WILLIAM MOTHERWELL was born in High Street, Glasgow, on the 13th October 1797. For thirteen generations, his paternal ancestors were owners of the small property of Muirsmill, on the banks of the Carron, Stirlingshire. His father, who bore the same Christian name, carried on the business of an ironmonger in Glasgow. His mother, whose maiden name was Elizabeth Barnet, was the daughter of a prosperous farmer in the parish of Auchterarder, Perthshire, from whom she inherited a considerable fortune. Of a family of six, William was the third son. His parents removed to Edinburgh early in the century; and in April 1805, he became a pupil of Mr William Lennie, a successful private teacher in Crichton Street. In October 1808, he entered the High-school of Edinburgh; but was soon after placed at the Grammar-school of Paisley, being entrusted to the care of an uncle in that place. In his fifteenth year, he became clerk in the office of the Sheriff-clerk of Paisley, and in this situation afforded evidence of talent by the facility with which he deciphered the more ancient documents. With the view of obtaining a more extended acquaintance with classical literature, he attended the Latin and Greek classes in the University of Glasgow, during the session of 1818-19, and had the good fortune soon thereafter to receive the appointment of Sheriff-clerk-depute of the county of Renfrew.
From his boyhood fond of literature, Motherwell devoted his spare hours to reading and composition. He evinced poetical talent so early as his fourteenth year, when he produced the first draught of his beautiful ballad of "Jeanie Morrison." Many of his earlier sketches, both in prose and verse, were inconsiderately distributed among his friends. In 1818, he made some contributions in verse to The Visitor, a small work published at Greenock; and in the following year became the third and last editor of The Harp of Renfrewshire, an esteemed collection of songs, to which he supplied an interesting introductory essay and many valuable notes. Pursuing his researches on the subject of Scottish song and ballad, he appeared in 1827 as the editor of an interesting quarto volume, entitled Minstrelsy, Ancient and Modern, — a work which considerably extended his reputation, and secured him the friendly correspondence of Sir Walter Scott. In 1828, he originated the Paisley Magazine, which was conducted by him during its continuance of one year; it contains several of his best poetical compositions, and a copy is now extremely rare. During the same year, he was appointed editor of the Paisley Advertiser, a Conservative newspaper; and this office he exchanged, in January 1830, for the editorship of the Glasgow Courier, a more influential journal in the same political interests.
On his removal to Glasgow, Motherwell rapidly extended the circle of his literary friends, and began to exercise no unimportant influence as a public journalist. To The Day, a periodical published in the city in 1832, he contributed many poetical pieces with some prose sketches; and about the same time furnished a preface of some length to a volume of Scottish Proverbs edited by his ingenious friend, Andrew Henderson.
Towards the close of 1832, he collected his best poetical compositions into a small volume, with the title of Poems, Narrative and Lyrical. In 1835, he became the coadjutor of the Ettrick Shepherd in annotating an edition of Burns' Works, published by Messrs Fullarton of Glasgow; but his death took place before the completion of this undertaking. He died of apoplexy, after a few hours' illness, on the 1st of November 1835, at the early age of thirty-eight. His remains were interred in the Necropolis, where an elegant monument, with a bust by Fillans, has been erected to his memory.
Motherwell was of short stature, but was well-formed. His head was large and forehead ample, but his features were somewhat coarse; his cheek-bones were prominent, and his eyes small, sunk in his head, and surmounted by thick eye-lashes. In society he was reserved and often taciturn, but was free and communicative among his personal friends. He was not a little superstitious, and a firm believer in the reality of spectral illusions Desultory in some of his literary occupations, he was laborious in pruning and perfecting his poetical compositions. His claims as a poet are not inconsiderable; "Jeanie Morrison" is unsurpassed in graceful simplicity and feeling, and though he had not written another line, it had afforded him a title to rank among the greater minstrels of his country. Eminent pathos and earnestness are his characteristics as a song-writer. The translations of Scandinavian ballads which he has produced are perhaps the most vigorous and successful efforts of the kind which have appeared in the language. An excellent edition of his poetical works, with a memoir by Dr M'Conechy, was published after his death by Mr David Robertson of Glasgow.