William C. Scully, Cape civil servant, author and plant collector, was unable to attend school in Ireland owing to ill-health and in 1867 emigrated to South Africa with his parents. The family settled on a farm near King William's Town, where Scully received his only formal schooling for a period of six months. In 1871, aged 16, he went to Kimberley to prospect for diamonds and two years later proceeded to the newly discovered goldfields in the vicinity of Lydenburg and Pilgrim's Rest where he prospected for gold with little success. In 1874 he joined a transport expedition to present Maputo to fetch gunpowder for the government of the South African Republic (Transvaal), during which he contracted malaria. Shortly afterwards he started working for a boating company in East London.
Scully's long career in the civil service of the Cape Colony started in June 1876 when he obtained a post as clerk in the magistrate office at Tarkastad. He qualified for the post by private study and in due course taught himself Dutch, German, French, Italian, Portuguese, and a reading knowledge of Latin. During the next few years he was transferred to Graaff-Reinet (October 1877), Aberdeen (February 1880), and Stockenström (north of Fort Beaufort, August 1881). From January to July 1881 he was on military duty as a lieutenant in Nesbitt's Light Horse regiment. In July 1883 he became a clerk in the colonial secretary's office in Cape Town. There he started studying botany, receiving instruction from P. MacOwan*. He married Ellen T. Barnes in 1885 and after her death in 1887 married Honoria E. Richards in 1890.
In June 1884, at his own request, he was transferred to Stockenström as magistrate's clerk, but also acted as civil commissioner and resident magistrate. Subsequently he served in a similar capacity in Fort Beaufort (May 1889). In January 1890 he was appointed civil commissioner and magistrate of Namaqualand and in April 1892 special magistrate for the northern border regions. In January the next year he returned to the Eastern Cape and was stationed at Peddie, Mount Frere (June 1894), Nqamakwe (Transkei, September 1895), Bathurst (November 1899), Bredasdorp (April 1902), Caledon (July 1906) and Port Elizabeth (November 1908). He retired as chief magistrate of Port Elizabeth in 1915.
Scully collected plants in the Eastern Cape, among others in the neighbourhood of Stockenström, and in Namaqualand. Many of his specimens went to the Bolus Herbarium (University of Cape Town), the Compton Herbarium (Cape Town), and the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew (England). Some he sent to his friend E.E. Galpin* and these are now in the National Herbarium, Pretoria. A collection given to G.F.S. Elliot* went to the Royal Botanical Gardens at Edinburgh. The plant species Hypoxis scullyi, Disa scullyi, Diascia scullyi and Gladiolus scullyi were named after him. By 1903 he had been elected an honorary Fellow of the University of Edinburgh for his contributions to botany.
Scully's scientific interests extended also to other aspects of natural history, for example, in November 1886 he presented a lecture on mimicry in butterflies at a meeting of the King William's Town Naturalists' Society. Years later, in 1908, he served on the committee of the King William's Town Public Museum. In 1894 he presented a clay figure of a women from the Amahlubis tribe near Mount Frere to the South African Museum, Cape Town. He was an early member of the South African Association for the Advancement of Science (founded in 1902) and served on its committee for Section B (which included botany) during its first year. His wife was an associate member.
Scully is best known as an author and poet. During his stay in Namaqualand he started writing short stories and poems that were published in British magazines. His first book of poems, The wreck of the 'Grosvenor' and other South African poems, was published anonymously in 1886. In addition to poetry and fiction he wrote many works based on his experiences and, in the course of his work, several reports on native affairs for the government. His contact with the nomadic white farmers of Bushmanland inspired vivid accounts of their hardships in the form of two books, Between sun and sand (1898) and Lodges in the wilderness (1915). In Reminiscences of a South African pioneer (1913) he described his life as a prospector and magistrate. After his retirement he visited the Witwatersrand and wrote The ridge of white waters (1916), which included notes on his travels in the Transvaal Lowveld and to Maputo and Durban. In general his memoirs were an unbiased reflection of conditions at the time. Three of his books, Lodges in the wilderness, Reminiscences.. and Further reminiscences of a South African pioneer, were quoted as references in C.J. Skead's Historical mammal incidence in the Cape Province (1980-1987). One of his books was a biography of Dr J.M. Beck*, Sir J.H. Meiring Beck: A memoir (1921), another was A history of South Africa, from earliest days to union (London, 1915, with 45 maps). His literary merit was recognised in 1938 when the University of Stellenbosch conferred an honorary Doctor of Literature degree on him.