Publishing in the Square

Edinburgh had made a slow start in printing and publishing.   Arnot described the situation in Edinburgh in the early eighteenth century when ‘the printing of newspapers,[1] and of school-books, of the fanatic effusions of Presbyterian clergymen, and the law-papers of the Court of Session, joined to the patent Bible printing, gave scant employment to four printing houses’[2].  Lockhart, writing about the depressed state of publishing at that time described the booksellers as ‘petty retailers, inhabiting snug shops, and making a little money in the most tedious way imaginable’ with an ‘occasional volume of sermons, which after lying for a year or so on the counter…was dismissed into total oblivion’[3].

The first Edinburgh Review[4] founded in 1755 attempted to bring ‘before the Public, from time to time, a view of the progressive state of learning in this country…The opportunities of education, and the ready means of acquiring knowledge, in this country, with even a very moderate share of genius diffused thro’ the nation, ought to make it distinguished for letters’.    

The editor drew attention to the lack of achievement up to that time which he considered was due to two considerable obstacles;-

One is the difficulty of a proper expression in a country where there is either no standard of language, or at least one very remote: Some late instances, however, have discovered that this difficulty is not insurmountable; and that a serious endeavour to conquer it, may acquire, to one born on the north side of the Tweed, a correct and even an elegant stile. Another obstacle arose from the slow advances that the country had made in the art of printing….

The language difficulty was the widespread use of regional Scottish dialects including lallans in the south and doric in the north. Burns wrote:[5]

They took nae pains their speech to balance,
       Or rules to gie;
But spak their thoughts in plain, braid lallans,
       Like you or me.

Like the Gaelic speakers of today, most Scots were bilingual – Burns and Scott used both English and vernacular freely in their writings but most would agree that Burn’s best poems were in the Scottish dialect. Eminent individuals used the Scottish dialect in an attempt to preserve the national identity.  Scott in Fortunes of Nigel has King James VI and I speaking in the Scottish dialect (interspersed with Latin quotations).   Henry Cockburn, a leading advocate of his day and later a noted judge, was an example of this.  His eloquence in the courts and the elegance of his writing were outstanding yet he spoke in a fashion ‘untinged …by…vulgar affectation of the language of the South’[6]. ‘ …no man who  has witnessed the effect ….upon a Scottish Jury, would wish to see him alter any thing in his mode of addressing them’.[7] The judge, Lord Braxfield, spoke with an accent and dialect which were ‘exaggerated Scotch’[8] and Lord Auchinleck was also noted for his broad Scottish tongue, although his son, James Boswell, detested this custom and much preferred the sophistications of London to things Scottish.  He complained about his own son, Alexander’s, Ayrshire accent and wrote to his friend Temple, 3 July 1789, ‘were my daughters to be Edinburgh mannered girls, I could have no satisfaction in their company’.[9]

Not everyone agreed that the existence of these dialects was a disadvantage.  Carlo Denina, professor of eloquence in Turin, considered that it might even be an advantage; ‘Authors who are natives of a country which is the seat …of any language, generally write in a peculiar manner.  But on the other hand, the provincials by investigating the proper genius of the language, and examining the import and propriety of the words … frequently write with greater precision, strength and elegance’[10].  David Hume in 1757 was able to write with reference to Scotland[11]:

…really it is admirable how many Men of Genius this Country produces at present. Is it not strange, that, at a time when we have lost our Princes, our Parliaments, our independent Government, even the Presence of our chief Nobility, ..and…speak a very corrupt Dialect of the Tongue which we make use of; is it not strange, I say, that, in these Circumstances, we should really be the People most distinguished for Literature in Europe?

It was said of David Hume himself that ‘his speech in English, was rendered ridiculous by the broadest Scottish accent, and his French was, if possible, still more laughable’[12].

As a result of the scant publishing facilities available in Edinburgh over two thirds of the outpourings of Hume’s Scottish ‘Men of Genius’ including his own massive History of England  (1754-62) were published in London before the expansion of the Scottish trade[13]. Similarly Adam Smith’s seminal work An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776) was published in London.

Things improved rapidly about the time of the Painting. Lockhart writing in Peter’s Letters (1818) with reference to the writings of authors such as Scott and Burns, and the success of the Edinburgh Review was able to report that with regard to publishing;

The prodigious impetus given to the trade of Edinburgh by the first application of this wonderful engine, has never since been allowed to lose any part of its energy… [they] between them furnished the most acceptable food for the reading public, both in and out of Scotland’.

The associated trades of bookselling, printing, engraving and papermaking shared in this success.  The divisions between these trades was at that time indistinct – many booksellers were also publishers and some printers also published journals and newspapers and invested in the paper mills. Scotland became an exporter of paper to England and English authors came to Edinburgh to have their books published – a reversal of the earlier practice.

