Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/MacGillivray, William

MACGILLIVRAY, WILLIAM (1796–1862), naturalist, was born at Old Aberdeen, 26 Jan. 1796. As a child he spent eight years (1799-1807), in the island of Harris, Outer Hebrides. He then returned to Aberdeen and studied under Ewan M'Lachlan, and in 1808 entered as an arts student at King's College, Aberdeen, where he graduated M.A. in 1815. "While at the university he made some study of medicine, chiefly under Dr. Barclay, but, after some five years' trial, he abandoned it for natural science. In 1817 he began the study of zoology with a fellow-student, W. Craigie, and for a time acted as dissector to the lecturer on comparative anatomy at King's College. His vacations as a student had been spent in the Western Isles, and he subsequently rambled over most parts of Scotland. With his journal and a copy of Smith's 'Flora Britannica' he walked from Aberdeen to London, for the purpose of seeing the country and visiting the British Museum. He afterwards attended the lectures of Robert Jameson [q. v.] in Edinburgh, Subsequently geologising, gathering gulls' eggs and shooting birds in the Outer Hebrides. On 29 Sept. 1820 he married Marion Askiil in the Island of Harris. In 1823 he accepted the appointment of 'assistant and secretary to the regius professor [R. Jameson] of natural history, and regius keeper of the museum of the Edinburgh University.' He retired after a few years in order to continue his observations in the field, but in 1831 was appointed 'Conservator of the Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons in Edinburgh.' He resigned the post in March 1841, when he succeeded Dr. Davidson as 'Professor of Natural History in the Marischal College, and University of Aberdeen.' In 1844 his old college bestowed upon him the honorary degree of LL.D.

As professor, MacGillivray was busily occupied in delivering lectures, and in forming a collection for the use of the students. He also embarked in numerous literary undertakings, and the strain proved too much. Early in 1850 he spent a month in exploring the central region of the Grampians, the district around Lochnagan, and from the results of the exposure he never recovered. He went to Torquay to recruit later in the year, and shortly after his arrival at Torquay his wife suddenly died. His own death took place at Aberdeen on 4 Sept. 1852.

MacGillivray was not only a keen observer of scientific phenomena, but a most careful and exact recorder of what he saw. He achieved striking success in several branches of natural science, in any one of which, had his vocation permitted, he might have become a brilliant specialist. He had the highest qualifications as a curator of museums. Shortly before he died, MacGillivray had completed what was the great work of his life, 'A History of British Birds.' This had been begun before 1837, when the first volume was issued, and extended to five volumes in 8vo, the last two being completed in the intervals of illness. The style is singularly clear, while the care devoted to anatomical details and to the graphic descriptions of the haunts and habits of the birds gives it permanent scientific value. MacGillivray, for the first time in the history of the science, based his classification of birds on their anatomical structure. The work was considered by Audubon and others to be the best of its kind in English.

MacGillivray's first published note was on the occurrence of a walrus on the shore of Lewis, in Deer, 1817 (Edinb. Phil. Journ. vol. ii. 1820); his last completed work was the manuscript for a 'Natural History of Dee Side.' This manuscript was purchased by the queen, and at her command privately printed under the editorship of Professor E. Lankester, in 1855.

The following is a list of his other works:

  1. 'A Systematic Arrangement of British Plants by W. Withering, Corrected and Condensed [and furnished], with an Introduction to Botany, by W. MacGillivray,' 8vo, London, 1830; 10th ed. 1858.
  2. 'The Travels of A. von Humboldt … a Condensed Narrative,' 8vo, Edinburgh Cabinet Library, vol. x. 1832; 2nd edit. 1859.
  3. 'Lives of Eminent Zoologists, from Aristotle to Linnæus,' 8vo, Edinburgh Cabinet Library, vol. xvi. 1834; 2nd edit. 1860.
  4. 'Descriptions of the Rapacious Birds of Great Britain,' 8vo, London, 1836.
  5. 'A History of British Quadrupeds,' in Jardine's Naturalist's Library, vol. xxii. 8vo, Edinburgh, 1838; 2nd issue 1845-6, vol. xvii.
  6. 'A Manual of Botany,' 8vo, London, 1840; 2nd edit. 1853.
  7. 'A Manual of Geology,' 12mo, London, 1840; 2nd edit. 1841.
  8. 'A Manual of British Ornithology,' 2 vols. 8vo, London, 1840-2; 2nd edit. 8vo, 1846.
  9. 'A History of the Molluscous Animals of the Counties of Aberdeen, Kincardine, and Banff,' &c, 12mo, London, 1843; 2nd edit. 1844.
  10. 'Domestic Cattle; the Drawings by J. Cassie, jun.,' 8 pts. issued 1845.

