Hector Macneil, a popular poet and song-writer, descended from a respectable family in the West Highlands, was born October 22, 1746, at Rosebank, on the Esk, near Roslin, Mid Lothian, where his father, at one period an officer in the army, had taken a farm. He was educated at the grammar school of Stirling, under Dr. David Doig, to whom he dedicated his Will and Jean. He subsequently attended some classes at Glasgow, in the higher branches of education. At the age of 14 he went to Bristol, to a cousin, formerly a West Indian captain, who sent him on a voyage to the island of St. Christopher's, furnished with a letter to a mercantile house there. On his arrival, he obtained a situation in the counting-house of the merchant to whom he had been recommended, but having forgot himself so far as to snatch a kiss from the wife of his employer, one day while reading in the garden with her, he was soon dismissed. He remained for many years in the West Indies, but never could rise above subordinate positions. During this period, it is said, he was employed as a negro-driver, and in 1788 he published a pamphlet in defence of the system of slavery in the West Indies, which was for ever abolished by the Emancipation act of 1830.
When upwards of forty years of age, MacNeil returned to Scotland in bad health and in anything but prosperous circumstances. He had, when a boy of eleven years of age, written a species of drama, in imitation of Gay, but his poetical powers seem to have been allowed to remain almost dormant during his long and struggling career in the West Indies. He now, however, began "to give the world assurance" of his possessing "the vision and the faculty divine," by publishing, in the Spring of 1789, The Harp, a Legendary Tale in two parts, which brought him into favourable notice in literary society, but added nothing to his income.
Having no prospect of employment in his native country, he again quitted it, but this time for the East Indies. Disappointed, however, in his expectations there, he soon returned to Scotland, and took up his abode in a cottage near St. Ninians, in the immediate neighbourhood of Stirling. During his sojourn in the East, he visited the celebrated caves of Elephanta, Cannara, and Ambola, of which a detailed account written by him, was published in the eighth volume of the Archaeologia. He afterwards wrote a number of love songs in the Scottish language, which speedily became favourites of all classes. Of these, his Mary of Castlecary, I loo'd ne'er a laddie but ane, Come under my plaidie, and others, nearly all of a dramatic nature and in the dialogue form, are familiar to all lovers of Scottish song.
In 1795 appeared his principal poem, Scotland's Skaith, or the History of Will and Jean, ower true a tale, the object of which was to exhibit the evils attendant on an inordinate use of ardent spirits, in the story of a once industrious rustic and his wife reduced through intemperance to poverty and distress; and so great was its popularity that in less than twelve months it had passed through fourteen editions. It was followed in the ensuing year, by a sequel, entitled The Waes o' War. All his pieces are in the Scottish dialect.
In consequence of continued bad health, in 1796, with the hope of deriving benefit from a tropical climate, to which he had been so long used, and also of bettering his circumstances, he was induced to go out to Jamaica, and on the eve of his departure composed his descriptive poem, entitled The Links of Forth, or a parting Peep at the Carse of Stirling, which was published in 1799. At Jamaica he remained for a year and a half, residing with Mr. John Graham of Three-Mile-River, where he wrote, The Scottish Muse, which appeared in 1709. On the death of that gentleman he left MacNeil an annuity of £100.
In 1800 Macneil returned to Scotland, and having now a competence and leisure to attend to literary pursuits, he took up his abode at Edinburgh, where he mixed in good society. The same year he published, anonymously, a novel, entitled The Memoirs of Charles Macpherson, which is understood to contain an account of his won early career. Soon after, he set about preparing a complete collection of his poetical works, which appeared in two volumes, in 1801. He next published two works in verse, entitled Town Fashions, or Modern Manners Delineated, and Bygane Times and Late-Come Changes, and in 1812, a novel in two volumes, styled The Scottish Adventurers, or the Way to Rise. In all of which he eulogises the manners and habits of past times, in preference to what he deemed modern innovations and corruptions. Many minor pieces he inserted in the Scots Magazine, of which he was at one time editor. He died at Edinburgh of jaundice, 15th March, 1818. The statement in Chamber's Biographical Dictionary of Eminent Scotsmen, that he was in such destitute circumstances at the time of his death, that he did not leave "wherewithal to defray his funeral expenses," is not correct.