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Significant Scots
William Laing


LAING,WILLIAM.—This well-known collector of rich and rare literary productions, whose shop was a Herculaneum of the treasures of past ages, was born at Edinburgh, on the 20th of July, 1764. After having received his education at the grammar high school of the Canongate, he made choice of the trade of a printer for his future occupation, and served to it a six years’ apprenticeship. This selection was an unlucky one, owing to the weakness of his eyes; and therefore, instead of following it out, he became a bookseller, for which his apprenticeship had completely qualified him. In his case, too, it was not the showy and ephemeral, but money-making books of modern literature that constituted his stock in trade, but the choicest British and foreign editions of the old classical authors of every language—works which only the learned could appreciate, in spite of the dust and dingy vellum with which they were covered. His shop for this species of unostentatious, slow-going, and precarious traffic, was first opened in the Canongate, in 1785; afterwards he removed lower down the street to Chessel’s Buildings, where he remained till 1803, at which date he removed to the South Bridge, where he permanently established his emporium. During these changes, his reputation as a collector of valuable old books continued to increase, until it was established among the learned over the whole island, so that his shop became a well-known repertory for those scarce volumes which his thriving brethren in the trade did not possess, and probably had never even heard of. All this, too, was the fruit of ardent disinterested zeal, and untiring diligence in his profession. From the year 1786 he had continued to issue an almost annual succession of catalogues. He knew all the scarce works of antiquity, as to the best editions in which they had been published, the places at which they were to be found in Britain, or upon the continent, and the prices at which they were to be purchased. And he was ready to communicate this valuable information to the literary inquirers who frequented his shop for intelligence that could not well be obtained elsewhere. The labour of travel was added to that of painstaking home research and inquiry, and that, too, at a time when Edinburgh booksellers and traffickers in general limited their journeys to the coast of Fife, or even the ranges of the Pentlands. Thus, in 1793, when the French revolution was at the wildest, he visited Paris, for the purpose of making himself acquainted with such knowledge of his vocation as his own country could not supply, and ascertaining what were the best editions of those authors that are most in request. It was no ordinary zeal that made him pursue such a task amidst the roar of the Parisian pikemen and the clank of the guillotine--more especially, when every stranger there was at least "suspected of being suspected." Another similar pilgrimage he made in 1799. Learning that Christian VII., King of Denmark, had been advised to dispose of the numerous duplicates contained in the royal library at Copenhagen, and being instigated by the advice of the celebrated Niebuhr, at that time a student in the university of Edinburgh, Mr. Laing repaired to the Danish capital, and there made such arrangements upon the sale of the duplicates with the privy councillor Dr. Moldenhawer, as was satisfactory to both parties. When the peace of Amiens had introduced a breathing interval in the wars of the revolution, Mr Laing repeatedly visited France and Holland, still for the purpose of extending his professional knowledge, which he readily imparted to the scholars of his own country. The immense amount of information he had thus acquired, was enhanced by his kind generous temper, and modest unassuming manners.

During the war that followed the delusive peace of Armiens, by which the whole continent was closed against British visitors, Mr Laing was worthily employed in raising the literary character of his native country in the department of printing. And for this, indeed, he saw that there was too much need. The distinguished brothers, the Foulis of Glasgow, had passed away, and left no successors in their room. In Edinburgh, so soon to assume the name of "Modern Athens," the case was still worse, for, except Ruddiman s "Livy,’ and Cunningham’s "Virgil," no classical work had issued from her press worth mentioning. In 1804 he commenced the attempt, by publishing the works of Thucydides, in six volumes, small 8vo, under the following title "Thucydides Grace et Latine. Accedunt Indices, ex Editione Wassii et Dukeri." In printing this work, Mr Laing was fortunate in having for the superintendent of the press the Rev. Peter Elmsley, who attained such a high European distinction in Grecian literature. In 1806, the works of Thucydides were followed by those of Herodotus, in seven volumes, small 8vo, under the title of "Herodotus Graece et Latine. Accedunt Annotationes seclectae, necnon Index Latinus, ex Editionibus Wesselingii et Reizii." For editing this work Mr Laing had secured the valuable services of Professor Porson, but as the latter went no farther than the second book, the rest was carried on and completed under the superintendence of Professor Dunbar. The next classical author whose writings Mr Laing published, in 1811, was Xenophon, in ten volumes, also of small 8vo, under the the title of "Xenophontis quae extant opera, Grace et Latine, cx Editionibus Schneideri et Zeunii. Accedit Index Latinus." This important publication was admirably edited by Mr. Adam Dickinson, whose Greek scholarship was only equalled by his retiring modesty, that prevented his worth from being more widely known. Mr Lairig would have followed these with similar editions of the works of Plato and Demosthenes, but was prevented, chiefly by the difficulty of obtaining competent Greek scholars to superintend such important publications. Still, however, he had done much: the editions which he had published were standard specimens of their class, and have given an impulse to classical reprinting in Scotland which, we trust, will neither be fruitless nor yet soon abandoned.

During the latter part of his life, when Mr. Laing was in easy and comfortable circumstances, he was able to devote himself to the more general interests of merchandise, and to this purpose was one of the original founders of the Commercial Bank of Scotland, and also a director. After having nearly completed his sixty-eighth year, and attended business till within three days of his death, he died at his house, Ramsay Lodge, Laurieston, Edinburgh, on the 10th of April, 1832, leaving a widow and family. His name honourably survives in one of his sons whose valuable labours are well known in Scottish history and antiquarianism.


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