Dr Robert Watson – A Neglected Elgin Radical
MFC Paper 19 by Ian Keillar 1977
On a miserable morning in November 1838, the landlord of the Blue Anchor Tavern, near London Bridge, entered the room where an old Scotsman had taken lodging. The old man lay dead with sheet knotted round his neck and tightened with a poker. Robert Watson, aged 92 years, had committed suicide.
Robert Watson was born in Elgin in June 1746, the son of a carter. He probably went to the grammar school and when a young man emigrated to America. When the War of Independance broke out he joined the army of Washington and took part in some early engagements. He was wounded and invalided out with the rank of Colonel and a parcel of land in America. He sold the land in America and returned to Scotland where he apparently studied medicine at a Scottish University, as he later called himself a Doctor of Medicine, although his name does not appear in the records.
In 1780 Robert Watson was in London and was secretary to Lord George Gordon an exceptionally unbalanced scion of the unbalanced North East Gordons. Lord George Gordon fanned the flames of religious bigotry and with cries of "No Popery" led the London mob on an orgy of fire raising and destruction. It is doubtful if Watson approved of the bigotry but he certainly supported Lord George Gordon. After Gordon's conversion to Judaiasm and his death in Newgate Jail in 1793, Watson published an apologia for Gordon in which the unbalanced Lord appears as the "enemy of tyrants and the friend of the oppressed".
Watson was always firmly on the side of the oppressed. He was an ardent republican and a staunch Scottish patriot. When the French revolution broke out he was delighted and wrote "Upon the immortal 14th of July 1789, a day which gave life to man, the pillars of superstition were shaken by the capture of the Bastille, and the thunderbolt of reason hurled despotism from its throne."
In 1798 he edited the political writings of Fletcher of Saltoun and he recounts how two years earlier his papers had been confiscated while he had spent 27 months in Newgate prison on suspicion of treason. That same year of 1798 he fled to France and was writing to the Patriots of Scotland:- "Think of Ireland bleeding before you and be assured that the same fetters are being forged for you."
In Paris, Watson lodged with Napoleon's Chief Forester and through him was introduced to the First Consul of France. Napoleon employed Watson as his tutor in English and eventually made him principal of the Scots College in Paris. Watson stayed in Paris until 1807 and was a leading figure amongst the Patriots of Scotland who had been forced to flee to France.
In 1807 Watson left Paris for Rome where he tried to grow cotton and indigo in the Pontine Marches. An enterprise which almost succeeded, but failed due to the early autumn rains. Short of money,he took up teaching English and one of his pupils, Vogel von Vogelstein, painted Watson's portrait which now hangs in the National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh.
Ten years later, the enterprising and now ageing doctor purchased the Stuart Papers, containing much of the Old Pretender‘s and Prince Charles Edward's correspondence for £22.10 Unfortunately for Watson his treasure was confiscated by the Vatican and presented to the Prince Regent. Watson was furious and left Rome for Greece where he probably assisted the Greeks in their fight for liberty.
Back in Paris in 1825 he wrote a pathetic letter to an old friend, a Mr. MacFarlane of Edinkillie, asking for a loan of £100. In his letter he refers to their wandering about Urquhart and Boghead and to their parting on the banks of the Lossie. Some time in the next thirteen years Watson returned to England, but there is no evidence that he ever came hack to Elgin. Penniless and having outlived all his friends he died in despair in a squalid room in London.