Search just our sites by using our customised search engine

Unique Cottages | Electric Scotland's Classified Directory

Click here to get a Printer Friendly PageSmiley

The Scottish Nation

WILSON, FLORENCE, known among contemporary scholars by his Latin name of Florentius Volusenus, a learned writer of the sixteenth century, was born on the banks of the Lossie, near Elgin, about 1500. He was educated in his native place, and prosecuted his adademical studies in the university of King’s college, Aberdeen. Repairing afterwards to England, his talents recommended him to the notice of Cardinal Wolsey, who appointed him preceptor to his nephew, and he accompanied the latter to Paris, where he went for his education. On Wolsey’s death, in 1530, Wilson lost his pupil, but he soon after found another patron in the learned Cardinal de Bellai, archbishop of Paris. Intending to proceed to Rome with this prelate, he travelled with him as far as Avignon, where he was seized with an illness, which caused him to be left behind, and prevented his father journey.

Having neither money nor friends, he resolved to apply to the celebrated Cardinal Sadolet, bishop of Carpentras; and, arriving at his house at night, was readily admitted into his library, where the bishop was then engaged at his studies. Wilson’s skill in the learned languages strongly prepossessed the cardinal in his favour, and he procured for him the appointment of teacher of Greek and Latin in the public school of Carpentras. During the time that he held this situation, he composed his excellent dialogue, ‘De Animi Tranquillitate,’ first printed at Leyden, by Gryphius, in 1543. In this work, which displays throughout a vast compass of learning, and an intimate acquaintance with all the Greek and Latin classics, there are interspersed several little pieces of Latin poetry of his own composition, which in elegance are little inferior to the production of his contemporary Buchanan.

About 1546, after residing at Carpentras for ten years, Wilson felt a strong desire to revisit Scotland, and accordingly set out on his return home; but was taken ill on the road, and died at Vienne in Dauphiny about 1547. He maintained a high character for learning in the age in which he lived, and Buchanan paid a tribute to his genius and virtues in an epigram which he wrote upon his death. – His works are:

Commentatio Theologica in Aphorismos dissecta per Sebast. Gryphaaeum. Leyden. 1539, 8vo.
Philosophiae Aristotelicae Synopsis, Lib. iv. Of these works there are no copies extant, and it is doubtful whether the last was ever printed.
De Tranquillitate Animi. Leyden, 1543, 4to. Reprinted at Edinburgh, 1571, 8vo. Edin. 1707, 8vo. Corrected by Ruddiman, in 1751, 12mo, with a Preface by Dr. John Ward.
He is said to have written a book of Latin Poems, printed in London in 1619, 4to.
Two Letters by Wilson, the one in Latin, the other in English, the latter addressed to Thomas Cromwell, afterwards Lord Cromwell, earl of Essex, are inserted in the Bannatyne Miscellany.

WILSON, ALEXANDER, M.D., the father of Scottish letter-founders, was born at St. Andrews in 1714. He was educated for the medical profession; and, in 1737, repaired to London to seek for employment. Soon after his arrival, he was engaged as assistant to a surgeon and apothecary in respectable practice, who was a native of France. About a year afterwards he was introduced by Mr. David Gregory, professor of mathematics at St. Andrews, to Dr. Charles Stewart, physician to Archibald Lord Isla, afterwards duke of Argyle; and by that gentleman he was made known to his lordship, who received him with great kindness, and bestowed on him several marks of his attention and favour. Being of an ingenious mechanical turn, he constructed for his lordship and some of his friends thermometers of different kinds, with more perfection and elegance than was at that time common in London. Shortly after, a circumstance accidentally occurred which gave a new direction to his genius, and eventually led to an entire change of his profession. He had by chance one day visited a letter-foundry with a friend, who wanted to purchase some types; and his attention being particularly directed to the implements used by the workmen in prosecuting that art, the idea struck him of being able to introduce a certain important improvement into the process. He imparted his scheme to a friend named Bain, also from St. Andrews, who, like himself, possessed a considerable share of ingenuity, perseverance, and enterprise, and the two young adventurers resolved to relinquish all other pursuits, for the purpose of following the business of letter-founding, according to the improved plan proposed by Mr. Wilson. Having waited on Lord Isla, and communicated to him his views on the subject, his lordship expressed his entire approbation of the undertaking. Messrs. Wilson and Bain then entered into partnership, and, having taken convenient apartments, applied with great assiduity to the different preparatory steps of the project. “But although,” says Mr. Hansard, in his Typographia, “they found their task grow more and more arduous as their experience improved, it may yet be mentioned as a fact which bespeaks singular probity of mind, that they never once attempted to gain any insight whatever, through the means of workmen employed in any of the London foundries, some of whom they understood could have proved of considerable service to them.”

In consequence of the expense attending their residence in London, they returned about 1739 to St. Andrews, where they continued to prosecute their experiments, but were unsuccessful in carrying out their scheme of improvement. Having, however, acquired some knowledge of the art of letter-founding, they determined upon pursuing the ordinary mode of preparing the types, and by their own unassisted efforts and mechanical ability, they were at length enabled to cast a few founts of Roman and Italic characters. They subsequently hired some workmen, whom they instructed in the necessary operations, and at last opened their infant letter-foundry at St. Andrews in 1742. The printers of Scotland at that period were supplied by the London foundries, which put them to much inconvenience, and they were, therefore, glad to encourage the manufacturing of types so near their own home. Their liberal orders enabled Messrs. Wilson and Bain to add to the number of their founts, and being now engaged in a regular business, the increasing demand for their types, and the prospect of extending their sales to Ireland and North America, induced them, in 1744, to remove their letter-foundry to Camlachie, in the immediate neighbourhood of Glasgow. In the autumn of 1747, with the view of extending their connections in Ireland, Mr. Bain settled at Dublin, and, two years after, the partnership was totally dissolved.

