Robert Sibbald 1641-1722

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Sir Robert SIBBALD 1641-1722

Biographical Note

Son of David Sibbald (1589-1660) of Fife, keeper of the great seal of Scotland. Educated at Cupar and the Royal High School, Edinburgh. Remained in Edinburgh to study theology at the university, MA 1659. In 1660 he travelled to Leiden where he studied anatomy, surgery, botany and chemistry. From Leiden he travelled to Paris, Angers (MD 1662) and London, returning to Scotland in October 1662.

He was appointed Geographer Royal for Scotland in 1682, worked as a doctor, and wrote profusely on medicine archaeology, geography and natural history. The physic garden he and his friend Andrew Balfour established later became the Royal Botanic Garden. He was knighted in 1682.


Sibbald wrote in his memoirs that "from the tyme I entered to the Coledge, any money I gott, I did employ it for buying of books." Bunch reckons that he 'must be ranked among the great book collectors of his time'.

In 1682 Sibbald gave about 100 books to the Edinburgh Physicians to found the College Library. He records: "I gave about ys tyme a presse with three shelfs full of books, to the Coledge of Physitians, amongst which were Galens works, 5 voll Greek and five Latine, Hippocrates in Greek of Aldus's edition, Gesner his history of animals, 3 voll. Paris bind. and some other valuable books." He also gave individual volumes to the College in subsequent years, which are recorded in a manuscript volume in possession of the College.

Financial difficulties forced Sibbald to sell a large portion of his library in 1707/8, and after his death what remained was sold by auction in Edinburgh on 5 February 1722. Printed catalogues exist for both sales. The 1707 catalogue divides over 1100 volumes under precise headings denoting their subject matter, such as 'Scriptores Chronologici', 'Antiquarii', 'De Historia Universali', 'Historia Judaica', 'Historia Græca Antiqua' and 'Historiæ Romanæ Scriptores Græci'. Among its volumes are books containing Arabic and Hebrew.

The posthumous 1722 catalogue, on the other hand, uses much more general headings to broadly indicate the subject and format of its 5300+ items. The later sale catalogue describes its contents as 'Consisting of Divinity, Civil and Ecclesiastical History, Medicine, Natural History, Philosophy, Mathematicks, Belles Lettres, &c. with a curious collection of Historical and other Manuscripts. Being the Library of the late Learned and Ingenious Sir Robert Sibbald of Kipps, Doctor of Medicine'. The Faculty of Advocates purchased at least part of his library at this sale for £342 17s sterling; the sale catalogue annotated with individual prices is still held at the National Library of Scotland. According to Bunch, that catalogue comprises 951 theological items, 1180 'Geography, History, Chronology, Politics', 799 medical texts, 662 on 'Natural History, Botany, Philosophy, Mathematics', 1486 'Classics, Literature, Antiquarian, Miscellaneous', 100 addenda, 114 historical manuscripts and 33 miscellaneous manuscripts.

Both catalogues comment on items that feature Sibbald's manuscript notes, a practice that is attested by some his extant books, e.g. his interleaved copy of Camden's Britannia (1695) in the National Library of Scotland (Adv.MS.15.1.5).


  • Alston, R. C. Inventory of sale catalogues ... 1676-1800, St Philip, 2010.
  • Catalogus bibliothecae Sibbaldianae secundum scientias et artes digestus..., [Edinburgh, 1707], ESTC T7929.
  • Bibliotheca Sibbaldiana: or, a catalogue of curious and valuable books, consisting of divinity, civil and ecclesiastical history, [Edinburgh, 1722], ESTC T6458. (Both printed catalogues are available via Google Books, bound together).
  • Withers, Charles W. J. "Sibbald, Sir Robert (1641–1722), physician and geographer." Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.
  • Sibbald, Robert. The memoirs of Sir Robert Sibbald... (Oxford University Press, 1932), 55; 83.
  • Bunch, Antonia J. Hospital and Medical Libraries in Scotland: an Historical and Sociological Study. Scottish Library Studies 3. Glasgow: Scottish Library Association, 1975. 19.