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Kay's Edinburgh Portraits
William Martin, Bookseller and Auctioneer


Martin, or "Bibles" as he was commonly called, is supposed to have been born at or near Airdrie, about the year 1744; and like his contemporary, Lackington of London, was originally bred a shoemaker. He used to boast that he was in arms during the Rebellion 1745. For several years after he came to Edinburgh, Martin occupied a small shop in the High Street, near the head of the West Bow, where he combined the two very opposite professions of bookseller and cobbler. He also frequented the country towns around Edinburgh on fairs and other market-days, exposing his small stock of books for sale; and, by dint of great perseverance and industry, was soon able to withdraw his allegiance from Crispin altogether, and to devote the whole of his attention to the sale of books.

It is uncertain at what period Martin came to Edinburgh. His burgess-ticket is dated 1786—but he must have been well established in business many years previously. From a letter of condolence written by him to the widow of his brother, who died in America, he appears to have been in thriving circumstances so early as 1782. He says, " The awfully sudden and unfortunate death of my brother—the helpless situation in which you were left, and so many fatherless children—situate in a country surrounded with war and devastation, my thoughts thereupon may be more easily conceived than described. My uneasiness has been much increased by the thoughts of the boy coming to me, that I might receive him safely, and that he might escape the dangers of so long a voyage. Indeed it has been the will of Providence to take all my children from me, and my intention is to adopt him (his nephew) as my own son. My situation in business I have no cause to complain of. I have a shop in the bookselling way in the Lawnmarket of Edinburgh, to which occupation I mean to put "William, my namesake, and in which I hope he will do very well. I will give him the best education, and he shall be as well clothed as myself. . . . My wife has been very much indisposed for some time bypast, and is not yet much better. She is most anxious about William, and wishes much to see him, from which you may conclude his arrival would make us both very happy." The letter from which the foregoing extract is taken, is dated June 2, 1782, and directed to "Mrs. Martin, relict of Captain Martin, to the care of Mr. William Pagan, merchant, New York." The nephew, for whom he expresses so much anxiety, arrived safe in Scotland, and continued with him for several years, but returning to America, died not long after. His wife also, whose bad health he mentions, did not long survive.

Amid these severe domestic afflictions, Martin's business continued to flourish. Finding his old place of business too small, he removed to more commodious apartments in Gourlay's Land, Old Bank Close, in one of the large rooms of which he held his auction-mart. Here he seems to have been eminently successful. In 1789, he purchased these premises from the trustee for the creditors of the well-known William Brodie, cabinet-maker; and in 1792 the fame of his prosperity was so great as to attract the notice of a perpetrator of verses, of the name of Galloway, by whom he is associated with " King Lackington" of London, in the following immortal epistle. The subject of this exquisite effort of genius will be sufficient apology for its insertion. The author, George Galloway, was born in Scotland on the 11th of October, 1757. He was bred a mechanic—then turned musician—next went to sea, and was taken prisoner by the Spaniards. After a lapse of many years he returned to London, and there set about courting the Muses, having been rendered unfit for mechanical labour, owing to weakness of vision caused by long confinement abroad. While living in the capital he produced material for the volume from which the epistle is selected. In justice to George, we must say that his address to "Lackington and brother Martin" is the worst in the collection. He was the author of two plays, "The Admirable Crichton; a tragedy in five acts. Edin., 1802, 12»jo;" and "The Battle of Luncarty, or the Valiant Hays triumphant over the Danish Invaders ; a drama in five acts. Edin., 1804, 12mo "— the perusal of which will afford a treat to those who have any perception of the ludicrous. The last production from his pen that we have seen is an " Elegy on the Death of Henry, Dutce of Buccleuch. Edin., 1812, 8vo;" which is stated " to be printed for and sold by the Author " :—

"To Messrs. Lackington and Martin, Booksellers."
" Honour and fame from no condition rise,
Act well thy part, there all thy honour lies."—Pope.

