a learned and ingenious printer and eminent naturalist, was born in the
Pleasance of Edinburgh in 1740, and received the first rudiments of his
education at Duddingston school, where, and at the High School of his
native place, he obtained a thorough knowledge of the Latin language.
His father, who, like his grandfather, followed the occupation of an
architect or master builder, and belonged to the sect of Reformed
Presbyterians, originally intended to apprentice him to a staymaker, but
some difference occurred as to the terms of the indenture, and, in
October 1752, he was apprenticed for six years and a half to Hamilton,
Balfour, and Neill, printers to the university of Edinburgh. His
diligence and regular conduct recommended him to his employers, who,
after he had been four years with them, appointed him corrector of the
press, with a small increase of wages. His evenings he devoted to study,
and in the latter part of his apprenticeship he was allowed to attend
several of the classes in the university. In 1757 the Edinburgh
Philosophical Society offered a prize for the most accurate edition of a
Latin classic, on which occasion young Smellie produced an edition of
Terence, in duodecimo, wholly set up and corrected by himself, which
procured for his masters a silver medal. In 1758 he attended the Hebrew
class, to enable him to superintend the printing of a Hebrew grammar
edited by Professor Robertson. In September 1759, his apprenticeship
having expired, he transferred his services to the office of Murray and
Cochrane, printers, where, besides being corrector of the press, he was
employed in making abstracts and collecting articles for the Scots
Having an ardent desire
for learning, Mr. Smellie not only attended the mathematical and
philosophical classes at the university, but all the medical courses,
including chemistry and botany. His studies, indeed, had been so regular
and complete, that he was well qualified for any of the learned
professions, and he was solicited by his friends either to enter the
church or become a physician, but he preferred remaining a printer. In
1763 he married Jane Robertson, daughter of an army agent in London, by
whom he had several children. To the study of botany he devoted so much
attention, that, in 1765, his Dissertation on the Sexes of Plants, in
which he opposed the doctrines of Linnaeus, gained the gold medal given
by Dr. Hope, the botanical professor, and was inserted in the first
edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. While attending this class, the
professor, during an illness which confined him to the house, selected
Smellie to continue the course of lectures in his absence.
In March 1765 he
commenced business as a printer in partnership with Robert and William
Auld, the former of whom was a solicitor, and to enable him to enter
upon this connection, two of his friends, Drs. Robertson and Hope,
advanced him the sum of seventy pounds. Two years thereafter, on the
retirement of Robert Auld, John Balfour, a bookseller, was admitted into
the copartnery. They published the Weekly Journal, a newspaper conducted
by Smellie, which being an unprofitable concern, led to disputes which
terminated in a dissolution of the company in November 1771. He now
carried on the business in connection with Balfour, and easily obtained
from Lord Kames the favour of his becoming security to the Royal Bank
for a cash account to the extent of about £300. Their acquaintance had
originated in the following circumstance: When his lordship’s ‘Elements
of Criticism’ were in course of being printed by Murray and Cochrane,
Mr. Smellie communicated to his lordship, anonymously, a series of
criticisms on the work. Lord Kames requested the name of his unknown
correspondent; and, on being informed, ever afterwards honoured him with
various marks of his friendship. Balfour and Smellie were appointed
printers to the university; and the latter’s correct taste and complete
knowledge of the Latin and English languages often proved very
serviceable to authors in the passage of their works through the press.
In particular, he afforded to Dr. Buchan the most efficient aid in his
‘Domestic Medicine,’ first published in 1770, to such an extent, indeed,
that the authorship of the entire work was confidently ascribed to him.
The principal articles for the first edition of the Encyclopaedia
Britannica, 3 vols, 4to, which began to be printed in 1771, were
written, designed, or compiled by Smellie, who prepared and
superintended the entire publication, for which he was paid by Mr.
Andrew Bell, engraver, the principal proprietor, the sum of £200. Of the
second edition of this work he was offered a share conjointly with the
editorship, but he unfortunately declined it, and thus lost all chance
of obtaining any adequate reward for his immense labour.
In October 1773, in
conjunction with Dr. Gilbert Stuart, Mr. Smellie commenced ‘The
Edinburgh Magazine and Review,’ edited by the latter, which only
extended to five volumes 8vo, closing with the number for August 1776.
Although conducted with great spirit and ability, the strong
personalities indulged in by Dr Stuart led to its downfall. In 1775 Mr.