Printing and publishing had rapidly become Edinburgh’s chief industry, much of it conducted within the vicinity of Parliament Square. Peter Williamson’s Directory of 1777 lists twenty one booksellers[14], mostly located in and around the Square.  These had increased to a hundred and twenty eight by 1827. Printing works had increased from six in 1763 to sixteen in 1790[15] and fifty six in 1845 employing one thousand workers.[16]

 Denina, writing in 1764 was able to say:[17]

The good writers in our days bear no proportion to those who adorned England thirty years ago, But this deficiency in England is amply compensated, by the many eminent authors who at present make such a distinguished figure in Scotland.  The Scotch …conceal from the observation of neighbouring nations that sensible decline in the genius and literature of England, which would otherwise be conspicuous to all Europe…it is now an incontestable fact that the principal authors who have adorned the British literature in these latter times, or do honour to it in the present days, have received their birth and education in Scotland.

This extract, from the work of the Italian professor, was reproduced in the Scots Magazine September 1764.  The editor of the Magazine observed that ‘The sentiments of a native are liable to the suspicion of partiality.  But when a gentleman of distinguished character…gives the palm at last to Scotland, in preference to England…such a determination must give the highest satisfaction to every Scotsman…’.

The transformation of the publishing industry in Edinburgh was such that  Ballantyne  was able to write ‘by every token Edinburgh in late 18th century could hold more than a candle to London in the way of literary prestige’[18] and a visitor considered this city ‘as the modern Athens, in politeness, science and literature.  The writings of its professors, divines and lawyers, are everywhere read and admired’[19].  Topham wrote ‘the most profitable trade in Edinburgh appears to be that of a bookseller,…many thousand volumes are annually printed there, and sold in London or elsewhere.  Scotch Booksellers in London send their books to be printed in Edinburgh,- better printing than in London’. [20]

This last remark of Topham probably refers to a successful industry, which had developed in Edinburgh, of publishing reprints of important works of literature which had previously published in London – a matter which became the source of much litigation.  English publishers had tried to claim perpetual copyright of works which they published, despite a statute of Queen Anne of 1710[21] which limited copyright to fourteen years. Scottish publishers, relying on this act, published cheap editions of English classics.  Prominent among these was Alexander Donaldson, a popular bookseller in Edinburgh, whose shop in the High Street near the Mercat Cross was frequented by James Boswell among others.  London booksellers reacted by refusing to sell what they regarded as ‘pirated’ works.  In order to get around this boycott Donaldson opened his own shop in London in 1763 for the sale of his own cheap reprints. He was subjected to repeated charges of infringement of copyright both in Scotland and in the London.  

Clarification of the law on copyright

The Court of Session in Edinburgh considered a charge against Donaldson and two other Scottish booksellers in 1773 and found by a majority of eleven to one in favour of the defendants, and dismissed the notion of permanent copyright in Scotland. The case attracted great interest among the publishing community.  James Boswell, who was one of the three counsel acting for Donaldson, published the opinions of the judges who adjudicated in the trial[22]. Among the judges who found for the defendants was his father, Lord Auchinleck, who commented with regard to the counsel: ‘we have had the question ably handled in mutual informations, both of them well drawn; in particular, that on the side of the defenders is a performance which does honour to the authors;…’  Lord Monboddo, the only judge who found in favour of the charge, also commented on the quality of the counsel: ‘This cause, whatever way it shall be decided, does great honour to our Bar: for it has been most ably pleaded, not do I remember ever to have heard better pleading.’[23]

Boswell added to the account of the trial some extracts from his Life of Samuel Johnson giving Johnson’s opinion on the matter.  Johnson did not agree with verdict, it ‘make[s] me think of your Judges not with the respect which I should wish to do’.[24] He was in favour of having a period of copyright after publication and thought that it should extended beyond the fourteen years of the statute of Queen Anne.  He variously suggested periods extending up to sixty years[25].

I think it would be very hard, and much to the discouragement of literature, if an author after spending a laborious life in composing a book, did not provide by it, not only for himself, but also for his family,….for, the best books may be twenty years published, without having their merit known, and afterwards have a great and universal sale’. (He quotes Milton’s Paradise Lost as an example)[26]

Donaldson also won an appeal to the House of Lords in 1774 which again confirmed the statute of Queen Anne and the legitimacy of his trade in England.   

Donaldson became a hero to the Edinburgh publishers for ‘before his epoch, both printing and publishing were at the lowest ebb’[27].  Arnot wrote ‘Had the London booksellers succeeded in their aim, the extensiveness and improvement in the art of printing would, in Scotland, have been finished for ever’[28].  Donaldson made a fortune from these books and from his newspaper, the twice-weekly Edinburgh Advertiser. His son James continued his enterprises and invested wisely. He left the family fortune – about £240,000 – at his death in 1840 to found and maintain the Donaldson Hospital for the deaf. Playfair designed the magnificent building which opened in 1851. In 2003 the building was sold for development into residential accommodation.

