Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Beatson, Robert

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BEATSON, ROBERT, LL.D. (1742–1818), compiler and miscellaneous writer, was born in 1742 at Dysart in Fifeshire. He was educated for the military profession, and on one of his title-pages describes himself as 'late of his majesty's corps of Royal Engineers.' It was probably as a subaltern in this corps that he accompanied the unsuccessful expedition against Rochefort in 1757, and was present with the force which, reaching the West Indies early in 1759, failed in the attack on Martinique, but succeeded in capturing Guadaloupe. He is represented in 1766 as retiring on half-pay, and as failing, in spite of repeated applications, to secure active employment during the American war. Afterwards he seems to have betaken himself to practical agriculture in his native county, his writings on the subject being such as could have scarcely emanated from any one not a practical agriculturist. He became an honorary member of the Board of Agriculture, of the Royal Highland Society of Scotland, and of the London Society of Arts. For the information of the first of these bodies he drew up an elaborate 'General View of the Agriculture of the County of Fife, with observations on the means of its improvement,' which was published in 1794, and in which he styles himself 'Robert Beatson, Esq., of Pitterdie.' In this report he advocated long leases and the encouragement of small holdings. In 1798 he published 'An Essay on the Comparative Advantages of Vertical and Horizontal Windmills, containing a description of an horizontal windmill and watermill upon a new construction,' &c. For this wheel he took out a patent, and a model of it was exhibited in London. To the fifth volume of A. Hunter's 'Georgical Essays' (York, 1804) Beatson contributed practical papers (in one of them he speaks of having recently made an agricultural tour in many parts of England) on farm-buildings, farmhouses, barns, and stables.

Besides writing on agriculture, Beatson was the author of several works of much more general utility. In 1786 he published in three parts his well-known 'Political Index to the Histories of Great Britain and Ireland, or a complete register of the hereditary honours, public offices, and persons in office from the earliest periods to the present time.' It was dedicated to the author's friend, Adam Smith, who had expressed approval of the work. From its completeness as well as accuracy, it is a most useful, valuable, and indeed a unique work of reference. In 1788 it reached a second edition, in two volumes, containing nearly twice as much matter as the first, and a third edition in 1806. In 1790 appeared, in three volumes, Beatson's 'Naval and Military Memoirs of Great Britain, from the year 1727 to the present time,' also a useful work, in which the naval element predominates. To the narrative are appended lists of the ships in the squadrons and fleets of France and Spain as well as of Great Britain during the period dealt with, and also despatches, state papers, and geographical descriptions of the places referred to in the text. In 1807 appeared the last of Beatson's works of reference, three volumes of 'A Chronological Register of both Houses of Parliament from the Union in 1708 to the Third Parliament of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.' Besides lists of peers qualified to sit in each parliament, bounties and boroughs alphabetically arranged are given in chronological order, with the names of their members in every house of commons during the period embraced, and notes chronicling as they arose the changes, with their causes, in the representation of each constituency. Election petitions and the decisions on them are likewise given with a statement of the elective authority, and of the nature of the electoral franchise in each constituency. Beatson was also the author of a pamphlet on the indecisive engagement fought off Ushant by the fleets under Admiral Keppel and Count d'Orvilliers—'A New and Distinct View of the memorable Action of the 27th July 1778, in which the Aspersions cast on the Flag Officers are shown to be totally unfounded.' He died at Edinburgh on 24 Jan. 1818. One obituary notice describes him as late barrack-master at Aberdeen.' It is uncertain whether Edinburgh or Aberdeen university conferred on him his degree of LL.D.

[Beatson's writings; Gent. Mag. for April 1818; Annual Biography and Obituary for 1819; Biographical Dictionary of the Living Authors of Great Britain and Ireland, 1816.]

F. E.