Trail, William

(1746-1831), mathematician and Church of Ireland clergyman

by Paul Wood

© Oxford University Press 2004 All rights reserved

Trail, William (1746-1831), mathematician and Church of Ireland clergyman, was born on 23 June 1746 at Logie in the presbytery of Brechin, the second son of the Revd William Trail (1712-1756) and his wife, Mary Trail (1731-1756), the daughter of the Revd Robert Trail, minister of Panbride. Nothing is known of his early life or education, apart from the fact that just prior to turning ten years of age he was orphaned, when both of his parents died on 3 April 1756 of a malignant fever. His father was educated at Marischal College, Aberdeen, and the younger Trail likewise entered Marischal in 1759. In 1763 Trail transferred to the University of Glasgow, where he graduated with his MA degree in the spring of 1766. While studying at Glasgow, Trail was befriended by the distinguished professor of mathematics, Robert Simson (1687-1768), and by the professor of moral philosophy, Thomas Reid (1710-1796), who both had a high opinion of his mathematical talents.

Following the death of Professor John Stewart, the magistrates and town council of Aberdeen invited applications for the vacant chair of mathematics at Marischal College, in an advertisement in the Aberdeen Journal for 31 March 1766. In order to avoid any wrangles over the appointment, the magistrates and town council decided to make their choice on the basis of 'a comparative Trial and impartial Examination', which they scheduled for the following August. Trail was one of six candidates whose competence in the various branches of mathematics was assessed from 13 until 28 August by a group of examiners that included Thomas Reid, who was a graduate of Marischal and an accomplished mathematician. Although Trail faced stiff competition from Robert Hamilton and John Playfair (who later went on to teach mathematics at Marischal College and the University of Edinburgh respectively), on 28 August he was judged to be the best qualified for the position. His election was confirmed by the faculty at Marischal on 29 October 1766, and he delivered his inaugural oration as professor in January 1767. In Aberdeen, Trail was an active member of the Aberdeen Philosophical Society, to which he was elected in November 1766. Over the course of the next seven years he read a series of discourses on the mathematical sciences, and proposed discussion questions on morals, astronomy, mathematics, and the physical sciences. In addition he served as president of the society in 1772. During this period Trail also published the Elements of Algebra, which was a textbook specifically designed for university students.

Even though his career was flourishing and he was earning approximately £120 per year in salary and class fees, Trail left Marischal College in 1774 to take up a position in the Church of Ireland. It may be that he was uncertain about the wisdom of the move, since he did not officially resign from his chair until the spring of 1779, but whatever doubts he may have harboured he remained in Ireland for roughly the next twenty years. Through the influence of his uncle, the bishop of Down and Connor, James Trail (1725-1783), Trail settled in the diocese of Connor as the prebendary of Cairncastle, where he officiated until 1781, when he became the chancellor of Connor and rector of Lisburn. In 1796 illness forced him to resign as rector, though he retained his post as chancellor. Shortly thereafter, on 29 April 1799, in Edinburgh, he married Lady Frances Charteris (1754-1848), the second daughter of Francis, styled seventh earl of Wemyss; no children resulted from this marriage.

While he was in Ireland, Trail became a fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh and a member of the Royal Irish Academy, and thus continued to be involved in the republic of letters. Earlier he had been given an honorary LLD degree by Marischal College, in April 1774. He issued new editions of his algebra textbook in 1779, 1789, and 1796, and at some point he was invited by the second Earl Stanhope to write a brief life of Robert Simson for inclusion in the Biographia Britannica. Frustrated by protracted delays in the appearance of his entry, in 1812 Trail published his Account of the Life and Writings of Robert Simson, which to this day remains the most detailed biography of Simson.

William Trail died in Bath on 3 February 1831 of unknown causes. He was greatly missed by his wife, who subsequently died in Bath on 1 April 1848.


J. B. Leslie, ed., Clergy of Connor: from Patrician times to the present day (1993)
W. I. Addison, ed., The matriculation albums of the University of Glasgow from 1728 to 1858 (1913)
P. J. Anderson and J. F. K. Johnstone, eds., Fasti academiae Mariscallanae Aberdonensis: selections from the records of the Marischal College and University, MDXCIII-MDCCCLX, 3 vols., New Spalding Club, 4, 18-19 (1889-98)
'Marischal College register of presentations, 1678-1857', U. Aberdeen, MS M93
H. L. Ulman, ed., The minutes of the Aberdeen Philosophical Society, 1758-1773 (1990)
Fasti Scot., new edn, vols. 1-9
B. Ponting, 'Mathematics at Aberdeen: developments, characters, traits, 1717-1860', Aberdeen University Review, 48 (1979-80), 162-76

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