Poet, antiquary and journalist. Motherwell was born in Glasgow, the son of an ironmonger. At the age of fifteen he joined the office of the Sheriff-Clerk at Paisley, and he rose to become Sheriff-Clerk Depute for the County of Renfrew in 1819. He was an amateur collector of ballads, which he published as The Harp of Renfrewshire (1819), which included an essay on the poets of Renfrewshire, and Minstrelsy Ancient and Modern (1827). His poetic ballads included Jeanie Morrison, written while at school and inspired by the girl who sat next to him. His Poems Narrative and Lyrical appeared in 1832 and Poetical Remains (1848).
Also known as a political journalist, he was editor of the Paisley Advertiser (1828-30) and then of the Glasgow Courier.
Motherwell associated with the poets Robert Tannahill (1774 - 1810) and James Hogg, the Ettrick Shepherd (1770 - 1835), publishing an edition of the Works of Burns with the latter in 1835.
He died just after reaching his thirty-eighth birthday, it is said from over-work, and lies buried in Glasgow Necropolis. His monument there was executed by the sculptor James Fillans (1808-52).