Papers of Robert Lambert Playfair and other members of the Playfair family

Scope and Content

The papers relating to the Playfair family, a prominent family in St Andrews and beyond, particularly during the 19th century, cover several members of the family, and comprise photograph albums, diaries and journals, as well as correspondence and lectures, etc. The Robert Lambert Playfair material includes much of relevance to his activities in Aden and Egypt. There are many other references to members of the Playfair family within the collections.

The collection contains:

  • 1-8 Correspondence of Sir Robert Lambert Playfair, 8 volumes each with alphabetical index, probably originally conceived as autograph albums, containing excised signatures, letters, newspaper cuttings, occasional photographs and annotations relating to each correspondent who include notable public figures, 1806-1896;
  • 9 Volume of personal correspondence of Sir Robert Lambert Playfair, 1850-59, including relating to Egypt; Madras government museum; appointments; missions to Zailah, Persia and Maklia, Ourbak, and Tajourra; mission to negotiate Berber treaty; originals and copies of official correspondence;
  • 10 Reports by Colonel Robert Lambert Playfair, Aden, 1853-1863;
  • 11-12 Off-prints of papers and articles by Sir Robert Lambert Playfair with occasional letters;
  • 13 Manuscripts of lectures given by Sir Robert Lambert Playfair during cruises on SY Midnight Sun, 1897-98 on subjects including Algeria, Malta, Sicily, Perion, era of piracy, Christian slavery;
  • 14 Family letters, 1812-1896;
  • 15 Journal of father of Robert Lambert Playfair, 1836-1839;
  • 16 Correspondence to Robert Lambert Playfair from mother and sister, 1846-1861;
  • 17-23 Diaries of father of Robert Lambert Playfair, 1821-1845;
  • 24 Newspaper cuttings album;
  • 25/1-46 Diaries of Jane Playfair (1777-1852), 1807-1852;
  • 26/1-2 Photograph albums, 1850s, 1855-1860 including family , Aden, St Leonards, St Andrews views, 1857-9.
  • ms38502 Photographs of Zanzibar fishes

Administrative / Biographical History

The Playfair family originated in the Carse of Gowrie, Perthshire, around Errol, St Madoes and Kinfauns. They seem to have been tenant farmers or tradesmen until the eighteenth century when they diversified into the church and other professions as well as acquiring land in Bendochy, Coupar Angus, Perthshire.

The bulk of these papers originate from Sir Robert Lambert Playfair (1828-1899). He was in the Indian Political Service before becoming Consul-General of Algeria. Born in St Andrews, third son of Surgeon -General George Playfair, he was educated at St Andrews and Addiscombe Military College before joining the Madras Artillery in 1846. He travelled extensively from Aden to Egypt before his appointment by Sir James Outram as Assistant Political Agent in Aden in 1854. He moved to Zanzibar as Political Agent in 1862 where he remained until his retirement from the army as Lieutenant-Colonel and his appointment as Consul-General of Algeria in 1867. He served in Algeria from 1867-1897 (Tunis was added in 1885) and was made KCMG in 1886.

He retired to St Andrews and received an LLD from St Andrews University in 1899. He was a Fellow of the Royal Geographical and Zoological Section of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. His works include: History of Arabia Felix, Travels in the Footsteps of Bruce in Algeria and Tunis, The Scourge of Christendom, Bibliography of the Barbary States, Algeria, Cyrenaica and Morocco, The Fishes of Zanzibar (with Gunther).

Other notable members of the family include:Other notable members of the family include:Surgeon-General George Playfair MD, MRCS (1782-1846) was medical officer in India and became Chief Inspector of Hospitals in Bengal in 1842, eldest son of Principal James Playfair and father of Robert Lambert Playfair;

James Playfair DD (1738-1819), educated at St Andrews University, and minister of Newtyle (1770-1777) and Meigle (1777-1800) before his appointment as Principal of the United College at St Andrews (1800-1819). He wrote A System of Chronology (1782), A System of Geography Ancient and Modern (1810-14), General Atlas Ancient and Modern (1814), A Geographical and Statistical Description of Scotland (1819);

