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Walking with Birds: The Art of Audubon and MacGillivray

William MacGillivray

William MacGillivray (1796-1852)

An oil portrait of MacGillivray.

Map of William MacGillivray's Walk from Scotland to London

A map of MacGillivray's walk from Aberdeen to London in 1819.


William MacGillivray was born in Old Aberdeen and raised on the Isle of Harris. Growing up in the Outer Hebrides, he developed a love of the outdoors. Aberdeen became MacGillivray’s home again when he returned to study medicine at King’s College in 1812, yet ornithology, the study of birds, would become his true passion.

Studying nature

During MacGillivray’s studies, the field of zoology was not yet well-established, so he taught himself a great deal. During university holidays he returned to Harris, making the 360-mile journey through the Highlands on foot and taking note of the bird and plant species he encountered.

In September 1819 MacGillivray began walking from Aberdeen to London to visit the British Museum’s natural history collection. Taking a direct route this journey is around 500 miles, but MacGillivray took a longer path via Ben Nevis. He walked 837 miles in 8 weeks, documenting his journey as he went.

He continued observing nature up close whenever he could, and in 1823 became assistant to the Regius Professor of Natural History at the University of Edinburgh.

Career and Influence

After devoting many years of his life to advancing the study of nature, MacGillivray secured a position as Professor of Civil and Natural History at Aberdeen’s Marischal College, and made a lasting impression on his students.

Though a significant naturalist in his own right, MacGillivray is perhaps best remembered today for his collaboration with the widely celebrated American naturalist, John James Audubon.


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