This extraordinary man, who, from being originally an operative weaver, became by his own unaided exertions one of the most celebrated ornithologists of his day, was born in Paisley on the 6th of July 1766. His father was a distiller, poor in fortune, though said to have been endowed with an active and sagacious mind. He was so unfortunate as to lose his mother at the early age of ten, and was left without the tender and judicious care which a mother alone can give. On attaining his thirteenth year, he was bound apprentice for three years to his brother-in-law, to learn the business of a weaver, and on the expiry of this term, continued to work as a journeyman for four years more.
The employment of a weaver was by no means congenial to the disposition and propensities of the future ornithologist; but as his father, though a highly respectable man in character, was in very indifferent circumstances, young Wilson had no choice left, but was compelled to adopt that which was readiest and most easily attained. It is much to his credit, however, that though he must have felt - indeed it is certain that he did feel, and that at a very early age - that he was fitted for higher things, he yet diligently labored at the humble but honorable calling to which destiny had appointed him, and never allowed such feelings to interrupt his industry. At this period of his life he indulged in a predilection for poetical composition, and wrote several pieces which appeared in the Glasgow Advertiser;' but in these juvenile attempts he was not very successful, nor was he ever, at any after period, fortunate in this department of literature, though his poetical productions are certainly not without very considerable merit.
Having continued at the loom, as already said, for four years as a journeyman weaver, at the end of this period he abandoned the business, to accompany his brother-in-law, who had commenced traveling merchant or pedlar, in a tour through the eastern districts of Scotland - an employment which, though it could scarcely claim any sort of precedence in point of rank over that which he had left, he yet gladly embraced, as it at once released him from the confinement and dull monotony of his former occupation, and permitted him to indulge in one of his strongest propensities, which was to ramble over hill and dale, and to enjoy unfettered and unrestrained, the beauties of his native land. With such a disposition, it is not to be wondered at that, as a pedlar, he made much greater progress in the study of nature, and perhaps of man, and in the extending of his ideas, than in the improvement of his fortunes. The acquisition of money was no object with him, and of course, as it was not sought, it was not found.
At this time Burns was in the zenith of his fame, and Wilson, tempted by his success, resolved to publish his poems the accumulated pieces of preceding years and in 1789, contracted with a printer in Paisley for this purpose, but was obliged to abandon the idea for the time, for want of means to carry it into effect. He, however, published them some time. afterwards, with the title of 'Poems, Humorous, Satirical, and Serious,' at his own risk, after having in vain endeavored to procure subscribers, and carried them about with him in his hawking expeditions but met with little or no success in the sale of them. Finding that he could make nothing of either poetry or traffic, he returned once more to his loom, at which he was again quitely seated, when he learned that a debating society in Edinburgh had proposed for discussion the question, whether Ferguson or Allan Ramsay had done most honor to Scottish poetry. Seized with an ambition to distinguish himself on this occasion, he borrowed from a friend the poems of Ferguson, which he had never read before, and in a few days produced a poem, which he entitled the Laurel Disputed,' and in which. he awarded the palm to Ferguson. With this poem in his pocket, he proceeded to Edinburgh, and recited it before the audience assembled to hear. the discussion. Before he left Edinburgh, he also recited in public two other poems, and acquired by all a considerable degree of respect and favor. He likewise contributed occasionally, about this time (1791), to a periodical work called The Bee.' But though Wilson's poetical efforts procured him some reputation, they did nothing for him in the way of advancing his worldly interests. The volume of poems which he published in 1789, at which period he was only twenty-two years of age, went through two small editions in octavo, but without yielding the author any pecuniary advantage. His literary reputation was, nevertheless, considerably increased by the publication of his Watty and Meg,' a poem in. the Scottish dialect, and of such decided merit, that it was universally ascribed to Burns on its first appearance, which was in 1791. It is a droll and satirical description of a drunken husband and scolding wife, and shows that the author possessed a fund of broad humor.