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John Mackay Wilson – Tales of the Borders in the Berwick Advertiser once again!

“Health and Home are Powerful Magnets”.

John Mackay Wilson – the Writer of Tales of the Borders and Editor of the Berwick Advertiser 1832-1835

The Editor of the Advertiser is publishing weekly Tales of the Borders. In doing so he is following in the footsteps of one of his most distinguished predecessors as Mike Fraser explains below.

John Mackay Wilson

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 a hugely successful writer of Tales of the Borders, but rather than enjoying a long life in his home town, he was dead at 31 years of age, just over three years later.

Wilson was born in Tweedmouth on 15th August 1804. His father, a Sawyer, was from Duns and his mother was from Tweedmouth, the latter perhaps being related to Charles Mackay, a Scottish author remembered mainly for his book Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. She apparently was the inspiration of his literary ambitions and by the time Catherine Richardson, the Proprietor of the Advertiser, offered him the post of Editor, he, following years of frustration in London and elsewhere, had had modest success as a playwright in Edinburgh.

In recruiting Wilson Catherine was appointing an ambitious, hard-working. confident young man, with local knowledge. Of course, it was also crucial that Wilson supported the Advertiser’s political stance. Wilson joined the newspaper during the turmoil leading to the passage of the  Great Reform Act and no doubt Catherine was aware that like her he was an ardent supporter of reform. He immediately expanded the newspaper’s political coverage by introducing a regular political column and he considerably intensified the pro-reform rhetoric in the newspaper, which suited the heightened tension in the country as the reform debate reached a climax.

Further, he introduced what in modern newspaper jargon would be called ‘features’. Thus, for example, in May 1832 the first of his series of Sketches of Border Characters was on William Wordsworth. He also published occasional accounts of conversations about topical subjects which he had participated in (or claimed to have participated in), of trips he experienced and articles on fashion for ‘ladies’. Previously the newspaper, founded in 1808, was almost exclusively devoted to national news. Wilson expanded the coverage of Berwick news and introduced regular extensive reports from the villages in the area. As a result of his efforts sales of the newspaper increased considerably.

He also used the Advertiser as a vehicle for promoting his literary career. Thus, on 7th April 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’ …

Below this statement was his Tale The Highland Soldier and by the end of July of that year he had included six Tales in his newspaper and he continued to include his Tales and poems regularly until his death. Wilson advised his readers to preserve the Tales so that they could be read at Christmas with the whole family assembled.

Wilson was at the beginning of an incredibly productive writing period since, 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 the 8th of November the first issue of his Historical, Traditionary and Imaginative Tales of the Borders would be published at a cost of three-halfpence. The Tales were to be published weekly and there was also to be a monthly edition. The monthly edition was to be sold for 6d and Wilson immodestly stated that “in size 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  was choosing an appropriate time to re-visit the past. By 1830 people were conscious of the permanent changes brought 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. Wilson’s Tales were an enormous success, it being difficult to cope with demand.

His 73rd Tale, The Minister’s Daughter, had included the statement “concluded next week”, but Wilson did not live to see it published since he died on October 2nd, 1835. One can only speculate as to the cause of such a sudden death, but the work-load 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.

The Wilson Memorial in Tweedmouth Church Cemetery

Of course, tastes change. Wilson’s writing style in poetry and in prose was of its time and the stories often involve unlikely plot twists which are not to the taste of all contemporary readers. The Wilson’s Tales Project thus publishes modern versions of the Tales and the Tales published in the Advertiser will be derived from these Revival Editions, the fifth of which will be available in November. Information about purchasing the Revival Editions can be obtained at while one can also read some of the original Tales for free at and .

Despite coming from humble origins and leaving school at a young age Wilson achieved a great deal in his short life. The Advertiser series will help to raise the profile of this remarkable native of Berwick.

Mike will talk at the Berwick Literary Festival about the life and work of Wilson following the publication of his book “Health and Home are Powerful Magnets”. An Exile returns to Berwick.

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Mike Fraser