Scotlands History

William Smellie

Eighteenth-century Edinburgh became pre-eminent as a book-publishing centre, with William Smellie its first great editor. He was a friend of William Creech (1745-1815), whose printing house and bookshop on the High Street was responsible for publishing many important works (including the 1787 ‘Edinburgh’ edition of Burns’s poems). 

Smellie attended the Royal High School of Edinburgh until, aged 12, he obtained an apprenticeship in publishing. He won the Edinburgh Society silver medal for printing (1757), and his enlightened employer gave him ‘day release’ to attend classes at the University. Professors John Hope at botany and John Gregory at medicine were inspirational for him.

His career took him to editorship of ‘The Scots Magazine’ (1759-65), before he edited the original three-volume ‘Encyclopaedia Britannica’ (1768-71), 13 sections of which he wrote. Through his good management and judgement, this massive work benefited from input from across the entire spectrum of the Scottish Enlightenment, as well as overseas contributors of the standing of Linnaeus.

A true product of the Enlightenment, the Encyclopaedia flourished and in due course initial sales justified the huge investment. In 1812, Constable purchased ‘Encyclopaedia Britannica’ from Creech, produced a fifth and sixth edition and then profitably sold it on to A & C Black in 1826, whose seventh edition ran to 21 volumes.

Smellie enjoyed conviviality. His tavern of choice was Douglas’s, off Anchor Close, where he founded the Crochallan Fencibles - a drinking club immortalised in verse by his close friend Robert Burns.

It would be another generation until the giants of Scottish 19th-century publishing were established, all of them learning from the experience of Smellie and Creech: they would include the Chambers brothers, William Constable, John Murray, William Collins, Thomas Nelson and Adam and Charles Black.

  • Sketch of publisher William Smellie

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