Smellie’s friends urged him to become a candidate for the vacant chair
of natural history in the university of Edinburgh, but the patronage
being in the gift of the crown, the superior interest of Dr. John Walker
caused him to be chosen in preference. In1781 Mr. Smellie was elected
superintendent of the Museum of Natural History belonging to the Society
of Scottish Antiquaries, of which he was an original member. In 1782 he
published an ‘Account of the Institution and Progress of the Society of
Antiquaries in Scotland,’ to which he added a second part in 1784; and
in 1793 he was elected the secretary of that society. At their desire he
had, in 1781, drawn up the first regular plan for procuring a
statistical account of the parishes of Scotland, which was printed and
circulated, and although it attracted little attention at the time, it
had the merit of being the precursor of the scheme which Sir John
Sinclair afterwards brought to maturity. His excellent translation of
Buffon’s ‘Natural History,’ in nine vols. 8vo, with numerous plates and
occasional notes, appeared in 1781, and soon passed through five
On the dissolution of the
firm of Balfour and Smellie, in 1782, Mr. Smellie assumed as his
partner, Creech the bookseller, who continued in connection with him
till the close of 1798, after which Smellie carried on the business on
his own account. In 1784 he published a tract ‘On the Nature, Powers,
and Privileges of Juries,’ which, containing a clear and judicious
exposition of legal principles, was quoted with much approbation by Lord
Erskine, in his famous speech in defence of Dr. Shipley, Dean of St.
Asaph. He was the author of several other pamphlets, chiefly relating to
local politics. In 1790 appeared the first volume of his principal work,
‘The Philosophy of Natural History,’ for the copyright of which he
received one thousand guineas from Mr. C. Elliott, bookseller,
Edinburgh, and fifty guineas for every subsequent edition, besides being
employed to print it. The bargain was concluded before a single page of
the work was written. The second volume, which concluded the work, was
published by his son in 1799, four years after the author’s death. It
was reprinted in Ireland and America, and translated into the German
language. After a long illness, Mr. Smellie died June 24, 1795, aged 65.
He is described as being
about the middle size, and in his youth good-looking and active, but
when past middle life, he acquired a sort of lounging gait, and became
careless and somewhat slovenly in his dress and appearance. Burns, the
first Edinburgh edition of whose poems he printed, in a letter to Mr.
Peter Hill, bookseller, mentions him as “a man positively of the first
abilities and greatest strength of mind, as well as one of the best
hearts and keenest wits that he had ever met with.” In January 1787 he
introduced Burns to the Crochallan club, which consisted of the literary
men and wits of Edinburgh, and in a good-humoured extemporaneous
satirical fragment written by Burns on his introduction, he thus refers
to Mr. Smellie:
The old cocked hat, the brown surtout the same;
His bristling beard just rising in its might.
(‘Twas four long nights and days to shaving night);
His uncomb’d 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.”
Mr. Smellie left a widow
with four sons and four daughters. His eldest daughter married Mr.
George Watson, an eminent portrait painter, of Edinburgh. He had
projected a series of the lives of men of literary eminence with whom he
was personally acquainted; but he only lived to complete four of them,
-- namely, those of Lord Kames, Dr. John Gregory, David Hume, and Dr.
Adam Smith, which were published in 1800 by his son, Mr. Alexander
Smellie, who succeeded him in the printing business.
His works are:
Thesaurus Medicus, sive Disputationum in Academia Edinensi ad Rem
Medicam pertinentium, a Collegio instituo ad hoc usque tempus, Delectus.
Vol. i. Edin. 1778, 8vo. Vol. ii, 1778. iii. and iv. 1785.
Natural History, general and particular; from the French of Count de
Buffon. Illustrated with 300 Copperplates; and occasional Notes and
Observations by the Translator. Edin. 1780, 9 vols. 8vo. 2d edit.
1785-6, 9 vols, 8vo.
Account of the Institution and Progress of the Society of Antiquaries of
Scotland. Edin. 1783, 4to.
An Address to the People of Scotland, on the Nature, Powers, and
Privileges of Juries; by a Juryman. Edin. 1784. 2d edit. Edin. 1820.
The Philosophy of Natural History. Edin. 1790-1799, 2 vols. 4to.
Dissertation on Public Spirit, and three Essays. Edin. 1800, 8vo.