James Playfair (1712-1772), graduated from St Salvator's College, St Andrews in 1731. He was Chaplain to the Laird of Busta, Shetland from 1739-41 and was minister of Liff and Benvie from 1743-72 where he was succeeded by his son Professor John Playfair;

Professor John Playfair (1748-1819), graduated from St Andrews in 1765, then studied at St Mary's College, St Andrews, going to Edinburgh until he was ordained as minister of Liff and Benvie on the death of his father in 1773. He resigned in 1782 and took up a post as tutor to the two sons of Ferguson of Raith (1783-87), being appointed Joint Professor of Mathematics at Edinburgh University in 1785. He exchanged his chair for that of Natural Philosophy in 1805 which he held until his death in 1819. He was one of the original Fellows of the Royal Society of Edinbugh in 1783, was elected Fellow of the Royal Society of London in 1807. He was highly regarded as a teacher, writer and friend. His works include Illustrations of the Huttonian Theory of the Earth (Edinburgh, 1802), Biography of Hutton (1803), and Outlines of Natural Philosophy, (2 vols., Edinburgh, 1812, 1816);

William Henry Playfair (1789-1857), Edinburgh architect, lived with his uncle Professor John Playfair, studied under Glasgow architect William Starke and London architect Sir Robert Smirke. His public career began in 1815 when he was invited to lay out part of the Edinburgh New Town. He was responsible for the Royal Scottish Institution and the National Gallery. He designed the Tudor style Donaldson's Hospital and the Playfair Library at Edinburgh Universtity. He undertook private commissions including Floors Castle, Kelso and Bonaly tower, Colinton. He was a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh and a founder member of the Royal Scottish Academy.

Lyon, Lord Playfair of St Andrews, PC, GCB, LLD, FRS (1819-1898) was a grandson of Principal James Playfair. His remarkable career combined devotion to science with rare dedication to public welfare. He was educated at St Andrews University and made his name as a chemist, studying under Professor Graham at the Andersonian in Glasgow and later at University College London, then in Giessen under Liebig. In 1843 he was appointed to the Royal Commission enquiring into the state of health in towns with special responsibility for Lancashire. He then became Chemist to the Geological Survey although he was regularly called on to serve, for example, on the Commission of Inquiry concerning the Irish potato famine in 1845 and as special commissioner for organisation of the Great Exhibition in 1851.He was made FRS in 1848, was Gentleman Usher to Prince Albert, CB and a member of the Athenaeum Club. In 1858 he became Professor of Chemistry at Edinburgh University. He was MP for the Scottish University seat of St Andrews and Edinburgh from 1868-1885, thereafter for South Leeds until created Baron Playfair of St Andrews in 1892. He served as Postmaster-General in 1873 and was active in both Houses of Parliament. He acted as a conciliator in the dispute between Britain and the United States over the Guyana-Venezuela border in 1895-6.

Access Information

By appointment with the Archivist. Access to unpublished records less than 30 years old and other records containing confidential information may be restricted.

Acquisition Information

ms38502 transferred from Rare Books collection, June 2001.


Description compiled by Rachel Hart, Archives Hub Project Archivist with reference to HGL Playfair, The Playfair Family (Blackford, Somerset, 1984).

Other Finding Aids

Brief handlist is available.

Conditions Governing Use

Applications for permission to quote should be sent to the University Archivist. Reproduction subject to usual conditions: educational use and condition of documents.

Custodial History

Deposited in the library of the University of St Andrews at various times between 1970 and 1999.



Related Material

See the Hard Copy General Index. for many other Playfair references.


HGL Playfair, The Playfair Family, (Blackford, Somerset, 1984)AG Playfair, Notes on the Scottish Family of Playfair, (Tunbridge Wells, 1913)Charles Rogers, Four Perthshire Families: Roger, Playfair, Constable, and Haldane of Barmony, (Edinburgh, 1887)Hugh Lyon Playfair, Memoirs of Sir Hugh Lyon Playfair, Lieutenant-Colonel Bengal Artillery, Provost of St Andrews, and Honorary Custodier of crown property in the city, (St Andrews, 1861).

Additional Information

This material is original.