Donaldson’s Hospital

Charles Elliot and medical publishing

Medical texts became another prominent and profitable part of Edinburgh’s publishing industry.  In the latter half of the eighteenth century, the Edinburgh Medical School had become one of the leading medical schools in the world attracting students from Europe and America. Its professors, including Joseph Black, William Cullen, John and James Gregory, Benjamin Bell, Alexander Monro primus and secundus, and Andrew Duncan were prominent enlightenment figures and their publications were widely read and contributed to the flourishing trade of publishing in Edinburgh.  Charles Elliot (1748-1790) in his short life became one of the most successful Edinburgh publishers. He opened his shop in the east side of Parliament Close in 1771.  Like Donaldson he was involved in the sale of reprints of English classics, which also involved him in a number of court cases, but his main interest lay in the publication of medical works.  Warren McDougall, in his excellent account of Elliot’s medical publications[29]  lists 154 of these.  Many, however, were published in association with other publishers for it was the custom at that time to list several publishers of whom the first was usually the principal, and the others merely privileged booksellers who obtained copies at a discount. The distinction between publisher and book seller was not then well defined.  Thus Elliot is frequently linked with John Murray, Thomas Cadell, Charles Dilly and George Robinson in London and with William Creech in Edinburgh all of whom were both publisher and sellers of each other’s books. 

Publishers competed with each other to obtain the copyright of successful medical authors.  Among Elliot’s most important works was Benjamin Bell’s A System of Surgery for which Elliot paid £600 for copyright (about £100,000 today) which went through many editions.  William Cullen’s First Lines in the Practice of Physic was first published in London by John Murray together with William Creech in Edinburgh and was so successful that Cullen offered the fourth edition to Murray in 1784 for £1500 which Murray rejected.  Elliot made an offer of £1200 which was accepted.  So great was this initial payment that Elliot had made no profit even after the sale of four reprints and offered only £300 for a fifth edition in 1789[30].  Despite this experience he paid Cullen £1500 for the copyright of his Materia Medica.  Both Cullen and Elliot died in 1790 with some of this payment still outstanding but it was duly paid by Elliot’s trustees.  

Other Notable booksellers in Parliament Square and the Luckenbooths

Ramsay’s shop was in the second floor of the Luckenbooths – the building in the High Street overlooking the Mercat Cross. It was later occupied by William Creech

One of the first notable bookshops in Edinburgh was that of the wig-maker and poet, Alan Ramsay (1684-1758), who in 1725, opened his bookshop at a prime site in the east end of the Luckenbooths with windows looking down to the Mercat Cross in the High Street and in the distance towards East Lothian.  Ramsay was best known for his narrative poem The Gentle Shepherd, which in the form of a play was performed many times throughout Britain and in the United States and established Ramsay’s reputation.  The proceeds from The Gentle Shepherd enabled Ramsay to obtain this choice shop in the Luckenbooths, where in addition to selling books, he sold prints and established the first lending library in Scotland, from which the public could borrow a book for two pence a night or by annual subscription.  It was brought to the notice of the magistrates for providing

all the villainous profane and obscene books and playes printed in London…are got doune from London by Alan Ramsay, and lent out, for an easy price to young boyes, servant weemen of the better sort, and gentlemen, and vice and obscenity dreadfully propagated.

but in spite of (or perhaps because of) this stricture the library became very popular. The magistrates ‘scrupled at medlin in it’ with the result that ‘a villainous thing, is no sooner printed at London, than it’s spread and communicat at Edinburgh’[31]. Walter Scott in his younger days was one of the many who made much use of the library, which eventually contained 20,000 books.[32]  Ramsay’s success enabled him to build a house on the north side of Castle Hill.  This house built in an octagonal format known as the ‘Goose Pie’ house’ exists to this day in an enclave known as Ramsay Gardens.  Here his son, also Allan Ramsay, the well-known painter lived and worked. 

Illustration Goose Pie House

In 1739 Ramsay sold his shop to a bookseller James Macewan, who had taken on as an apprentice Alexander Kincaid (1710-1777), who in his turn succeeded to ownership of the shop. Kincaid’s business prospered and expanded into publishing and printing. He became part owner of the Edinburgh Evening Courant, and was appointed his majesty’s printer and stationer for Scotland  He published many of the influential books of the Scottish Enlightenment including Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments. He served as a bailie for many years and was elected Lord Provost in 1776, dying while in office the following year.  The funeral of this respected figure ‘was one of the finest pageants witnessed in Edinburgh since the Union’.[33]  

Perhaps the best known of the early booksellers was William Creech (1745-1815), who had started to study medicine at Edinburgh University in 1761 and while at University became one of the founders of the Speculative Society, an exclusive debating society which continues to this day. [34] He decided on a change of career and in 1764 was taken on as an apprentice by Alexander Kincaid and later became his partner and successor in the shop in the Luckenbooth, which had previously belonged to Allan Ramsay. Creech’s shop with its prominent sign can be seen above. Creech became one of Edinburgh’s most successful publishers and booksellers having among his authors the poets Robert Fergusson and Robert Burns, Sir John Sinclair, editor of the 20 volume Statistical Account of Scotland, and several distinguished figures of the Enlightenment. He was a very sociable bachelor; his breakfast-room ‘was a permanent literary lounge, which was known by the name of Creech’s Levee’[35].  

