Nisbet died in 1725, but his legacy endured. In 1742 the Edinburgh printer Robert Fleming issued a second volume of the System, “[t]o which is subjoin’d several curious Particulars . . . and Memorials of many Antient and Honourable Families of the Scots Nation”. While “Alexander Nisbet, Gent.” still featured prominently on the title page, Fleming admitted in his introduction that as for “the Memorials of private Families . . . neither Mr. Nisbet nor the Publisher are any ways answerable for [them]; they must stand upon the Faith of those who gave them in”. According to Fleming, the genealogies which make up a substantial proportion of the second volume were contributed by the families concerned.
This is more than a purely academic point. For centuries scholars have turned to the genealogies in Nisbet’s System as early and influential examples of genealogical writing in Scotland. Nisbet was trained in the philologically-rooted Scottish legal system and brought both that intellectual heritage and the new science of diplomatic as practised by continental scholars such as Jean Mabillon and Bernard de Montfaucon to the study of genealogy. He meticulously cited his sources (“my proper Vouchers on that Subject”) and engaged in unprecedented archival study at a time when cartularies, family papers, and the archives of the Lyon Office were widely spread and difficult to access. Perhaps most importantly, he firmly rejected the use of tradition in compiling genealogies:
Historians and Heralds must write according to Information and Vouchers: When these are silent, or hid from us, we must also be silent. Nor is the Injury done to Families, thro’ Silence or Ignorance, imputable to us, but to the Owners or Concealers of such Documents, who neglect to furnish us with suitable Materials, whereby themselves and Predecessors might be perpetuate to Posterity. 
But this is merely theory. Traditionally, the genealogical appendix to the System has been seen as proof that Nisbet practiced what he preached, but if Fleming was right and the genealogies were simply submitted by family members then surely this rudely snatches the jewel from Nisbet’s crown?
A tentative resolution to the puzzle was provided by Robert Gladstone in 1919. Gladstone, following Nisbet’s Victorian editor Andrew Ross, was convinced that the genealogies had, at the very least, “been tampered with by some other person acting as editor”. His suspicions were confirmed when he discovered a manuscript, written by the eighteenth-century antiquary George Crawfurd, which was clearly composed for Nisbet’s System, but which in its published form had “been edited . . . almost beyond recognition, and, to tell the truth, immensely improved”. Gladstone had found incontrovertible evidence that the genealogies had been substantially reshaped before publication, but by whom?
The key ultimately lay in the very shape of the genealogies. Carefully examining them in the order they were printed – he knew that the second volume of the System had been gradually produced over almost two decades – Gladstone identified a break in sequence. The genealogies up to page 60 regularly referred to the first volume of the System in terms of ownership: “in my former volume of this System”, “in my first volume in the System of Heraldry”, etc. From page 61 to the end (page 308) no such language was evident. Based on a variety of indirect evidence ranging from the descent of manuscripts to references to friends within the text Gladstone concluded that the remaining 247 pages – that is to say, the vast majority of the famous genealogies – were written or edited not by Nisbet, but by the genealogist and antiquary Walter Macfarlan of that Ilk (d. 1767).
Whilst a further and closer examination of the text, combined with a careful bibliographical study of the 1742 edition as a whole, is needed before we can confidently proclaim Macfarlan to be the only begetter of these genealogies, the evidence certainly leans in that direction. The text that has so long been associated with the name of Alexander Nisbet is, in fact, the forgotten masterpiece of Walter Macfarlan. Macfarlan has otherwise been known largely for his compilations of genealogical and antiquarian materials, including transcriptions of numerous cartularies, and while some of these have been published, his reputation has historically been for picking other people’s flowers, not growing his own. Gladstone’s neglected 1919 article, however, makes such a view untenable; Nisbet was a pioneering herald, but it is Macfarlan who deserves the credit as one of the founders of modern genealogical scholarship in Scotland.
Open access digital copies of the 1816 edition of A System of Heraldry are available here and here.
 Alexander Nisbet, A System of Heraldry Speculative and Practical, 2 vols. (Edinburgh, 1722-1742), i. i.
 Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, s.n.
 Nisbet, ii. ii.
 Nisbet, ii. appx. 22.
 Robert Gladstone, “The Authorship of the Second Volume of ‘Nisbet’s Heraldry’”, Transactions of the Dumfriesshire and Galloway Natural History and Antiquarian Society, 3rd series. 6 (1918-1919): 192-197.
 Gladstone, 194.
 See Walter Macfarlane, Genealogical Collections Concerning Families in Scotland, 2 vols., ed. James Toshach Clark (Edinburgh, 1900) and Geographical Collections Relating to Scotland, 3 vols., ed. Sir Arthur Mitchell and James Toshach Clark (Edinburgh, 1906-1908).
Copyright © 2013 Kelsey Jackson Williams