"While booksellers jog in Newmarket haste,
Racing with Crispins for the bankrupt list;
Hail! then, King Lackinuton, and brother Martin,
Fate's doom'd thee to survive the wreck for certain.
When you relinquished being shoe-retailers,
You shunn'd the dangerous rocks of leather-dealers;
Now, now, your Burns, your Morrisses, and Pindars,
The product of their brain to you surrenders.
For which, one word, you've often sworn and said it,
You utterly abhor what fools give—credit!
Thus, you're the blades who can extract the honey,
For all your creed's in two words, ' ready money.'
Now eunuch-built m booksellers all conivell,
And with thee tumbled headlong to the devil.
Sell, brother Crispins, sell (and spnrn their clamour),
Quick as your luelt-eye, or the auction hammer;
While others write, till eyes drop from their sockets,
Racking their brain for gold to line your pockets.
Since Heav'n has cut and form'd thee out for gain,
And fate has fixed thee in the richest vein;
Led by Dame Fortune, that blind fickle b------h,
Who's smit you with the whilie silver itch,
Selling what hungry authors coin in heaps,
Supporting printers' presses, and their types.
Now since you've rais'd yourselves by your own merit,
Deil take them who envy what you inherit."

About 1793, Mr. Martin sold his premises in Gourlay's Land to the Bank of Scotland, when he removed to 94 South Bridge, where he continued for a number of years. Not long after this he bought the Golf-House, at the east end of Bruntsfield Links, as a private residence, where he resided for several years. In 1806 Martin moved to No. 2 Lothian Street, but in a year or two after retired altogether from business, and died in the month of February, 1820, nearly eighty years of age.

He was twice married, and by his first wife had several children; but as he mentions himself, in the letter already alluded to, they died in infancy. His second wife (to whom he was married in December, 1788) was a Miss Katherine Robertson, daughter of Mr. Robertsou, schoolmaster in Ayr. She had a brother many years surgeon in the 42nd Highlanders. Mrs. Martin survived her husband about seven years; and at her death, his nephews in America received a sum equal to the half of his estate, and her brother received the remainder.

While in his auction-room, Martin was full of anecdote and humour, hut somewhat fond of laughing at his own jokes. "He is apt," says Mr. Kay, "to grin and laugh at his own jests, and the higher that prices are bid for his prints, the more he is observed to laugh and the wider to grin." Martin (nothing to his discredit, considering his humble origin), was somewhat illiterate—at least he was no classical scholar—and perhaps in the course of his business he frequently suffered by his ignorance of the dead languages. Owing to ignorance, he sold many valuable Greek and Latin books for mere trifles. Sometimes when at a loss to read the title of a Latin or French book, he would, if he could find a young student near him, thrust the book before him, saying, "Read that, my man ; it's sae lang since I was at the College I hae forgotten a' my Latin." If the book he was about to sell happened to be Greek, his usual introduction was— 'Here comes crawtaes, or whatever else you like to call it; " and on other occasions, if the volume happened to be in a more modern language, but the title of which he was as little able to read, he would say to the students, after a blundering attempt, " Gentlemen, I am rather rusty in my French, but were it Hebrew, ye hen I would be quite at hame!" Having one night made even a more blundering attempt than usual to unriddle the title of a French book, a young dandy, wishing to have another laugh at Martin's expense, desired him to read the title of the book again, as he did not know what it was about. "Why," said Martin, "it's something about manners, and that's what neither you nor me has owre muckle o'."

Martin, however, was certainly more "at hame" in some instances than he was either in French, Latin, Greek, or Hebrew. On one occasion, at the time Manfredo was performing in Edinburgh, Martin, in the course of his night's labour, came across the "Life of Robinson Crusoe." Holding up the volume, and pointing to the picture of Robinson's man, Friday, he exclaims, "Weel, gentlemen, what will ye gi'e me for my Man-Fredo?—worth a dizen o' the Italian landlouper." Manfredo, who happened to be present, became exceedingly wroth at this allusion to him. "What do you say about Manfredo? Call me de land-loupeur!" Nothing disconcerted by this unexpected attack, Martin again holding up the picture, replied—"I'll refer to the company if my Man-Fredo is no worth a dizen o' him ! The Italian fumed and fretted, but, amidst the general laughter, was obliged to retire.

In these days "rockings" in the country, and parties in the town, were very frequent. On such occasions the auctioneer was wont to be extremely merry, and seldom failed to recite in his best style "The Edinburgh Buck," by Robert Fergusson. He used also to sing tolerably well the ballad of "Duncan Gray." This seldom failed to be forthcoming—more particularly when a tea-party surrounded his own fireside. In this there was perhaps a little touch of domestic pride— at least, the second Mrs. Martin always thought so. During courtship, some trifling misunderstanding had taken place—

"Maggie const hor head fu' heigh,
Look'd asklent an' unco skeigh,
Gait poor Duncan stand abeigh."