During his residence at Camlachie, Dr. Wilson had become acquainted with most of the eminent and learned men of the city of Glasgow. When the professors of the college formed the design, with Messrs. Robert and Andrew Foulis, printers to the university, of printing splendid editions of the Greek classics, Dr. Wilson executed new types for these works after an improved model of his own, accomplishing his task at an expense of time and labour which could not be compensated by any profits arising from the sale of the types themselves. IN consequence of his disinterested conduct on this occasion, his name was mentioned in the preface to the folio Homer, in terms of highly deserved commendation. In 1760 he was appointed professor of practical astronomy in the university of Glasgow. He was one of the original members of the Royal Society of Edinburgh; and, in 1774 and 1783, he contributed two interesting papers on the Solar Spots, to the London Philosophical Transactions. He died October 16, 1786.

About two years after he had been appointed to his professorship, the foundry was removed to the more immediate vicinity of the college, and its further enlargement and improvement devolved on his two sons, under whose management it attained, before their father’s death, to the highest reputation. The types manufactured there were highly esteemed all over Europe for their elegance and durability. Those in the Greek character, especially, were held to be unrivalled. In 1832 a branch from the Glasgow establishment was commenced at Edinburgh. In 1834 the business of the Glasgow establishment was removed to London. A branch was afterwards established in Dublin.

WILSON, JOHN, author of ‘The Clyde,’ a poem, the son of a small farmer, in the parish of Lesmahago, Lanarkshire, was born there June 30, 1720. He received his education at the grammar-school of Lanark; but when only in his fourteenth year, his father died, and his mother’s poverty obliged her to withdraw him from school. He had made such rapid progress in learning, however, that even at this early age, he was able to begin instructing others, and from this period, till he arrived at manhood, he maintained himself chiefly by private teaching. In 1746 he was appointed parish schoolmaster of his native parish, and in this situation he continued for many years. His first production as an author was a ‘Dramatic Essay,’ which he afterwards expanded into the ‘Earl Douglas,’ a tragedy. This he published at Glasgow in 1764, with his poem of ‘The Clyde,’ the former dedicated to Archibald duke of Douglas, and the latter inscribed to the duchess. In the course of the same year he removed to Rutherglen, on the invitation of some gentlemen who wished him to teach their sons the classics. In 1767, on a vacancy occurring in the grammar-school of Greenock, he was offered the situation of master on the singular condition that he should abandon “the profane and unprofitable art of poem-making.” With this gothic proposition, having a wife and family to support, poor Wilson was obliged to comply, and accordingly burnt the greater part of his unfinished manuscripts. He died, June 2, 1789, in the sixty-ninth year of his age. A few poetic fragments, that had escaped the flames, were found among his papers. These seem chiefly to have been hurried effusions on temporary subjects, or juvenile paraphrases of passages of Scripture.
An improved edition of his ‘Clyde,’ which he had prepared for the press before being appointed master of the Greenock grammar-school, was published by the late Dr. Leyden, in the first volume of ‘Scottish Descriptive Poems,’ with a biographical sketch of the author prefixed.

Wilson had two sons, both of whom gave great promise of poetical talents. “James, the eldest,” says Dr. Leyden’s Memoir, “a young man of more than ordinary abilities, displayed a fine taste for both poetry and drawing, and, like his father, possessed an uncommon share of humour. He went to sea, and after distinguishing himself in several naval engagements, was killed, October 11, 1776, in an action on Lake Champlain, in which his conduct received such approbation from his commanding officer, that a small pension was granted by government to his father. George, who died at the age of twenty-one years, was distinguished for his taste and classical erudition, as well as his poetical talents.” Wilson had a brother, a blacksmith, who also possessed a poetical turn, and published some elegies.

It is somewhat remarkable, that the Greenock magistrates, in placing an embargo on the muse of Wilson, did so in contravention of one of the acts of the General Assembly; that venerable body having, in 1645, enacted that, “for the remedy of the great decay of poesy, no schoolmaster be permitted to teach a grammar-school in burghs, or other considerable parishes, but such as, after examination, shall be found skilful in the Latin tongue, not only for prose, but also for verse.” Of this law, however, the enlightened bailies and skippers of Greenock were, of course, ignorant, when they issued their sapient interdict against the cultivation of poetry.

WILSON, JAMES, an eminent American lawyer, and one of the subscribers of the Declaration of Independence, the son of a respectable farmer, was born in Scotland about 1742. After studying successively at Glasgow, St. Andrews, and Edinburgh, he emigrated, in 1776, to Philadelphia, and was, for a few months, employed as a tutor in the college and academy of that place, in which capacity he acquired a high reputation for his classical learning. On relinquishing that situation, he commenced the study of the law, and at the end of two years was admitted to the bar. He began to practice, first at Reading, and then at Carlisle, and from the latter place he removed to Annapolis. In 1778 he returned to Philadelphia, where he continued to reside during the remainder of his life. In 1775 he was elected a member of Congress, and uniformly spoke and acted in favour of independence. In 1777 he was superseded in Congress through the influence of party spirit, but resumed his seat in 1782. In 1779 he received the arduous and delicate appointment of advocate-general for the French government in the United States, an office which he resigned in 1781, in consequence of difficulties respecting the mode of remuneration. He continued, however, to give his advice in such cases as were laid before him by the ministers and consuls of France until 1783, when the French transmitted to him a present of ten thousand livres.

