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Scotland and the Scots, 1707-2007

Christian Auer

IV. Enlightenment

24. Edinburgh Literati Men, 1800

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1William Smellie (1740-1795) printed the first edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica. He wrote a large number of the articles himself and insisted that knowledge should be presented as clearly as possible. Smellie was one of the founding members of the Society of Antiquaries. The Society, created in 1780 and incorporated by Royal Charter in 1783, is the oldest antiquarian society in Scotland. Smellie’s memoirs, Literary and Characteristical Lives (1800), give interesting information about the Edinburgh of the Enlightenment.

2Robert Kerr, Memoirs of the Life, Writings, & Correspondence of William Smellie, vol. 2, Edinburgh: John Anderson, 1811, p. 250-254.

  • 15 The Advocates’ Library is a law library belonging to the Faculty of Advocates in Edinburgh. The Li (...)

MR SMELLIE was often in the Advocates Library15, one of the most magnificent and extensive collection of Books and Manuscripts in Europe. He was printer to the Faculty of Advocates; and, in the course of his studies, had frequent occasion to procure books from their inestimable collection, which is accessible to all men of letters resident in Edinburgh, with a degree of liberality which does the Faculty and its members the greatest honour. Respecting this library, the following notice was written by Mr SMELLIE.

“When the Library of the Edinburgh Faculty of Advocates falls to be mentioned, it would be unpardonable to omit a truth of which every man of letters in Edinburgh has daily experience. The collection, especially of printed books, greatly exceeds that of any library in Britain; and free access to the perusal of them is cheerfully and politely allowed. On this subject we shall go farther. The occasional use of books in a public library is a most valuable privilege. The Faculty of Advocates, however, not only grants this privilege, but any member of the Faculty, by his signature, may oblige his friend with such books as he chuses to have out of the library for a reasonable time; and such requests, on all proper occasions, are most liberally granted. The Faculty does more. Literary gentlemen, not members, by giving bond for a certain sum, often acquire the privilege of taking out books on giving their own receipts. To this noble collection, joined to the generosity of its proprietors, Scotland, for these hundred years past, has been much indebted for the many productions of genius and learning, which have enabled her sons, within that period, to make such a distinguished figure in almost every department of science.”

To this just and well-merited panygeric, it may be added, that this vast and valuable collection has been long kept in a series of large and lofty rooms under the Parliament House, or law courts of Edinburgh; which, though very well adapted for the purpose, have a most unfortunately mean and dark entry, and have now become much too confined for the immense and fast growing literary treasures which they contain. As a portion of the splendid additions which are now making to the Scots law courts at Edinburgh, the Advocates are building a magnificent and extensive room for the farther and more appropriate accommodation of their library.

As in some measure connected with the foregoing subject, the literature of Edinburgh, Mr SMELLIE used to relate the following anecdote: “Mr Amyat, the Kings chemist, a very sensible and agreeable English gentleman, who resided some time at Edinburgh, once observed to Mr SMELLIE, that Edinburgh enjoyed a noble privilege not possessed by any other city in Europe. On being asked his meaning, he said, “Here stand I at what is called the Cross of Edinburgh, and can in a few minutes take fifty men of genius and learning by the hand.” The fact is well known; but, to a native of that city, who has been all his days familiarized with it, and who has not travelled into other countries, that circumstance, though certainly remarkable, passes unnoticed. Upon strangers, however, it makes a deep impression. In London, Paris, and all other great cities of Europe, though they contain many literary men, the access to them is difficult; and even after that is obtained, the conversation, for some time, is shy and constrained. In Edinburgh, the access to men of parts is not only easy, but their conversation and the communication of their knowledge are at once imparted to intelligent strangers with the utmost liberality. The philosophers of Scotland have no nostrums. They tell what they know, and deliver their sentiments without disguise or reserve.”

The above observations, which proceeded from the pen of Mr SMELLIE, require some notice. The fact, as stated, was formerly strictly true. Edinburgh, at that time, confined almost exclusively to the old city, used to see almost a daily concourse of all her respectable inhabitants at the cross, a central part of the principal street, between the hours of one and three. This served two purposes; they met to discuss the topics of the day, and to see their acquaintances, without the labour and waste of forenoon calls. They were further led to this habit, because all the coffee houses and booksellers shops, the usual lounges of literary idle hours, were then around the cross. Matters have considerably changed by the great extension of Edinburgh both to the south and north. Coffee houses and booksellers shops are now dispersed in many places; and literary men are not now to be found at the cross in change hours, as formerly.

Without arrogating any superior liberality to Edinburgh literary men, their habits of ready communication may be thus accounted for. Many of them are professors in the University, and accustomed to be much interrogated by their students on scientific subjects; and, consequently, not only they, but those who have been used to the beneficial effects of this unreservedness of information as students, and accustomed to the free information of the professors, either as such, or in company with them, have acquired that pleasing habit of urbanity in philosophy and literature. Men who have acquired all their knowledge by solitary study, are more apt to be niggardly of their hidden treasures, and to conceive more highly of the importance of their individual acquisitions.


15 The Advocates’ Library is a law library belonging to the Faculty of Advocates in Edinburgh. The Library was presented to the nation in 1925 and forms the basis of the National Library of Scotland.

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