William Miller was born in Briggate, Glasgow, in August 1810. He served an apprenticeship to a wood-turner, and became a skilled cabinet-maker, a trade which he followed for the rest of his life. He began to write poetry while still a youth, contributing to local newspapers and periodicals; the appearance of ‘Willie Winkie’ and several other nursery poems in the 3rd and 4th series of Whistle-binkie (1839-43) established his reputation. His best poems were thus produced before he was thirty-six; he then wrote little until the year before his death. He died in poverty in 1872, and is buried in Tollcross, in a plot that does not bear his name. There is a memorial to Miller in the Glasgow Necropolis, and in 2009 a plaque was placed on the wall of the brewery which now stands on the site of his former home in Dennistoun.
Miller published his collected pieces in a slim volume in 1863, Scottish Nursery Songs and other poems. Some later poems were included in James Grant Wilson’s The Poets and Poetry of Scotland (1876-7), and Robert Ford edited a new edition of his work in 1902.
The novelist Robert Buchanan wrote of Miller: ‘Few poets, however prosperous, are so certain of their immortality’. It is certainly true that ‘Willie Winkie’ lives on, known around the world (as ‘Wee Willie Winkie’, and paraphrased into English), and is not likely to be forgotten. Indeed, Miller’s dedication in Scottish Nursery Songs reads: ‘To Scottish mothers, gentle and semple, these nursery songs are respectfully dedicated, not fearing that, while in such keeping, they will ever be forgot.’