Editor who worked himself to death at the age of just 31


The current editor of the Berwick Advertiser intends to publish weekly Tales of the Borders. In doing so he  follows in the footsteps of one of his most distinguished predecessors, as MIKE FRASER explains


IN FEBRUARY 1832, John Mackay Wilson informed a friend that he was going to accept the post of editor of the Berwick Advertiser because “health and home are powerful magnets to draw me to the North and keep me there”.

He became an outstanding editor and hugely successful writer of Tales of the Borders, but hopes for a healthy life back home in his beloved Borderlands were cruelly dashed: little more than three years later, at the age of just 31, he was dead.

Wilson was born in Tweedmouth on 15th August 1804. His father, a sawyer, came from Duns in Berwickshire but it was perhaps his mother, apparently related to the Scottish author Charles Mackay, who inspired young Wilson’s literary ambitions. By the time Catherine Richardson, proprietor and publisher of the Advertiser, offered him the editorship following his years of frustration in London, he had achieved modest success as a playwright in Edinburgh.

In recruiting Wilson, Catherine was appointing an ambitious, hard-working and confident young man with much local knowledge. Crucially, Wilson ardently supported her and her newspaper’s reforming political stance during the turmoil leading to the passage of the Great Reform Act. He immediately expanded the newspaper’s political coverage, introducing a regular political column and intensifying the paper’s pro-reform as the debate reached a climax.

He was an innovator, introducing what modern newspaper jargon calls ‘features’: in May 1832, for example, the first subject of his series of Sketches of Border Characters was the poet William Wordsworth. He also published accounts of topical conversations in which he had [or claimed to have] participated, of trips he’d experienced and articles on fashion ‘for ladies’.

Furthermore, he converted a newspaper which, since its foundation in 1808 had been almost exclusively devoted to national news, into a thoroughly local publication, expanding the coverage of Berwick-upon-Tweed news and introducing regular, extensive reports from surrounding villages. As a result, sales soared.

He also used the Advertiser as a vehicle for promoting his own literary career. Thus, on  April 7, 1832 he announced in the newspaper:

“… we intend giving from time to time a series of original Border Tales, embracing every subject from grave to gay, from lively to severe …”

Beneath this, the first of his ‘tales’ was produced: The Highland Soldier began a series which, by the end of July of that year, had included six such sketches which were the forerunners of countless other tales and poems to appear regularly in the newspaper until his death. They should, Wilson advised his readers, be preserved to be read at Christmas with the whole family assembled!

Wilson had begun an incredibly productive writing period. In addition to his journalism, the Tales and the poems, he was writing a novel. At the end of 1833 he published, by subscription, a successful volume of his poems and in October 1834 he announced in the Advertiser that on November 8 the first issue of his Historical, Traditionary and Imaginative Tales of the Borders would be published at a cost of three-ha’pence. The Tales were to be published weekly and there was also to be a monthly edition, to be sold for sixpence.

“In size,” Wilson immodestly trumpeted, “they will be unified with the popular editions of Shakespeare, Scott and Byron [but]they will be printed in an entirely new and beautiful type”.

He had chosen an ideal time to revisit the past. By 1830, people were conscious of the permanent changes wrought by the Industrial Revolution and there was nostalgia for what had been lost in the process. Further, Sir Walter Scott had created a demand for stories set in the Borders and Wilson’s Tales were such an enormous success it was difficult to cope with demand.

His 73rd Tale, The Minister’s Daughter, ended with the promise that it would be  “concluded next week”, but Wilson did not live to see it published. He died on October 2, 1835.

One can only speculate as to the cause of such a sudden death in one so young, but the workload he had assumed might have killed many men. Subsequently, other writers were recruited to satisfy the demand for further Tales and they continued to be popular throughout the nineteenth century.

Fittingly, there is now a major revival of interest in the works of an extraordinary young man who, despite humble origins and a short education, achieved such a great deal in so short a life.

J M Wilsons gravestone in Tweedmouth Cemetery
  • MIKE FRASER will talk at the Berwick Literary Festival in October about the life and work of John Mackay Wilson following the publication of his book Health and Home are Powerful Magnets; An Exile Returns to Berwick.

The fifth Revival Edition of Wilson’s Tales of the Borders will be published this year. For more information consult the Wilson’s Tales Project  at www.wilsonstales.co.uk

You can also read the original Tales free at www.electricscotland.com/bordertales/ .


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