In 1787 he was a member of the Convention which framed the Constitution of the United States, and was one of the committee who reported the draught of the same. In the State Convention of Pennsylvania his exertions were of essential service in securing the adoption of the Constitution. He was subsequently a member of the Convention which changed the constitution of Pennsylvania, to render it conformable to that of the United States; and, being one of the committee appointed to prepare the draught, was intrusted with the duty of drawing it out in the proper form. In 1789 he was appointed, by General Washington, a judge of the supreme court of the United States, and, whilst on a circuit in North Carolina, in the discharge of his functions, he died at Edenton, August 28, 1798. His political and legal disquisitions, which are highly esteemed in America, have been published in three volumes.

WILSON, ALEXANDER, the celebrated American ornithologist, also distinguished as a writer of Scottish poetry, was born at Paisley, July 6, 1766. His father was a distiller in a small way, and, being in poor circumstances, was not able to give him more than an ordinary education. In his thirteenth year he was bound apprentice for three years to his brother-in-law, William Duncan, a weaver, and, after completing his indenture, he worked for four years as a journeyman, at first in Paisley, afterwards in Lochwinnoch, where his father was then residing, and latterly at Queensferry with his old master and relative Duncan, who had removed to that place. An American biographer tells us, that he acquired the nickname of “the lazy weaver,” from his love of reading, and attachment to the quiet and sequestered beauties of nature. He derived from his mother, who died when he was ten years of age, a taste for music, and he gave early indications of possessing poetical talent of a high order. Disgusted with the confined and monotonous nature of his employment, he resolved to abandon the shuttle, and betake himself to the wandering trade of a pedlar; and accordingly he carried a pack for a period of about three years. In 1789 he printed, at Paisley, a volume, entitled ‘Poems, Humorous, Satirical, and Serious,’ and offered for sale his chapman’s wares and his book at the same time; but finding few customers for either, he returned to Lochwinnoch, and resumed his former occupation at the loom. In 1791 he hastily composed a poem on the question – ‘Whether the exertions of Allan Ramsay or Robert Ferguson had done must honour to Scottish poetry?’ which he recited before the members of the debating society, called “The Forum,” at Edinburgh, giving the preference to Ferguson, and soon after published it under the title of ‘The Laurel Disputed.’ At this time he wrote and recited in public two other poetical essays, and also contributed some pieces to Dr. Anderson’s ‘Bee.’ In 1792 appeared his admirable narrative poem, ‘Watty and Meg,’ which, in humour and truth of description, is not surpassed by any production of the Scottish muse. Being published without his name, it was universally ascribed to Burns. A violent dispute having some time after this broken out between the Paisley master weavers and the journeymen, Wilson took part with the latter, and published anonymously several bitter satires, the authorship of which was easily traced to him. For one of these, a severe and undeserved libel upon a respectable individual, he was tried, and, being convicted, was sentenced to a short imprisonment, and compelled to burn the obnoxious poem with his own hands at the public cross of Paisley. He was likewise looked upon with suspicion as a person who advocated the dangerous principles which the French Revolution had spread among the people, and especially among the weavers, who at that period of excitement were generally accounted levellers and democrats. These circumstances weighed heavily on his spirits, and led to his determination of emigrating to the United States.

To raise funds for this purpose he became industrious and economical, working indefatigably at the loom, and living upon a shilling a week, so that, in about four months, he had saved the amount of his passage money. He then bade farewell to his friends and relatives, and walked to Portpatrick, whence he passed over to Belfast, and embarked on board a ship bound for Newcastle, in the state of Delaware. Her complement of passengers being filled, Wilson and his nephew, William Duncan, who accompanied him, consented to sleep on deck during the voyage. With no better accommodation he crossed the Atlantic, and landed at his place of destination, July 14, 1794, in the twenty-eighth year of his age. To enable him to reach Philadelphia, he borrowed a small sum from a fellow-passenger, named Oliver, and, with his fowling-piece on his shoulder, he walked thirty-three miles to the capital of Pennsylvania. It is noticed by his biographers, that the first bird he saw in the western world was a red-headed woodpecker, which he shot and carried along with him. In Philadelphia he was employed for some weeks by an emigrant countryman as a copper-plate printer. He then resumed his former trade of weaving, at which he worked for about a year, both in Philadelphia and at Shepherdstown, in Virginia. In 1795 he travelled through the north part of New Jersey as a pedlar, keeping a journal, which he had commenced at an early period in Scotland, and which he enriched with interesting observations and characteristic remarks on men and manners. ON his return, he opened a school at Frankford, in Pennsylvania, and for several years he followed the profession of a teacher, having removed first to Milestown, and afterwards to Bloomfield, New Jersey. During all this time he assiduously studied those branches of learning in which he was deficient, and having successfully cultivated a knowledge of mathematics, to the business of a schoolmaster he added that of a surveyor. His sister, Mrs. Duncan, being left a widow, followed him and her son, with a family of small children, to the United States, and, by means of a loan, Wilson was enabled to purchase and stock a small farm for them in Ovid, Cayuga county, New York.

