Ross was born at Broadford, Skye, the son of a pedlar. He spent some time at Forres, Morayshire, where he gained an education. Later the family moved to Gairloch, Ross-shire, his mother's native place; she was the daughter of John Mackay, poet and piper known as Am Pìobaire Dall.
Travelling with his father, Ross became proficient in the Gaelic dialects of the western Scottish Highlands. An accomplished musician, he sang well and played several instruments. He was appointed parish schoolmaster at Gairloch, and died there in 1790 or 1791.
Two volumes of Ross's Gaelic poems were published—Orain Ghae'lach (Inverness, 1830) and An dara clòbhualadh (Glasgow, 1834), edited by John Mackenzie. His poetic range covered whisky, girls and the death of the Young Pretender in 1788. Other poets including Alasdair Mac Mhaighstir Alasdair were influences.
Mòr Ros (Marion Ross) of Stornoway (afterwards Mrs. Clough of Liverpool) rejected his advances, in 1782. He celebrated her in several poems. As the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography puts it, "legend has it that Ross died of love, but if he did it was a lengthy process".
- Thomson, Derick S. "Ross, William". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/24136. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
- Lee, Sidney, ed. (1897). "Ross, William (1762-1790)". Dictionary of National Biography. 49. London: Smith, Elder & Co.
- Lee, Sidney, ed. (1893). "Mackenzie, John (1806-1848)". Dictionary of National Biography. 35. London: Smith, Elder & Co.