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Significant Scots
William Watt

William Watt

Attached is a short piece I’ve written for the Aberdeen Grammar School Former Pupils Magazine on “William Watt of Aberdeen”...

Professor Graham Watt

In the Aberdeen Grammar School Roll of Pupils 1795-1919, it is recorded that William Watt attended Class I for the 1858-59 school year. He was born 12 years earlier at Droichsburn, a croft on Dorsell farmland in the Vale of Alford, the eldest of four children. His father, also called William Watt, earned his living as a handloom weaver, with occasional farm work, but had wider horizons as Secretary of the Rhynie Mutual Instruction Union. In 1853, aged 29, he sold his weaving business and moved to Aberdeen, having been recruited by William McCombie to join a team of fledgling journalists on the newly established Aberdeen Free Press. The family followed but their father’s health was poor due to phthisis (or tuberculosis as it became known) and within a year his wife Isabel Elmslie was a widow.

The family stayed in Aberdeen and the young William entered the Grammar School, located at that time in a one-storey building in Schoolhill, as attended by Byron 60 years previously (the present school buildings opened in 1863). When his brother John died in July 1859 followed by his mother in October of that year, both from phthisis, William left the Grammar School, an orphan and the eldest of three siblings. Most probably they were looked after by their mother’s family who were farmers at Cardenstone in Leochel Cushnie.

Setting out in the world, William became an apprentice to J&J Urquhart, chemists and druggists in St Nicholas Street, Aberdeen. In a bold step he moved at age 19 to a similar position at Dudley in the West Midlands, but his main interest was in journalism, following his father’s example, and having taught himself shorthand, which was an unusual skill at the time, he took up journalist jobs in Dudley, and then with the Norwich Mercury and Dundee Courier.

In 1872 he returned to Aberdeen, at the instigation of William Alexander, his father’s former colleague on the Aberdeen Free Press, beginning as a sub-editor but soon progressing to joint proprietor and editor, a position he held until his death 34 years later.

The 1870s and early 1880s were a torrid time for agricultural politics in the North East. There were three main interest groups – landowners, tenant farmers and farm labourers. Huge improvements were underway. The big questions were who were making the improvements and who would benefit when leases came to an end. The Aberdeen Free Press, led by William Alexander, by then ex-joint editor and author of the Doric novel Johnny Gibb of Gushetneuk, took the side of tenant farmers, while the Aberdeen Journal supported the landowners. (in 1922 the two papers would merge as The Press and Journal).

In 1876 the Aberdeen Journal had become a daily paper, like the Aberdeen Free Press in 1872, countering what was described as "the pernicious influence" of the Liberal papers by starting up a penny daily in the Conservative interest. The driving force behind the venture was Colonel Thomas Innes of Learney, who explained his interest in a letter to his neighbour Alexander Innes of Drum

"The most important omission was not being alive to the great change which within the last few years has been coming over the tenant constituency…The construction of a system of railways in the county centring in Aberdeen and the penny newspapers have converted them from a most passive and docile into a most active and jealous constituency, and they cannot be managed thro’ their lairds as formerly."

Mass meetings of hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of tenant farmers were reported in the Aberdeen Free Press. Matters came to a head in 1886 when Aberdeenshire was rejected as "the 8th crofting county" and excluded from the benefits and protections of the Liberal Government’s Croft Holdings Bill. From then on, as Ian Carter commented in his book Farm Life in North East Scotland 1840-1914, the northeast peasantry was doomed. Unlike the Irish Land Acts of 1870 and 1881, there was to be no shift in the balance of interest and power from landlords to tenants. When Liberal Prime Minister Gladstone lost the 1886 general election, land reform fell off the political agenda, which was dominated for the next three decades by the issue of Irish Home Rule. The Aberdeen Free Press became less radical.

