“If asked, why Printers and Booksellers in particular? – I answer, they are a valuable class of the community – the friendly assistants, if not the patrons of literature.” – John Nichols, cited on title page of C.H Timperley, A Dictionary of Printers and Printing (London: H. Johnson, 1839)

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n view of the value placed in Scotland on education, reading, and self-improvement and the enterprise and inventiveness with which the inhabitants of the far poorer northern kingdom responded to the opportunities opened up to them by the Union with England, it is not in the least surprising that Scotsmen were also heavily represented in the printing and publishing trades. An altogether disproportionate number of the great publishing houses of the English-speaking world, whose names were to become household words – Blackie, Blackwood, Collins, Constable, Macmillan, Millar, Murray, Nelson, Smith and Elder, Strahan -- were founded by men, often enough of quite humble origin, from “north of the border.” The Encyclopaedia Britannica (1768-1771) was the brainchild of two Edinburgh men: Colin Macfarquhar, a printer, and Andrew Bell, an engraver. Characteristically, the 28-year old printer’s apprentice they entrusted with putting together and editing the first edition, one William Smellie, was a self-educated polymath, who at the age of 19 had prepared an edition of Terence that won a prize for his employer from the Edinburgh Philosophical Society.

Though many, but by no means all, the Scottish publishers began by publishing official and legal documents and religious works, they soon extended their activities to belles-lettres, including cheap editions of the ancient classics and of major modern writers, as well as to history, writings on science, medicine, philosophy, politics, and economics, to accounts of travel and exploration, practical manuals of everything from engineering to gardening, and popular encyclopaedias and other reference works, such as the still ongoing Grove’s Dictionary of Music (first put out by Macmillan in four volumes between 1877 and 1889) and specialized journals such as Nature (also put out by Macmillan and ongoing since 1869). In the eighteenth and early nineteenth-centuries, when the roles of printer, publisher, and bookseller were still fluid and overlapping, some went into publishing from the printing trade, others from bookselling. In most cases, printers continued their printing business since it was a more reliable source of steady income than that derived from publishing or from shares in a publishing venture. Some, such as Millar, Murray, Strahan and, at a slightly later date, Smith and Elder or Macmillan, set up business in the South right away; others started out in Scotland but opened branch offices in London in order to reach a wider market, and then finally moved their main offices south; others still, like Blackie, Collins, Constable, and Nelson managed to combine a world-wide reach with faithfulness to their Scottish origin.

Modern British copyright law was largely developed as a result of the activities of Scottish publishers (and lawyers). Traditionally, publishers – who, as noted, were still also printers and booksellers – bought and sold shares in the works not only of contemporary writers but of classic writers like Shakespeare or Bacon, their investment being protected by a Licensing of the Press Act of 1662 that defined the property so acquired as being, like landed property, in perpetuity and that was enforced by the publishers themselves, banded together as the officially recognized and empowered Stationers’ Company, a central aim of which was to obstruct the sale of “pirated” editions. Copyright in perpetuity was not, however, recognized in Scottish law and, especially after the Union in 1707, which opened a wide market to the Scots, printers and booksellers north of the border turned out more and more editions of works that their London counterparts considered “pirated” and, as they were sold at lower prices, a serious danger to their own financial stability. Following Parliament’s refusal in 1694 to renew the 1662 Act, the so-called Statute of Anne of 1710 provided publishers with protection of the shares they had acquired for a stipulated number of years. Copyright in perpetuity was thus no longer protected by positive law. Scottish booksellers and publishers disagreed with their English counterparts, however, about conditions after the protection, according to the Statue of Anne, had lapsed, the former maintaining that the texts were thereafter in the public domain throughout the kingdom, the latter that only the penalties for infringement of copyright were no longer fixed but subject to review. Copyright itself, however, holding the property of a literary work, like a landed property, in perpetuity, was still protected, the London publishers maintained, according to English common law, even if it was not protected by positive law.

