary interest by virtuosi in useful natural knowledge. In his view, geography, medicine, botany, and archaeology were all part of utilitarian and systematic natural philosophy. It was once thought that Sibbald's reputation as a geographer rested on what he took from others. More recent scholarship has pointed to his key role in promoting national knowledge through survey and questionnaire; in being part of European interests in so doing; and, for Scotland, in being central to early Enlightenment debates about the value of natural knowledge as a means to national improvement. It does not help to describe his interests and work in modern disciplinary terms. For Sibbald, as for so many of his contemporaries, geography was closely allied to natural history, and was both a product, and a means to what we might understand as utilitarian medical-topographical knowledge. It was also a practice that embraced the formal languages of mathematics and geometry and used them to measure and to survey peoples, nations, and nature as a whole. Sibbald died on 9 August 1722, following which the remainder of his library was sold.


  • The memoirs of Sir Robert Sibbald, 1641–1722, ed. F. P. Hett (1932)
  • R. Sibbald, ‘Memoirs of my lyfe’, 1695, NL Scot., Adv. MS. 33.5.1
  • J. Maidment, ed., Remains of Sir Robert Sibbald, KNT, MD, containing his autobiography, memoirs of the Royal College of Physicians, portions of his literary correspondence and an account of his MSS (1837)
  • 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
  • C. 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
  • [H. H. Child], ‘Sir Robert Sibbald’, TLS (8 Dec 1932)


  • BGS, collections for a natural history of Scotland [copy]
  • NA Scot.
  • NL Scot., papers
  • Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh
  • S. Antiquaries, Lond., transcriptions from his collections made for Walter MacFarlan
  • U. Glas. L.
  • BL, Sloane MSS, letters mainly to Sir Hans Sloane
  • RS, letters to Royal Society


  • J. Alexander, oils, 1721, Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh [see illus.]
  • W. H. Lizars, line engraving (after J. Alexander), BM, NPG, Wellcome L.; repro. in W. Jardine, ed., The naturalist's library, 24 (1843), frontispiece

Wealth at Death

manuscripts and books sold at auction (5 Feb 1723) for £342 17s.: Memoirs, ed. Hett, 10

Times Literary Supplement
National Library of Scotland, Edinburgh