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Significant Scots
William Rae Wilson


WILSON, WILLIAM RAE, LL.D.—This popular traveller, whose agreeable narratives of foreign countries obtained such general acceptance, was born in Paisley on the 7th of June, 1772. He was the eldest of a numerous family of the name of Rae, whose grandfather held the office of Provost in the town of Haddington. His uncle, John Wilson, who was town-clerk of Glasgow, bred the future traveller to the profession of the law, and thus William Rae practised as a solicitor for some years before the supreme courts; but in 1806, Mr. Wilson having died without issue, left to his nephew the whole of his fortune, who, in consequence, assumed the name of Wilson in addition to his own. In 1811, Mr. W. Rae Wilson married Frances, fourth daughter of the late John Phillips, Esq., of Stobcross, originally a merchant in Glasgow; but only eighteen months after this happy union his partner died childless, and he felt himself alone in the world. As a solace for his loss, as well as an affectionate memorial, he wrote and printed for private circulation a very interesting record of the deceased, which was afterwards published in one of Gisborne’s volumes of "Christian Female Biography."

It was not, however, from the mere passive exercise of writing a book that the enthusiastic temperament of Rae Wilson was to derive consolation. The same event that had made him an author, was now to convert him into a traveller; and his choice happily fell upon the Holy Land, at this time more than others a subject of paramount literary and scientific inquiry in the Christian world, although the present condition of the country itself was but little understood. On this account he has the distinguished merit of ‘being one of the earliest modern travellers who have done so much for the illustration of the Sacred Writings by their explorations in Palestine. The result of his journey was published in London in 1823, under the title of "Travels in Egypt and the Holy Land," a work, of which the following short critique, from the many equally or still more eulogistic, that have been published, gives a fair estimate:--"We shall never forget the pleasure with which we perused Dr. Wilson’s ‘Travels in Palestine’ when first published. The style, though somewhat rugged and careless, is vigorous and energetic; the scriptural quotations are remarkably apposite and instructive; and what is of far greater importance than mere elegance of language, the sentiments are warm and fresh from a heart that was evidently deeply impressed with the sacred and memorable scenes of the blighted land of promise—the land of miracle and revelation, but over which, with its many natural beauties, a withering curse has been shed, in which the intelligent traveller reads the fulfilment of prophecy, and thus exclaims, in the beautiful language of the poet—

‘Lord, thou didst love Jerusalem,
Once she was all thine own;
Thy love her fairest heritage—
Her power thy glorious throne—
‘Till evil came and blighted
Thy long-lov’d olive tree,
And Salem’s shrines were lighted
For other gods than thee.’"

His tour in the East, and the public approbation with which it was rewarded, as well as a natural love of change and adventure, seem to have so confirmed Mr. Wilson’s tendencies as a traveller, that the greater part of his life was afterwards spent in journeys through the more interesting countries of Europe, and in drawing up accounts of their results, which were published under the following titles:—

"A Journey through Turkey, Greece, the Ionian Isles, Sicily, Spain, &c." London. 8vo. 1824.

"Travels in Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Hanover, Germany, Netherlands, &c" London. 8vo. 1826.

"Travels in Russia." London. 2 vols. 8vo. 1828.

"Records of a Route through France and Italy; with Sketches of Catholicism." London. 8vo. 1835.

During this active life, Mr. Wilson was a second time married, to Miss Cates, an English lady of good family, who was his devoted companion through all his after career, and in all his sojournings in many lands. Impressed with a sense of his merits as a traveller and author, the university of Glasgow, a few years before his death, honoured him with the diploma of Doctor of Laws, a distinction of which he marked his due sense, by the bequest of a sum to the university for an annual prize among its students of divinity, for competition on an essay on the following subject:—"The life of our adorable Redeemer, Jesus Christ; his righteousness, atoning death, and that everlasting benefit arising from these blessings to a lost and sinful world." In addition to his literary title, Dr. Wilson was also a Fellow of the Antiquarian Society. His death occurred in South Crescent, Bedford Square, London. By his own expressed wish, his remains were brought to Glasgow, and, after a temporary interment in one of the Egyptian vaults of the Necropolis, were removed to a tomb that had been erected for the purpose, under the superintendence of his trustees. It was an appropriate resting-place, the model having been taken from the sepulchral monuments that formerly contained the ashes and recorded the deeds of the famous of old in Jerusalem, and whose ruins still greet the eye of the traveller in his approach to the Holy City; and the stranger who visits this most picturesque of human resting-places in our fair city of the west, and wonders at the Asiatic appearance of the stately mausoleum which seems to have been wafted thither from a strange land, is satisfied with the fitness of its form, when he reads on it the following inscription:--

In Memory of
William Rae Wilson, LL.D.,
Late of Kelvinbank,
Who died 2d June, 1849, aged 76;
Author of
‘Travels in the Holy Land,’
And editor of
Works written in that and other countries
During many years.
‘Thy servants take pleasure in her stones,
And favour the dust thereof.’
This Tablet is inscribed by his affectionate Wife."

Such is but a scanty record of one whose life, long though it was, is rather to be found extended over several volumes of travels, than in any condensed narrative. But such is the usual biography of a modern traveller: he can no longer find a terra incognita of which he may fable as he pleases, or take a tremendous leap "at Rhodes," which he is unable to achieve at his own threshold. Many there are, however, who still remember with affection the enthusiastic yet truthful delineations of other countries with which he was wont to animate their imaginations and enlighten their judgment, and how earnestly his society was sought, especially by the young, who regarded him as their companion, friend, and father, all in one. "In private life," thus one of his relations writes to us, "Dr. Rae Wilson was eminently social. Gifted with a most active mind, and having had his talent for conversation sharpened by much exercise in the course of his travels, he was a most interesting and instructive companion. It was no ordinary treat to listen to his animated descriptions of the remarkable places and persons he had visited; and to the close of his long life he continued to take the greatest pleasure in retracing his steps, particularly over the Holy Land, happy in the idea of communicating some portion of his own knowledge and zeal to his friends. He was ever ready in the best sense to do good, as he had opportunity; and he was not only a distributor of religious tracts, but the writer of some that are highly esteemed." It is enough to add, that not only his conversation, but his whole course of action, evinced his recollections of Galilee and Jerusalem, and the sacred lessons of which they are so impressive a memorial.


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