In 1802 he was appointed schoolmaster of a seminary in Kingsessing, on the banks of the Schuylkill, within four miles of Philadelphia, and at a short distance from the residence of William Bartram, the celebrated American naturalist. With this gentleman he soon became intimately acquainted, and also with Mr. Alexander Lawson, an engraver, who instructed him in drawing, colouring, and etching, though he made no progress until he attempted the delineation of birds. His success in this department of art led him to the study of ornithology, in which he engaged so enthusiastically as to form the project of publishing an account, with drawings, of all the birds of the middle states, and even of the Union; and he undertook several long pedestrian excursions into the woods, for the purpose of increasing his collection of birds, as well as of obtaining a knowledge of their history and habits. In the meantime, with the view of being relieved from the drudgery of a school, he contributed some essays to ‘The Literary Magazine,’ then conducted by Mr. Brockden Brown, and to Denny’s Portfolio; but these efforts produced no change in his situation.

In October 1804, accompanied by his nephew and another individual, he made a pedestrian tour to the Falls of the Niagara, and, on his return, he wrote his poem of ‘The Foresters,’ published in the Portfolio. From this time till 1806 he was busily employed on his great ornithological work, and his friend Lawson having declined to join with him in the undertaking, he proceeded with it alone, drawing, etching, and colouring all the plates himself. In the latter year he had the good fortune to be engaged, at a liberal salary, by Mr. Samuel F. Bradford, bookseller in Philadelphia, as assistant editor of the American edition of Rees’ Cyclopaedia. He now relinquished the office of a schoolmaster, and Mr. Bradford having agreed to take all the risk of publishing the Ornithology, he applied himself to preparing it for the press. In September 1808 the first volume of this great national work made its appearance, and its splendour and ability equally surprised and delighted the American public. Immediately on its publication, Wilson set out on a journey through the Eastern states, for the purpose of showing his book and soliciting subscriptions. He went as far as Maine, and returned through Vermont to Albany and Philadelphia. He afterwards undertook an expedition on the same errand to the South, passing through Virginia, the Carolinas, and Georgia. When at Charleston he had procured only a hundred and twenty-five subscribers; at Savannah they had amounted to two hundred and fifty, “obtained,” he says, “at a price worth five times their amount.”

The second volume of the Ornithology was published in January 1810, and in the following month the author proceeded to Pittsburg. From thence, in a small boat or skiff, he descended the Ohio for about six hundred miles. He visited the numerous towns that had even then sprung up in the wilderness, and explored various parts of the country for the purpose of extending his observations, collecting specimens, and watching the habits of birds in their native haunts. “Since February 1810,” he says, in a letter to his brother, David, a year or two afterwards, “I have slept for several weeks in the wilderness alone, in an Indian country, with my gun and my pistols in my bosom; and have found myself so much reduced by sickness as to be scarcely able to stand, when not within three hundred miles of a white settlement.” Near Louisville he sold his skiff, and performed the journey to Natchez partly on foot and partly on horseback. In his diary he says: “This journey, four hundred and seventy-five miles from Nashville, I have performed alone, through difficulties which those who never passed the road could not have a conception of.” He proceeded to New Orleans, and thence to New York, and home to Philadelphia.

Six volumes of the Ornithology were published previous to 1813, and the seventh appeared in that year. In 1812 Wilson was chosen a member of the Society of Artists of the United States, also of the American Philosophical Society, and of other learned bodies. In 1813 he had completed the letterpress of the eighth volume of the Ornithology; but from want of proper assistants to colour the plates, he was obliged to undertake the whole of this department himself, in addition to his other duties. After a few days’ illness, he died, of dysentery, August 23, 1813, in his 48th year. The letterpress of the ninth volume of the Ornithology was supplied by his friend and companion in several excursions, Mr. George Ord, who prefixed an interesting memoir of the deceased naturalist. Three supplementary volumes, containing American birds not described by Wilson, have been published in folio by Charles Lucien Bonaparte. In 1832 an addition of the American Ornithology, with illustrative Notes and a Life of Wilson, by Sir William Jardine, baronet, was published at London in three volumes.

WILSON, WILLIAM RAE, of Kelvinbank, LL.D., an eminent traveller, was born in Paisley, 7th June, 1772. He was the eldest son of a gentleman of the name of Rae at Haddington, of which town his grandfather was provost, and the nephew and heir of John Wilson, one of the town clerks of Glasgow. He was bred to the law, and practiced for some years as a solicitor before the supreme courts in Scotland. On Mr. Wilson’s death, in 1806, without issue, Mr. Rae succeeded to his fortune, and, by letters patent, assumed the additional surname of Wilson. In 1811, he married Frances, 4th daughter of John Phillips, Esq. of Stobcross, merchant in Glasgow, but she died, without issue, about 18 months after the marriage.

After his wife’s death, he was induced to visit foreign parts, and he spent a large portion of the remainder of his life in travelling in the east, and throughout the continent of Europe. The antiquities of the Holy Land were the chief objects of his study and research, and he gave to the world the fruits of his travels in sundry works of considerable interest, such as ‘Travels in Norway, Sweden, and Denmark;’ ‘Travels in Russia;’ and ‘Travels in Egypt and the Holy Land,’ published in 1823. The latter, in particular, went through several editions, and was for a long time very popular. From the university of Glasgow he received the honorary degree of doctor of laws. He entered into a second marriage with Miss Cates, and English lady of good family, who was his devoted companion through all the latter period of his life, and in all his sojournings in many lands.

