The youngest of four children, McIlvanney grew up in Kilmarnock in a family of readers; Shakespeare was a household god. After an impressive school career at Kilmarnock Academy, McIlvanney went on to study at Glasgow, the ﬁrst person in his family to go to university. After graduation, he became a teacher. He wrote poetry and prose, and it was with a novel he first made his mark, although even then the title – Remedy is None (1966) – is taken from a poem by Dunbar.
His most celebrated novels include Docherty (1975), which won the Whitbread Prize, and Laidlaw (1977), often credited as the first ‘tartan noir’ novel. He is also known for his journalism. In 1970, he published The Longships in Harbour: poems, in which he addressed his upbringing in Kilmarnock as well as larger issues: war, famine, time, and poverty. In 1984, he published These Words – Weddings and After (Mainstream) and in 1988 In Through The Head (Mainstream).