Search just our sites by using our customised search engine
Unique Cottages | Electric Scotland's Classified Directory

Click here to get a Printer Friendly PageSmiley

The Scottish Nation

SMELLIE, WILLIAM, 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 Magazine.

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 editions.

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:

---------------------- “To Crochallan came
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.

Return to The Scottish Nation Index Page


This comment system requires you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator has approved your comment.

comments powered by Disqus