HECTOR MACNEILL was born October 22, 1746, at Rosebank, on the Esk, near Roslin; and, to quote his own words, "amidst the murmur of streams and the shades of Hawthornden may be said to have inhaled with life the atmosphere of a poet." He was sent by his father, Captain Macneill, to the grammar-school at Stirling, then under Dr. David Doig, to whom in after-life the poet dedicated his popular composition "Scotland's Scaith, or the History of Will and Jean," of which 10,000 copies were sold in a single month. His father's circumstances being such that he was unable to give his son a university education, he, at the age of fourteen, was withdrawn from his studies, and went to reside at Bristol with his cousin, an opulent West India trader, who had noticed the shrewdness of his younger name-sake, and had engaged to provide for him. He soon after made a trial of sea-life, but this proving distasteful, he entered the counting-house of a merchant in the island of St. Christopher, to whom he had been recommended by his kinsman. He soon made himself so valuable an assistant, that there was every prospect of his being admitted to a partnership, when the whole tenor of his life was altered by a single imprudent kiss! His employer having admitted him to his house on terms of intimacy, Macneill so far forgot himself as to snatch a kiss from the lips of the merchant's young and beautiful wife, with whom he was seated in the garden. For this indiscretion he was dismissed.
Macneill remained in the West Indies for nearly a quarter of a century, under circumstances less prosperous than those in which he began his career there. He appears to have filled various subordinate positions, and at one period to have been the manager of a sugar plantation in Jamaica, in which capacity he prepared a pamphlet in defence of the system of slavery in the West Indies. It was published in 1788, about which time Macneill returned to his native land in poor health and by no means prosperous circumstances. Taking up his residence at Stirling, he entered upon a literary career, by publishing in 1789 "The Harp, a Legendary Tale," which met with but little success. During the succeeding ten years he divided his time between Jamaica and Scotland, at the expiration of which period he found a friend in the person of Mr. John Graham, a West India planter and former employer, who, at this death, left the poet an annuity of £100 per annum. It was on this gentleman's estate of Three-Mile River that Macneill wrote "The Pastoral, or Lyric Muse of Scotland." He now took up his abode at Edinburgh, where he was admitted to the literary circles of that city, and numbered among his friends James Sibbald, and Mrs. Hamilton, authoress of "The Cottagers of Glenburnie."
The poet being now in more easy circumstances, added to his income by systematic literary efforts. He wrote several novels, and for a time was the editor of the Scots Magazine. In 1801 he published an edition of his poems in two volumes, which was followed by a second in 1806, and a third in 1812. Although himself possessing "The vision and the faculty divine," Macneill invariably warned all aspirants for poetic fame against embarking in the precarious pursuit of writing poetry as a means of support, or indeed of trusting to authorship of any kind. Writing to a friend in 1813 he says, "Accumulating years and infirmities are beginning to operate very sensibly upon me now, and yearly do I experience their increasing influence.... My pen is my chief amusement. Reading soon fatigues and loses its zest, compositions never, till over-exertion reminds me of my imprudence." A few years after penning these lines the poet passed away, March 15, 1818, in his seventy-second year.
Macneill's reputation rests chiefly upon his poem of "Will and Jean," first published in 1795. Between this production and Alexander Wilson's "Watty and Meg" it would not perhaps be fair to invite a comparison. Our author acknowledged his obligations to the American ornithologist, and availed himself of all his own advantages. "The Waes o' War, or the Upshot o' the History o' Will and Jean," issued in 1796, is also a simple and pathetic strain, which speedily found its way to the hearts of the people of Scotland. Several of Macneill's songs, such as "Saw ye my Wee Thing!" "My Boy Tammy," "Come under my Plaidie," and his touching ballad of "Donald and Flora," are well-known favourites, and enjoy a popularity perhaps unsurpassed by similar productions of any Scottish poet save Burns alone.
An aged man, who in his youth knew Macneill, and frequently heard him sing his own songs during the early years of the present century, described him to the writer as a tall fine-looking old man, of a sallow complexion, fond of dress, with an exceedingly dignified manner on ordinary occasions, but at a dinner-table he would unbend, and become with his songs and stories the gayest spirit of the company. He sang the old Jacobite lays of his native land with deep feeling, and although his voice was somewhat rough, his singing was more admired than that of others possessing more musical voices, but who lacked the poet's pathos and spirit.