Dr. Wilson died at London in June 1849, aged 76, without issue, leaving an ample fortune, the bulk of which was divided among several nephews and nieces. Among his other charitable bequests was a sum to afford an annual prize, to be awarded by the university of Glasgow, to a student of divinity, for the best essay on ‘The life of our adorable Redeemer, Jesus Christ; His righteousness, atoning death, and that everlasting benefit arising from these blessings to a lost and miserable works.’ His body was, by his own desire, brought to Glasgow, where it was temporarily interred in one of the Egyptian vaults in the Necropolis, but shortly afterwards removed and permanently deposited in a tomb erected under the superintendence of his trustees. This is a beautiful and stately structure, and forms a leading object of interest in the Necropolis of Glasgow. The architect was Mr. J. A. Bell of Edinburgh, and the sculptor, Mr. M’Lean. The design is, very appropriately, of an Eastern character, the type being to be found in the numerous sepulchral monuments still existing in and around the city of Jerusalem. A central tablet bears 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 on that and other countries during many years. ‘Thy servants take pleasure in her stones, and favour of dust thereof.’ This tabled is inscribed by his affectionate wife.” A friend who knew him well thus writes of him “In private life 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 very 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 to do good, in the best sense, as he had opportunity. He was not only a distributor of religious tracts, but a writer of some that are highly esteemed.”

WILSON, JOHN, a distinguished poet and critic, the son of a prosperous manufacturer in Paisley, was born 19th May 1785. His mother, whose maiden name was Sym, was of a wealthy Glasgow family. After receiving the early part of his education at the manse of the Mearns, Renfrewshire, under the tuition of the Rev. Dr. George M’Latchie, at the age of 13 he commenced his studies at the university of Glasgow, where he remained four years. In 1804 he entered Magdalen college, Oxford, as a gentleman commoner, and continued there also four years. While at Oxford, he won the Newdegate prize of fifty guineas for an English poem of fifty lines.

Remarkable in his youth for that fine physical development on which, even till a short time before his death, years produced but little effect, among his college friends he at once acquired a pre-eminence in all the athletic exercises and out-of-door amusements engaged in by the young Oxonians, and manifold were the reports which in after years were rife of the eccentricities and romantic incidents which marked this period of his life. To use the language of the author of ‘A Memorial and Estimate’ of him, by one of his students, published in Edinburgh in 1854; “The number of his friends and associates ‘was immense,’ ranging, curiously enough, through every degree of the social scale, from ‘groom, cobbler, stable-boy, barber’s apprentice, with every kind of blackguardism and ruffianism,’ up to the ordinary under-graduate, the fashionable gentleman-commoner, the very dean, proctor, and fellow, nor even stopping short of ‘unlimited favour with the learned president of Magdalen College, editor of parts of Plato and of some theology.’ He could have been no common young man, so far as personal interest and the power of ingratiating go, who thus stood. Still his favourite companions were ‘people who had talents for thumping and being thumped.’ In some one of the recesses, between university term-times, must have taken place, if at all, the reported extravagance of his joining himself to a party of strolling players, enjoying the disguise with its accompaniments of hardship or joviality, and taking the leading parts, both in tragedy and comedy, at country fairs throughout England, no doubt under grotesque vicissitudes of popular acceptation; now called before the threepenny curtain to address an audience of half-drunken rustics; now hissed off the stage in the full height of the ‘Cambyses vein.’ He was said to have become temporary waiter at an inn for the sake of some fair stranger there resident, and to have been so great a favourite with all and sundry, as the humorous and eccentric young ‘John,’ that the establishment would scarce part with him. These histories are really traceable to very slight occasion in fact. A still odder tale used to be circulated of him, apparently dependent on impulses of a more serious kind; how having been smitten with the outlandish charms of a beautiful young jet-eyed gipsy daughter of the king of that mysterious tribe, he followed the gang in secret, and preferring his suit, succeeded in it, -- was allowed to assume the gipsy garb, -- to marry the dark maiden, or at least settle for some time in their encampment, a sort of adopted heir to the Egyptian princedom, till discovered and reclaimed to civillized life by his friends. Frequent in his own allusion, at all events, to some decisive encounter with one of their champions in the ring, where victory declared itself for him.”

