MacGillivray, William

At a Glance:

Ornithologist, curator, naturalist



Bird names: 1

Region studied:

British Isles

Portrait of William MacGillivray, University of Aberdeen [link]

Content note: this profile discusses trade in human remains and grave robbing, including quotes from and about the subject

The Bird:

MacGillivray’s Warbler (Geothlypis tolmei)

MacGillivray’s Warbler, Audubon [link]

The Name:

Somehow, in all the time I’ve had a copy of the plates from Audubon’s The Birds of America on my coffee table in the living room, it escaped my attention that this was not originally a solo-authored work. Although my first assumption on learning that Audubon had a co-author was that, given Audubon’s penchant for taking credit for other people’s work, he had somehow erased mention of William MacGillivray, it turns out in this one case, at least, Audubon isn’t actually to blame. When The Birds of America was published, there was a separate text that was meant to accompany it: Ornithological Biography, or, An account of the habits of the birds of the United States of America. It was this work that MacGillivray, a long-time friend of Audubon, was instrumental in creating.

William MacGillivray (1796-1852) may be associated with North American birds, thanks to his work with Audubon and the range of his namesake warbler, but the main focus of his career was British birds. He wrote extensively on the natural history of the area, and he was the driving force behind the University of Aberdeen Zoology Museum. He traveled to museums throughout Britain and Ireland, taking notes on the presentation and preservation of their collections as he no doubt considered how best to grow his own.

Like many naturalists of the day, though, MacGillivray’s interest in cataloguing and collecting the variety of life on Earth included detailed descriptions of variety in humans, in of course the worst way that can possibly be approached: MacGillivray apparently had an interest in phrenology. Phrenology today is often thought of as a quaint pseudoscience, but the reality of it was far darker. Many phrenologists were deeply interested in using skull characteristics to apply a veneer of scientific rigor to their preexisting racism.

It’s hard to tell how deeply MacGillivray’s was involved in this endeavor. We have very little of his own writings to go on. His publications were relatively few compared with some of the giants of the day, and most of his personal papers– including most of his journals and correspondence– were lost in a fire in the late 1800s. But if we look through the writings of his contemporaries, we find glimpses of the man that show someone with an uncomfortable level of interest in the skulls of non-Europeans. In a letter to John Bachman in 1835, Audubon says of his friend, “MacGillivray would would like to see the Heads of Negroes and alligators very much. What do you say?”

This isn’t the only time we encounter MacGillivray, Audubon, and Bachman in a discussion of skull. Two years later, Bachman wrote in a letter to the phrenologist Samuel George Morton:

“With regard to your work on the craniology of our Indian brethren I cannot I fear be of any important service to you, excepting becoming a subscriber and to this you may set my name down, the are two Indian chief skulls in this city one of which is just now grinning at me. It is owned by Audubon who begged hard for it, in order to send it to his friend McGillivray [sic] of Edinburgh. I shall however not send it to Edinburgh till Audubon, who is hunting for new birds somewhere in the Gulf of Mexico or up the Sabine, returns to Charleston in hopes I may prevail on him to lend it to you.”

Bachman to Morton, 17 March 1837. Transcribed by JFM. Original: American Philosophical Society, Samuel Morton Papers, Mss.B.M843 [link]

With the paucity of papers from MacGillivray himself, it is unclear if this skull eventually made its way to Edinburgh or not. Nor do we have record of what attitudes MacGillivray had towards Black and Indigenous peoples. However, we do have his opinions of another group that was subject to prejudice in his day:

“[T]he lower orders of the people are villainous in aspect, and disgustingly filthy and ragged…Dublin after all is a splendid city. The Irish dialect is detestable– to my ear. The people have a peculiar aspect, physically and morally bad. The lower orders have a decided taste for ragged great coats.”

Journal of MacGillivray, 10 September 1833. Quoted in MacGillivray 1901.

The number of references to the Irish as filthy, ragged, and somehow not quite human in the brief portion of his journals that survived and were published leads on to suspect that his opinions on Black and Indigenous peoples would be even more unflattering.

MacGillivray is one of those people who was well-known in his day, but has now faded into relative obscurity. If he had not counted among his friends Audubon, whose correspondence is fairly well preserved, we would know even less. The fact that in the few glimpses we get of him, he is seeking out human remains and making derogatory comments against people that in his day were considered lesser, paints a faint but all the more troubling portrait.

J.F. McLaughlin


Audubon, John James, ed. Corning, Howard. 1930. The letters of John James Audubon. Boston, The Club of Odd Volumes. p. 80. [link]

Deane, Ruthven, and MacGillivray, William. 1901. Unpublished letters of William MacGillivray to John James Audubon. The Auk 18(3). pp. 239-249. [link]

MacGillivray, William. 1901. A memorial tribute to William MacGillivray. Privately published. [link]