William Watt wrote "miles" of leading articles for the paper, witnessing and recording events in what he later described as "the wondrous developments of the time" as Aberdeen moved from mid-century economic depression to the huge changes and challenges of the late Victorian age.

In a lecture to the Aberdeen Philosophical Society in 1900 entitled Fifty Years’ of Progress in Aberdeen (available on the Electric Scotland website, see below) he recalled the building on arches of Union Street, Market Street and Rosemount Viaduct, the harbour improvements, the city’s water supply, the railway boom and bust ("It was on the 16th of March 1850 that the first railway train crossed the Dee"), and the textile, papermaking, granite, shipbuilding and fishing industries (there were no fishing boats in Aberdeen harbour until the 1870s).

He was also what is nowadays called a features journalist, reflecting his interests in statistics, as a fellow of the Royal Statistical Society, and economics, as a founding member of the British Economic Association. In his prize-winning Newmarch Essay, he analysed recent legislation in terms of its content, intentions and subsequent effects, expressing the view that "hastily conceived legislation, reflecting political expediency in the face of agitation and outrage could, by ignoring economic principles, have unintended and contrary effects."

One of the economic principles that Watt held close was Adam Smith’s observation, in his Wealth of Nations, that economic progress is best served by the multiple effects of individuals acting out of self-interest. He argued that measures that restrained such self-interest were likely to be counterproductive.

As a self-made man with business interests – he chaired the Board of the Aberdeen, Leith and Moray Firth Steam Ship Company, and was vice-chair of the Bon Accord Property Investment Company – it is not difficult to see how this argument might have appealed but it may also be important to consider the times in which William Watt lived, involving huge technological and social improvements, especially in agriculture, which had become hugely more productive in his lifetime. Such improvements required investment in a range of land improvements, which were much easier to finance and deliver in large farms than in large numbers of smallholdings.

In addition to economic issues he wrote a series of authoritative papers on fishing topics such as the Natural History of the Herring, On Developing the Oyster Fisheries of Scotland and The History and Statistics of the Herring Industry in Norway and Sweden, which are still notable for their readability and command of subject.

While local industries came and went (as they continue to do) the enduring factor was the character of the people. In his his magnum opus, a 500 page history of the Counties of Aberdeen and Banff (also available on the Electric Scotland website, see below), he concluded,

"Education may accordingly be regarded as the most distinctive of the industries of Aberdeen, and the yearly output of disciplined minds as the most important of its products…..And thus it is as true today as it was five or six generations ago, that the "natural ingenuity" of the inhabitants is "improved by education, at once accessible and effective, along the whole line from the elementary to the higher academic stages; and the shires of Aberdeen and Banff continue to send far more than their proportionate number of men into the learned professions and the higher grades of the public service throughout the empire." Although he did not live to know it, his own descendants would bear out this prescription.

His first wife, Helen Nicolson, whom he married while working in Dundee, died from complications of miscarriage shortly after they returned to Aberdeen in 1873.

In 1876 he married again, to Marjorie Robertson. They honeymooned in Paris and started married life at 134 Crown Street, before moving to 27 North Albert Street.

Her seven brothers all attended Aberdeen Grammar School. Four went on to Aberdeen University, including Croom Robertson (Professor of Philosophy at University College London, founding editor of the journal Mind, and friend and walking companion of Leslie Stephen – father of Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf), two senior members of the Indian Civil Service (one of whose sons became an Oxford don, personal history tutor to the future Edward VIII and Principal of the University of Birmingham) and Alexander Robertson, Aberdeen’s first Public Librarian who oversaw the setting up and opening in 1892 of the Public Library on Rosemount Viaduct, with the support and attendance of Andrew Carnegie.

Marjorie bore William three sons, Edward, George and Theodore, but died aged 39 in 1888 from an ovarian tumour and renal abscess when they were aged 10, 9 and 4 respectively. William re-married their close friend Mary Martin and moved to 17 Queens Road (later, the boarding house of Albyn School for Girls). At 01.30 on 19th September 1891 she gave birth to a stillborn child. At 07.00 she was pronounced dead from post-partum haemorrhage. William Watt’s fourth wife, Agnes Glegg, survived him.

