Charles Mackie (1688-1770)

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Lectures on Universal History by Charles Mackie (1688-1770) taken down by a student, 1747-48, Laing Collection, Edinburgh University Library (La.III.237)
Charles Mackie (1688-1770) was appointed as Edinburgh University’s first Professor of Universal History and Greek and Roman Antiquities in 1719.

Early Life

Mackie was born in Limekilns, Fife, the youngest child of a Church of Scotland minister. His mother died when he was six months old, and his father subsequently married Margaret Carstares, sister of William Carstares (1649-1715), then Principal of Edinburgh University. Following the death of Mackie’s father in 1699, Carstares appears to have overseen his education. Mackie matriculated at Edinburgh University in 1702 and graduated in 1705. He continued his education at Gröningen (1707-1708), later completing it at Leyden (1715). On his return to Edinburgh he joined the Rankenian Club, one of the earliest literary societies of 18th-century Scotland, whose members included such future Enlightenment figures as David Hume (1711-1776), William Wishart "secundus" (c1692-1753), Colin Maclaurin (1698-1746), and John Stevenson (1695-1775).

Chair of Universal History

Extract from Mackie's alphabetical list of students who attended his lectures on History and Roman Antiquities, 1719-44, including William Robertson (1721-1793) 'now Min[iste]r in Gladsmuir', the future Principal of Edinburgh University (Edinburgh University Library, Dc.5.24/2)
On 28 August 1719, the Town Council of Edinburgh passed an order establishing a Professorship of Universal History at Edinburgh University, the first chair of its kind in Scotland. The Council noted that despite ‘being very much esteemed and the most attended of any one profession at all the Universities abroad’, history teaching was ‘yet nowhere set up in any of our Colleges in Scotland’. The explicit desire to remodel Scottish universities along European lines is consistent with the programme of reforms introduced by Principal Carstares. Although Carstares had died in 1715, Sir Alexander Grant (1826-1884) suggests that the Council was carrying out measures urged before his death. It is no coincidence, he argues, that their choice – announced on the same day -- fell upon a protégé and intimate of Carstares in Charles Mackie.

Teaching

As his title indicates, Mackie's remit was extensive, encompassing Western History, Scottish History, and Greek, Roman, and British Antiquities. Mackie’s conception of the historian’s duties was exceptionally broad, and his courses covered many topics later taught by Professors of Constitutional History, Roman Law, and Rhetoric and Belles Lettres. He was a popular lecturer, despite teaching in Latin at a time when many lecturers were turning to English. His pupils included such future luminaries of Edinburgh University as William Robertson (1721-1793), Alexander Monro ''secundus'' (1733-1817), and John Home (1722-1808).

In 1753, ill-health led Mackie to request that the Town Council appoint John Gordon (1715-1775) as assistant professor. Gordon himself resigned within a year, but the appointment of William Wallace (d. 1786) on 23 December permitted Mackie to retire from teaching. He nonetheless remained co-holder of the Chair until 1765 when he finally resigned in favour of John Pringle (1741-1811).

Lectures and Papers

Draft letter from Mackie to the Lord Provost of Edinburgh, 7 December 1753, requesting that John Gordon (1715-1775) be appointed to share the Chair of Universal History in view of Mackie's continuing ill health (Laing Collection, Edinburgh University Library, La.II.90.2.2)
Edinburgh University Library’s Laing Collection includes a collection of lectures and papers by Mackie (La.II.37), perhaps the most complete and typical of which is an address ‘On the Sources of Vulgar Errors in History’ (ff. 92-104). These he listed as: 'fondness for high antiquities', 'fondness for the marvellous', 'travellers' tales', 'prejudice for one's country or religion', 'ignorance, laziness and negligence', 'writing in verse' and lastly 'family annals and funeral orations'. As both a teacher and working historian, Mackie laid the greatest stress on strict impartiality, critical examination of sources, and careful valuation of evidence.

Benefactor to the University

Mackie believed that a well-equipped university library was essential to the study of history. In 1765 he bequeathed to Edinburgh University Library his private collection of 151 historical works by European writers of the 16th to18th centuries the 18th centuries. This provided William Robertson with a solid base on which to build the Library’s history collections during his term as Principal of the University.

All or some of the text on this page originally appeared in the Gallery of Benefactors

Archives

Sources

  • Andrew Dalzel, History of the University of Edinburgh from its Foundation, 2 vols (Edinburgh: Edmonston and Douglas, 1862)
  • C. P. Finlayson and S. M. Simpson, 'The History of the Library 1710-1837', in Edinburgh University Library 1580-1980: A Collection of Historical Essays, ed. Jean R. Guild and Alexander Law (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Library, 1982), pp. 55-66.
  • Sir Alexander Grant, The Story of the University of Edinburgh during its First Three Hundred Years, 2 vols (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1884)
  • L. W. Sharp, 'Charles Mackie, the First Professor of History at Edinburgh University', Scottish Historical Review, 41 (1962), 23-45.
  • Jeffrey R. Smitten, 'Mackie, Charles (1688–1770)', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004) [[1], accessed 17 July 2014]