Academic and educational reformer. Pillans was born in Edinburgh into a family of printers. He was educated at the Old High School in the city and the University of Edinburgh, where he took classes given by Joseph Black (1728 - 99) and Dugald Stewart (1753 - 1828). As Headmaster of the High School of Edinburgh, he was an early advocate of compulsory education. He invented the blackboard and coloured chalks and used these to teach Geography. Later (1820 - 1863) he became Professor of Humanity & Laws in the University of Edinburgh. He travelled to the Continent, both to follow his geographical interests but also to study the educational systems of other countries. He published a number of books and papers on geography and education. His First Steps in the Physical and Classical Geography of the Ancient World (1853) was influential and went through several editions, and this was followed by his Elements of Physical and Classical Geography (1854).
He died at his home in Inverleith Row in the New Town of Edinburgh and lies buried in St. Cuthbert's kirkyard. Kap Pillans on Greenland is named in his honour.