William Wilson


William Wilson was one of the leading lights in the music scene of Aberdeen, though he was also involved early in his life in musical promotion in Glasgow.

The following biographical information on Wilson’s time at Aberdeen comes from Farmer’s Music Making In The Olden Days [Peters-Hinrichsen Editions, 1950]


Wilson was a member of the Aberdeen Musical Society, apparently for a time their chief singer. During the years 1779-82, he, along with Alexander Reinagle and Alexander Dasti, was involved in organising musical concerts in Glasgow. Both Dast and Wilson accepted offers to work for the Aberdeen Musical Society.

Wilson’s Twelve Original Scotch Songs was published in London c.1785, registered at Stationer’s Hall in June, 1792 (Farmer has “ca. 1785”), with excerpts appearing in the Aberdeen Magazine of 1788.

A Benefit Concert was heard for Wilson in Aberdeen, on 10th March, 1782.

However, due to the Society running into financial difficulties, Wilson’s pay was slashed by half, causing his eventual retirement from his post.


Wilson’s publication for guittar is entirely devoted to songs, not so surprising when we discover that he was primarily a singer whose accompanist is reported to be his wife – it is not reported that she played the guittar, though this should not be considered unlikely. Judging by the dates of first publication of some of the songs, Wilson’s book might have been published as late as 1790, though I’d be grateful for any information to the contrary.

What marks this publication out from others published in Scotland around this time is stated on the cover:

A Proper Accompaniment is Arranged on a plan so distinct as must make the Songs more agreeable to the
Performer than the method that HAS been used of playing the same notes that the Voice Sung.

There are twenty six popular songs, many of which were written for comic operas and musicals for London theatres (see notes below), including some in foreign languages. Wilson provides running arpeggios and Alberti-bass-style accompaniments, but curiously for the Scots songs he resorts to having the guittar play the melody parts. The Scottish air does not always lend itself to regular harmonic rhythm and classical cadences, so Wilson’s choice is a wise one.

Here are some notes I have made for each piece. If you have any more information, please contact me: robmackillop AT gmail.com. Some items have videos – I like to work with amateur singers, which is apt, as most of the guittar publications were aimed at the amateur market. Let us know if you enjoy the songs.


“A New Selection of the Most admired Songs for the Guittar Most Humbly Dedicated (By permission) To The Right Honourable Lady Saltoun by William Wilson” Edinburgh, ca.1790?

  1. Thy Fatel Shafts

A popular song by Tobias Smollett (1721-1774). See also James Oswald “A favourite Air, sung at Vaux-hall, set by Mr Oswald. The Words by Dr Smolet.” Gentleman’s Magazine, July 1755, featuring a melody with words below, and a figured bass line – includes a short “Sym”. Other Smollett songs or poems set by Oswald: “The Tears Of Scotland” (1746); “Adieu, ye streams that smoothly flow” (printed: Peregrine Pickle, 102); three songs in “The Reprisal” – “For the man whom I love”, “Let the nymph still avoid”, and “Behold! my brave Briton’s”; “A New Song” (in John Newbery’s Universal Harmony (1745). Both “A New Song” and “Thy Fatal Shafts” appear in Smollett’s Roderick Random.

The Reprisal: featured a Highlander in exile “from his own country on account of the late rebellion”.

CF Lewis M. Knapp, “Smollett’s Verses and their Musical Settings in the Eighteenth Century”, 224-32.

2. Ah how vainly Mortals Treasure

From The Maid of the Mill” (1765) based on the life of Lady Jane Grey, a comic opera by the  London-based Irish writer, Isaac Bickerstaffe (1735-1812). Sung by “Lord Aimworth”, “in love with a country girl, rivalled by a poor fellow, one of my meanest tenants”. The song is introduced with the words: “it’s to no purpose, I can’t read, I can’t think, I can’t do anything”. Performed at the Theatre Royal in Covent Garden. Bickerstaffe also wrote the hugely popular, Love In A Village (1762), and Thomas and Sally (1760).

If The Maide of the Mill was the hit of 1765, Wilson’s book must have appeared no earlier than that year, more likely the following year or later. See next entry!

3. When Lovely Woman

Appears in Palgrave’s The Golden Treasury of 1875, attributed to Oliver Goldsmith (1728-1774), Irish playwright, and author of The Vicar of Wakefield: A Tale (1766). Quoted also in T. S. Eliot’s The Wasteland: When a lovely woman stoops to folly and/ Paces about her room again, alone/ She smoothes her hair with automatic hand,/ And puts a record on the gramophone”.

4. My Phillida adieu Love

By Miss Mellish? There is a version “ca. 1795” published by Longman and Broderip, for medium voice, violin and piano, but with a guit(t)ar arrangement “on page 4” [WorldCat]

Poem in Reliques of ancient English poetry by Thomas Percy, 1765.

