Check all the Clans that have DNA Projects. If your Clan is not in the list there's a way for it to be listed. Electric Scotland's Classified Directory An amazing collection of unique holiday cottages, castles and apartments, all over Scotland in truly amazing locations.

Kay's Edinburgh Portraits
William Smellie, Author and Printer


The late Mr. William Smellie, Printer, author of "The Philosophy of Natural History," and translator of the works of Buffon, is by no means one of Kay's happiest efforts, as instead of the vacant expression delineated, the prevailing cast of Mr. Smellie's features was grave and thoughtful ; but this defect may have arisen in consequence of the figure being originally that of a Mr. Gavin, and afterwards changed to Mr. Smellie. He was born in the Pleasance of Edinburgh, in 1740. Both his father and grandfather were architects, and were possessed of considerable property at St. Leonards, in the neighbourhood of Edinburgh. He married, in March, 1703, Miss Jane Robertson, daughter of an eminent army-agent iu London. This lady was full cousin to the present Mrs. Oswald of Dunnikier, their mothers having been sisters. Mr. Smellie's only brother, named John, married Miss Agnes Ferrier, sister of the late James Ferrier, Esq., Principal Clerk of Session.

Independently of his professional eminence—being the most learned printer of his day—Air. Smellie's talents procured him the constant society and friendship of nearly all the eminent literary characters who flourished towards the latter end of the last century. For his great convivial qualities and brilliant wit, we have the testimony of many kindred spirits ; among whom may be mentioned the poet Burns, who, in a letter to a venerable old gentleman, lately deceased, Mr. Peter Hill, bookseller, thus describes him:—"There in my eye is our friend Smellie, a man positively of the first abilities and greatest strength of mind, as well as one of the best hearts and keenest wits that I have ever met with," etc.—Bums' Works, Letter 56.

Mr. Smellie was one of the principal writers in the Edinburgh Magazine and Review—a work which commenced in 1773, and was conducted for some years with great spirit, and much display of talent. It would assuredly have succeeded, had its management been committed entirely to the calm, judicious, and conciliatory control of Mr. Smellie; but owing to the harsh irritability of temper, and the severe and almost indiscriminate satire in which Dr. Gilbert Stewart, the principal editor, indulged, several of the reviews which appeared in that periodical gave great offence to many leading characters of the day; the consequence of which was such a diminution in the sale of the work as to render it necessary to discontinue it altogether. This took place in August, 1776, after the publication of forty-seven numbers, forming five octavo volumes. Had the work been only conducted upon the principles developed in the prospectus, it would have had few rivals and fewer superiors.

Mr. Srnellie was likewise editor of the first edition of the "Encyclopedia Britannica," three volumes, quarto, 1771. The whole plan was arranged, and all the principal articles were written or compiled by him. He also wrote a great number of pamphlets on various subjects, among which may be particularised his "Address on the Nature, Powers, and Privileges of Juries," published in 1784. It is an admirable treatise, and ought to be carefully studied by every true friend to the Constitution, especially by such as have occasion to act as jurymen. It may be remarked, that this pamphlet inculcated those doctrines which have since been recognised as English law, in Mr. Fox's celebrated Bill on the subject of libels. The late Honourable Thomas Erskine (afterwards Lord Chancellor), in his defence of the Dean of St. Asaph for a libel, paid Mr. Srnellie a very high compliment for this defence of the rights of juries.

Such was the high character of Mr. Srnellie as au author, that when the first volume of his "Philosophy of Natural History" was announced as preparing for the press, the late Mr. C. Elliot made him an offer of one thousand guineas for the copyright, and fifty guineas for every subsequent edition, besides the employment of printing it. This was the largest sum ever previously given—at least, in Edinburgh—for the literary property of a single quarto volume of similar extent, and evinced both the liberality of the bookseller, and the high estimation in which the fame and talents of the author were held. It was, besides, an odd volume, being the first of the work. It is remarkable, that this bargain was finally concluded before a single page of the book was written.

In his translation of Buffon (9 vols. 8vo), Mr. Srnellie introduced niauy original notes, observations, and illustrations of great importance, pointing out particular passages and opinions iu which he differed from his author, and furnishing many new facts and reasonings. The Count de Buffon, as appears from his own letters to Mr. Smellie on the occasion, was highly pleased with this translation, of which a considerable number of editions was published. In these nine volumes he comprehended all that was contained in the original, which consisted of sixteen large quarto volumes. The method he purstied of rendering it into the English language was somewhat unusual. Instead of translating literally, paragraph by paragraph, and sentence by sentence, he deliberately read over six or eight pages at a time, making himself perfectly master of their substance, and then wrote down the whole iu English, iu his own words and arrangement. The greater part of this task he performed in a small correcting-room connected with his printing-office, amidst the continued interruption arising from the introduction of proof-sheets of other works for his professional revisal, and the almost perpetual calls of customers, authors, and idle acquaintances. Yet such was his self-possession, that as usual with almost everything he wrote, he gave it out to his compositors page by page, as fast as it was written, and hardly ever found it necessary to alter a single word, after the types were set up from his first uncorrected manuscript.