Creech had bought the copyright of Burn’s Poems chiefly in the Scottish Dialect for 100 guineas in 1787.  He published the second edition and rapidly sold 3000 of the first printing, but was curiously reluctant to reward Burns who had to wait two years for payment after much wrangling[36].   Lockhart said of Creech that it was ‘beneath his dignity to be an ordinary money-making bookseller.  Not that he had any aversion to money-making; on the contrary, he was prodigiously fond of money’[37].   Before his financial problems, Burns wrote a friendly poem about him entitled ‘Willie’s awa’, when Creech was absent in London.  One verse reads:

Nae mair we see his levee door,
Philosophers and poets pour, 
And toothy critics by the score
    In bloody raw;
That adjutant of a’ the core,
    Willie’s awa:

During the period of delayed payment he wrote a less friendly poem describing Creech as

A little, upright pert, tart, tripping wight,
And still his precious self his chief delight. 

Later they were reconciled. 

Creech also published a work of his own entitled Fugitive Pieces – an interesting miscellany of Edinburgh events of his day, which Sinclair used as the chief source of the section on Edinburgh in his Statistical Account of Scotland.  Creech also produced two short lived magazines, the Mirror (1779-1781) and the Lounger (1785-1787) which were described ‘as no mean successors of the Spectator of Addison, [which] had served not a little to raise the fame of the Edinburgh press’[38]

Cockburn[39] gives a vivid description of the man and his shop:

Creech was … a person of some local celebrity. He owed a good deal to the position of his  shop, which formed the eastmost point  of a long thin range of  building that stood to  the north of St Giles’ Cathedral [the Luckenbooths]…. His windows looked down the High Street; so that his sign, “Creech,” above his door was visible down to the head of the Canongate….The position of his shop, in the very tideway of all our business, made it the natural resort of lawyers, authors, and all sort of literary idlers, who were always buzzing about the convenient hive. All who wished to see a poet or a stranger, or to hear the public news, the last joke by Erskine, or yesterday’s occurrence in the Parliament House, or to get the publication of the day or newspapers – all congregated there; lawyers, doctors, clergymen, and authors.

Cockburn, while attending a writing school overlooking Creech’s shop, ‘tried to get a seat next a window, that I might see the men I heard so much talked of moving into and out of this bower of the muses, or loitering about its entrance’. Black[40] observed that ‘At the door of his conspicuous shop Creech might often be seen standing with his hands in his pockets, his hair curled and powdered looking jauntily down the High Street, as if enjoying the view of Canongate.

Lockhart commented on ‘The pleasant conversation of the man, and his respectable appearance, and latterly, perhaps, his high civic dignities (for he was Lord Provost ere he died)[41], all conspired in making Mr. Creech a person of no ordinary importance’, and described his hospitality to visitors who ‘go and breakfast with Creech, which they called attending Creech’s levee – and his house was conveniently situated for this, being in the immediate vicinity of the Parliament-House, with which then, as now, all the literary characters of Edinburgh had a close connection’[42].

In 1776 Creech was a founder member and first secretary of the Edinburgh Booksellers’ Society which survives to this day.  It received its Charter from the City Council in 1793, which was signed by twenty-three members and is the oldest association of booksellers in Britain.  In its early years the Society was based in Parliament Close.  Like his predecessor Kincaid, Creech served the city as a councillor and as Lord Provost from 1811-13.  The Scot’s Magazine of 1815 recorded that he was not altogether popular because of his ‘habits of economy and parsimony’ which restrained him from the lavish hospitability to which Edinburgh was accustomed from their Lord Provosts.

Creech died in 1815, two years before his shop was demolished together with the remaining Luckenbooths.

Adam Black in his Memoirs describes some of the book shops in Edinburgh which he had dealings with in the days of his apprenticeship which commenced in 1799.  At that time the industry was still concentrated in the High St. and in Parliament Square (he mentions only two as being in the New Town at that time).  Six were in the Square itself. On the east side were the premises of Bell and Bradfute, James Sibbald, John Laurie, John Logie and John Symmington; on the south was the shop of Manners and Miller. Others before Black’s time were Charles Elliot (see above whose shop was acquired by Bell and Bradfute) and Peter Williamson who has been given a chapter to himself because of his interesting and varied life rather than his importance as a publisher.  

In 1779 Ramsay’s Library was bought by James Sibbald, (1747-1803) bookseller in Parliament Square.  Meeting places other than taverns or coffee-houses were limited in these days and some of the bookshops became popular places for gatherings of gossiping intellectuals. Lockhart wrote ‘In a city the book shop is the centre and focus of all information concerning the affairs of men – the arena for all disputation – the stage for all display’[43].  Ramsay’s shop for example was frequented by John Gay the poet and Sibbald had many visitors including Walter Scott who, referring to his apprentice years as a young lawyer, wrote;[44]

I fastened also, like a tiger upon every collection of old songs or romances which chance threw in my way, or which on scrutiny was able to discover on the dusty shelves of James Sibbald’s circulating library in Parliament Square….Mr Sibbald himself, a man of rough manner but of some taste and judgement, cultivated music and poetry, and in his shop I had a distant view of some literary characters…and here, too, I saw at a distance the boast of Scotland, Robert Burns.

