William Topaz McGonagall was born of rather poor Irish parents in Edinburgh, Scotland, in March 1825. In his nearly unreadable, rambling biographical notes1, one eventually learns that he sprang from a family of five children and that he worked with his father as a handloom weaver. His education appears to have been patchy, but, in his own words, 'William has been like the immortal Shakespeare he had learned more from nature than he ever learned at school'. The family settled in Dundee while William was still a boy, and he lived there for the rest of his life. He died in 1902.
As a grown man, he continued to work in the family trade, and married one Jean King in 1846. At about this time he also began to participate in amateur theatrics, acting in Shakespearean drama at the Dundee theatre. The Muse of Poetry appears to have captured his imagination, if not his talent, in the 1870s, beginning with a paean to a new railway bridge over the Tay River at Dundee in 1877. By McGonagall's own account, the poem was '... received with eclat and [he] was pronounced by the Press the Poet Laureate of the Tay Bridge...'.
And after that he never stopped. His first collection of Poetic Gems was published in 1878, and he published several more Collected Gems during his lifetime as well as many broadsheets. He also toured Scotland, England, and New York in the United States, giving public readings for which he charged admission. At these readings he would dress in full Scottish Highland costume. He is reported to have been a cult figure in his lifetime, although his audiences were often rather stormy with those in attendance given to catcalling.