On the death of his father he succeeded to a fortune estimated as high as £30,000, and having purchased the estate of Elleray, beautifully situated on the lade of Windermere, Westmoreland, on quitting Oxford he went to reside there. This was in 1808, and for some years he remained in a district, the picturesque beauty of which furnished materials for ministering to his naturally high poetic temperament, and enjoying the society of Wordsworth, Southey, De Quincey (a fellow-student at Oxford), and the other distinguished men of letters who then resided near the lakes. Here he showed himself particularly partial to all sorts of athletic exercises and wild field-sports, and out-of-door activity of unusual kinds, and is described by an American writer, who was introduced to him at Wordsworth’s house, as a young man “in a sailor’s dress, about twenty-one, tall and lightly built, of florid complexion, and hair of a hue unsuited to that colour,” and as one who seemed “to have an intense enjoyment of life, to feel happy and pleased with himself as with others, being young, rich, healthy, and full of intellectual activity.” The following is a description of one of the extraordinary recreations in which he was fond of indulging. “About this time,” continues the same American writer, “a young man, name not given, had taken up his abode in the vale of Grasmere, anxious for an introduction to Mr. Wilson, and strolled out early one fine summer morning – three o’clock – to that rocky and Moorish common (called the White Moss), which overhangs the vale of Rydal, dividing it from Grasmere. Looking southward in the direction of Rydal, he suddenly became aware of a huge beast advancing at a long trot, with the heavy and thundering tread of a hippopotamus, along the public road. The creature soon arrived within half-a-mile of him, in the grey light of morning, -- a bull, apparently flying from unseen danger in the rear. As yet, all was mystery; till suddenly three horsemen emerged round a turn in the road, hurrying after it in full speed, in evident pursuit. The bull made heavily for the moor, which he reached, then paused, panting, blowing out smoke, and looking back. The animal was not safe, however; the horsemen, scarcely relaxing their speed, charged up hill, gained the rear of the bull, and drove his at full gallop, over the worst part of this impracticable ground, to that below while the stranger perceived, by the increasing light, that the three were armed with immense spears, fourteen feet long. By these, the fugitive beast was soon dislodged, scouring down to the plain, his hunters at his tail, towards the marsh, and into it, till, after plunging together for a quarter of an hour, all suddenly regained terra firma, the bull making again for the rocks. Till then, there had been the silence of phantasmagoria, amidst which it was doubtful whether the spectacle were a pageant of aerial specters, ghostly huntsmen, imaginary lances, and unreal bull; but, just at that crisis, a voice shouted aloud, ‘Turn the villain – turn that villain, or he will take to Cumberland.’ It was the voice of ‘Elleray,’ for whom the young stranger succeeded in performing the required service, the ‘villain’ being turned to flee southwards; the hunters, lance in rest, rushed after him, all bowing their thanks as they fled past, except of course the frantic object of chase. The singular cavalcade swiftly took the high road, doubled the cape, and disappeared, leaving the quiet valley to its original silence.”

At Elleray he wrote the first poem which made his name known beyond college circles, an ‘Elegy on the Death of James Grahame,’ the amiable author of ‘The Sabbath.’ It was followed in 1812 by the ‘Isle of Palms,’ which at once gave him a high place amongst the literati of the day.

In 1815, Mr. Wilson, at that time residing with his widowed mother in Castle Street, Edinburgh, passed advocate at the Scottish bar, but does not appear ever to have practiced. In 1816 he published ‘The City of the Plague,’ a poem which, like all his poetical pieces, is remarkable for delicacy of feeling and beauty of expression, though a more elaborate production than any of his former compositions. The following year he commenced that connection with Blackwood’s Magazine, then newly started, which for years after identified him with all the brilliant fancy and exquisite taste and humour with which its pages were adorned. From the seventh number that periodical continued “to draw more memorable support from him than ever journal did from the pen of any individual.” He was the principal if not the only writer of the celebrated Noctes Ambrosianae, in which he took the designation of Christopher North.

In 1820 he was appointed to the chair of amoral philosophy in the university of Edinburgh, then vacant by the death of Dr. Thomas Brown, and it is remarkable that, even thus early, Sir Walter Scott had recognized in his talents which only wanted proper direction to make him “the first man of the age.” The fervid energy of his character and the impassioned eloquence with which his lectures were characterized added new luster to the university, while he endeared himself to his students by being the never-failing friend of every youth who sought his aid, and the counsel which he was ever ready to impart attested not less the kindness of his heart than the sagacity of his judgment. His expenditure at Elleray is understood to have been always profuse. He had replaced the original cottage by a new mansion, and his establishment there included some characteristic prodigalities, such as keeping a yacht and boat on Windermere, where in his capacity of admiral of the lake, he led the aquatic honours to Sir Walter Scott and Canning, on their reception in Westmoreland in 1825. He had married, in 1810, an English lady, with whom, it is said, he got a fortune of £10,000; and a rising family of two sons and three daughters, with some serious reverses which he is understood to have sustained, induced him to come forward as a candidate for the moral philosophy chair. He was strongly opposed in the town council, but his friends succeeded in carrying his election.

The first of his prose composition appeared in 1822, under the name of ‘Lights and Shadows of Scottish Life; a Selection from the Papers of the late Arthur Austen,’ in one volume, containing twenty-four short tales, illustrative of Scottish rural and pastoral life. Three of these, ‘The Elder’s Funeral,’ ‘The Snow-storm,’ and ‘The Forgers,’ had previously been published in Blackwood’s Magazine. His next prose work, entitled ‘The Trials of Margaret Lindsay,’ appeared in one volume in 1823, and in 1824 he published another story, called ‘The foresters,’ inferior to the others, and not so well known. A selection from his contributions to Blackwood’s Magazine was published by himself in 1842, in 3 vols, 8vo, bearing the title of ‘Recreations of Christopher North,’ but these conveyed but an inadequate idea of his vast and diversified genius.

In 1849, when the Philosophical Institution was formed in Edinburgh, Professor Wilson was elected its first president, and delivered an opening address. In 1851 an honorary pension of £300 a-year was conferred on him by the government, and the following spring he gave in his resignation to the college patrons, without any claim to a retiring allowance. His health did not seem then in a precarious state, but shortly afterwards it began to give way. Partial loss of power in the lower limbs was succeeded by nervous weakness, and after having had three shocks of paralysis, he died at Edinburgh on the morning of the 3d April 1854, and was buried in the Dean cemetery of that city. His portrait is subjoined.