Inside of Sibbald’s shop c.1787 by William Borthwick Johnstone

An imaginary painting of the inside of Sibbald’s shop, as it might have looked in 1787, by William Borthwick Johnstone  (c1850) shows a gathering of distinguished visitors. The characters shown from the left are Hugh Blair, Henry Mackenzie, Robert Burns, Alexander Nasmyth, David Allan, James Bruce, Lord Monboddo, his daughter Elizabeth Burnet, James Sibbald, Adam Ferguson and the young Walter Scott.

Kay’s portrait showing Sibbald, 2nd from left, viewing a print of the Three Graces together with a group of connoisseurs

Sibbald launched the Edinburgh Magazine in 1783, of which he was editor and principal contributor.  It was well received. He also started a short-lived newspaper the Edinburgh Herald.  In 1791 he transferred his business to Messrs Lawrie and Symington in return for an annual payment and went to London where he lived in seclusion writing a Record of the Public Ministry of Jesus Christ.  When his family at last made contact with him he responded with ‘My lodging is in Soho, and my business is so-so.’  He returned to Edinburgh in 1797 and resumed his bookselling business and published in 1802 A Chronicle of Scottish Poetry, with a Glossary of the Scottish Language.  In Kay’s Portraits, he is described as a ‘man of eccentric but amiable character. He belonged to a great number of social clubs; and was beloved by so many of his associates…that for some years after his death they celebrated his birthday by a social meeting.’[45] The Circulating Library was merged after his death with the Library of Alexander Mackay. The library, originated by Alan Ramsay, had continued under various owners until 1851 when it was dispersed after 125 years of existence.

The firm of Bell and Bradfute was founded in 1788 by John Bell and his nephew John Bradfute. Theirs is the only bookseller’s shop which is identified by name in the Painting on the east side of the Square. The postal address given in the descriptive style of the time was ‘First door left hand beyond the piazzas’. (The shop had previously belonged to Charles Elliot). 

They specialised mainly in law but had an interest also in medicine and theology.   Constable[46] said that John Bell was ‘the most thorough gentleman of the profession in Edinburgh at that period [1788].  His nephew and partner…inherits all the esteem and respectability of his uncle… their house has always conducted its trade on the most exemplary principle of correctness and honour….this cannot be said of all the same profession…’.  Black said that they were the best managed business but that they were ‘looked upon by others as disagreeable strict precisionists’[47].  Their ‘precision’ served them well for the business prospered.  Their shop in Parliament Square was one of the many  destroyed by the fire of 1824 after which they moved to Bank Street.   

Manners and Miller’s shop on the south side of Parliament Square was ‘the most fashionable – Robert Miller was generally cicerone to any distinguished ladies or gentlemen who visited Edinburgh’[48].  Lockwood gave a vivid description[49]:

If one be inclined for an elegant shop, and abundance of gossip, it is only necessary to cross the street, and enter the shop of Messrs Manners and Miller – the true lounging-place of the blue-stockings, and literary beaumonde of the Northern Metropolis.  At the door you are received by one or other of the partners…who has perhaps been handing some fine lady to her carriage…You are then conducted through a light spacious ante-room, full of clerks and apprentices…The grate exhibits either a fine blazing fire, or, in its place, a beautiful fresh bush of hawthorn, stuck all over with roses or lillies, as gay as a Maypole…In the midst of all this, the Bookseller himself moves about doing the honours of the place, with the same unwearied gallantry and politeness,…this is not a great publishing shop,… its subject is to sell books from the great feast of Cadell’s, Murray’s,  Baldwin’s, Constable’s and Blackwood’s.

Robert Miller was like Creech – a wit with many stories and love of good cheer.  The genteel and agreeable Alexander Manners was a universal favourite at evening parties. When the 1824 fire destroyed their shop, then in the High Street, they relocated to Princes Street.

Important publications

Among the most important publications at this time, which did more than any others to put Edinburgh on the world stage, were the Encyclopaedia Britannica which was launched in 1768-1771, the first Statistical Account of Scotland 1791-99, the second Edinburgh Review which commenced publication in1802 and the writings of Walter Scott which began with the Minstrelsy of the Scottish Borders also in 1802.  

The Encyclopaedia Britannica was founded by Colin Macfarquhar and Andrew Bell, who engaged William Smellie as the first editor and author of most of the articles in the first edition.  Colin Macfarquhar (1744-1793) who was a printer and bookseller with part ownership of a paper mill in Lasswade, also contributed some of the content.  Andrew Bell (1753-1832), an engraver, produced copper engravings of high quality –  no less than 531 for the fourth edition.  Bell is among the characters seen in the Painting.  After the death of Macfarquhar in 1793 Bell became the sole proprietor and very wealthy.  He was of very short stature as seen in Kay’s portrait, but chose to have a very large horse which he had to mount with the help of a ladder. William Smellie (1740-1795) was also a printer but ‘the most learned printer of his day’[50] being a natural historian of note, an antiquarian an author and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh.  Elliot paid 1,000 guineas for the copyright of his Philosophy of Natural History before it was even written.  The Encyclopaedia became such a success that further editions were required in 1777, 1788 and 1801 and during this time it increased in size from three volumes to twenty.  It is one of the greatest achievements of the Enlightenment and continues to flourish to this day, although now inevitably in digital format.

