Robertson Surname Meaning, History & Origin
Robertson is a patronymic name meaning “son of Robert.” The surname is to be found in the north of England but is particularly popular in Scotland – because of national figures such as Robert the Bruce.
Robertson Resources on
- Robertson. Robertson Scottish history.
- Official Clan Donnachaidh Website. Clan Robertson.
- Clan Donnachaidh Society. Clan Robertson.
- Our Robertson Family History. Robertsons from Banff.
- The Family of General James Robertson. The father of Tennessee.
Scotland. The Robertson clan has laid claim to be the oldest clan family in Scotland, with descent from the old Celtic kings and earls of Atholl. Their base has been Struan in Perthshire since the early 13th century. At that time the clan name was de Atholia, but it then took the Gaelic form of Donnachaidh (descendants of Duncan).
The clan’s first chief was Donnachaidh Reamhair (Stout Duncan) who, according to tradition, fought for Robert the Bruce in the Scottish Wars of Independence. It was Robert Donnachaidh, the fourth chief, who helped capture the assassins of King James I in 1437. He was accordingly rewarded. Around that time most of the clan adopted the nomenclature of Robertson after this chief.
The Robertson clan feuded with the Stewart clan of Atholl and William Robertson of Struan, the sixth chief, was killed in 1516 trying to recover lands he had lost. The eighth chief was then murdered and his brother inherited the estate.
These Robertsons later suffered because of their backing for the Jacobites.
Alexander Robertson, known as both a Jacobite chief and a poet,
departed for France in 1690 after having had his estates confiscated. He did later return but, following the Jacobite defeat in 1715, took refuge in France again. He returned a second time and died in Scotland in 1749 in his 81st year, the last of his Struan line (the current chief derives from the Robertsons of Invervack).
Many Robertsons lost out after the Jacobite defeat in 1745, some being killed at the battlefield, others going into hiding, and others again fleeing to France.
The Robertsons of Lude managed to escape the forfeiture of their estates because the head of their family was at that time still a minor. General William Robertson of this family fought in America and in the Napoleonic Wars and was also a friend to Robert Burns. But he was the last of the line at Lude.
Robertsons used to be found mainly in Perth and Dundee. Today there are more in and around Glasgow and Edinburgh. James Robertson devised his Golden shred marmalade in Paisley near Glasgow in the 1860’s. It proved popular and Robertson’s Jams resulted.
America. Nicholas Robertson, who was first recorded in Virginia in the 1680’s, seems to have been the forebear of the Robertson pioneers in Tennessee.
Tennessee. In 1770 James Robertson left his home in North Carolina and led an expedition beyond the Allegheny mountains into what is now east Tennessee. He and his uncle Charles were leaders of the new government that was formed in the Watauga settlement two years later. James later co-founded what is now the city of Nashville. He has been called “the father of Tennessee.”
His nephew Sterling grew up there and was an early proponent of Texas colonization. In the 1830’s he founded Robertson’s colony in what is now Milam county, Texas.
Virginia. There were three more notable Robertson families in Virginia, one of Petersburg and two of Augusta county.
William Robertson of Chesterfield county was the father of “Scotch Bill” Robertson, born in 1716, and the forebear of the Robertsons of Petersburg, Virginia. Thomas B. Robertson, born there, moved south to New Orleans to take the post of Territorial Secretary in 1807. He became Governor of Louisiana in 1820. Meanwhile his brother Wyndham was briefly later acting Governor of Virginia.
Another Robertson line in Virginia began with James and Mary Robertson purchasing land in Augusta county in the 1720’s. Their descendants migrated to Georgia and Louisiana before returning to Virginia in the late 1800’s. Willis Robertson was a prominent Virginian politician, serving first in the US House of Representatives and then in the US Senate in a career from 1933 and 1967. Although a Democrat, his politics were conservative. His son is the tele-evangelist Pat Robertson.
James and Rebecca Robertson, Scots Irish from Coleraine, came to Augusta county, Virginia in the 1730’s. Their descendants moved in the 1780’s to Tennessee.
Canada. Colin Robertson who came to Canada from Perth as a young man in 1802 was one of the pioneers in expanding the fur trading business westward in the years between 1815 and 1820. William Robertson was an earlier Scotsman in the fur trade, initially in Detroit and later in Quebec. But the death of his wife in 1800 left him heartbroken and he left Canada forever.
Two Robertson families from Glasgow – those of John and James Robertson – were early settlers of Lanark county in Ontario, arriving there in 1821. Their father John had been a soldier with the British army during the Napoleonic Wars.
New Zealand. Thomas Robertson from Edinburgh was an early settler on the Otago Peninsula on South Island in 1847. He
lived there for more than fifty years.
William Robertson, a mariner, met his Irish wife Margaret apparently on the boat to New Zealand in 1873. They married three years later in Auckland. They lived in relatively modest circumstances in the Ponsonby district of Auckland.
