Motherwell, William (DNB00)
|←Motherby, George||Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 39
MOTHERWELL, WILLIAM (1797–1835), poet, born in Glasgow 13 Oct. 1797, was the son of an ironmonger, descended from an old Stirlingshire family. In his childhood the home was changed to Edinburgh. Here he began his education, which he completed by further school training at Paisley (residing there with an uncle). After studying classics for a year at Glasgow University (1818-19), he was received into the office of the sheriff-clerk at Paisley, and from May 1819 to November 1829 was sheriff-clerk depute of Renfrewshire. As a youth he had very advanced political opinions, but unpleasant personal relations with the ardent reformers whom he encountered transformed him into a zealous tory. For a time he was a trooper in the Renfrewshire yeomanry cavalry, and he became a respectable boxer and swordsman.
Motherwell wrote verse from an early age. The ballad 'Jeanie Morrison' was sketched in his fourteenth year, and published in an Edinburgh periodical in 1832. In 1818 Motherwell wrote verses for the Greenock 'Visitor.' He edited, with a preface, in 1819, 'The Harp of Renfrewshire,' a collection of songs by local authors. In 1824, under the pseudonym of 'Isaac Brown, late manufacturer in the Plunkin of Paisley,' he published 'Renfrewshire Characters and Scenery,' a good-natured local sketch in Spenserian stanza. In 1827 appeared in small 4to 'Minstrelsy Ancient and Modern,' a judicious collection of ballads, with a learned and discriminating introduction. This brought him into friendly relations with Scott.
In 1828 Motherwell conducted the 'Paisley Magazine,' and he edited the 'Paisley Advertiser' from 1828 to 1830, when he left Paisley to be editor of the 'Glasgow Courier.' In both Paisley papers he inserted many lyrics by himself. At Glasgow he threw himself with ardour into his work at an exciting and exacting time, and under his supervision his journal was distinguished by freshness and vigour. While editing the 'Courier' he wrote pretty largely for the 'Day,' a Glasgow periodical begun in 1832. In that year, too, he contributed a discursive preface to Andrew Henderson's 'Scottish Proverbs,' and issued his own 'Poems, Narrative and Lyrical.' In 1835 Motherwell collaborated with Hogg in an edition of Burns, to which he supplied valuable notes. His recent biographers are astray in crediting him with the bulk of the accompanying biography of Burns, which, with an acknowledged exception, is clearly the work of Hogg. Having identified himself with Orangeism, he was summoned to London in 1835 to give information on the subject before a special committee. Under examination he completely broke down, showing strange mental unreadiness and confusion, and was promptly sent home. For a time he seemed likely to recover, but the disease developed, and he died at Glasgow of apoplexy on 1 Nov. 1835.
A restrained conversationalist, Motherwell could be eager and even vehement when deeply moved, and with kindred spirits such as R. A. Smith, the musician, and others of the 'Whistle Binkie' circle he was both easy and affable. His social instinct and public spirit are illustrated in his spirited cavalier lyrics. His essentially superstitious temperament, clinging to the Scottish mythology that amused Bunis, specially qualified him for writing weird lyrics like his 'Demon Lady' and such a successful fairy ballad as 'Elfinland Wud.'
Motherwell's range and grasp are very considerable. His pathetic lyrics — notably 'Jeanie Morrison' and 'My Head is like to rend, Willie' — show genuine feeling. This class of his work drew special praise from Miss Mitford in her 'Literary Recollections.' He was the first aft«r Gray strongly to appreciate and utilise Scandinavian mythology, and his three ballads from this source are energetic yet graceful. Professor Wilson said of Motherwell : 'All his perceptions are clear, for all his senses are sound ; he has fine and strong sensibilities and a powerful intellect' (Blackwood, xxxiii. 670).
A revised and enlarged edition of his poems, with biography by James M'Conechy, appeared in 1846, and in 1848 it was further supplemented and re-edited by William Kennedy [q. v.] A reprint based on these was published in 1881. M*Conechy says that Motherwell was, when he died, preparing materials for a biography of Tannahill. A portrait of Motherwell by Andrew Henderson and two busts by Fillans are in the National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh.
[M'Conechy's Life prefixed to Poems of 1846; Whistle Binkie. vol. i. ed. 1853; Rogers's Modern Scottish Minstrel ; Robert Brown's Paisley Poets.]