John Mackay Wilson

Who was Wilson ?

John Mackay Wilson perhaps epitomised the very nature of the Borders and Berwick in particular, being the son of William Wilson , a Scotsman from Duns and Jane Wilson an Englishwomen from Tweedmouth . He was born in 1804 in Tweedmouth. He was involved in the book and publishing business from an early age, starting his first job at the age of 11 in 1815 as the Napoleonic wars came to an end, with William Lochhead, Printers of High Street, Berwick.

By the time he was fifteen he had persuaded his employer to publish a short run of 100
copies of his poem “A Glance at Hinduism”.

Berwick was generally in decline from its heyday as the fourth busiest port in the country by the 19th century. Lower customs duties in Scotland had made much trade switch from Berwick to Leith (Perhaps a topical issue that will arise again) and the coming of railways finishing the coastal trade of agricultural goods from the Tweed valley to London.

Having been jilted in love by Sarah Sanderson he decided to move on and try his luck elsewhere, first in London without much success, moving on to Edinburgh and then Manchester.  Along the way he wrote various Plays and poems which including “The Gowrie Conspiracy”, performed to some acclaim in Edinburgh. He also spent some time as a travelling Lecturer on poetry. During these years however he at least twice had to rely on the charity of friends and acquaintances to rescue him from destitute circumstances and he eventually ended up back in Berwick, returning for the last time in 1832 to take up the role of editor to the “Berwick Advertiser”. The prospect of “being always at home having a certain income, and independence, with a large portion of literary leisure” clearly had its attractions by this time in his life . Wilson however took his responsibilities as a publisher seriously and agreeing terms appears to have been a protracted affair as he was reluctant to return to Berwick until these were sorted . He was reluctant to “go to Berwick to undertake the Editorship….incurring obligations which would make me rather the slave of the proprietor than the conductor of the journal”.
He continued to dabble in other literary projects during this time. He also considered returning to legal work and even emigrating to the “New World”. However he stayed and started publishing his Tales in 1834, sadly to die at the age of 31 in 1835, less than a year after the first instalments were published .

Cause of death is uncertain, but it seems the work load he gave himself took its toll on his
health. Some sources suggest he was a heavy drinker, but there appears little hard evidence to
support this and perhaps unlikely as a supporter of the Temperance movement

Wilson left a widow Sarah, but no children and his grave can still be found in Tweedmouth Church.

More information can be found on Wikipedia here.