John Wilson

John Wilson (1785 - 1854)

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jw1John Wilson  - Essayist and Moral Philosopher  -  1785-1854

John Wilson was the son of a wealthy Paisley gauze manufacturer. Initially educated in Paisley he then studied at the Manse of Mearns under the supervision  of the Rev. Dr George McLatchie, the minister of the Parish Kirk at Mearns (now Mearns Parish Church), in preparation for entrance to the University of Glasgow. Dr McLatchie, author of the First Statistical Account of Mearns Parish in Renfrewshire published in 1796, tutored students who hoped to gain University entrance.  

John Wilson studied first at the University of Glasgow and then in 1803 he attended Magdalen College, Oxford University where he graduated with first class honours in 1807.  A young man of means he then settled in Windermere in the Lake District where he was able to indulge himself in sport.  He built a house named Elleray there and married Jane Penny in 1811. Due to a reversal in his financial affairs he returned to Edinburgh in 1815 and after attaining a law degree was appointed Professor of Moral Philosophy at Edinburgh University in 1820. He was widely read and admired for the satirical articles which he wrote using the pen name Christopher North. These articles were published in  Blackwood’s Magazine of which he was one of the founders. 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.

He was a friend of William Wordsworth, Thomas de Quincey, Samuel Coleridge Taylor and Robert Southey, the so called Lake poets.  He was also a friend of Sir Walter Scott whose 54th birthday he celebrated with a regatta on the lake.

In 1841 Charles Dickens was given the freedom of the City of Edinburgh. Professor Wilson was in the chair and gave the toast to Scottish literature: Charles Dickens gave the toast to David Wilkie, the Scottish painter who had recently died.

Dickens described John Wilson as “a bright clear-complexioned, mountain looking fellow. He looks as though he had just come down from the Highlands and had never in his life taken a pen in hand but he has had an attack of paralysis in his right arm, within the month. He winced when I shook hands with him; and once or twice when we were walking up and down, slipped as if he stumbled on a piece of orange peel. He is a great fellow to look at and to talk to.”

Next day Dickens was to write…‘It was the most brilliant affair you can conceive…the room was crammed, and more than seventy applicants for tickets were of necessity refused yesterday. Wilson was ill but plucked up like a lion and spoke famously”

Wilson is attributed in the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations with the saying “Laws are made to be broken”, and is said to have written the words of the song “Turn ye to me”.  His great-great-great-grandson is Sir Ludovic Kennedy.

A statue to his memory stands in the East Princes Street Gardens in Edinburgh.
His account of his years as a pupil in the Manse of Mearns  reveals his great fondness for the parish which he described as:

“Fairest of Scotland’s thousand parishes - neither Highland nor Lowland –but undulating… like the sea in sunset after a day of storms…Thou are indeed beautiful as old!”

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