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The Burns Encyclopedia
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Wilson, John (c. 1751 — 1839)

Burns's 'Dr Hornbook' was the son of a Glasgow weaver. He was at Glasgow University in 1769, taught first at Craigie Ayrshire, and in 1781 was appointed schoolmaster at Tarbolton. (A 'hornbook' - a sheet of paper carrying the alphabet, digits, the Lord's Prayer, and elements of spelling, mounted on wood and covered by a protective plate of transparent horn — was in common use in primary schools until the close of the eighteenth century.) Gilbert Burns recorded that to eke out a scanty living, Wilson opened up a grocers shop, where he also sold a few medicines, and offered advice 'in common disorders' gratis. It was this diversification of his interests, indeed, that ultimately led the parishioners to accuse him of neglect, and to demand his replacement. Because of this, and also because while Clerk to the Kirk Session he quarrelled with his superior, the Reverend Dr Patrick Wodrow, Wilson left Tarbolton in 1792. When Burns and his family moved to Lochlea in 1784, it was Wilson who, as Session Clerk, signed the 'certificate of character' required by the church law of the time.

Burns obtained the inspiration for 'Death and Dr Hornbook' upon listening to Wilson airing his medical knowledge at a meeting of Tarbolton Masonic Lodge, of which Wilson was secretary from 1782 to 1787. The satire, however, was not written until after Burns had left Tarbolton. Though Wilson had no reason to feel kindly towards Burns, he seems to have borne the poet no ill-will. (Lockhart's story of the poem forcing Wilson to close his shop seems to be pure fiction!) When in 1790 Wilson wanted to change his employment, it was to his former satirist that he wrote. Wilson sought employment at a clerk of copyist in an Edinburgh office, possibly with the Excise. Burns advised him: '... for Mrs Wilson's sake, and your sweet little flock, not to quit the Present, until you be pretty sure of your hold of the Future.' The letter, written from Ellisland on 11th September 1790, enclosed a note of recommendation to the lawyer, John Sommerville. But Wilson heeded the warning that 'the life of an Edinburgh Quill-driver at twopence a page' was no life. 'I should be very sorry any friend of mine should ever try it,' Burns added. Wilson abandoned his dreams of going to the Capital, and went instead to Glasgow, where he taught for a time in High Street. Later, he opened a 'Commercial Academy' in Buchan Street. He became Session Clerk of Gorbals Parish, Glasgow, and appointment he held for thirty years. He was buried in Gorbals cemetery.

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Complete Burns Songs

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