Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Wilson, John Mackay

WILSON, JOHN MACKAY (1804–1835), author of the ‘Tales of the Borders,’ was the son of a millwright, and was baptised at Tweedmouth, Berwick-on-Tweed, on 15 Aug. 1804. After receiving elementary education at Tweedmouth he completed his apprenticeship as a printer in Berwick, and then settled for a time in London. Here he experienced hardship, and is said to have paid his last two shillings on one occasion to see Mrs. Siddons in Covent Garden Theatre. Leaving London, he lectured in the provinces for a time on literature with indifferent success. In 1832 he became editor of the ‘Berwick Advertiser,’ working thereafter steadily in the cultivation of his literary talent and the advocacy of political reform. He died at Berwick on 2 Oct. 1835, and was buried in Tweedmouth churchyard.

Wilson wrote various lyric and dramatic poems of little consequence. ‘The Gowrie Conspiracy,’ a drama, appeared in 1829. There was another drama, ‘Margaret of Anjou,’ besides several poetical publications—‘The Poet's Progress,’ ‘The Border Patriots,’ &c.—of smaller account. On 8 Nov. 1834 Wilson began the weekly publication, in threehalfpenny numbers, of ‘The Tales of the Borders,’ which speedily attained an extraordinary popularity both in Great Britain and in America. Realistic narratives of simple sentiment and impressive situations, these stories made a direct appeal to the general reader, and the weekly circulation steadily rose from two thousand to sixteen or seventeen thousand. Wilson published in all forty-eight numbers, comprising seventy-three tales. Favourites among his stories are: ‘The Poor Scholar’ (with manifest autobiographical touches), ‘Tibbie Fowler,’ ‘The Vacant Chair,’ and ‘My Black Coat, or the Breaking of the Bride's Chain.’ The series was continued by Wilson's brother, and much prolonged by Alexander Leighton (1800–1874) [q. v.] Several collected editions have been published. In 1834 appeared Wilson's ‘Enthusiast; a metrical tale, with other pieces.’

[Berwick Advertiser, 3 Oct. 1835; Border Magazine, 1863; Irving's Dict. of Eminent Scotsmen; information from Rev. James Kean, Berwick-on-Tweed.]

T. B.