5. This Lock of Dear Selina’s hair

A song in the opera, “The Nunnery” – is this “The Assignation; Or Love in a Nunnery” by John Dryden – 1672…

Version published by Longman & Broderip in 1785, includes versions for guit(t)ar and German flute.

6. Brooks to your sources

From the comic opera, “Fontainbleau; or, our way in France. Theatre Royal, Covent Garden. By J. O’Keefe (1747-1833), music by William Shield.


Enter Henry.

Henry. Is it possible? can it be!—My dear, will you step down a moment? [Exit Nannette.] My sister Rosa!

Rosa. What shall I do?

Henry. Escaped from the convent, I suppose?—Tell me, Rosa, what—lost to every sense of virtue! to fly from the only place that could afford an asylum for your shame?

Rosa. My dear brother! though appearances are against me, yet, when you are acquainted with certain circumstances, which prudence forbids me, at present, to account for——

Henry. Talk of prudence, and your fame blemished—your character departed with its destroyer.—But, of your Lord Winlove’s memory, let me be tender, as his life has answered for his share in your offence.

Rosa. [Aside.] He does not know yet of my lord’s being alive—I dread his return—their meeting again must, indeed, be fatal.

Henry. Tell me, Rosa, why would you quit the convent?

Rosa. [Aside.] I must get Henry out of the house before my Lord Winlove comes back! how shall I?—Come, take me, I’ll go with you there this instant—do forgive me; come, dear brother!

Henry. Yes, yes; I’ll lodge you once more:—yet how perplexing! if I quit Fontainbleau at this juncture, I may lose my wished-for interview, with the unknown charmer that brought me hither.

Rosa. [Aside.] Ruin! I think I hear—if it should be Lord Winlove!—Come, Henry, I have but little preparation, and will immediately attend you.

Henry. Be assured I won’t part with you now, untill I again deliver you to the Lady Abbess, with a strict charge, that she’ll strengthen your spiritual chains. [Aside.] And yet the sympathy of my own heart, inclines me to excuse the weakness of my sister’s.


Brooks, to your sources, ah, quickly return!
Tear drop on tear, and give life to the urn;
Truth and virtue pass away,
Ere I for another my true love betray.

Curiously, the dates for first performance, 1784, and first publication, 1787, seem late for Wilson’s book. The vocal score published by Longman & Broderip gives Domenico Corri as composer.

And why is it subtitled “Negro Song”


7. Canzone – Sigr. Millico

Reminiscences of Michael Kelly, of the King’s Theatre, and the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane.
After dinner, at which I had the honour of being introduced to the late Duke of Bedford, there was music. The celebrated Millico accompanied him-self on the harp in the charming canzonetta, “Hosparse tante lagrime” his singing was enchanting.
Giuseppe Millico (1737-1802): Italian soprano castrato. The start here of three songs from “Six Songs with an Accompaniment for the Great or Small Harp, Forte-Piano or Harpsichord…by Giuseppi Millico. London. Printed by Rob Birchall, at his Musical Circulating Library.” Possibly 1776?

Was Wilson a member of the musical circulating library?

8. La farfaletta – Sigr. Millico

Found in “Six Songs with an Accompaniment for the Great or Small Harp, Forte-Piano or Harpsichord…by Giuseppi Millico. London. Printed by Rob Birchall, at his Musical Circulating Library.” Possibly 1776?

Extra verses:

2. Ma sulla sera,
Cotesta altera,
Non ridera,
Che al vago lume,
Le belle piume,
Si bracciera.

3. Donna incostante,
Che d’ogni amante,
Gioco si fa,
Alfin t’aspetta,
Chi la vendetta,
Altrui fara.


9. Dormai sul margine – Sigr. Millico

Same “Six songs” as above.

Extra verses:

2. Al solitario,
Amico rio,
Furtivo e timido,
Guidommi amor,
E largo premio,
Del pianto mio,
Ogli occhi offersemi.
Tanto tesor.

3. In questo un tenero,

Sospiro ascolto,
Che a Clori languido,
Da labbro usci,
Vedo che palpita,
E’l seno el volto,
Di nuova porpora,
Si ricopri.

10. La Verginalla – in La Governant – Sigr. Bertoni

Ferdinando Bertoni (1725-1813). Published 1780 and onwards in various editions. A Periodical Italian Song. London. Printed by Will, Napier  “Sung by Siga Sestini.” – Giovanni Sestini, fl. 1774-1791.


11. Ma Chere Amie

Sung in the comic opera, “The Jovial Crew or Merry Beggars. A comic opera as performed at Brighton by the Carleton Company.” Also performed at Vauxhall Gardens.

A band of ragged and (ostensibly) crippled beggars, their identity and the verses which they sing indicated by numbers referring to inscriptions etched below the title. The central figures, ‘2’ and ‘3’, are the Prince of Wales (left) and Mrs. Fitzherbert (right), who face each other, each supported with a stick. The Prince holds under his arm a hat filled with guineas, with a paper

Colourful image from the British Museum:

The Jovial Crew

No composer mentioned.