The Execution of William Robertson of Struan. The Chronicle of Fortingall recorded:
- in 1509 “John Cunnison of Edradour by Moulin was slain by William Robertson of Struan,”
- and in 1516 “the death of William Struan Robertson who was beheaded at Tulymat on April 7th.”
Why was he executed? Just because he killed Cunnison did not make him a villain. Justice was very rough and very ready in this period and Cunnison may well have deserved his end.
The stories written down in the 19th century have not been kind to William. It was said that he led an army of his own followers and Rannoch MacGregors which gave him ‘a band of upwards of 800 warlike and unscrupulous freebooters’ which held together for three years before William was caught and executed.
In William’s defense it could be said that he had been deprived of much of his land and his inheritance by his neighbors and there was little else he could do other than to wage war on his oppressor, the Earl of Atholl. And he lost that war.
Alexander Robertson, the Last of His Line. Alexander Robertson succeeded to the family estate and the Robertson chiefship at the age of 18 in 1688. Soon afterwards he joined Viscount Dundee for the cause of King James. Although he does not appear to have been actively involved in the rising, he was attainted by Parliament and had his estates forfeited. On this news he departed Scotland for the court of the exiled king in France where he lived for several years.
Queen Anne granted him a remission and he was able to return to Scotland and his estates, although the forfeiture of 1690 was never legally repealed.
With about 500 of his clan he joined the Earl of Mar in 1715 and was taken prisoner at the battle of Sheriffmuir, but rescued. Soon after he fell into the hands of a party of soldiers in the Highlands and was ordered to be conducted to Edinburgh. However, with the assistance of his sister, he contrived to escape on the way. He again took refuge in France.
In 1726 Alexander again returned to Scotland and, obtaining remission again, regained his estates once more. In 1745 he once more “marshaled his clan” in behalf of the Stuarts, although his age prevented him from personally taking any active part in the rebellion. He died in his own house of Carie in Rannoch, in 1749, in his 81st year, without lawful issue and in him ended the direct male line of Robertsons. It was said that two thousand men marched a dozen miles behind his coffin to his grave at Struan kirk.
A volume of his poems was published after his death and an edition was reprinted at Edinburgh in 1785. This edition also included his History and Martial Achievements of the Robertsons of Strowan.
Robertsons in the Jacobite Rising and Defeat. The Robertsons supported the Jacobite cause in the events of 1745–46.
The elderly and apparently eccentric Alexander Robertson of Struan led a party of Robertsons to join the Prince at Prestonpans, fighting with the Atholl men. He returned in triumph to Atholl, wearing the defeated General Cope’s wolfskin coat. They were active throughout the rising and took part in all the major events of the campaign.
There were also other Robertsons who served with the Macphersons, Lord Ogilvy’s regiment and Kilmarnock’s cavalry regiment. Some Robertsons were killed at Culloden; others were wounded or taken prisoner.
One Robertson of note was a Charles Robertson whose story is perhaps typical of many powerless men in the Jacobite army. Living in Atholl in September 1745, he was summoned to the home of his landlady, Lady Charlotte Robertson of Lude. Prince Charles was with her. He was told that they had to join the Prince’s army, or have their ‘means and effects’ taken from them.
He duly joined the Atholl men – but deserted before the army even reached Stirling and returned home. Threatened with hanging by Lady Lude, he was recaptured by the Jacobites after Falkirk but later deserted again and went into hiding. He surrendered his arms and was cross-examined after Culloden.
The Robertsons of Lude. In 1619 Colin Campbell sold the property of Lude of Blair-Athol in Perthshire to Alexander Robertson of Inchmagranichan. He later sold its Feudal Superiority to the Earl of Atholl. This Alexander, who died in 1639 and was buried in the Lude vault at Kilmaveonaig church, was the first of six Robertsons to reside at Lude.
Alexander was a zealous Protestant and assisted in 1627 in raising 3,000 men for the service of the King of Sweden. However, in 1745 these Robertsons were to be on the side of the Jacobites.
James Robertson was only nine when the 1745 Rebellion started. His mother Lady Lude raised men from the estate for the Jacobite cause, most of whom then deserted on the route to Edinburgh. Lady Lude also entertained Bonnie Prince Charlie at Lude with dancing to music on her fiddle. Following the failure of the Rebellion she was briefly arrested. But the Lude Estate was not subject to forfeiture because technically its owner was still a minor.
The Feudal Superiority of Lude remained in the hands of the Atholl family all this time. General William Robertson did make attempts in 1794 and again in 1804, in between military campaigns, to buy that superiority. But with the Lude estate then in financial trouble, he had little in the way of financial resources to do so. He tried legal action, but to no avail. He eventually lost on appeal in the House of Lords. Due to the costs of the legal action he became effectively bankrupt. On his death in 1820 the estate went straight into receivership and it was sold in 1821 to a gentleman by the name of McInroy.
