Alexander Wilson was a famous poet and ornithologist.
Wilson was born in Paisley in 1766. His father had once been a smuggler, but became a moderately prosperous weaver. The family lived in the Seedhills area and as a boy Alexander, known as Sandy, attended Paisley Grammar School and in his free time liked to swim in the River Cart. At 13 years old he was apprenticed as a weaver, but after three years he left weaving to become a packman, or pedlar. However, like many Paisley weavers of the time, Wilson enjoyed writing poetry.
Wilson had 700 copies of his first volume of poetry published by John Neilson in 1789, but it was not a success. His most famous poem "Watty and Meg" was written two years later, and published anonymously. It was generally assumed to have been written by Robert Burns, a compliment of sorts. In 1792, a later poem, "The Shark, or, Lang Mills Detected" was held to have libelled the owner of Lang Mills. Wilson was sentenced to 14 days in the Paisley Tolbooth, fined, and forced to burn all copies of his libellous poem.
In 1793, Wilson emigrated to America. He took a job as a packman and travelled throughout New Jersey, becoming ever more fascinated by the birdlife he saw on his travels. He was then appointed schoolmaster at a school near Philadelphia where he continued his studies of birdlife. His first ornithological expedition was to Niagara; it took two months and he covered all 1200 miles on foot. In 1806 Wilson took up employment with Philadelphia publishers Bradford and Company as an assistant editor of a new encyclopedia. They agreed to publish Wilson's work "American Ornithology".
"American Ornithology" runs to nine volumes, and they described and illustrated all the birds of America for the first time. It was published between 1808 and 1814. This great work led Wilson to be known to this day as the "Father of American Ornithology." Renfrewshire Libraries holds a copy of his work.
Alexander Wilson died in 1813 in Philadelphia, where he is buried. He is honoured in his home town of Paisley with a memorial and a statue. The statue stands in the grounds of Paisley Abbey, and the memorial stands on the banks of the River Cart at the Hammills waterfall in Paisley. It is inscribed "Remember Alexander Wilson 1766-1813. Here was his boyhood playground."
If you are a Renfrewshire library member you can use this link straight to Alexander Wilson's entry in The Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford DNB). Just enter the word 'renfrew' and then your library ticket number. Most UK libraries subscribe to DNB
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- write to: Paisley Central Library, Heritage and Information, 68 High Street, Paisley, PA1 2BB
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