[portrait of John Wilson]

One of his daughters married William Edmonstone Ayton, Esq., professor of rhetoric and belles letters in the university of Edinburgh, and author of ‘Lays of the Scottish Cavaliers,’ and other poems; and another, John Thomson Gordon, Esq., sheriff of Mid Lothian. One of his sisters was the mother of Professor Ferrier of St. Andrews, who married his cousin, a daughter of Professor Wilson. Another sister was the wife of Sir John Macneill, formerly British envoy to the court of Persia, and brother of the Right Hon. Duncan Macneill, lord-justice-general of Scotland.

Professor Wilson’s fame rests on the great contributions he had made to the literature of Scotland as a poet, a critic, and a philosopher, and particularly on his writings in Blackwood’s Magazine. After his death, his works, edited by his son-in-law, Professor Ferrier, were published by Messrs, Blackwood, in the following order: 1. The Noctes Ambrosianae. 2. Essays, Critical and Imaginative, contributed to Blackwood’s Magazine. 3. The Recreations of Christopher North. 4. Poems, a new and complete edition. 5. Tales. In 1862, a memoir of Professor Wilson, under the title of ‘Christopher North,’ compiled from family papers and other sources, by his daughter, Mrs. Gordon, with portrait and graphic illustrations, was published at Edinburgh, in 2 vols, crown 8vo.

His youngest brother, Mr. James Wilson of Woodville, born in Paisley in 1795, distinguished himself as a naturalist. He was educated in Edinburgh, where his mother then resided, and attended the university in that city. The love of natural history displayed itself in him in early boyhood, and while yet very young he formed a considerable collection of birds and insects. In 1816 he made a tour on the continent, visiting Holland, part of Germany, and Switzerland. Soon after he repaired to Paris, and acquired the friendship of several eminent scientific men there. On this occasion he was intrusted with the purchase of a collection of birds for the Museum in the university of Edinburgh, known as the Dufresne collection. It was afterwards arranged by him, and now constitutes one of the most attractive series of objects in the university museum. In 1819 he visited Sweden, and soon after his return, symptoms of pulmonary complaint, which ultimately proved fatal, began to show themselves. In consequence, he went to Italy, where he resided during the winter of 1820-21. In 1824 he married and settled down to a life of scientific and literary labour. He was the author of a work called ‘”The Rod and the Gun,’ and of ‘A Tour Round the North of Scotland;’ as well as of some pleasant papers in Blackwood’s Magazine, and the North British Review. He was also an occasional contributor to the Quarterly and Edinburgh Reviews. On the death of Professor Edward Forbes in 1855, the chair of natural history in the university of Edinburgh was offered to him, but he declined it. For the last few months of his life he suffered greatly from pulmonary disease, followed by rheumatic gout, and died 18th May 1856.

WILSON, JOHN, an eminent vocalist, was born in Edinburgh in 1800, and at ten years of age was apprenticed to a printer. After working as a compositor, he was engaged as a reader, or corrector of the press, in the establishment of James Ballantyne, the printer of the Waverley novels, and it is said was one of the few who were in the secret of Sir Walter Scott being the author. At this time he devoted his evenings to the acquirement of the French and Latin languages, and after becoming versed in these, with other two friends he turned his attention to the study of Italian. He was always fond of singing, and having improved his voice by attending the classes of a musical association called the Edinburgh Institution, which met in the High church aisle, he obtained the office of precentor in one of the dissenting chapels of Edinburgh. He now seriously set about cultivating the musical powers with which he was so richly endowed. With a voice of the finest quality, he possessed the most exquisite natural taste, and he improved both by the most assiduous and earnest study.

In 1827 he left the printing business, and became a teacher of singing, appearing occasionally at private concerts in Edinburgh. In June of that year he went to London, and for three months took lessons from Signor Lanza, an Italian master of the vocal art. He also acquired a knowledge of elocution, as it was his intention to go upon the stage. When he began to prepare himself for this step, several of his friends endeavoured to dissuade him from it. His mother, a pious old lady, and Mr. Grey, his pastor, who was much attached to him, remonstrated in vain. He resigned his precentorship, and in March 1830 he made his first appearance on the stage of the Theatre Royal, Edinburgh, as Henry Bertram in the opera of ‘Guy Mannering.’ The following night he sung in the opera of Rosina, and during the same week he appeared as Massaniello. His success was complete, and after singing for three weeks at the Edinburgh theatre, he went to Perth, where he performed during the summer. He was soon called to London, and on the 30th October appeared at Covent Garden theatre for the first time, as Don Carlos in the Duenna. Having thus laid the foundation of that high fame which he afterwards so fully acquired, he continued to sing as principal tenor, alternately at Covent Garden and Drury Lane, until the summer of 1837. In the following winter he was engaged at the English Opera House, where, among other successful performances, he played Donald, the leading character in the Mountain Sylph, an opera which was performed upwards of one hundred nights in succession. For this theatre he translated from the Italian, and adapted for the English stage, the opera of ‘La Somnambula.’ Soon after this he commenced a new species of musical entertainments, for which he became celebrated. They consisted entirely of Scotch songs, varied with descriptive remarks and appropriate anecdotes illustrative of the various pieces introduced. He was the first who originated this class of monological musical entertainments, which became very popular. The names he gave them, such as ‘A Nicht wi’ Burns,’ and ‘Adventures of Prince Charlie,’ were eminently attractive. Mr. Wilson was the most accomplished singer of Scottish ballads of modern times. For pathos and expression in singing the beautiful melodies of his native land he was never surpassed. He particularly excelled in the plaintive and unadorned lays of Scotland, and in airs of a humorous cast he equally maintained the national character.