Also appears in “The Devil of Marseilles” by Richard Brinsley Peake (1792-1847)

12. Henry Cull’d the flowrets Bloom

Aria from A. M. Sacchini’s opera, “Rinaldo”, “borrowed” by William Shield (1748-1829) for his opera “Rosina” 1783, dramatised from the novel of the same name, by Mrs Frances Brooke. The music for the opera contains two Scottish melodies (which?).

13. Je Pense A’vous

By James Hook, and published by E. Rhames, Dublin, c.1785. “a favourite song sung by Mr Brett at the Rotunda”.

14. A Favourite Song from the Comedy to the Heiress

by Giovanni Paisiello (music) and Thomas Linley (composed music for The Heiress?). Adapted from Paisiello’s opera, Il barber di Siviglia.

The Heiress 1786, by John Burgoyne (1722-1792). Drury Lane Theatre.

Text of play: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/36570/36570-h/36570-h.htm

15. When the rosy morn Appearing

Composed by Shield? See http://digital.nls.uk/special-collections-of-printed-music/pageturner.cfm?id=87717735

16. O Nancy

Bishop Thomas Percy.

Appears in Vol. VI of the Collection Of Poems by Robert and James Dodsley, 1758. Burns comments on it in Musical Museum: “It is too barefaced to take Dr Percy’s charming song, and, by means of transposing a few English words into Scots, to offer to pass it for a Scots song”.

Robert and James Dodsley, eds, A Collection of Poems in Six Volumes by Several Hands, London, 1758.

Burns to Thomson: “Your observation as to the aptitude of Dr Percy’s ballad to the air, Nannie O, is just.” Check Thomson-Burns songs. “Select Scottish Airs” 1793.

17. When first this Humble Roof I knew

Has a relatively extended “symphony” at the start, and a truncated version at the end.

“…a favourite song sung by Mr Bannister in the Lord of the manor / composed by William Jackson of Exeter” Published in London by John Preston “1780-1787” – National Library of Australia. Jackson’s dates: 1730 -1803.

“The Lord of the Manor” – comic opera by John Burgoyne, British soldier and playwright. Drury Lane Theatre, 1780. He also composed The Heiress – see above.

18. Ma Belle – French Song

Appeared in collection “for harpsichord or piano-forte”  by Thomas Carter (c.1740-1804). Printed by S. A. & P. Thompson c. 1785 – British Library

Title: Gramachree, My Lodging, Carillons de Dunquerque, Rondo in the Rival Candidates, Ma Belle, ma Toute, and the Finale in the Barbier de Seville, with Variations for the Harpsichord or Piano-Forte.


19. An thou were my Ain thing [see above video]

British Library:

Title: An thou were my ain thing.
Publication Details: London : Printed for Mr. Wilson, [s.d.]
Identifier: System number 015643031
Physical Description: 1 score (p. 68-69) ; 35 cm.
Series: Wilson’s edition of the songs of Scotland ; [no. 6]
Shelfmark(s): Music Collections I.653.mm.(19.)
UIN: BLL01015643031

Second song in Volume I of The Scots Musical Museum

See versions in Straloch and Balcarres mss and Orpheius Caledonius (1725). Words “by Allan Ramsay” (1686-1758) appear in the Tea-Table Miscellany.

20. Tweed Side

Text possibly by Robert Crawford (1695-1732).

See Balcarress

21. Light as Thistle down moving

“Light as thistle down: a favorite song sung by Mrs. Billington in Rosina” by William Shield. Published in London by Longman and Broderip, 179?

Rosina: 1781. William Shield, 1748-1829, born near Gateshead, Northumbria.

22. No Flow’r that blows

“sung by Mrs Baddeley in Selima & Azor. by Thomas Linley. Published by Samuel Ann and Peter Thompson, London c.1780.

Selima & Azor: A Persian Tale, In Three Parts. Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. Play by Sir George Collier, 1776. Music by Thomas Linley Snr.

The family has lost all its wealth. Scander, the father, gives his daughter Selima a rose. Selima sings the aria.

23. Busk ye Busk ye – (Mrs Gordon Wardehouse’s Set)

SMM Vol I, no.64. Compare different tune versions – some similarities in 2nd bar, etc.

Lyrics in Ramsay’s Tea-Table Miscellany (1724) also known as The Braes Of Yarrow, by the Jacobite sympathiser, William Hamilton of Bangour (1704-1754).

Tune in William McGibbon’s Scots Tunes, Book II, c.1746. Similar to the SMM version.

Version also by Francesco Barsanti.

The Braes of Yarrow appears in Orpheus Caledonius, Volume II, of 1733.

Similar to “The lady’s Goune” in Leyden? according to G. F. Graham.


24. Dans Votre Lit


25. Serenade


26. How Sweets the Love

“A favorite song sung by Mrs Kennedy”. James Hook (1746-1827), from Norwich. Wrote songs and interludes between plays at various London Theatres. Composer of the famous song, The Lass Of Richmond Hill.