Examples of Andrew Bell’s engravings for the Encyclopaedia Britannica

The Statistical Account of Scotland, in twenty-one volumes, published by William Creech in Edinburgh between1791-1799, was another outstanding product of the enlightenment. This pioneering work was the compilation of Sir John Sinclair, MP for Caithness, who sent a questionnaire, containing more than 160 questions, to 938 parish ministers throughout Scotland requesting local information on such matters as geography, topography, natural resources, agriculture, and population details.  If responses were delayed he pursued his objective with relentless determination, even sending ‘statistical missionaries’ to ensure completion of the returns.  The end result became the model for similar studies elsewhere and remains to this day a most important resource.  The contributing clergy were rewarded by the donation of profits to The Society for the benefit of the Sons of the Clergy.  Sinclair did most of his editorial work in London where he was able to use his parliamentary privilege of free postage – the ‘Parliamentary frank’ without which, he said, he would have been unable to complete the task. 

Edinburgh Review

The second Edinburgh Review, a quarterly journal founded 1802, representing the reforming Whig ideals.  The cleric Sydney Smith conceived the idea of the journal and was the editor of its first issue.  It was supported by a number of brilliant writers including Francis Jeffrey, editor for the next twenty-six years, Francis Horner, Henry Cockburn, Henry Brougham, Thomas Carlyle, Lord Macaulay, John Stuart Mill, Herbert Spencer and many others of distinction.  Walter Scott contributed some early articles but being a staunch Tory grew to dislike the tone of some contributions and withdrew.  The journal, which was published by Archibald Constable, was enormously influential and widely read throughout the English-speaking world, achieving a circulation of 13,500 in 1818 ‘an extent of sale, till that time, almost unprecedented in any work of literature’[53].  Lockhart in 1819 wrote ‘The prodigious impetus given to the trade of Edinburgh by the first application of this wonderful engine, has never since been allowed to lose any part of its energy’[54]. Cockburn wrote that ‘It elevated the public and the literary position of Edinburgh to an extent which no one not living intelligently then can be made to comprehend’[55].


L-R: Sir Walter Scott by Benjamin Crombie; Statue of Scott by Steele in his Monument

Walter Scott above all others was responsible for establishing Edinburgh as a literary and publishing centre.  His Waverley novels printed by his boyhood friend James Ballantyne[56] and published by Archibald Constable from his shop at the entrance to Parliament Square enjoyed a resounding and world-wide success.  Waverley for example was a best seller in those times (1814) with 1000 copies sold in two days, 6,000 in six months and 40.000 by 1829, despite the fact that it was published anonymously at first, although the author, ‘the great unknown’ was soon identified. Much of the story of the Heart of Midlothian (1818) takes place in the vicinity of Parliament Square and is much referred to in this book. Indeed the Heart of Midlothian is the Old Tolbooth, the roof of which can be seen in the top left corner of the Painting.  Constable as the original publisher of the Edinburgh Review and of most of Scott’s works was responsible for ‘changing the whole aspect of Edinburgh as a seat of literary merchandise…making it a greater one than almost any other city in Europe’[57].  He was renowned for the generous payments which he made to his authors, he ‘was perhaps the first who saw clearly the advantages of this liberality; [John] Murray soon followed…now we hear nothing of the illiberality of book sellers’[58]. Cockburn said of Constable that

The literature of Scotland has been more indebted than to any other bookseller…he stood out as the general patron and payer of all promising publications, and confounded not merely his rivals in trade, but his very authors by his unheard-of prices [which]…drew authors from dens where they would otherwise have starved, and made Edinburgh a literary mart, famous with strangers, and the pride of its own citizens’[59].  

Alas Constable became bankrupt in the financial crash of 1825/6 which also involved Sir Walter Scott.  Constable’s ex- partner Robert Cadell acquired the copyright of the Waverly novels in 1827 and made a fortune by publishing cheap editions.  His success was shared by Scott and contributed materially to his financial recovery.

At the time of the Painting (1794) most publishing in Edinburgh was done by small firms as a sideline to bookselling or printing.  As the reputation of Edinburgh grew in this context, a number of important firms dedicated to publishing were established in the early nineteenth century.  As these appeared mostly after the date of the picture and most, certainly after the great fire of 1824, were located elsewhere than Parliament Square, they will only be mentioned briefly as examples of the flourishing industry which had its origins in and around the Square.   

