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William MacGillivray (1796-1852)


Portrait. ABDUA:30780

MacGillivray was born in Aberdeen in 1796 and lived at his uncle’s farm in Harris until 1811, when he returned to school, and then university, in Aberdeen. He graduated from King's College in 1815.

It was during his regular 360 mile commute on foot between Harris and Aberdeen that he developed a passion for natural history. In 1819 MacGillivray embarked on an even longer walk from Aberdeen to visit the museums in London. He covered 837 miles and chronicled his journey in a 60,000-word journal.

In 1821 MacGillivray moved to Edinburgh as assistant to Professor Robert Jameson (1774–1854), responsible for curating Jameson’s natural history collection. He was appointed conservator of the museum of the Royal College of Surgeons in 1831. During this period he lived on meagre wages supplemented by copious writing. Ten years later, in 1841, he returned to Aberdeen as Professor of Civil and Natural History at Marischal College. He remained in post until his death in 1852. He was a much-loved lecturer within the college and to his extra-mural classes, impressing upon his students the importance of going out in the field and handling specimens. Over his career, MacGillivray produced books and articles at an astonishing rate, and covering a diverse range of natural history topics, but his most important works were his History of British Birds which appeared in five volumes between 1837-1852, and the posthumous Natural History of Dee Side and Braemar (1855).

William MacGillivray was also a close friend and collaborator of the North American naturalist and painter John James Audubon (1785-1851). He worked with Audubon between 1826-1838, helping him write the massive text to accompany the latter's Birds of America. They remained life-long friends and MacGillivray brought with him to Aberdeen specimens given to him by Audubon, particularly ancestral remains of Indigenous people and specimens of birds which are now in the care of the university.


Lecture ticket

Professors were poorly paid in MacGillivray's time. Much of their income came from selling admission to their classes to the students. This ticket for a Natural History class by William MacGillivary can be found in the University's Special Collections Centre.

MS 379

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Asplenium Adiantum-nigrum. Specimen collected by MacGillivray. Not catalogued

Bird skins prepared by Audubon and presented
to MacGillivray

MacGillivray founded the University of Aberdeen Zoology Museum, which still contains some of his specimens. These are some examples from a collection of bird skins presented to MacGillivray by John James Audubon.

MacGillivray was a dedicated botanist, roving the countryside with his vasculum (plant collecting box) and other equipment. The Herbarium contains hundreds of MacGillivray's specimens, mainly from the north-east and around Edinburgh.