Joanna Baillie was born in Bothwell, South Lanarkshire, the youngest of three children, not counting her twin sister who died at birth, unnamed. Her father was a Presbyterian minister who later became professor of Divinity at Glasgow University and her aunt, Anne Home Hunter, was a poet. In 1769 the family moved to Hamilton and Joanna was educated at a boarding school in Glasgow.
After her father died in 1778 she, her mother, and her sister Agnes moved to East Kilbride, where she ran her physician brother Matthew’s household until he married. While doing this she studied French literature and Shakespeare and began to write poetry and plays. She published her first volume of poetry, Poems: Wherein it is Attempted to Describe Certain Views of Nature and Rustic Manners in 1790.
A year later she commenced writing Plays on Passions which were published in three volumes in 1798. These consisted of tragedies on love and hatred and a comedy on love. They brought her much acclaim at the time on both sides of the Atlantic but have been largely forgotten. In all Joanna Baillie wrote 27 plays, most of them in verse. She also published three volumes of Dramatic Poetry in 1836 and nine new plays on themes of passion such as jealousy and remorse.
After having lived for several years in Colchester, the family moved to Hampstead where her cottage became a centre of literary society. Her mother died there in 1806. Fellow poets Anna Laeticia Barbould and her niece Lucy Aikin were friends and neighbours and she also developed friendships with Lady Byron and Sir Walter Scott who was an admirer of her work. She was a deeply religious person of intelligence, high integrity and modesty who gave half her earnings to charity and campaigned on behalf of several humanitarian causes including the treatment of boy chimney sweeps.
Joanna Baillie wrote a considerable number of poems on a wide range of themes, many illustrating her love of nature and her religious beliefs. They are written in a simple, pure and kindly tone, reflecting her modest, charitable nature and her love of life. She died aged 88, maintaining all her faculties until the end, outlived only by her sister Agnes who died, aged 100. The Selected Poems of Joanna Baillie was published in 2000 and there is a monument to her memory in the churchyard at Bothwell.