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Archive Anecdotes

Snippets from the city's archives


Jan 14, 2015

 

Two hundred years ago, on 14 January 1815, many Edinburgh citizens mourned the death,in his seventieth year, of the well regarded and influential bookseller William Creech. He was buried in Greyfriars Kirkyard where his grave can still be found in the Western section beyond the Flodden Wall.

Originally from Newbattle, Creech settled in Edinburgh after graduating from Edinburgh University and by 1773 was owner of a bookshop next to St. Giles Cathedral, where he remained for 44 years. As a result, the premises became known as 'Creech's Land'. The property was demolished in 1817, two years after Creech's death.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Illustration from Grant's Old and New Edinburgh.                                The site today.

Here he established himself as one of Edinburgh’s most prestigious publishers and in 1786 cautiously offered subscriptions to the first Edinburgh edition of Robert Burn's poems which, with advance sales thus assured, was then published in 1787. Burns described Creech as ‘my friend, my patron’ but the relationship was not always cordial. Following a delay in payments due to him, Burns penned this about Creech:

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!

On settlement of the payment, Burns recanted: ‘I retract some ill-natured surmises in my last letter, and own that at last he has been amicable and fair with me.'

Illustration from Grant's Old And New Edinburgh.
Click here to view the original Raeburn portrait held by the National Galleries.

In spite of his reputation for financial meanness, Creech attracted the friendship and respect of many leading figures in Edinburgh society including Henry Mackenzie and Dugald Stewart who frequently attended his rather frugal supper parties.  According to Burns ‘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’. An example of Creech’s wit is a quip made to a friend who had tricked him on April Fool’s Day:

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.

He became a town councillor in 1780 and was accorded the honour of serving as Lord Provost from 1811 to 1813. He was a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh and a founder member of the Speculative Society.

In 1788, he was a member of the jury in Deacon William Brodie's trial for robbery. He used the experience as a business opportunity. Within days, his account of the trial and execution was for sale in his High Street bookshop and, within the year was twice reprinted in extended editions. The book contained a remarkable illustration of Brodie in his Tollbooth cell.

Sources:
National Galleries.
The Burns Encyclopedia (Click here).
Grant. Old and New Edinburgh.
Chambers. Traditions of Edinburgh.

 

 



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