A Constable and Co has been mentioned above and merits inclusion as it was based in the High Street at the entrance to the Square.  William Blackwood is remembered chiefly as the publisher of Blackwood’s Magazine (1817) the Tory counterpart to Constable’s Edinburgh Review. The rivalry between the two publications was such that it is said that Constable refused to remain in the same room as Blackwood[60]. Constable’s shop lacked the hospitable welcome offered by some of his contemporaries.  It was 

…a low dusky chamber, inhabited by a few clerks, and lined with an assortment of unbound books and stationery – entirely devoid of all those luxurious attractions of sofas and sofa-tables, and books of prints etc…The Bookseller himself is seldom to be seen…he prefers to sit in a chamber immediately above, where he can proceed in his own work without being disturbed by the incessant cackle of the young Whigs who lounge below[61].  

Blackwood’s shop was located latterly in Princes Street, although he had begun his apprenticeship with Bell and Bradfute in Parliament Square in 1790 and his first shop (in partnership with Robert Ross) was there from 1800-1803.  His Princes Street shop contrasted with that of Constable. 

The length of the vista presented to one on entering the  shop, has a very imposing effect; for it is carried back, room after room, through various graduations of light and shadow,….First , there is as usual a spacious place set apart for retail-business, and a numerous detachment of young clerks and apprentices, to whose management that important department of the concern is intrusted,  Then you have an elegant oval saloon, lighted from the roof, where various groups of loungers and literary dilettanti are engaged in looking at, or criticizing among themselves, the publications just arrived by that day’s coach from town.

In such critical colloquies, the voice of the bookseller  himself may ever and anon be heard mingling the broad and unadulterated notes of its Auld Reekie music;…The remarks he makes are, in general, extremely acute …[62]

Adam Black learned his trade in London and opened his shop in Edinburgh in 1807.  He occupied various premises on the North and South Bridges.  He was so successful that he was able to buy the copyright of the Encyclopaedia Britannica in 1827, and that of the Waverley novels in 1851.  The American bird painter, John James Audubon, chose Black as publisher for his classic Ornithological Biography in 1831. Adam was joined in partnership by his nephew Charles in 1834.  Adam became Lord Provost of Edinburgh in 1843 and MP of the City from 1856-65.

William and Robert Chambers started their careers as owners of humble bookstalls in Leith Walk, which grew into a large and successful business. Both brothers, individually or together, wrote many of their publications – Robert writing the much quoted Traditions of Edinburgh in 1823, at the age of twenty-one.  Other important publications included Chambers’ Edinburgh Journal (1830) which acquired a circulation of 80,000 within a few years, Chambers’ Encyclopaedia, first published in 1859, which remains in print to the present day and Biographical Dictionary of Eminent Scotsmen (1875).  William Chambers became Lord Provost of Edinburgh following the tradition of his publishing and book selling predecessors, William Kincaid, William Creech and Adam Black – an indication of the respectability of their trade and its importance to the city. In his civic capacity William was largely responsible for the restoration of St Giles Cathedral, for the demolition of slum tenements properties and the building of wide streets in the Old Town.  William died in 1883 aged 83; his statue, in Chambers Street, commemorates his many achievements.  

William Chambers’ Statue in Chambers Street. Erected 1891

Illustration Thomas Nelson’s shop at the entrance to the West Bow 

In this drawing of the West Bow by T H Shepherd it is just possible to read T Nelson above the shop at the right margin.

Thomas Nelson had similarly unpretentious beginnings as a second hand bookseller with a stall, and later a shop in the West Bow, which developed into a large and successful business which flourished in Edinburgh until recent memory. Thomas Nelson, son of the founder, invented a rotary printing press in 1850 which was widely adopted and revolutionised printing at that time.

The death of Archibald Constable in 1827 – the year after his bankruptcy – and the death of his principle and still bankrupt  author, Sir Walter Scott, five years later are sometimes taken as marking the end of Edinburgh’s ‘Golden Age’. The rapid expansion of the publishing trade which had taken place in the previous half century, to which these men made such a major contribution settled down to a less hectic but still prosperous industry.  The Statistical Account of Scotland(1845)[63] states that ‘Although, of late years, Edinburgh has not perhaps retained its high status as a publishing mart, yet it still continues to carry on an extensive trade in printing and publishing’. It mentions the main surviving publishers in Edinburgh at that date – Messrs Blackwood, works on general literature; A&C Black, then publishing the Encyclopaedia Britannica; Cadell and Co, with richly illustrated editions of Scott’s novels; and Oliver and Boyd, publishers of school books and general literature – one of the largest publishers in Britain at that time, and W&R Chambers with ten printing machines employing 150 workmen.  In addition to the publishers there were then 119 booksellers and 56 printing establishments. Publishing still flourishes in Edinburgh although most of the great names mentioned above have disappeared or have been incorporated into new foundations.  None of the newer publishers are based in Parliament Square, although Canongate Books, which maintains Edinburgh’s proud tradition, is not far away.

[1] The newspapers to which he referred were the Edinburgh Gazette 1699-1711, Edinburgh Courant 1718, Edinburgh Chronicle 1759, and the Edinburgh Advertiser 1764.  By the time of the Painting two more were added – the Mercury and Herald.  

[2] Arnot p258 

[3] Peter’s Letters  Vol 2 pp157-8

[4] This first Edinburgh Review, unlike its celebrated successor which was founded in 1802, produced only two issues in 1755 and 1756.

