Alexander Wilson lived from 6 July 1766 to 23 August 1813. He was a poet and ornithologist. The wider picture in Scotland at the time is set out in our Historical Timeline.
Alexander Wilson was born in Paisley, the son of a distiller. In 1779, at the age of 13, he was apprenticed to his brother-in-law, a weaver. After an apprenticeship of five years he set out to as an itinerant peddler, tending to divide his time over the following years between periods spent as a weaver, and periods on the road. Meanwhile, he also began to write poetry. Later opinion has differed sharply on the literary merits of his poetry, but at the time he found it impossible to find a publisher for his Poems, Humorous, Satirical, and Serious. Meanwhile, some of his poetry that was published in periodicals poked fun at the way weavers were treated by their employers, and as a result he found weaving work increasingly hard to come by.
In 1794 Wilson left Scotland to find a better life in America, where he established himself as a schoomaster in Pennsylvania. In 1801 he met by chance the eminent naturalist William Bartram, who interested him in ornithology. The result was a decision by Wilson to write and publish a book illustrating North America's bird life. Over the following years he travelled widely, bird-watching and making paintings to illustrate the book. He also put a lot of effort into raising subscriptions for the book. The result was the nine-volume American Ornithology which was published between 1808 and 1814. American Ornithology included illustrations of 286 species of birds, 26 of which were previously unknown. Alexander Wilson died in 1813 at the age of 47 of dysentery, while working on the final volume. It was completed and published the following year by his friend George Ord. Wilson is buried next to Ord at Gloria Dei Church cemetery in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Wilson is remembered as the greatest American ornithologist until the arrival on the scene of John James Audubon, and many believe that it was a meeting between the two in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1810 which inspired Audubon to start work on his own better known book. If so, it meant that Wilson also indirectly inspired the Scottish ornithologist, William MacGillivray whose own interest was sparked by Audubon. Several bird species were named after Alexander Wilson, including Wilson's Storm-petrel, Wilson's Plover, Wilson's Phalarope and Wilson's Warbler.