His sons all went to the Grammar School and Aberdeen University. Edward Watt became a journalist, a Lieutenant Colonel of the Gordon Highlanders in World War I, a local politician, city treasurer and finally Lord Provost, raising the final £100,000 to complete the new Aberdeen Royal Infirmary at Foresterhill and assisting the Duke of York (the future George VI) in the opening ceremony in 1936.

George was first bursar in the 1897 University of Aberdeen entrance examination, and later a Cambridge graduate and Professor of Philosophy and Greek, first at Aberdeen University and then Presidency College, Calcutta.

Theodore became Managing Director of the Rosemount Press (the printing offshoot of the Aberdeen Free Press) which joined with Aberdeen University Press in 1932, President of the British Federation of Master Printers and, for 40 years, the Editor of the Aberdeen Grammar School Magazine, with its celebrated Notes about Old Boys, which he managed to publish three times a year.

A further 5 grandsons and two great grandsons of William Watt attended the Grammar School. The three generations that followed him included three Senior Prefects, four Presidents of the FP Club and four recipients of Honorary Degrees from Scottish Universities.

The latter included Donald Watt, Professor of Scottish Church History at the University of St Andrews, principal editor and translator of the Scotichronicon, a 9-volume history of medieval Scotland ("He is not a Scot who does not like this book") and Harold Watt, Managing Director of the University Press who was responsible in 1977 for the first publication of The Living Mountain by his neighbour Nan Shepherd, now widely acclaimed as a classic text on walking in the Cairngorms.

Four generations of Watts were members of the Cairngorm Club, including two of its Presidents. In his 1894 diary, Theodore Watt, aged 10, recorded a family ascent of Ben Macdui.

An elder of Rubislaw Parish Church, William Watt is listed on the brass plate of original benefactors of the new Aberdeen Art Gallery, which opened in 1885.

As the offices of the Aberdeen Free Press were in St Katherine Wynd, between Broad Street and Union Street, on a site later occupied by Esslemont and Mackintosh, his daily walk or tram ride to work and nightly return involved Queens Road, Albyn Place and the length of Union Street.

Theodore Watt’s 1898 diary records Sunday afternoons at 17 Queens Road when his father read to his family from a variety of authors including Carlyle, Scott and Emerson, the latter’s essay on Self-Reliance not so much about being self-taught and self-made as being of independent mind, with a strong moral compass with which to engage life’s ups and downs.

William Watt died suddenly, aged 59, in 1906 from peritonitis following a ruptured appendix. Ironically, the Rector of the University at that time, the London surgeon Sir Frederick Treves, had pioneered the successful surgical treatment of appendicitis, famously postponing the coronation of Edward VII in 1902 so that he could perform an appendicectomy on the king.

In the premature deaths of his parents, siblings and wives, William Watt was, in Robert Louis Stevenson’s phrase, a "veteran of affliction". A century later all could have been prevented by medical treatment.

He is buried with his fourth wife in the south west corner of Allenvale Cemetery, next to a copse of trees, directly opposite the gravestone of his second and third wives.

Beginning an uncompleted autobiography, William Watt wrote,

In proceeding to write a sketch of my life, which I do in the autumn of 1884, I am not vain enough to think that my past or future achievements will be of much interest to the busy world. I write not with a view to publication but in order that my own family may have a trustworthy record, so far as it goes, of who I was and what I did and thought, of how I began life, and how, without the advantages of birth, education or patronage, I rose by degrees to a position of comfort, and I may perhaps say of some little importance and influence in the world. And I desire and enjoin those who may come after me that this manuscript, if not sent to the printer, shall be carefully preserved for the perusal of my children’s children, with whom throughout these pages, I shall consider myself as conversing.