The Father of Tennessee. In Wake county, North Carolina there is a historical marker commemorating General James Robertson which reads as follows:
“General James Robertson.
1742-1814. Father of Tennessee. He led a delegation from Wake
county across the North Carolina mountains in 1770 and founded Watauga, the first independent self-government in North America. The Wake county plantation where he lived lies
1.5 miles east on the Neuse river.”
He had been born in Virginia in 1742, moved to North Carolina with his parents in 1768, and died in the Chickasaw Agency (now in West Tennessee) in 1814. In 1825 his remains were re-interred at Nashville, with marked honors by the citizens and an appropriate eulogium by an early historian of the state.
In 1995 John Brayton published his findings that both General James Robertson, the “father of Tennessee,” and Colonel Charles Robertson, the trustee for the Watauga settlement, were descendants of Israel and Sarah Roberson of Bristol parish in Prince George county, Virginia:
- Colonel Charles, born in 1733, was their sixth son
- and General James, born in 1742, was the son of their second son John.
James’s other brothers Elijah, John and Mark were also to be found at the Watauga settlement.
Who was Israel Roberson? He was probably the son of Nicholas Robertson, first found in Virginia records in 1687. He lived in Bristol parish and both he and Israel were Baptists. Israel himself was born around the year 1698 and first appeared in Virginia records in 1719. He died in North Carolina in 1758.
Prior to that, we don’t know. Some claims have been made to connect these Robertsons to certain Robertsons in Scotland. But no linkage has ever been found.
Colin Robertson in Canada. Colin Robertson was born into a hand-weaving family in Perth in 1783. He brought this trade to Canada with him when he arrived there as a young man.
But weaving was not for him. The trade itself was dying because of the competition from factories. The boss of the Hudson Bay Company, who came to dislike him intensely, wrote in his notebook that Robertson was “too lazy to live by the loom.” He was just a “frothy, trifling conceited man.”
He had other qualities, however, that brought him to the fore in HBC’s competition with their principal rivals, the NW Company, in their westward expansion. It was said:
“He knew the country for which he was bound; he also knew both the methods of the Nor’Westers and the personalities of the men with whom he would be contending. He was a braggart, but an audacious one. His favorite maxim was: ‘When you are among wolves, howl!’
A striking man, six feet tall, with a long aquiline nose, a crest of undisciplined red hair, and a fondness for quoting Shakespeare and drinking Madeira, he was generous, flamboyant, extravagant and he cultivated these qualities when he was among the voyageurs on whom his success depended. But he was genuinely courageous, willing to take risks, and aware of the advantage to be gained from anticipating his opponents.”
In fact his determined assaults in the Athabasca region between 1816 and 1820 were major factors in breaking down the opposition of the Nor’Westers to union with the Hudson Bay Company.
However, he had by his manners created numerous enemies and his role in the subsequent expansion of the company fur trade became less and less. During the last decade of his life he was in obvious mental as well as physical decline, clinging in memory to his long-past feats as compensation for the frustrations of his later years.
Thomas Robertson on the Peninsula. The Otago Peninsula is a long, hilly indented finger of land of 20 kilometers that forms the easternmost part of Dunedin on South Island, New Zealand. This was where Thomas Robertson, his wife Margaret, and their family came to settle after their arrival from
Scotland in 1847.
Thomas lived there until his death in 1898. The Otago Witness recorded on March 17:
“Thomas Robertson, who lived to the great age of 95 on the Peninsula, came from Edinburgh, arriving in the Philip Laing. He opened a quarry at Anderson’s Bay and brought the stone across the harbor in a punt. With his son James he built the school and other buildings with this stone. Afterwards he quarried at Forbury Road and discovered lime at Burnside. He also farmed on the Peninsula until his death.”
His father Thomas had been a baker in Edinburgh, but had been press-ganged into the British navy during the Napoleonic wars just two days after his marriage. He managed to escape and return to Edinburgh but died soon after the birth of his son Thomas in 1803.
- Robert Donnachaidh, the fourth chief of the clan, was the first in 1437 to adopt the Robertson name.
- Alexander Robertson was a poet and a Jacobite chief, the last of his line.
- William Robertson was an 18th century Scottish historian and principal of Edinburgh University.
- James Robertson was the 18th century American explorer sometimes called the father of Tennessee.
- Sir William Robertson was British Chief of the Imperial General Staff during the First World War.
- Sir Dennis Robertson was a distinguished British economist who worked closely with Keynes.
- Pat Robertson is an American tele-evangelist.
Robertson Numbers Today
- 86,000 in the UK (most numerous in Midlothian)
- 56,000 in America (most numerous in Texas)
- 47,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Australia)
Robertson and Like Surnames
Patronymic surnames can be with either the “-son” or the shorter “s” suffix to the first name. The “son” suffix is more common in northern England than in the south and in lowland Scotland. Here are some of these surnames that you can check out.
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