The idea of these original and novel entertainments appears to have been accidental. In the spring of 1838, he was solicited by the Mechanics’ Institute of London, of which Dr. Birkbeck was president, to give three lectures on Scottish music. This task he accomplished successfully. He attracted crowded audiences, and was asked by six or seven similar institutions to repeat his lectures. This, however, he declined to do at the time, as he had resolved to visit the United States.

In September 1838 he sailed from Bristol on a professional tour to America. He remained in the United States for nearly two years, and gave several of his Scottish entertainments at New York. During his stay in America he translated and adapted Adam’s Opera of the ‘Postilion of Lonjumeau.’

On his return, in the winter of 1840-1, with Messrs. Philips and Balfe and Miss Romer, he took a lease of the English Opera house, London, a speculation which proved unsuccessful. He now resumed his lectures on Scottish music, and in May 1841 delivered them at the Westminster and other Institutions, at that time accompanying himself on the piano-forte. In the following winter he opened the Store Street Rooms, London, where he gave his entertainments on his own account. In 1842 he was invited by the marquis of Breadalbane to Taymouth castle, to sing before the Queen, when her majesty visited that noble residence. He wrote both prose and verse with great facility. He also composed and adapted a number of beautiful melodies. In his entertainment of ‘Mary Queen of Scots,’ the finest of the melodies were his own composition.

Mr. Wilson died at Quebec, 8th July 1849, of cholera, after only three hours’ illness, brought on by wet or fatigue while on a fishing excursion. His wish to be buried in Scotland was not accomplished, as his grave is in Canada. He left a widow, two sons and three daughters. His widow suddenly expired while bathing at Portobello, near Edinburgh, on the evening of July 31, 1852.

WILSON, GEORGE, a scientific lecturer and the first professor of technology in the university of Edinburgh, the son of Mr. Archibald Wilson, a wine merchant in that city, and brother of Dr. Daniel Wilson, professor of History and English Literature, University College, Toronto, Canada, was born in Edinburgh, Feb. 21, 1818. He had a twin brother, who died young. He was educated at the High School of his native place, and at fifteen years of age began the study of medicine. In Sept. 1837 he passed Surgeon’s Hall, and having devoted himself more particularly to chemistry, he was appointed laboratory assistant to Dr. Christison in the university of Edinburgh. In 1838 he became unsalaried assistant in the laboratory of Dr. Thomas Graham, then professor of chemistry in University College, London; appointed, in 1855, master of the Mint, as successor to Sir John Herschel. In 1839 he took the degree of M.D. In 1840 he received a license as a lecturer on chemistry from the Royal College of Surgeons, Edinburgh, and acquired much popularity as an extra-academical lecturer on chemistry in that city. His health, however, was generally feeble, and a disease in the ancle-joint required, towards the close of 1842, amputation of the foot.

In 1855 he was appointed to the then newly constituted professorship of technology in the university of Edinburgh, with the curatorship of the Industrial Museum. He was the author of one or two biographies, and some scientific pamphlets in his own peculiar department. He died November 22, 1859. His works are:

Life of Cavendish. Written for the Cavendish Society. 1851.
Life of Dr. John Reid, late Chandos Professor of Anatomy and Medicine in the University of St. Andrews. Edin. 1852, 8vo.
The Grievance of the University Tests, as applied to Professors of Physical Science in t he Colleges of Scotland; a letter addressed to the Right Hon. Spencer H. Walpole. Edin. 1852, 8vo.
The Five Gateways of Knowledge. Cambridge, 1856, 8vo.
What is Technology; an Inaugural Lecture delivered in the University of Edinburgh on Nov. 7, 1855. Edin. 1855, 8vo.
Electricity and the Electric Telegraph; together with the Chemistry of the Stars; an argument touching the stars and their inhabitants. Lond. 1852, 8vo. 1859.
Chemistry (Chambers’ Educational Course). Edin. 1850, 8vo. 1860.
Researches on Colour Blindness. With a Supplement on the Danger attending the present System of Railway and Marine Coloured Signals. Edin. 1855, 8vo.
The Relation of Ornamental and Industrial Art; a Lecture delivered in the National Galleries at the request of the Art-Manufacture Association, on Christmas Eve, 1856. Edin. 12mo. 1857.
Memoir of Edward Forbes, F.R.S., late Regius Professor of Natural History in the University of Edinburgh. By George Wilson, M.D. and Archibald Geikie, F.R.S.E., F.G.S. Camb. and Lond. 1861, 8vo.
He also contributed papers to the ‘British Quarterly,’ and the ‘North British Review.’ To the first number of MacMillan’s Magazine he furnished an interesting article on ‘Paper, Pens, and Ink.’
A Memoir of him by his sister, Jessie Aitken Wilson, was published at Edinburgh in 1860.

Return to The Scottish Nation Index Page


This comment system requires you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator has approved your comment.

comments powered by Disqus