But Martin, like the famed Duncan, cooled, and discontinued his visits for some time, till Katherine " grew sick as he grew hale," and at last condescended to let the bookseller know her surprise why he had discontinued his visits. Martin, who had been, like his favourite,

"a lad o' grace "—
" Couldna' think to be her death;
Swelling pity smoor'd his wrath."

So he accordingly resumed his visits, and Katie became his wife, being "crouse an' canty baith;"but she never could endure the song of "Duncan Gray."

Of Mr. Martin's social habits, perhaps the best proof is the fact of his being a member of the " Cape Club." The Cape Club comprised, amongst its numerous members, many men-of talents, and of private worth. Fergusson (who alludes to the Club in his poem of "Auld Reekie ") was a member; as were Mr. Thomas Summers, his friend and biographer; "Wood, the Scottish Eoscius, as he was called; and Eunciman, the painter. The Club derived its name from the following circumstance:—"A person who lived in the suburbs of Calton was in the custom of spending an hour or two every evening with one or two city friends ; and, being sometimes detained till after the regular period when the Netherbow- Port was shut, it occasionally happened that he had either to remain in the city all night, or was under the necessity of bribing the porter who attended the gate. This difficult pass, partly on account of the rectangular corner which he turned, immediately on getting out of the Port, as he went homewards down Leith Wynd, and partly, perhaps (if the reader will pardon a very humble pun), because a nautical idea was most natural and appropriate on the occasion of being half-seas over, the Calton burgher facetiously called doubling the Cape; and it was customary with his friends, every evening when they assembled, to inquire "how he turned the Cape last night."

The Club, on the 22nd September, 1770 (the birthday of the author of "The Seasons"), held a musical festival in honour of the poet, and resolved to have similar meetings every tenth year. Accordingly, in the years 1780, 1790, and 1800, under the superintendence of Mr. Wood, who composed and recited verses on the occasion, the entertainments were repeated with increased effect.

In 1780, when letters of marque were issued against the Dutch, the Knights of the Cape, at a very thin meeting of their Order, on the 26th December, subscribed two hundred and fifty guineas towards fitting out a privateer.

His diploma of knighthood is as follows:—"Be it known to all mortals whether clerical or laical, that we, Sir James Gray, Knight of Kew, the supererninent sovereign of the most capital knighthood of the Cape, having nothing more sincerely at heart than the glory and honour of this most noble Order, and the happiness and prosperity of the Knights-Companions: And being desirous of extending the benign and social influence of the Order to every region under the grand Cape of Heaven; being likewise well informed and fully satisfied with the abilities and qualifications of William Martin, Esq., with the advice and concurrence of our Council—We do create, admit, and receive him a Knight-Companion of the most social Order, by the name, style, and title of Sir William Martin, Knight of Roger, and of E. F. D.— Hereby giving and granting unto him all the powers, privileges, and pre-eminences that do, or may belong to this most social Order. And we give command to our Recorder to registrate this our patent in the Records of the Order, in testimony of the premises. We have subscribed this with our own proper fist, and have caused appended the Great Seal of the Order.—At Cape Hall, this 20th day of the month called October, in the year of grace 1792. (Signed)—Bed, Deputy-Sovereign.—Entered into the Records of the Order by Sir Cellar, Recorder.—L. Box, Secretary."

The "Great Seal of the Order," enclosed in a tin-box, has the letters "E. F. D.," surmounted by a coronet, enclosed with laurel, and the whole encircled with the words—"Sigillum commune Eqnitum de Cape—Concordias fratrum decus."

So much for the good-fellowship of the "grinning auctioneer." Besides being a burgess, he was a member of the Society of Booksellers, and of the Merchant Company of Edinburgh. He was also a member of the Kirk-Session of the Parish of St. Cuthbert's.

The late Mr. Archibald Constable prevailed on Martin to sit for an hour to Mr. Geddes, portrait painter; but the sketch was never finished, as he could not be induced to sit again. Although rough, it is a capital likeness, and was bought at Mr. Constable's sale by a friend of "the Knight of Roger."


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