He was educated with a view to being a landscape painter, a training that clearly influenced his literary life, and as a writer he became celebrated for the detailed and atmospheric descriptions of landscapes and seascapes in novels such as White Wings: A Yachting Romance (1880).
At the age of twenty-three he went to London, after some experience in Glasgow journalism, and joined the staff of The Morning Star, and, later, the Daily News, of which journal he became assistant-editor. He wrote a weekly serial in "The Graphic". In the Austro-Prussian War he acted as a war correspondent.
His first novel, James Merle appeared in 1864, and met with little success. Black later disowned the novel and reputedly bought up copies to destroy them. Two further early novels Love or Marriage (1868) and The Monarch of Mincing Lane (1871) did little to advance his career: and all three were omitted from the collected edition of Black's works issued by the publishing firm Sampson Low from 1892.
It was the publication of A Daughter of Heth in 1871 that at once established his popularity. It tells the story of a young girl brought up in Catholic France, who comes to live with her more austere Protestant relatives in southern Scotland, and ends in personal tragedy. The more light-hearted travel story The Strange Adventures of a Phaeton followed in 1872, and in 1874 A Princess of Thule was another big success and was later adapted into a musical play, The Maid of Arran, by a young L. Frank Baum.
Retiring from journalism the next year he devoted himself entirely to fiction. Several collections of short stories and a further 22 novels followed; the last -- Wild Eelin -- in 1898, just before his death on December 10 of that year.
In his own lifetime Black's novels were immensely popular and widely read, and were compared favourably with those of Anthony Trollope, though some critics complained that his writings bared too much his interest in hunting and fishing. However, his fame and popularity did not survive long into the twentieth century. His works were widely pirated in the United States, having no protection from copyright laws. He teamed with such well-known authors as Rudyard Kipling, Thomas Hardy, and Walter Besant to abolish this procedure, resulting in the passing of new laws in 1891, but unlike the others, held no grudge against those who sold unauthorized copies of his books while it was legal to do so, which made things easier and friendlier between him and his American publishers. Baum's play was written under this loophole and it is unclear if Black was even aware of its existence, as Reid never mentions it in his biography.
Among the later novels may be mentioned two further "tragic" tales: Madcap Violet (1876) and Macleod of Dare (1879); Sunrise (1881) a novel of international political intrigue; Shandon Bells (1883) largely set in Ireland; Yolande (1883) which in part deals with drug addiction; Judith Shakespeare (1884) a historical novel featuring the playwright's daughter; and The New Prince Fortunatus (1890) a novel of London theatrical life. Friendship with actor Mary Anderson brought him to the stage twice in mute roles known as "thinkers" (in Romeo and Juliet and The Winter's Tale), but his nervousness interrupted the entire performance.
Black also produced the volume Goldsmith (1878) for Morley's English Men of Letters series.
Black is remembered by a lighthouse built in the form of a Gothic tower "on a spot that he knew and loved, by his friends and admirers from all over the world," as recorded on a carved plaque over the door. The building was erected in 1901 and is still in use as a lighthouse. It stands a mile or so south of Duart Castle, at the eastern extremity of the Isle of Mull.
From 1879 until his death he lived at 1 Paston Place, Brighton.