The brilliant Borders
Your recent articles of tales from around Scotland, focusing mainly on myths [September 2022 edition], has encouraged me to draw to your attention a reminder of an almost forgotten but hugely successful set of Scottish tales published in the 19th century. Wilson’s Tales of the Border were first published in 1834 as weekly tales by John Mackay Wilson. Many were based on Border Ballads and other stories he had picked up in his well-travelled life. At the time he was editor of the Berwick Advertiser but he was keen to secure his independent success. The tales were a runaway success. He started with a run of 2,000 a week, but soon had to double this again and then again and start doing reprints to meet demand. Within a year he was planning the printing and distribution of 30,000 copies a week.
Unfortunately, the effort of this took its toll on Wilson and before a year of publications was up, he died aged 32. He left behind a widow. Readers were therefore encouraged to keep buying the tales to support her. The continuation of the tales went on with other writers contributing and were eventually published for six years without a week being missed before drawing to a conclusion in the 312th edition.
They became a much wider body of work, Wilson’s Tales of the Borders and of Scotland: Historical,
Traditionary and Imaginative. They covered the adventures of Scotsmen and women across Scotland and indeed the globe covering a period of some 650 years. As a body of work, as they had so many different contributors, they lacked consistency of literary style. Some tales are very good and Wilson himself was a fine writer. Many are however quite hard work for a modern reader. They do however give a fascinating collection of tales and social insights. Border reiving, the struggles of the Covenantors, early colonists, local lads pressganged into naval service and taking longer to get home than anyone expected when they left. Mutinys and pirates, kings in disguise and even diving bells. Their scope is almost endless.
Original reprints and shortened collections continued to be printed for 150 years and were still popular at the end of the 19th Century. Compendium editions were still being given as school prizes and rewards for long service in the early 20th Century.
This literary legacy is being revived by the The Wilsons Tales Project, www.wilsonstales.co.uk. As part of their efforts, they have been republishing some of the better tales, rewritten and researched for historic context in a companion piece. These editions have also included newly commissioned illustrations as well as reproductions of the originals. Interested readers might like to look at our website to discover more.