Scotlands History\|Scottish Enlightenment

William Smellie, publisher (1740 – 1795)

A 19th century print of publisher William Smellie and engraver Andrew Bell

Eighteenth-century Edinburgh became pre-eminent as a book-publishing centre and William Smellie was 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 in 1757 and his enlightened employer gave him ‘day release’ to attend classes at the University. Botany professor John Hope and Professor John Gregory, who lectured on medicine, were inspirational for him.

Editor and publisher

William Smellie's career led him to the editorship of 'The Scots Magazine' between 1759 and 1765.

He then edited the original three-volume 'Encyclopaedia Britannica', published from 1768 to 1771. He also wrote 13 sections. Through his good management and judgement, this massive work benefitted from input from across the entire spectrum of the Scottish Enlightenment, as well as overseas contributors of the standing of Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus.

A true product of the Enlightenment, the 'Encyclopaedia' flourished and in due course sales justified the huge investment. In 1812, fellow Edinburgh publisher Archibald 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.

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.

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

Other websites

Encyclopædia Britannica

The Preface to the first edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica on the Wikisource website and links to more information about the book's history.