In August, 1871, Mr. Smellie drew up the first regular plan for procuring a statistical account of the parishes of Scotland. This plan was printed and distributed by order of the Society of Antiquaries; and, although no other result followed at the time than a statistical report, by the Earl of Buchan, of the parish of Uphall, in which his lordship then resided, along with three or four others, which were printed in the Society's Transactions, yet it is proper to mention the circumstance, as it was the precursor of the scheme which the late Sir John Sinclair afterwards brought to maturity.

On the death of Dr. Ramsay in 1775, Mr. Smellie became a candidate for the Chair of Natural History in the University of Edinburgh. The patronage being in the gift of the Crown, his Mends made strong and ardent applications in his favour to Lord Suffolk; but, from the superior political influence of his opponent, Dr. "Walker, these exertions were unsuccessful.

Mr. Smellie was one of the original founders of the Society of Antiquaries. In 1781 he was appointed Superintendent of its Museum of Natural History; and in 1793 he was elected Secretary. It is not intended here to give a history of that Society ; yet, as a considerable portion of the strange and inexplicable opposition which that association encountered in their application for a Royal Charter from two highly respectable public bodies, originated out of circumstances intimately connected with Mr. Smellie's history, a short account of these transactions may be given. Mr. Smellie having announced his intention of giving a course of lectures, at the request of the Society, on the "Philosophy of Natural History," to be delivered in their hall, this proposal gave great dissatisfaction to Dr. Walker, the recently elected Professor of Natural History, already mentioned; although every attempt was made by the Earl of Buchan to satisfy him that Mr. Smellie's lectures would not interfere with those of the University, and although Dr. Walker had not even given a single lecture for nearly seven years after his appointment. Nothing, however, would satisfy him; and his answer to the Earl's pacific endeavours was—"In the professorship I am soon to undertake I have foreseen many difficulties, which I yet hope to surmount; but the lectures of Mr. Smellie, under the auspices of the Antiquarian Society, is a new discouragement which I did not expect." This discontent was communicated to the Senatus Academicus, and through that respectable body an unexpected opposition arose when the Society of Antiquaries transmitted a petition to the King praying for a charter. The Curators of the Advocates' Library likewise objected to the grant, under the idea that the institution of the Society might prove injurious to their magnificent Library, by intercepting ancient manuscripts and monuments illustrative of Scottish history and antiquities, which would be more useful if collected into one repository. All this opposition, however, proved of no avail. Much to the honour of the late Lord Melville—who was at that time Lord Advocate for Scotland—his lordship signified, by a note to the Secretary of the Society, that he saw no reason for refusing the prayer of the petition, and at the same time transmitted the draft of such a charter as he considered was proper to be granted. In consequence, therefore, of his lordship's favourable interposition, the royal warrant, in which his Majesty was pleased voluntarily to declare himself patron of the Society, passed the Privy Seal next day. As soon as it was received in Edinburgh, a charter was extended under the Great Seal. The gentlemen of this public office, sensible of the many advantages likely to accrue from the establishment of the Society, generously refused to accept their accustomed fees, and the royal charter, which is dated the 29th March, was finally ratified, by passing through all the customary forms, on the 5th and 6th of May, 1783.

During the time Mr. Smellie attended the class of Botany in the University, the Professor, Dr. Hope, having met with an accident which confined him to the house for a long time, requested Mr. Smellie —of whose knowledge and abilities he was highly sensible—to carry on his lectures during his necessary absence. This was done by Mr. Smellie for a considerable time—(his widow has stated, during six weeks)—to the entire satisfaction of his fellow-students.

Mr. Smellie was about the middle size, and had been in his youth well-looking and active ; but when rather past the middle of life he acquired a sort of lounging gait, and had become careless and somewhat slovenly in his dress and appearance. These peculiarities are well described in the following lines, produced by Burns at the meeting of the Grochal-lan Club, alluded to in our notice of Lord Newton :—

---------"To Crochallan came,
The old cocked hat, the brown sartout the same;
His bristling beard just rising in its might,
(Twas four long nights and days to shaving-night);
His uncombed grisly locks, wild-staring, thatched—
A head for thought profound, and clear unmatched:
And. though his caustic wit was biting rude,
His heart was warm, benevolent and good."

In grave and philosophical discourse, Mr. Smellie was clear, candid, and communicative, as well as thoroughly informed. He never withheld his judgments and opinions from a narrow-minded feeling, nor obtruded them unnecessarily, or at unseasonable times, from vanity or affectation. His manners were uncommonly mild, gentle, and inoffensive, insomuch that none, even of his own family, ever remember to have seen him out of temper. In his last and long illness he was never in the smallest degree peevish, fretful, or melancholy. he died on the 24th June, 1795.


Return to Book Index Page