A series of lawsuits ensued in the 1760s and 1770s involving London booksellers and printer-publishers -- not least among them a prominent Scot, Andrew Millar, together with his English apprentice, then partner and, finally, successor as head of the firm, Thomas Cadell -- and, principally, Alexander Donaldson, one of the most successful of many Edinburgh booksellers and publishers of cheap, allegedly pirated editions of classic and popular works, which he sold not only in Scotland but in the North of England and in London itself at steeply discounted prices. (His brother John had a bookstore in London and in the early 1770s he himself succeeded in opening a store of his own in St. Paul’s Churchyard.) The London booksellers won in the English courts. But in 1773, at the Court of Session in Edinburgh (the Scottish High Court), where – with help from none other than James Boswell — Donaldson defended himself in a suit brought against him by the London bookseller and publisher John Hinton, the judgment of the court was in favor of Donaldson. More significantly, Donaldson again carried the day in 1774 in the House of Lords, to which two bills of complaint brought against him and his brother in the Court of Chancery in London in 1771 (by the London publishers John Rivington and Thomas Becket, a sometime apprentice of Andrew Millar) for printing and selling copies of two novels by Fielding had made their way. [See bibliography of works about copyright law].

The issue was essentially one of free trade versus protectionism and state control. William Strahan, a native of Edinburgh, who, like Millar, had moved south and set up business in London, deplored the success of “your little dirty pitiful Pyrates,” as he put it in a letter to William Creech, a printer in Edinburgh. Unrestrained competition, Strahan maintained, would result in the ruin of publishing altogether: “I am only concerned for the trade in general, which must soon be destroyed,” he wrote to Creech, “if every body is permitted to print every Thing. And if the Cause of Literary Property is decided against Perpetual Property or if the decision is long deferred, [. . .] I think the sooner you look out for another Occupation, the better. It will become quickly the most pitiful, beggarly, precarious, unprofitable, and disreputable Trade in Britain” (quoted in Bonnell, 37, 35). Perhaps it is not surprising that directly contrary views were expressed by the Scottish printer and publisher Robert Foulis, the official Printer of the College of Glasgow, where Adam Smith was Professor of Moral Philosophy, and a highly regarded printer-publisher of both ancient and modern works of literature in his own right. “Take away competition between buyers, and goods become cheap. Take away competition among sellers, and goods become dear,” he wrote in a “Memorial of the Printers and Booksellers of Glasgow. Most Humbly Addressed to the Honourable House of Commons” in 1774. Foulis’s argument, as summarized in a recent scholarly publication, is worth repeating here:

As long as monopolies held sway consumers were unable to reap the benefits of ‘free competition,’ that is, ‘a contention for cheapness, for correctness, for elegance, for legibility.’ If, on the other hand, books were ‘more universally’ printed, they would be more universally purchased and read. The taste for books in Scotland had spread on account of its reprint trade, and from Dublin itself [a center of unrestricted publishing— L.G.], Foulis wagered, London booksellers gained as much as they lost by the Irish reprint trade, because ‘wherever printing takes place, it diffuses the taste for books wider.’ A market that attracted more book buyers would generate more customers able to afford prestigious London editions. Thus, to re-instate the monopoly would perversely depress ‘honest industry among the whole body of London booksellers themselves,’ not to mention ‘its restraint on the industry of every printer and bookseller’ outside of London. In sum, Foulis derided the idea that reprinting elsewhere in Britain in ‘any way ostensibly hurts the London trade.’ The principal injury to their economic interests was self-inflicted; they ‘diminish[ed] their own trade by endeavouring to bind the hands of their brethren all over the kingdom, who, if free and independent, would be able to trade with them more extensively, and on more equitable terms. . . .

Aside from economic benefits, Foulis predicted a boon for scholarship as well. Come the day ‘when great authors can be printed with classical freedom,’ he hoped that competition would ensue not just among publishers to produce the cheapest or most legible books, but also among editors ‘to explain obscure passages by their comments, correct mistakes by their notes, and supply defects by their additions taken from later discoveries. [. . .]

If [James] Thomson and Chaucer were (as Foulis desired) more universally printed, they could be (as Thomas Warton wanted) more universally read. Classical freedom, could it be realized, would boost supply and demand alike. [pp. 53-54]

Both Foulis brothers were interested in the copyright issue. In 1766 Andrew presented a paper on Literary Property at a meeting in Glasgow College of the Literary Society – which counted some well-to-do merchants among its members as well as professors at the College, and at which economic questions were discussed as well as literary and philosophical ones (see Murray, pp. 36-37) and in 1770, at two meeting of the Society, Robert discussed “What would be the probable consequence of departing from the present law with regard to Literary Property and making that property perpetual?” (p. 49).

