William Wilkie (5 October 1721 – 10 October 1772) was a Scottish poet. The son of a farmer, he was born in West Lothian and educated at Edinburgh. In 1757 he published the Epigoniad, dealing with the Epigoni, sons of the seven heroes who fought against Thebes. He also wrote Moral Fables in Verse. In 1756 he entered the Church, becoming minister at Ratho, Midlothian. He was also appointed Professor of natural philosophy at the University of St Andrews in 1759.
The son of James Wilkie, a farmer, he was born at Echlin, in the parish of Dalmeny, on 5 October 1721. He was educated at Dalmeny parish school and the University of Edinburgh, having among his college contemporaries John Home, David Hume, William Robertson, and Adam Smith. His father dying during his student days, he succeeded to the unexpired lease on a farm at Fishers' Tryste, near Edinburgh. This he carried on to support his three sisters and himself, at the same time continuing his studies for the ministry of the Church of Scotland.
Licensed as a preacher by the presbytery of Linlithgow on 29 May 1745, he combined, while waiting for a charge, writing and agriculture. On 17 May 1753 he was appointed, under the patronage of the Earl of Lauderdale, assistant to John Guthrie, parish minister of Ratho, Midlothian, on whose death in 1756 he became sole incumbent. Eccentricity—his occasionally omitting, for instance, to take off his hat before entering the pulpit—somewhat marred the success of his pastorate.
In 1759 he was appointed professor of natural philosophy at the University of St Andrews where he devoted his leisure to experiments in moorland farming. In 1766 the University conferred on Wilkie the honorary degree of DD. Subject to ague, he died on 10 October 1772. Robert Fergusson, one of his students, eulogised him in a memorial eclogue.
Works and reputation
In 1757 Wilkie published The Epigoniad, in nine books, based on the fourth book of the Iliad, and written in heroic couplets in the manner of Alexander Pope's Homer. To a second edition in 1759 he appended an ingenious apologetic "Dream in the manner of Spenser". On the appearance of this edition Hume warmly praised The Epigoniad in a letter to The Critical Review, complaining that the journal had unduly depreciated the poem when first published. He gains a mention from a character in Tobias Smollett's epistolary novel The Expedition of Humphry Clinker as one of Scotland's "many authors of the first distinction... as agreeable in conversation as they are instructive and entertaining in their writings." In 1768 Wilkie published a small volume of sixteen fables, in iambic tetrameter reminiscent of John Gay, with a "Dialogue between the Author and a Friend" in heroics. The sixteenth fable, "The Hare and the Partan" [i.e. crab], is in the Scots dialect of Midlothian.
Regarded by contemporaries as very able, Wilkie impressed and shocked them. Meeting him at Alexander Carlyle's in 1759, Charles Townshend considered that no man of his acquaintance "approached so near the two extremes of a god and a brute". Credited with parsimony, Wilkie said he had learned economy through his having "shaken hands with poverty up to the very elbow." At his death he left property worth £3,000.