William Jardine was born in Edinburgh on 23 February 1800, eldest son of Sir Alexander Jardine, 6th Baronet, of Applegarth, Dumfriesshire and Jane Dorcas Maule. As a boy Jardine attended Edinburgh High School, and at fifteen was sent to school in York ‘to learn English’. At seventeen he entered Edinburgh University attending classes in literature and medicine, his teachers including Prof. Robert Jameson, John Barclay, Robert Allen and John Lizars (later to become his brother-in-law). His love of ornithology was fostered by John Wilson, a janitor at the University who preserved natural history specimens for the Museum.
In 1820 Jardine married Jean (always known as ‘Jane’) Home Lizars. Immediately after his marriage Jardine went to Paris with letters of introduction from Patrick Neill to A. Royer in the Jardin du Roi. He attended classes in anatomy and natural history, and was elected a member of the Wernerian Society in his absence.
In April 1821 William returned to succeed his father as seventh baronet. He continued his interest in natural history throughout his life, building up an extensive library and museum at Jardine Hall, which at one time included over 6,000 species of birds, and which was visited by many of the naturalists of the day. He was also a keen and energetic sportsman.
In 1825 Jardine and Prideaux John Selby toured Holland. After the publication of Selby’s 'Illustrations of British Ornithology' (1821-1834), Jardine, Selby and W.H. Lizars each took a third risk in publishing 'Illustrations of Ornithology' ( 1826-1835). Jardine and Selby were responsible for most of the illustrations, but a few were contributed by J.J. Audubon, who visited Edinburgh in 1826 and gave drawing lessons to the other two. They were assisted in this publication by J.E. Bicheno, J.G. Children, R. Jameson, N.A. Vigors and the artist Patrick Syme, who supervised the colouring of the plates. All of these individuals are represented in the Jardine correspondence.
In 1826 Jardine was elected Vice President of the Wernerian Society, and in 1827 an honorary member of the Scottish Academy. In 1829 he published a new edition of Gilbert White’s 'Natural History of Selbourne', subsequently to be re-issued many times. 1832 found Jardine writing the biography for an edition of Wilson’s 'American Ornithology'. In 1836 Jardine became President of the Berwickshire Naturalists’ Club.
In December 1832 Lizars and Jardine conceived the idea of the immensely successful 'Naturalist's Library'. This was a popular and inexpensive, forty volume, illustrated series which made natural history accessible to the general public. The first volume sold over 7,000 copies. Contributors with whom Jardine corresponded include: John Stevenson Bushman (ichthyology), James Duncan (entomology), Robert Hamilton (amphibious carnivoures), Robert H. Schomburgk, the explorer (ichthyology of Guinea), Charles Hamilton Smith (dogs and horses), William Swainson (ornithology of W. Africa), George R. Waterhouse (marsupials) and the illustrator Edward Lear. Jardine himself wrote fourteen volumes.
There is considerable correspondence in the collection from W.H. Lizars in Edinburgh to Jardine at Jardine Hall, Lockerbie, about the progress of the 'Naturalist’s Library'. The National Library of Scotland holds two scrapbooks of proofs of plates and original drawings for the 'Naturalist’s Library'.
Together with Selby and George Johnston (the first President of the Berwickshire Naturalists’ Club), Jardine began publication of the 'Magazine of Zoology and Botany' in 1836. In 1838 it was amalgamated with Dr. William J. Hooker’s 'Companion to the Botanical Magazine', and brought out as the 'Annals of Natural History', conducted by Jardine, Selby, Johnstone, J.H. Balfour, Hooker and Richard Taylor. In 1840 the Annals were united with Loudon and Charlesworth’s 'Magazine of Natural History' to become 'Annals and Magazine of Natural History'.
Sir William usually attended the British Association meetings, frequently presiding over the zoological section. At the 1840 meeting in Glasgow he met H.E. Strickland (1811-1853), the zoologist and an originator of the Ray Society, who was later to marry Jardine’s daughter Catherine. Jardine visited Ireland in 1845. The journal of this visit, in the form of letters home to his wife, is in Edinburgh University Library.
In 1855 William Jardine became co-editor of the Edinburgh New Philosophical Journal with Hutton Balfour and Dr, Thomas Anderson. In 1860 he was appointed Royal Commissioner to the Salmon Fisheries Survey of England and Wales, together with William Ffennell and George K. Rickards. In 1862 he was invited to be President of the newly formed Dumfriesshire and Galloway Natural History and Antiquarian Society.
Sir William died at the Isle of Wight on 26 November 1874, and was buried in Applegirth Kirkyard.