MacGillivray conducted the 'Edinburgh Journal of Natural History and of Physical Science' from its inception in October 1835 to its termination in May 1840. With this was issued a translation of a portion of Cuvier's 'Animal Kingdom.' He edited with notes a translation from the French of Richard's 'Elements of Botany,' 8vo, Edinburgh and London, 1831; also a new edition of Sir J. E.; Smith's 'Introduction to … Botany,' 12mo, London, 1836, and the 6th edit., enlarged, of Thomas Brown's 'Conchologists' Text-Book,' 12mo, Edinburgh and London, 1845. He wrote the description of the species, with their anatomy, of several hundred specimens of birds for Audubon's 'Ornithological Bibliography' (5 vols. 1831-9), and prepared the greater part, if not the whole, of that author's 'Synopsis of the Birds of North America' (1839). He also wrote a sketch of the section Palmipes, for Wilson's article, 'Ornithology,' in the 7th edit, of the 'Encyclopædia Britannica,' and did the drawings for sixteen quarto plates illustrative of the 'Internal Structure of Fossil Vegetables formed in the Carboniferous and Oolitic Deposits of Great Britain,' by Witham. In addition he wrote more than thirty minor papers, which appeared in the 'Transactions of the Wernerian Natural History Society,' 'Edinburgh Philosophical Journal,' 'Edinburgh Quarterly Journal of Agriculture,' 'Prize Essays and Transactions of the Highland Society,' and 'Edinburgh Journal of Medical and Natural Science.

Among his papers at his death was found the unfinished manuscript of a projected 'History of the Vertebrated Animals,' and he probably translated or edited many other works of which no record was kept.

A collection of original water-colour drawings by him of British mammals, birds, and fish is preserved in the Zoological Department of the British Museum (Natural History).

The only published portrait—that in Harvie-Brown and Buckley's 'Vertebrate Fauna of the Outer Hebrides/ pt. ii.—is from one in oils by MacGillivray himself, retouched after his death by a local artist. It is not considered a good likeness.

MacGillivray's son, John MacGillivray (1822-1867), naturalist, the eldest of thirteen children, was born at Aberdeen 18 Dec. 1822; but spent his childhood in Edinburgh, where he afterwards studied medicine. In 1842, before the course was complete, he was appointed by Lord Derby naturalist under Professor J. B. Jukes [q. v.], on board the Fly, commanded by Captain Blackwood, and sailed in her to Torres Straits and the Eastern Archipelago. He returned to England in 1846, and later in that year was appointed naturalist on board the Rattlesnake, under Captain Owen Stanley. Professor Huxley, then an assistant-surgeon in the royal navy, was also of the staff. On his return in 1850, MacGillivray wrote an account of the voyage, which was published in 1852. Later in that year he sailed, also in the capacity of naturalist, in the Herald, under Captain Denham, on a surveying voyage to the coasts of South America, and for the South Pacific. MacGillivray, however, left the vessel at Sydney in 1855, and spent the rest of his life in making excursions to various of the Australasian islands, collecting natural history specimens, and studying the habits of the aborigines. Accounts of these expeditions appeared from time to time in the Sydney papers. His constitution was at length undermined by the constant fatigue and exposure, and he died at Sydney 6 June 1867. The molluscan genus MacGillivray is was named in his honour.

[Memoir by J. Harley in Selection of Papers of Leicester Lit. and Phil. Soc. pp. 107-64; Edinb. New Phil. Journ. 1853, liv. 189-206; Encycl. Brit. 9th edit.; North Brit. Rev. six. 1-10; Athenæum, 18 Nov. 1852; Gent. Mag. 1852, pt. ii. p. 533; Preface to the Rapacious Birds; Good Words, 1868, pp. 425-9, and portrait of J. MacGillivray; information kindly |supplied by the Rev. P. Beaton of Paris, and R. Walker, M.A., registrar, &c., of the Aberdeen University.]

B. B. W.