Record

CodeNA7249
Dates1868-1938
Person NameMathieson; William Law (1868-1938); historian
SurnameMathieson
ForenamesWilliam Law
Epithethistorian
ActivityBorn at Wardie, Leith, 25 February 1868, the third surviving son of George Mathieson, shipowner, by his wife, Isabella Melrose. He was educated at Edinburgh Academy and University; at the latter he distinguished himself in the history classes and won the lord rector's prize in 1893. Possessed of modest means which he supplemented by tutoring, he settled down to a scholar's uneventful life in Edinburgh. In his early years he contributed to W. E. Henley's National Observer and reviewed for the Athenaeum. By his first historical work, Politics and Religion, A Study in Scottish History from the Reformation to the Revolution (2 vols., 1902), he stepped into the front rank of contemporary historians. Scotland and the Union 1695-1747 (1905), The Awakening of Scotland 1747-1797 (1910), and Church and Reform in Scotland 1797-1843 (1916) completed his interpretation of Scottish history. Primarily interested in movements, especially in the connexion between Church and State, Mathieson is the historian of the growth of the moderate tradition in Scotland. Based on a thorough study of the printed sources, his interpretation is distinguished by ‘a philosophic charm and impartiality which humanized controversies and periods which are still too often the prey of partisan bitterness’. His generalities are vivified by apt illustration, brilliant historical portraiture, and a certain ‘demurely trenchant wit’. The same qualities characterize all his work, although his later style tended to be too concentrated. He next turned to cognate aspects of English history in England in Transition, 1789-1832 (1920) and the more original English Church Reform, 1815-1840 (1923), a sketch of a hitherto neglected subject. Finally, his studies of the slave trade, a virtually unworked field, won him a place among the historians of the British Empire. He published four volumes between 1926 and 1936, the first being British Slavery and its Abolition, 1823-1838, and the last The Sugar Colonies and Governor Eyre, 1849-1866. He also wrote the chapter on ‘The Emancipation of the Slaves, 1807-1838’ for the Cambridge History of the British Empire, vol. ii (1940).
A scholar of genial personality, Mathieson died at Wardie 26 January 1938. In 1910 he married Christian Mary (died 1941), third daughter of James Shaw, J.P., sheriff of London and Middlesex in 1874-1875; there was no issue of the marriage. He received the honorary degree of LL.D. from Aberdeen University in 1912.
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