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The Burns Encyclopedia
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Smellie, William (1740-95)

"Shrewd Willie Smellie to Crochallan came: The old cock'd hat, the brown surtout, the same;
His grisly beard just bristling in its might,
('Twas four long nights and days to shaving night;)
His uncomb'd hoary locks, wild-staring, thatched
A head for thought profound and clear unmatch'd;
Yet tho' his caustic wit was biting rude,
His heart was warm, benevolent and good."

Thus Burns described, in 'The Poet's Progress', the man who printed the Edinburgh editions of his poems, and who was Creech's partner. Burns further described him in a letter to Peter Hill from Ellisland, dated 2nd February 1790, as 'that old Veteran in Genius, Wit and B--- dry, Smellie'.

It was in Smellie's untidy office in Anchor Close, off the High Street of Edinburgh, that the poet corrected his proofs, sitting on a certain stool, which, according to Smellie's son, Alexander, came to be known as Burns's Stool.

Son of a Duddingston mason, Smellie was trained as a printer, having been previously educated at Duddingston Parish School, and Edinburgh High School. He had a wide knowledge of literature and science, and became the editor and principal author of the first edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. He translated Buffon, and wrote a Philosophy of Natural History highly regarded in his day. He knew all the eminent literary and philosophical figures in the Capital, and was described by Sir John Dalrymple to Edmund Burke as 'one of the most learned men in Scotland'. He had printed the works of many of them, including Gilbert Stuart (with whom he started the Edinburgh Magazine), Robert Fergusson, William Robertson, Hugo Arnot, and Adam Smith.

It was Smellie who founded the Crochallan Fencibles (see Crochallan Fencibles.) and introduced Burns to that convivial club, whose recorder of proceedings and 'hangman' the naturalist was. It was the custom of the Club to submit any new entrant to a barrage of raillery to test his temper, and the contest between Smellie and Burns was said to have been remarkable. Burns said on his installation that he was 'thrashed' beyond anything he had formerly experienced.

Burns was the means of introducing his friend Maria Riddell to Smellie. Mrs Riddell had written an account of a voyage to Madeira and the Leeward Isles, with some notes on their natural history, on which she thought Smellie might give all opinion. Burns was clearly somewhat taken aback at the thought of introducing a lady of quality to the uncouth and rather boorish Smellie. However, he gave her a letter of introduction, which began: 'I sit down, my dear Sir, to introduce a young Lady to you, and a Lady in the first ranks of fashion, too. What a task! You, who care no more for the herd of animals called young Ladies than you do for the herd of animals called young Gentlemen. You, who despise and detest the groupings and combinations of Fashion: an idiot Painter that seems industrious to place staring Fools and unprincipled Knaves in the foreground of his pictures, while Men of Sense and Honesty are thrown in the dimmest shades.... She has one unlucky failing — a failing which you will easily discover — as she seems rather pleased with indulging in it; and a failing that you will as easily pardon, as it is a sin which very much besets yourself: Where she dislikes or despises, she is apt to make no more a secret of it than where she esteems and respects.'

But Smellie and Maria Riddell took an instant liking for each other, and remained on terms of close friendship until Smellie died. He was much impressed with her book, and advised publication and sale, as opposed to a subscription list, which had originally been proposed. He wrote to her on 27th March 1792: 'When I consider your youth [she was only eighteen], and still more, your sex, the perusal of your ingenious and judicial work, if I had not previously had the pleasure of your conversation, the devil himself could not have frightened me into the belief that a female human creature could, in the bloom of youth, beauty and, consequently, of giddiness, have produced a performance so much out of line of your ladies' work. Smart little poems, flippant romances, are not uncommon. But science, minute observation, accurate description and excellent composition are qualities seldom to be met with in the female world.'

Her book was duly published under the title of Voyages to the Madeira and Leeward Caribbee Islands, with Sketches of the Natural History of these Islands, and enjoyed some little success.

Later, in the summer of 1792, Smellie visited Maria Riddell and Burns in Dumfries, where the lady induced Smellie to go to one of the Assemblies. According to Chambers, there was a tradition that Burns and Smellie received some sort of public entertainment from the Dumfries Magistrates.

Unfortunately, most of the records of the friendship between Burns and Smellie have been destroyed, because, according to Smellie's biographer, Robert Kerr: 'Many letters of Burns to Mr Smellie which remained, being totally unfit for publication, and several of them containing severe reflections on many respectable people still in life, have been burnt'.

Some of the pieces which form The Merry Muses were probably given an airing at the meeting of the Crochallan Fencibles which Burns attended.

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