Writing 138 years later, for the grandchildren of the grandchildren of William Watt of Aberdeen, it is a pleasure to tell this tale of personal tragedy, adversity, fortitude, achievement and influence.

Professor Graham Watt

Note : William Watt’s writing can be accessed via the Electric Scotland website 

All that remains of the Droichsburn croft in the Vale of Alford is a pile of stones

Other publications and articles by him...

History of Aberdeen and Banff
By William Watt (1900)

Fifty Years' Progress in Aberdeen 1851-1900
By William Watt (1910) (pdf) Contributed by his great grandson, Graham Watt, Emeritus Professor, University of Glasgow. William Watt was joint proprietor and editor of the Aberdeen Free Press from 1872-1906, and his son, Edward Watt, Lord Provost (i.e. Mayor) of Aberdeen from 1935-38.

William Watt's Writings

As a journalist he wrote “miles” of copy for the Aberdeen Free Press over a period of 34 years, which is accessible via the British Newspaper Archive but not identifiable as none of his copy carried a by-line.

However, his last article gives a flavour of his work, reporting a House of Commons debate on the Sugar Convention.

“But this country has to pay more for its sugar than it did in the days before the Convention. Mr Chamberlain disliked the statement of these facts, but he could not show them to be wrong. Mr Lloyd George had deprecated the passing in the meantime of a resolution declaring it expedient to withdraw from the Convention, on the ground that we are bound by it for two years and a half, that the time for giving the required year’s notice of withdrawal is eighteen months after this, and that to announce at the present moment an intention of withdrawal would embarrass our representatives at the conference to be held in May. Mr Chamberlain seized upon this deprecation of the passing of a needless and embarrassing resolution for the purpose of suggesting that the Government has not the courage of its convictions. Arguments were scarce with him, and as usual the statistics were dead against him. Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman made short work of this miserable piece of “tactics”. The country had been committed in this direction and in that, he said, to a policy to which the present Government entirely object. And were this Government free it would “make short work” of the policy in question, but it declines to respond to a demand, for no reason whatsoever, to make a premature announcement of its policy. Though no specific declaration has been made, there can be no reasonable doubt that the Convention is doomed so far as this country is concerned.”

Three days later William Watt was dead, from peritonitis following a ruptured appendix. He was 59.


These five articles show his clarity of style and command of content. Fishing was not a new activity in the North-East but fishing at scale was new, following the opening of the new Aberdeen harbour. There were few herring fishing boats in Aberdeen harbour before 1870. These articles informed an industry that was new and developing at speed at the time.

It is interesting that the two articles which appeared in the Transactions of the Highland and Agricultural Society of Scotland mention a “Premium” of Five Sovereigns, suggesting a hefty paywall.

The article on the Physical Conditions of the Sea won a prize at the International Fisheries Exhibition in 1883.


The West Coast Herring. Its Local and General Movements
The West Coast Herring
On Developing the Oyster Fisheries of Scotland

The Currents, Temperatures and Physical Conditions of the Sea in Relation to Reproduction, Growth, and Migrations of Fish

The Natural History of the Herring with Special Reference to its Migrations

The History and Statistics of the Herring Fishing in Norway and Sweden

Fish and Fisheries
A Selection from the prize essays of the International Fisheries Exhibition Edited by David Herbert, M.A., Edinburgh, 1882 (pdf) which includes 2 essays from William Watt.


His prize-winning Newmarch Essay in 1884, reviewing Economic Aspects of Recent Legislation, explains and considers a range of Parliamentary Acts not only in terms of their economic implications and consequences but also the extent to which they struck a balance between State control and individual freedom and liberty.

The essays are set in a time of huge technological, economic and social change. The two main political parties and views were the Tories and Whigs (conservatives and liberals), with socialism (labour parties) still in the future.

As a businessman himself, William Watt took the side of economic development and the need for investment capital at scale.


