Rare Book collector John Davie Manson Robertson CBE, DL, FRSA (6 November 1929 - 2 November 2015) was born to Orcadian parents, and moved to the islands as a teenager in 1943. He was passionate about his heritage and his comprehensive collection of Orkney and Shetland books, due to be offered in our forthcoming Rare Books, Manuscripts, Maps & Photographs auction on 14 February (lots 1 to 76), testifies to this.
By profession, John Robertson was a law graduate and joint owner of the S & J D Robertson Group, Orkney oil distributors. However, his roles in the local community were highly varied. He was Chairman of a range of organisations: the Orkney and Highland Health Boards, the Scottish Health Management Efficiency Group, the North of Scotland Water Authority and the Lloyds TSB Foundation for Scotland. Outwith these positions, Robertson was Honorary Sheriff for the Grampian Highland and Islands area and a Deputy Lord Lieutenant for the County of Sutherland.
Described as having a “passion for art”, John Robertson also took a great interest in Scottish artists, his collection ranging from the works of Arthur Melville to Stanley Cursiter, another son of Kirkwall. As evidenced by his book collection, he was also an avid reader.
The earliest book from the collection is Reverend James Wallace’s A Description of the Isles of Orkney, published posthumously in 1693 (see lot 73). Wallace was minister in Kirkwall from 1672-1688, and is rumoured to have inspired William Baikie to donate his library to the town. Founded in 1683, The Bibliotheck of Kirkwall is said to be Scotland’s oldest public library. Wallace, in fact, kept Baikie’s donation of 150 books at his residence, before they were moved to St Magnus Cathedral.
Reflecting Orkney’s Nordic past, the Icelandic historian Thormodus Torfaeuus’s work, Orcades seu Rerum Orcadensium Historiae, published in Copenhagen in 1697, also features (see lot 77). The book was translated into English in 1866, and opens with the rather uncomplimentary line: “Orkney was of old a nest of pyrates … until they were at last expatriated by Harold the Fair…”
Published in 1807, Elizabeth, the Duchess of Sutherland’s book, Views in Orkney and on the Northeastern Coast of Scotland gives a far more romantic view of the islands (see lot 66). The engravings of scenery and standing stones perhaps reflect why people are drawn to Orkney: for the beauty of the landscape, the ancient archaeological sites and the stories of Vikings which help to form a rich historical tapestry.
John Robertson’s collection of Orkney and Shetland books reflects the history and culture of these islands. However, it is also a legacy of a book collector and highly respected member of Orkney society, who invested deeply in his heritage.