WILLIAM RUSSELL, a historical and miscellaneous writer, was the elder son of Alexander Russell and Christian Ballantyne, residing at Windydoors, in the county of Selkirk, where he was born in the year 1741. At the neighbouring school of Innerleithen he acquired a slender knowledge of Latin and Greek, and having removed in 1756 to Edinburgh, he there studies writing and arithmetic for almost ten months. This completed the amount of his school education. He now commenced an apprenticeship of five years under Messrs. Martin & Wotherspoon, booksellers and printers, during which period he added considerably to his stock of knowledge by private study. At the end of his apprenticeship he published a selection of modern poetry, which was thought judicious, and helped to extend the reputation of Gray and Shenstone in his native country. In 1763, while working as a journeyman printer, he became a member of a literary association styled the Miscellaneous Society, of which Mr. Andrew Dalzell, afterwards Professor of Greek in the Edinburgh university, and Mr. Robert Liston, afterwards Sir Robert and ambassador at Constantinople, were also members. To these two gentlemen he submitted a translation of Crebillon's Rhadaminthe et Zenobe, which, after their revival, was presented to Garrick, but rejected. Not long after he seems to have formed an intimacy with Patrick Lord Elibank, who invited him to spend some time at his seat in East Lothian, and encouraged him in the prosecution of a literary career. He therefore relinquished his labours as a printer; and after spending a considerable time in study at his father's house in the country, set out, in May 1767, for London. Here he was disappointed in his best hopes, and found it necessary to seek subsistence as corrector of the press to Mr. Strachan, the celebrated printer. While prosecuting this employment he published several essays in prose and verse, but without arresting popular attention. His Sentimental Tales appeared in 1770; his Fables, Sentimental and Moral, and translation of Thomas' Essay on the Character of Women, in 1772; and his Juba, a poetical romance, in 1774. Other pieces were scattered throughout the periodical works. His success was nevertheless such as to enable him to give up his office at the press, and depend upon is pen for subsistence. After an unsuccessful History of America, he produced in 1779 the first two volumes of the work by which alone his name has been rescued from oblivion — the History of Modern Europe; the three remaining volumes appeared in 1784.
This has ever since been reckoned a useful and most convenient work on the subject which it treats. "It possesses," says Dr. Irving, with whose opinion we entirely concur, "great merit, as a popular view of a very extensive period of history. The author displays no inconsiderable judgment in the selection of his leading incidents, and in the general arrangement of his materials; and he seems to have studied the philosophy of history with assiduity and success. His narrative is always free from languor; and his liberal reflections are conveyed in a lively and elegant style." Dr. Irving states that, in the composition of each volume of this book, the author spent twelve months. He closed the history with the peace of Paris in 1763; and it has been continued to the close of the reign of George IV. by Dr. Coote and other writers.
Mr. Russell's studies were interrupted for a while in 1780, by a voyage to Jamaica, which he undertook for the purpose of recovering some money left there by a deceased brother. In 1787 he married Miss Scott, and retired to a farm called Knottyholm, near Langholm, where he spent the remainder of his days in an elegant cottage on the banks of the Esk. In 1792 he received the degree of Doctor of Laws from St. Andrews, and in the ensuing year published the first two volumes of a History of Ancient Europe, which is characterized by nearly the same qualities as the former work. He did not live, however, to complete this undertaking, being cut off by a sudden stroke of palsy, December 25, 1793. He was buried in the churchyard of the parish of Westerkirk. This accomplished writer left a widow and a daughter.
Dr. Russell was a man of indefatigable industry. Before he had perfected one scheme another always presented itself to his mind. Besides two complete tragedies, entitled Pyrrhus and Zenobia, he left behind him an analysis of Bryant's Mythology, and the following unfinished productions: 1. The Earl of Strafford, a tragedy. 2. Modern Life, a comedy. 3. The Love Marriage, an opera. 4. Human Happiness, a poem intended to have been composed in four books. 5. A Historical and Philosophical View of the Progress of Mankind in the Knowledge of the Terraquaeous Globe. 6. The History of Modern Europe, Part III., from the Peace of Paris in 1763, to the General Pacification in 1783. 7. The History of England from the Beginning of the Reign of George III. to the Conclusion of the American War. In the composition of the last of these works he was engaged at the time of his death. It was to be comprised in three volumes 8vo, for the copyright of which Mr. Cadell had stipulated to pay £750.
"Dr. Russell," says one who knew him, "without exhibiting the graces of polished life, was an agreeable companion, and possessed a considerable fund of general knowledge, and a zeal for literature and genius which approached to enthusiasm. In all his undertakings he was strictly honourable, and deserved the confidence reposed in him by his employers."