The John Wilson Collection

A collection of mostly late 18 century books and pamphlets printed by Ayrshire printers John and Peter Wilson.

About John Wilson

John Wilson (1758-1821) was born in Kilmarnock on 26 March, 1758, one year before the birth of Robert Burns. The son of a shopkeeper, he showed good business acumen from an early age.

The first printing press in Ayrshire had been set up by Peter McArthur in 1780-1 and it seems likely that John Wilson took over his press and types, setting up his printing press three floors up in Star Inn Close, off Waterloo Street, Kilmarnock in about 1780-1. Soon after his venture into printing, he was fortunate to be visited by Robert Burns whose desire was to see his verse in ‘guid black prent’.

On April 17th, 1786, there appeared ‘Proposals for publishing by subscription, Scottish Poems by Robert Burns'. This resulted in the first edition of the ‘Poems Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect’ printed in Kilmarnock on 31st July 1786, with a print run of 612. By 28th August, Wilson had only 13 copies left.

Two works had been published prior to the Kilmarnock edition but afterwards there was a veritable rush of publications, mainly of classical and religious nature but also poems by David Sillar, John Lapraik and George Campbell. John Wilson was also the principal bookseller in Kilmarnock at the time with a shop at Kilmarnock Cross.

In 1790, for reasons unknown, he moved his printing business to 23 High Street, Ayr, where printing was done under the supervision of his brother, Peter. From 1791, books appeared under the imprint of J&P Wilson. John Wilson continued his bookselling in Kilmarnock and also undertook community work there, serving the Town Council. He was noted member of the Kilmarnock Kilwinning St John’s Lodge No 22 (of which Robert Burns was an honorary member). He was admitted as a Burgess and Guild Brother in Ayr in October 1790. In 1803, John and Peter Wilson launched the Ayr Advertiser newspaper which, after an unprofitable beginning, has continued in production to this day.

John Wilson sold his business and moved to Ayr in 1810, where he died on May 6th, 1821. He was buried in the Old High Kirk of his native Kilmarnock. In his Will, he left his property to his three nieces and made an educational endowment for the poor children of the town.

John Wilson is remembered as the printer of the first edition of the poems of Robert Burns, but his successful business should be seen as an indicator of the progression of literacy in the area at the time. It was established during the time known as the ‘Scottish Enlightenment;, when more Scots than ever had access to an education which resulted in greater demand for newspapers and books.

About the collection

The collection consists of books and pamphlets printed by the Ayrshire printers John and Peter Wilson. John Wilson is best remembered today as the printer of the first edition of Robert Burns's Poems, chiefly in the Scottish Dialect.

The material dates primarily from the late 18th century. The emphasis is mostly religious works with a few volumes of poetry and a children's chapbook.


Finding aid

Online catalogue

Further reading

Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

Robert Burns Encylopedia

Electric Scotland

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