Correspondence and Lectures of Professor John Playfair (1748-1819)

  • This material is held at
  • Reference
      GB 237 Coll-458
  • Dates of Creation
  • Name of Creator
  • Language of Material
  • Physical Description
      5 letters, 6 manuscript volumes, 1 part. Manuscript volume
  • Location
      Dc.2.57, f.239; Dc.3.21/1; Dc.4.101-103 Playfair; Gen. 844-846; Gen. 1386-1388; Gen. 1426/74; Gen. 1733/75; E94.98

Scope and Content

The collection consists of: a letter from Playfair to the Rev. Dr. Blair about anecdotes he has written, 1783; letter to Sir John Leslie; letter to Mr. Prevost, letter to Thomas Allan; letter, 1802; lectures on natural philosophy, 1806-1807; lectures on natural philosophy, 1808-1809; and, student's notes on natural philosophy, 1811.

Administrative / Biographical History

John Playfair was born at Benvie, Dundee, on 10 March 1748, the son of a Minister. He was educated at home and then studied at St. Andrews University. At the age of eighteen, in 1766, he competed for the Chair of Mathematics at Aberdeen's Marischal College. He failed to secure it and went on to study theology at St. Mary's College and was licensed as a Minister in 1770, by which time he was in Edinburgh. In 1772 he was again unsuccessful in an attempt to win a Chair, this time the Chair of Natural Philosophy at St. Andrews. That year too, his father died and the responsibility for the family upon him. He became the Minister at Liff and Benvie, his father's church. He stayed at Liff and Benvie until 1783 when he became tutor to the Fergusons of Raith. In 1785, Playfair was appointed joint-Professor of Mathematics at Edinburgh University, with Dr. Adam Ferguson. In 1805 he exchanged this for the post of Professor of Natural Philosophy at Edinburgh. When peace at last came to Europe in 1815, after the Congress of Vienna, he travelled to France, Switzerland, and Italy, studying the geology and mineralogy of these countries. His publications include Elements of geometry (1795), Illustrations of the Huttonian theory of the Earth (1802), and Outlines of natural philosophy (1812). Professor John Playfair was the brother of William Playfair (1759-1823) the publicist. Playfair died in Edinburgh on 20 July 1819.

Access Information

Generally open for consultation to bona fide researchers, but please contact repository for details in advance.

Acquisition Information

Lectures taken down by J. Borthwick, Accession no. E66.18. Lectures, Accession no. E68.33. Letter to Allan, Accession no. E84.62. Letter, 1802, item purchased December 1994.


Item at E94.98 not examined (October 2002). The biographical/administrative history was compiled using the following material: (1) Lee, Sidney (ed.). Dictionary of national biography. Vol.15. Owens-Pockrich. London: Smith, Elder and Co., 1909.

Compiled by Graeme D Eddie, Edinburgh University Library, Special Collections Division.

Other Finding Aids

Important finding aids generally are: the alphabetical Index to Manuscripts held at Edinburgh University Library, Special Collections and Archives, consisting of typed slips in sheaf binders and to which additions were made until 1987; and the Index to Accessions Since 1987.


Check the local Indexes for details of any additions.

Related Material

The local Indexes show various references to Playfair related material in the Laing Collection (check the Indexes for more details): letter to Colerain, 1810, at La.II.245; letter to the Rt. Hon. Sir William Drummond, 1813, at La.II.591. Also: a letter to Professor R. Jameson, 1804, at Gen. 1999/1/133; letters to Constable, Bookseller, 1811, at Gen. 1999/1/24-26; letter to Playfair from Prof. T. Brown, at Gen. 1730-1733 Playfair; a class certificate awarded to J. Gregory, 1813, at Dc.3.99/13, f.4; mention in a letter of Scott to Jameson, at Gen. 1999/1/31; mention in letter-book of Lord Lynedoch, 1830, at Gen. 721D, f.81; mention in a letter from McKinnon to Black, 1785, at Gen. 874/IV/23; obituary of Playfair, 1819, at Gen. 1426/75/b; papers of Playfair mentioned in a letter of Miss Playfair to Constable, at Gen. 1426/75; and, a notice of Playfair, 1816, at Dc.5.113, f.35.

In addition, the UK National Register of Archives (NRA), updated by the Historical Manuscripts Commission, notes: letters to Mary Berry, 1795-1818, British Library, Manuscript Collections, Ref. Add MS 37726; letters to Daniel Ellis, Gloucestershire Record Office, Ref. D1501,2227 NRA 11418 Viner-Ellis; and, letters to William Robertson, 1772-1795, National Library of Scotland, Manuscripts Division, Ref. MSS 3942-44.

Corporate Names