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The Burns Encyclopedia
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Creech, William (1745 — 1815)

That 'upright, pert, tart, tripping wight' William Creech was the son of the Rev William Creech, minister of Newbattle, where the future publisher was born. The father died four months after the birth of his son and the boy was brought up by his mother at Dalkeith and Perth. Later she moved to Edinburgh where young William was designed for the University, but she became friendly with the wife of His Majesty's Printer for Scotland, Alexander Kincaid, as a result of which her son was offered, and accepted, a job in the bookselling side of Kincaid's business. After a period of travel on the continent with his former schoolfellow at Dalkeith, Lord Kilmaurs, the son of the Earl of Glencairn, Creech was taken into partnership in a new bookselling firm founded by Kincaid. In 1773, Kincaid retired from the business, devoting his full attention to his printing, leaving Creech free to transact business both as publisher and bookseller from his premises in the centre of the High Street of Edinburgh in his own name. He remained in his High Street premises for 44 years, where he became friendly with members of the 'literati' like Lord Kames, Dr Hugh Blair, Dr James Beattie, Henry ('Man of Feeling') Mackenzie and Professor Dugald Stewart.

Burns was introduced to Creech by Lord Glencairn soon after his arrival from Ayrshire in 1786. His Lordship asked Creech whether he would undertake to produce a second and enlarged edition of Mr Burns's poems. Creech, however, recommended a subscription edition, for which he undertook to subscribe 500 copies.

Burns thereafter saw a good deal of Creech while in Edinburgh and sketched him in the Second Commonplace Book: 'My worthy bookseller, Mr Creech, is a strange multiform character. His ruling passions of the left hand are an extreme vanity and something of the more harmless modifications of selfishness. The one, mixed as it often is with great goodness of heart, makes him rush into all public matters and take every instance of unprotected merit by the hand, provided it is in his power to hand it into public notice; the other quality makes him, amid all the embarrassment in which his vanity entangles him, now and then to cast half a squint at his own interest. His parts as a man, his deportment as a gentleman, and his abilities as a scholar, are above mediocrity. Of all the Edinburgh literati, he writes most like a gentleman. He does not awe you with the profoundness of the philosopher, or strike your eye with the soarings of genius; but he pleases you with the handsome turn of his expression and the polite ease of his paragraph. His social demeanour and powers, particularly at his own table, are the most engaging I have ever met with.'

On 17th April 1787, at the house of Henry Mackenzie, Burns and Creech drew up a 'Memorandum of Agreement' whereby on Mackenzie's advice, Burns received 100 guineas for the 'property' of his poems in addition to his subscription money: an agreement which, in the light of Burns's posthumous fame, seems ridiculous, but at the time must have seemed fair, even generous! Creech tried to get Cadell of London to take up some of the edition of about 3,000 copies. Cadell, however, delayed replying, and on 23rd April Creech agreed 'to take the whole upon himself'.

Creech was, however, an uncommonly mean man, and in the event, delayed not only in paying Burns's subscription money, but both in issuing and honouring the promissory note for the 100 guineas. It was in part to try to settle with Creech that Burns came back to Edinburgh in the autumn of 1787. On 22nd January Burns told Magaret Cohalmers: 'I have broke measures with Creech, and last week I wrote him a keen, frosty letter. He replied in forms of chastisement, and promised me upon his honor that I should have the account on Monday, but this is Tuesday, and yet I have heard not a word from him.' On 4th January 1789, Burns told Dr Moore that Creech 'kept me hanging about Edinburgh from the 7th August 1787, until the 13th April 1788, before he would condescend to give me a statement of affairs; nor had I got it even then but for an angry letter I wrote him, which irritated his pride'.

Burns did, however, change his verdict; for when writing to Moore on 23rd March he said: 'I was at Edinburgh lately, and finally settled with Mr Creech; and I retract some ill-natured surmises in my last letter, and own that at last he has been amicable and fair with me.'

Burns later co-operated with Creech in finding extra material for the two volume edition which appeared in November 1793, though he repaid the business of the delayed settlement by himself delaying the correcting of the copy of the earlier edition which Creech had sent to him for that purpose. So Creech simply went ahead without waiting for Burns's comments!

Creech became a member of the Town Council in 1780, a magistrate of Edinburgh in 1788 and in 1811, Lord Provost. He remained famous for his supper parties, at which the company was large and the provision made for them small. Of his own writings his Edinburgh Fugitive Pieces preserve a good deal of their interest and their author's charm of style.

Burns later commemorated Creech in two poems. One the 'Lament for the Absence of William Creech, publisher' written on the Border Tour, reflects their relationship before the quarrel over the delayed payment. Creech was then in London on business and Burns laments the fact that the levees are suspended:

"Now worthy Greg'ry's Latin face,
Tytler's and Greenfield's modest grace;
M'Kenzie, Stewart, such a brace
As Rome ne'er saw;
They a' maun meet some ither place
Willie's awa!"

'On Willie Creech', written after the quarrel, enumerates Creech's vices. In 'The Poet's Progress' these are said to be:

"Much specious lore, but little understood,
(Veneering oft outshines the solid wood),
His solid sense, by inches you must tell,
But mete his cunning by the Scottish ell!"

Yet Creech was not without a sharp wit of his own. To one who made him an April Fool, he quipped:

"I pardon sir, the trick you've played me
When an April fool you made me;
Since one day only I appear
What you, alas, do all year."

Creech died unmarried.

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