William MacGillivray lived from 25 January 1796 to 4 September 1852. He became known as "Scotland's greatest field naturalist" and did much to popularise ornithology. The wider picture in Scotland at the time is set out in our Historical Timeline.
William MacGillivray was born in Aberdeen, the illegitimate son of a man who joined the army shortly after William's birth. William was brought up on the Isle of Harris in the Western Isles by his uncle, Roderick MacGillivray, who farmed there. He attended school in Leverburgh, and returned to study at the University of Aberdeen at the age of 12. Having gained his Master of Arts, he went on to study medicine. Each Summer vacation he would walk from Aberdeen to the west coast to catch a boat to Harris, which he regarded as his home.
It was while on Harris in 1817 that he found a walrus that had been shot and dissected it, publishing his first scientific paper after returning to Aberdeen later the same year. He then decided to further his knowledge of natural history by visiting the British Museum in London, making the return journey from Aberdeen on foot. In 1823, by now married and with a child, MacGillivray became curator of the University of Edinburgh's Natural History Museum. He subsequently also became curator of the museum of the Royal College of Surgeons in Edinburgh.
In 1830 MacGillivray published the first of a series of books "intended to induce the young to betake themselves, to the fields and woods, the mountains and shores, there to examine for themselves the rich profusion of nature." Also in 1830 he met the American bird artist J J Audubon in Edinburgh, and agreed to write the detailed texts to accompany Audubon’s illustrations in his Birds of America. MacGillivray was a fine artist himself, and started work on his own five volume A History of British Birds.
MacGillivray was appointed Professor of Natural History at Marischal College, Aberdeen in 1841, a post in which he introduced the hitherto unheard of idea of taking students on field trips. The fifth volume of A History of British Birds was published in 1851, and both MacGillivray and his wife died the following year. At the time of his death, at the age of just 56, his last book, A Natural History of Deeside and Braemar remained unpublished. Queen Victoria purchased the manuscript of the book and had a limited edition printed in 1855.