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Object in Focus: No. 44-John Mackay Wilson and his “Tales of the Borders”

Berwick Museum and Art Gallery

Old fashioned tales of romance, derring do and adventure, John Mackay Wilson’s “Tales of the Borders” were first published in 1832. They are a treasure trove of stories with a bit of something for everyone – rousing tales of border skirmishes and reivers; royalty and peasants; scary ghosts and ghouls; tender love stories; mysteries and superstitions; and a wealth of local folklore.

John Mackay Wilson and his “Tales of the Borders” 

Berwick Museum & Art Gallery

John Mackay Wilson was born in 1804 in Tweedmouth. He pursued a literary career from a very early age, starting his first job with the Berwick printers William Lochhead, at the tender age of 11.  Wilson led a travelling life until his late 20s, moving between London Manchester and Edinburgh, composing and lecturing on poetry and writing popular and well-received plays, including “The Gowrie Conspiracy” and “Margaret of Anjou”.  However, the life of a writer was precarious; he was often penniless and reliant on friends for charity.  In 1832 he found security in the post of Editor at the Berwick Advertiser.

A soon as he took on the job of Editor, Wilson began publishing local stories, which became so popular so quickly that they were converted into a weekly broadsheet, priced at a penny halfpenny.  Sadly however, his new found career proved to be very short lived.  His health was poor, and Wilson died less than a year later, probably due to an embolism.   He is buried in Tweedmouth Church, and his obituary was published in Volume 49 of the Tales of the Borders. His grave is marked by a very fine tombstone, now sadly decayed.

Tales of the Borders lived on as a weekly publication after number 48, at first to provide an income for his widow Sarah, with Alexander Leighton as their most notable editor. The publication ran to 312 editions before coming to an end.  There were then many reprints and new editions of the original material, containing almost 500 tales or serialisations.

“Historical, Traditionary, and Imaginative”, The Tales are a treasure trove of stories with a bit of something for everyone – rousing tales of border skirmishes and reivers; royalty and peasants; scary ghosts and ghouls; tender love stories; mysteries and superstitions; and local folklore.  The well-crafted and atmospheric illustrations add to the effect in the beautiful leatherbound editions in Berwick Museum’s library.

After much success in Victorian times, the Tales were considered somewhat old fashioned by the mid-20th century.  However, there has been a revival of interest more recently.  The Wilson’s Tales Project, based in Berwick upon Tweed, has been republishing some of the stories retold in modern English and the Tales are once more becoming popular with a new generation of readers.

For more information on John Mackay Wilson and a link to the Tales, look here – https://www.wilsonstales.co.uk/

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Tales of the Borders

Portrait of John Mackay Wilson

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