William Edmonstoune Aytoun (1813-1865), Scottish poet, humorist and miscellaneous writer, was born at Edinburgh on the 21st of June 1813. He was the only son of Roger Aytoun, a writer to the signet, and the family was of the same stock as Sir Robert Aytoun noticed above. From his mother, a woman of marked originality of character and considerable culture, he derived his distinctive qualities, his early tastes in literature, and his political sympathies, his love for ballad poetry, and his admiration for the Stuarts. At the age of eleven he was sent to the Edinburgh Academy, passing in due time to the university. In 1833 he spent a few months in London for the purpose of studying law; but in September of that year he went to study German at Aschaffenburg, where he remained till April 1834. He then resumed his legal pursuits in his father's chambers, was admitted a writer to the signet in 1835, and five years later was called to the Scottish bar. But, by his own confession, though he "followed the law, he never could overtake it." His first publication - a volume entitled Poland, Homer, and other Poems, in which he gave expression to his eager interest in the state of Poland - had appeared in 1832. While in Germany he made a translation in blank verse of the first part of Faust; but, forestalled by other translations, it was never published.
In 1836 he made his earliest contributions to Blackwood's Magazine, in translations from Uhland; and from 1839 till his death he remained on the staff of Blackwood. About 1841 he became acquainted with Mr (afterwards Sir) Theodore Martin, and in association with him wrote a series of light humorous papers on the tastes and follies of the day, in which were interspersed the verses which afterwards became popular as the Ban Gaultier Ballads (1855). The work on which his reputation as a poet chiefly rests is the Lays of the Scottish Cavaliers (1848; 29th ed. 1883). In 1845 he was appointed professor of rhetoric and belles lettres at Edinburgh University. His lectures were very attractive, and the number of students increased correspondingly. His services in support of the Tory party, especially during the Anti-Corn-Law struggle, received official recognition in his appointment (1852) as sheriff of Orkney and Zetland. In 1854 appeared Firmilian, a Spasmodic Tragedy, in which he attacked and parodied the writings of Philip James Bailey, Sydney Dobell and Alexander Smith; and two years later he published his Bothwell, a Poem. Among his other literary works are a Collection of the Ballads of Scotland (1858), a translation of the Poems and Ballads of Goethe, executed in co-operation with his friend Theodore Martin (1858), a small volume on the Life and Times of Richard I. (1840), written for the Family Library, and a novel entitled Norman Sinclair (1861), many of the details in which are taken from incidents in his own experience.
In 1860 Aytoun was elected honorary president of the Associated Societies of Edinburgh University. In 1859 he lost his first wife, a daughter of John Wilson (Christopher North), to whom he was married in 1849, and this was a great blow to him. His mother died in November 1861, and his own health began to fail. In December 1863 he married Miss Kinnear. He died at Blackhills, near Elgin, on the 4th of August 1865.
See Memoir of W. E. Aytoun (1867), by Sir Theodore Martin, with an appendix containing some of his prose essays.