His lecture on
Fifty Years' Progress in Aberdeen, which was given to the Aberdeen Philosophical Society on 1st April 1900, was recorded in the Transactions of the Society and reprinted separately in 1910.

His son, Lord Provost Edward Watt, gave a similar lecture on Aberdeen in the Twentieth Century to the Society on 20th October 1938.

Aberdeen in the Twentieth Century
By Lord Provost EDWARD W. WATT, M.A.

Both talks were printed together in a limited edition of 50 by the Aberdeen University Press in 1941.


His County
History of Aberdeen and Banff, published in 1900, is an encyclopaedic account of the history of North East Scotland based on documentary sources.

When he died in 1906, he had an extensive library of books on local matters and had a lot of writing still to do, including an unfinished autobiography. His library was sold at auction in 1911, following the sale of the family home at 17 Queens Road.

Lord Provost Edward Watt


Edward William Watt was born in 1877, the eldest son of William Watt and Marjorie Robertson. He attended the Aberdeen Grammar School from 1883-94 and graduated MA from Aberdeen University in 1898. After spending six months in Brunswick, Germany, he joined the staff of the Aberdeen Free Press and from 1902-04 was a member of the Parliamentary Press Gallery, before returning to become chief sub-editor of the Free Press. In 1906, on the death of his father, he became editor of the Evening Gazette.

He enlisted during the First World War and rose to the rank of Lt Colonel in the Gordon Highlanders, serving in France. On his return from service, he became joint manager of the Aberdeen Free Press and Evening Gazette. In 1922, Aberdeen’s two morning and two evening newspapers were amalgamated and from then until he retired, in 1925, he was joint manager of Aberdeen Newspapers Ltd. In 1920 he was one of the delegates from Scotland to the Second Imperial Press Conference at Ottawa – on the way back he took part in the first successful experiment of telephoning from mid-Atlantic to Britain – and in 1924 he was a member of a press delegation invited by Canadian National Railways to study agricultural conditions in Canada.

He entered local government in 1927 as a member of Aberdeen Town Council, becoming a magistrate in 1930, first baillie in 1932, and treasurer in 1934. In the following year he was appointed to succeed Sir Henry Alexander as Lord Provost, an office which he held until 1938. Both men had worked together as journalists and both of their fathers had been joint editors of the Aberdeen Free Press.

A highlight of his three years as Lord Provost was the collection of the last £100,000 to complete the building and equipment of the new Royal Infirmary at Foresterhill. One of his predecessors, Sir Andrew Lewis, had been responsible for raising over £400,000, and the final £100,000 was collected within a year of the launching of Provost Watt’s appeal. He presided at the opening of the Infirmary by King George VI (then Duke of York) in 1936.

As an assessor of the Town Council and as Lord Provost he was a member of the Aberdeen University Court from 1928 to 1938, and in 1939 he received the honorary degree of LL.D. In the same year he was presented with his portrait. He was also a President of the Aberdeen Grammar School Former Pupils Club, the first of four members of his extended family to do so.

He died in Inverness in 1955

Aberdeen in the Twentieth Century
By Lord Provost EDWARD W. WATT, M.A.

Royal Tales

Wedding of the Lord Provost's Daughter

Watt Family connections with the Cairngorm Club
The involvement of four generations, including William Watt, in the Cairngorm Club, one of the oldest climbing clubs in Scotland.
By Graham Watt, 15th October 2023 (pdf)

Lord Byron, George Watt and the Aberdeen Grammer School
A re-discovered link between William Watt’s grandson George Watt and Lord Byron, which led to a recent commemorative ceremony at the Aberdeen Grammar School.
By Graham Watt, MD FRCGP FMedSci FRSE CBE (pdf)

The Robertson Watt Connection
By Graham Watt (October 2023) (pdf)

The Murray Watt Connection
By Graham Watt (December 2023) (pdf)

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