The outcome of the seemingly endless disputes and court cases involving publishers in Scotland and publishers in London (including those Scots active in the British capital) was not only a complete overhaul of traditional copyright law and its remaking into something fairly close to what still exists today, but a vast expansion of the book trade and of the reading public and -- since old books were no longer protected by copyright and money could be made (or lost) chiefly through publication or shares in the publication of new books -- the gradual separation of book printing, publishing, and selling (both retail, and ultimately also wholesale) into distinct commercial enterprises, even if some publishers, such as Collins and Nelson, still retained important printing facilities which they used to turn out inexpensive, mass-produced copies of established modern classics. In addition, the new circumstances facilitated the rise, in Scotland, of important and productive publishing houses which, for a time, transformed the Scottish capital especially into a significant rival of London, where many of them established branch offices before spreading out to the British colonies (India, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa) and to the United States. Thomas Nelson was the first British publisher to open a New York office, at 42 Bleeker Street, in 1854.

None of the great firms founded by Scots in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was able to resist the mergers and take-overs of the late twentieth century. A number of interesting and imaginative publishing houses have opened in Scotland recently, but they are small and are not remotely comparable in influence with the great houses of the past. The following brief notes on the Scottish publishers are intended to bring into focus and draw attention to a remarkable achievement that has so far been recognized only in a few specialist studies of the book trade and that may well have been due in considerable measure to the particular combination of religion, enlightenment, and entrepreneurial spirit characteristic of eighteenth and nineteenth century Scotland and to the opportunities presented by the union with England.

Major Scottish publishing houses

As noted briefly above, publishing was for many years not independent of other aspects of book production and trade, but was largely in the hands of printers and booksellers. Several of these often acted as partners in the launching of a new book or bought and sold shares in an existing publication. Thus John Murray, William Strahan, and Thomas Cadell, who succeeded Andrew Millar on the latter’s death in 1768, frequently worked together. Edinburgh publisher Archibald Constable and short-lived London publisher Hurst, Robinson or Edinburgh publisher William Blackwood and London publisher Thomas Cadell were frequently listed together on the title page of novels as the publishers for whom the book had been printed, the order of the listing no doubt indicating the primary and secondary partner. Some Edinburgh-based publishers acted as agents for London-based publishers, and vice versa. The Murrays and the Constables, for instance, entertained close personal and business relationships for a time and John Murray II served for some years as Archibald Constable’s London agent for the influential Edinburgh Review, which Constable launched in 1802. This did not prevent Murray from launching, seven years later -- with the help of Constable’s sometime author Walter Scott -- the London-based, Tory-inclined Quarterly Review, which was specifically designed to compete with Constable’s Whig-leaning journal. There was co-operation as well as competition among the publishers and it is widely recognized that the rival journals founded by Constable and Murray contributed to the creation of a new style of literary criticism in the United Kingdom.

The notes on some of the chief Scottish publishing houses that follow have been laid out in roughly chronological order. Major works in a wide range of fields, such as James Frazer’s Golden Bough (Macmillan, 1890), emerged from the businesses founded by the Scots. Nevertheless, while I fully recognize that, until the Romantics of the early nineteenth century, the category of belles-lettres included historical, political, philosophical, and even scientific writings, my focus in the following pages, in accordance with the title of the essay and with our current idea of literature, will be chiefly, though by no means exclusively, on the role of the Scottish publishing houses in promoting and popularizing works that have become part of the literary canon: prose fiction, poetry, drama, certain types of essay, some works of history and biography and even some travel accounts – in English or, where appropriate, in English translation.

Spreading the Word: Scottish Publishers and English Literature 1750-1900


McDougall, Warren. . “Smugglers, Reprinters and Hot Pursuers: The Irish-Scottish Book Trade and Copyright Prosecution in the Late Eighteenth Century,” in The Stationers’ Company and the Book Trade 1550-1990. Ed. Robin Meyers and Michael Harris. Winchester: St. Paul’s Bibliographies; New Castle, DE: Oak Knoll Press, 1997, pp. 155-59.

Murray, David. Some Letters of Robert Foulis. Glasgow: MacLehose [1917].

Last modified 31 October 2018