Series will take traditional stories back to their roots
Wilson's Tales of the Borders is a collection of almost 500 stories celebrating our region's history, legends and people. A best-seller for over a century, it all began in the Berwick Advertiser. We plan to serialise a selection retold for today's readers.
Mike Fraser tells the tale of the Tales.
In February 1832 John Mackay Wilson took the post of editor of the Berwick Advertiser because “health and home are powerful magnets to draw me to the North and keep me there”.
He became an outstanding editor and hugely successful writer. But just over three years after returning to his home town, he died, aged 31.
Wilson was born in Tweedmouth in 1804. His mother may have been related to Charles Mackay, a Scottish author remembered for Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds.
By the time Catherine Richardson, proprietor, offered him the post of editor, Wilson had achieved modest success as a playwright in Edinburgh.
An ambitious, hard-working man, he was an ardent supporter of political reform. He expanded the newspaper’s political coverage and intensified its reformist stance.
The paper had been devoted to national news. Wilson expanded coverage of Berwick and reporting from nearby villages, as well as adding features, accounts of his travels, conversations on topical subjects and fashion articles. Sales increased considerably.
In April 1832 he announced: “We intend giving from time to time a series of original Border Tales, embracing every subject from grave to gay, from lively to severe.”
He advised readers to keep them to read at Christmas with the whole family.
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In 1834 he announced the first issue of his Historical, Traditionary and Imaginative Tales of the Borders, on sale weekly at three-halfpence. There was also a monthly edition at 6d: Wilson said: “In size they will be unified with the popular editions of Shakespeare, Scott and Byron (but) will be printed in an entirely new and beautiful type.”
By 1830 the changes brought by the industrial revolution were inspiring nostalgia. Sir Walter Scott had created a demand for stories set in the Borders, and Wilson’s Tales were a success.
His 73rd Tale, The Minister’s Daughter, stated “concluded next week”. But Wilson did not live to see it published. He died in October 1835.
Other writers were recruited to satisfy the demand for Tales and they were popular into the 20th century.
Despite his humble origins and limited school education, Wilson achieved a great deal.
The Wilson’s Tales Project publishes modern versions of the Tales in a series of Revival Editions. The Tales in the Advertiser will be derived from these. We hope they will raise the profile of this remarkable native of Berwick.
Mike Fraser will talk about the life and work of John Mackay Wilson on Saturday, at 4pm, in Berwick Parish Centre. His book on Wilson, Health and Home are Powerful Magnets: An Exile Returns To Berwick, along with the fifth Revival Edition of Wilson’s Tales of the Borders, is available from bookshops or at www.wilsonstales.co.uk
Or read the original Tales free at www.electricscotland.com/bordertales