John Wilson (1785-1854) was a writer renowned for his many talents, rather than for a single literary work. A prolific man of letters, he was a critic, poet, reviewer and essayist. In addition, he was admired as a brilliant orator, and was also an accomplished sportsman from a young age. Indeed, he had a particular affinity with all things youthful, and was well-loved as a lecturer and teacher by his students. Even his physical appearance was impressive, with his flowing hair and athletic frame. A formidable personality with an intellect once described as gladiatorial, he made a significant contribution to public and literary life in Edinburgh.
Early Life and the Mearns Connection
Born in 1785 in Paisley, John Wilson was the son of a wealthy gauze manufacturer. Initially educated in Paisley, he then attended the school of Dr. George McLatchie, minister at Mearns and author of the entry for that parish in the first Statistical Accounts. Wilson was one of about twelve pupils who, as well as receiving a good education, also had ample freedom to enjoy the Mearns countryside. Already at this young age he excelled at sports and outdoor activities.
Throughout his life, he would often recall his times at the ‘dear parish’ of Mearns as being exceedingly happy ones. His descriptions in The Recreations of Christopher North capture the physical features of the countryside and the rural pastimes, particularly in the chapters Our Parish and May-Day. Further praise bestowed upon the area by Wilson includes “fairest of Scotland’s thousand parishes”; 2a paragon of a parish”; and “dear to us as our birthplace; nay, itself our very birthplace”.
After the death of his father, he entered Glasgow University at twelve years old and studied under Professors Jardine (Logic) and Young (Greek), both of whom he admired as excellent teachers. In 1803 he went on to Magdalen College, Oxford, where he won the Newdigate Prize for poetry and took a brilliant first class degree.
On graduating in 1807, Wilson was able to use his sizeable inheritance to pursue a life of leisure at Elleray, his estate on Windermere in the Lake District. Over the next few years, he enjoyed boating, sports, fishing, walking and other outdoor pursuits. Meanwhile, he wrote and collected together a number of his poems, which were published in 1812 as The Isle of Palms and The Magic Mirror. He also became friends during this time with several contemporary literary figures, including Wordsworth, Coleridge, Robert Southey and Thomas de Quincey.
However, the mismanagement of his finances by an uncle meant that, by 1815, Wilson could no longer afford to stay full-time at Elleray. He and his young family moved to Edinburgh, where he read law and was elected to the Bar. In doing so, Wilson joined an eminent group of young Tory lawyers, including his friend John Gibson Lockhart. He continued to pursue his writing, and in 1816, a second volume of his poetry was published, The City of the Plague.
Wilson as Christopher North
Blackwood’s Magazine started in 1817, and became the flagship publication of the famous Edinburgh publishing firm. Wilson gave up his short-lived legal work and became a contributor soon afterwards, producing articles, prose, tales, poetry and sketches under the pen-name Christopher North. His contributions over the years were substantial: in 1834 alone he produced over fifty separate pieces for the magazine.
1822 saw the beginning of the series Noctes Ambrosianae, which consisted of imagined conversations between a number of characters in an Edinburgh tavern, including the aforementioned Christopher North, alongside James Hogg as the ‘Ettrick Shepherd’. These discussions ranged widely over miscellaneous topics, but were mainly characterised by their vividness and exuberant good humour. A favourite feature of the magazine, after 1825 the majority of the sketches came from Wilson’s pen.
Some of his Blackwood’s pieces were collected and published in Lights and Shadows of Scottish Life in 1822, and collections of further essays followed in later years. His novels about Scottish rural life included The Trials of Margaret Lyndsay (1823) and The Foresters (1825), and his reminiscences of idyllic days in Mearns were collected in the volumes entitled Recreations of Christopher North, published in 1842.
Wilson as The Professor
Meanwhile, Wilson had been appointed Professor of Moral Philosophy at Edinburgh University in 1820, in rather controversial and politically-motivated circumstances. Another candidate, Sir William Hamilton, was far better qualified for the position, but Wilson’s Tory politics won him votes from the sympathetic Town Council, which was responsible for filling the post. As it turned out, Wilson made an excellent professor, despite lacking an in-depth knowledge of the subject. His skills as an orator produced stimulating and powerful lectures, which were tremendously popular.
However, it is clear from his biography that it was not simply his performance as a public speaker which made him a respected academic. Affectionate memories recounted by former students point to his generosity and encouragement to individuals outside the lecture hall. A former pupil maintained: “no man ever had a deeper and kindlier sympathy with the feelings of youth; none could be prompter and sincerer to give advice and assistance when required” (1). One young writer that Wilson met and encouraged was the Eaglesham poet, Robert Pollok.
John Wilson was perhaps not the best writer in Edinburgh’s literary circle, nor the most qualified academic to hold a professorship. Nevertheless, the strength of his personality and performances as ‘The Professor’ and his substantial output of journalism and other writings made him a prominent public figure of the times. He had a genuine love for all things youthful, be it sports, his students or happy memories of his own younger days, particularly those spent in Mearns.
Hit hard in later life by the loss of both his wife, and of his great friend William Blackwood, in the late 1830s, Wilson himself died in 1854. His character is best summed up by his daughter, who said that he had been “endowed with that best gift: a heart that never grew old” (2). A statue to his memory stands in the East Princes Street Gardens in Edinburgh.
(1) Gordon, Mary Wilson, Christopher North: a Memoir of John Wilson, 1863, p226.
(2) Gordon, Mary Wilson, ibid., p226.
Ousby, Ian (ed.), The Cambridge Guide to Literature in English, Cambridge University Press, 1993
Keay, John and Keay, Julian (eds.), Collins Encyclopaedia of Scotland edited, Harper Collins, 1994
Campell, Ian, John Wilson (from SLAINTE’s Gateway to Scottish Authors)
Gordon, Mary Wilson, Christopher North: a Memoir of John Wilson, (available online at the Internet Archive), 1863
Wilson, John, Recreations of Christopher North, (available online at the Internet Archive), 1842