[5] Burn’s Epistle to William Simson

[6] Edinburgh Review (1857) vol 105 p220

[7] Peter’s Letters find

[8] Cockburn  Memorials p104

[9] Lustig, I S (1986) Boswell : The English Experiment, p286

[10] Cited in Scots Magazine 1764 p468

[11] Letter to Gilbert Elliot of Minto, July 1757 in The Letters of David Hume (1932) Ed Greig J Y T vol 1 p255  

[12] Remark of Lord Charlemont, cited in Boswell Life of Johnson I p439 fn

[13] Sher, Table 5 p702

[14] Black observes that in 1777 there were ninety-eight hairdressers and barbers attending to the outside of the skull and only twenty one booksellers serving the inside!

[15] Creech, W (1815) Fugitive Pieces

[16] Statistical Account (1845) pp 695-6 Check issue

[17] Scots Magazine September 1764 pp 465-8

[18] Third Statistical Account of Scotland (1966) p838 Check page and date

[19] Knox, J (1785) View of the British Empire 3rd Ed  p580 check

[20] Topham (1776) vol I p200

[21] This Statute of Queen Anne also decreed that an author must send a copy of every book entered into Stationers Hall, to the Advocates Libraries and the Universities, if he was to claim literary property – a ruling which survives to this day.

[22] Boswell, J (1774) The Decision of the Court of Session upon the question of Literary Property in the case of John Hinton of London, bookseller Pursuer against Alexander Donaldson…. With notes …taken from Boswell’s Life of Johnson.  Edinburgh, A Donaldson.

[23] James Burnet, Lord Monboddo, was himself an author of note.  His 6 volume Of the Origin and Progress of Language (1774-1792) suggested that man was descended from the apes, anticipating Charles Darwin’s evolutionary theory. An anonymous couplet of the time proclaimed that ‘Though Darwin now proclaims the law, and spreads it far abroad, O!  The man that first the secret saw was honest old Monboddo’

[24] Life of Johnson V p50

[25] In a letter to William Strahan, 7 March 1774, he wrote: ‘….after the Authours (sic) death his work should continue an exclusive property capable of bequest and inheritence, and of conveyance by gift or sale for thirty years’

[26] Life of Johnson I p437 fn

[27] Grant vol I p318

[28] Arnot p437-8

[29] McDougall, W Charles Elliot’s Medical Publications p215-254 in Withers and Wood

[30] Letter of Elliot to Cullen 3.4.1789, MS Letters to Dr Cullen RCPE ‘…I consider £300 a great deal…and it is, as much as I can, or will venture to give. – I am the more certain of the nature of the bargain, from looking into the proceeds of the 4 vols. which have not nearly yet brought me home, independent of the interest which …is very considerable. 

[31] Woodrow, R (1843) Analecta vol 3 p515-6, Published by the Maitland Club 

[32] Kay I p412 fn

[33] Grant I p155

[34] The Speculative Society was founded in 1764 for the improvement of literary composition and public speaking.  Among its members were Walter Scott, David Hume, Francis Jeffrey, Henry Cockburn and other distinguished men of the day.

[35] Ibid p156

[36] Sher p233

[37] Ibid p159

[38] Statistical Account of Scotland (1845) vol I p694 

[39] Memorials p163-4

[40] Black, Memoirs  p25

[41] He was Lord Provost from 1779-81 just as his predecessor Kincaid had been.

[42] Peter’s Letters Vol 2 p160-62

[43] Peter’s Letters vol 2 p179

[44] Life of Scott  I p48

[45] Kay’s Portraits 1 p411-3

[46] Constable, A (1821) Edinburgh Booksellers of the Period quoted in Appendix of Edinburgh History of the Book vol 2 p356 Check

[47] Black, Memoirs p20 and 22

[48] Ibid p23

[49] Peter’s Letters vol 2 p177-180

[50] Kay’s Portraits vol 1 p206

[51] Edinburgh Mapping the City p99

[52] Two of Robert Kirkwood’s apprentices William Johnston (1802-88)  and his brother Alexander Keith Johnston (1804-71) established the distinguished mapmaking firm of W and AK Johnston which survived until the 1960’s

[53] Statistical Account of Scotland (1845) vol I p694

[54] Peter’s Letters vol 2 p164 This was a generous remark by Lockhart who was a major contributor to the rival Tory publication, Blackwood’s Magazine, which had been founded in 1817 as a counterbalance to the Review.

[55] Memorials p 159

[56] James Ballantyne was persuaded by Scott to set up his business in Edinburgh.  Scott invested heavily in the firm which shared in the bankruptcy involving Constable and Scott in 1826.

[57] Peter’s Letters vol 2 p172.  Scott fell out temporarily with Constable over his publication of the Review which carried a critical review of Marmion by Francis Jeffrey.

[58] From News of Literature 10 December 1825, quoted in Appendix of Archibald Constable and his Literary Correspondents  Vol 3 p481

[59] Memorials p162-3

[60] Black, Memoirs p54

[61] Peter’s Letters  Find Vol 2

[62] Ibid find

[63] Vol I, P695-6