Robert William Seton-Watson: The Travelling Scot

Like thousands of others you may not have heard  of Professor Robert William Seton-Watson but his contribution to the study of Scottish history and his links with our European neighbours, in particular Slovakia, was celebrated earlier this week to mark his birth 140 years ago, with a ceremony in Abernethy, Perthshire.

Robert William Seton Watson

Robert William Seton-Watson is widely recognised as a champion of the rights of small European nations. In 1904 he attacked in the Press brutal Russian policy in Finland which it had annexed over a century earlier.

Before the First World War many small nations of Europe which we see today as successful independent states were controlled by large Empires ruled over by inter bred Royal Families.

You might only learn about the Austro-Hungarian Empire when you read about the start of the First World War and the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand by a Serbian, Gavrilo Princip. What you may  not learn about is why the Serbians or indeed the many other nations under the control of the Hapsburg Empire desired self determination for their countries. Social justice and self determination movements  were brutally repressed in order to preserve the Empire.

Born in London in 1879 to well off Scottish parents  Robert William Seton-Wilson was educated at Winchester College and New College Oxford. As a young man he travelled throughout Europe and was fluent in French, German and Italian.

Robert William Seton- Watson changed and adapted his views on the political make up of Europe over the years but not long after 1914 he started to write about a ‘New Europe’ based on small self governing states. During World War 1 he was secretary of the Serbian Relief Fund and was politically active promoting the rights of Czechs and Slavs in his publication, The New Europe. His political activism was disapproved of by the UK Government and he was put to work in 1917 in the Royal Army Medical Corps scrubbing hospital floors although he was then seconded to work in the propaganda department.

Despite his great knowledge of Europe and particularly of Eastern Europe he attended the Paris Peace Conference, not as part of the official UK delegation but as a private individual.

A personal friend of Seton-Watson’s for many years, Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk became the first President of the newly formed Czechoslovakia.  Seton- Watson was one of the founders of the School of Slavonic Studies (today a faculty in University College London).

His other posts included:

  • President, Royal Historical Society
  • Masaryk Professor of Central European History, University of London (School of Slavonic Studies, King’s College)
  • Professor of Czechosovak Studies, University of Oxford

He died in 1951 on Skye an island he had retired to. He is buried in Abernethy, Perthshire.

The event in Abernethy on Tuesday 20th of August was attended by the the Slovakian Ambassador to the United Kingdom, Ľubomír Rehák. Many Scots may not have heard of Robert William Seton- Watson but Slovakians have.

Robert William Seton-Watson

Vojtech Ihriský (Skulptor) Peter Zelizňák (photo)

Commenting on Twitter Ambassador Ľubomír Rehák said:

On my way to #Scotland. Visiting Abernethy/Perthshire, where Professor Robert William Seton-Watson is buried. He was born #OTD 140 years ago at London to Scottish parents. His bust at Ružomberok City Hall was unveiled in 1937 as thanks for testimony on Černová tragedy 1907.

Graeme Dey, Veterans Minister represented the Scottish Government. He said:

“It is an honour to celebrate the life of Professor Seton-Watson, and recognise his contribution to the history of Slovakia.

“I take great pride that ‘Scotus Viator’, or ‘the Travelling Scot’, as he was known, had an instrumental role to play in the Slovakia of the present day.”

It is estimated that there are 2,500 Slovakians in Scotland and in 2016 the Slovakian Consulate was established in Glasgow.

Also taking part in the ceremony was Provost Dennis Melloy of Perth and Kinross, Chairman of Abernethy Community Council  James Swan, the Romanian Consul-General in Edinburgh Anton Barbu, Rev.Stan Kennon of Abernethy and  several Slovaks.

Reporter: Fiona Grahame

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