Bute minister’s 1920s bird book is electronic bestseller

The Rev J.M. McWilliam, author of The Birds of the Island of Bute, written while McWilliam was minister at St Brendan's Church in Craigmore in the 1920s.
The Rev J.M. McWilliam, author of The Birds of the Island of Bute, written while McWilliam was minister at St Brendan's Church in Craigmore in the 1920s.

It is one of the unlikeliest bestsellers for years. A book about the bird life of Bute, written by a local church minister in the 1920s, has shot to number seven in W.H. Smith’s chart of 200 bird ebooks.

Outselling even current favourite reads for birdwatchers like David Lindo’s The Urban Birder and Crow Country by Mark Cocker, the book’s popularity has spread through word of mouth and mentions on UK birdwatching websites.

The Birds of the Island of Bute, by the Rev J.M. (John Morell) McWilliam, was first published in 1927 and went on to become a collector’s item with copies changing hands on the internet for up to £150.

The author’s only other book, The Birds of the Firth of Clyde, published in 1936, has also been much sought-after, and the ebook edition of that title has now risen to number 13 on W.H. Smith’s chart.

McWilliam, a Church of Scotland minister at St Brendan’s Church in Craigmore who went on to parishes in Glasgow and Dumfriesshire, was a founder and the first honorary president of the Scottish Ornithologists’ Club, where fellow members gave him the affectionate title of ‘Scotland’s Minister for Ornithology’.

Roger Ratcliffe, of the ebooks’ publishers Aire Press, confesses that the success of the McWilliam titles has taken him by surprise.

“But having said that, the very high prices that printed copies were fetching on the internet, particularly for the Bute book, suggested there might well be a large pent-up demand for them,” he said.

“I think this was fuelled by numerous mentions of McWilliam’s work appearing in modern bird guides to Scotland, but to many birdwatchers the second-hand prices being asked were just too high.

“Actually, they are also lovely reads. So many of today’s bird books are rather dry affairs, just endless lists of dates and places of bird sightings, whereas McWilliam couldn’t resist injecting his own personality and eye for the absurd.

For instance, he tells the story of how he went to investigate a reported sighting of a rare ivory gull on Bute only to learn that the bird had been eaten.”

McWilliam was considered one of the great characters of the British bird world, and was friends with eminent post-War ornithologists like James Fisher and David Lack.

When he died in 1968 one obituary said of him: “In life, as in art, there are many copies and few originals. John Morell McWilliam was an original.”

The W.H. Smith ebook chart reflects only sales of titles for reading on devices like Kobo, Sony Reader, Nexus, Galaxy and other Android tablets and phones. The McWilliam ebooks are also available to download for Amazon’s Kindle and Apple’s iPad and iPhone.

Details of the McWilliam ebooks can be found by clicking on the link to the right of this article.

You can view W. H. Smith’s chart of best selling bird books here: http://bit.ly/Yil0i1


1. Cover of ebook edition Birds of the Island of Bute.

2. Cover of original 1927 print edition.

3. Royalty free image of Rev. J. M. McWilliam