I have been spending a couple of days looking at the annals of the Scottish book trade. My purposes were stern and academic, but some pretty fruity characters turned up in the course of my investigations. Of Peter Forrest, the Edinburgh publishers, Oliver & Boyd’s logbook records, ‘’Poor?; a Printer. Sometime an Actor of considerable humour … Not prudent to trust more than £10.’ It’s equally trenchant about others of their travelling salesmen. Another was ‘Consequential & troublesome. More a whisky merchant than a Bibliopole.’ One wonders why, when a bookseller called Margaret Raleigh ‘met a notorious prostitute and bawd, Isabella Milligan’ in 1834, she ‘shortly after went to live with her in her retirement in Morningside’. Another bookseller of unorthodox tendencies, who was called Robert Watt, together with Mr David Downie, a goldsmith, ‘set about fomenting a revolution. At first they tried to suborn the Hopetoun Fencibles with handbills printed for that purpose, but that failing ordered two thousand pike-heads from two smiths who had enrolled among the friends of the people’. Meanwhile in another part of Scotland, the exasperated parishoners of a minister called Peter Rae complained that he was ‘so taken up with mechanics and worldly business that it takes him off his ministerial office … and that he causes print obscene ballads in his own house.’ He also, in a fit of inventiveness, ‘made an astronomical chiming clock for Charles 3rd Duke of Queensberry.’ Other inventors float into view. One John Howell gave himself out as polyartist and dealer in antiquities. A memoir notes, ‘He at one time tried the experiment of flying, and took his start from somewhere about the foot of Ramsay Lane, finishing in the Nor’ Loch. He next tried by mechanical means to walk on the water, but this was seen to be equally dangerous. He was occasionally employed in taking the features of deceased persons. He made an ingenious model of Edinburgh, now kept in Stevenson’s foundry.’ Maxwell Dick is described as bookseller, stationer, bookbinder, library, printer and News Letter Office. As if that wasn’t enough, ‘about the year 1829 he invented a suspension bridge’ … Yet another inventive character who also appears in the list because he was a paper manufacturor, was Alexander Pirie: ‘he devoted himself to farming, and invented a turnip-sowing machine, and experimented with whale blubber as fertiliser.’ But my absolute favourite is Alexander Daes, papermaker of Dalry. His papermill burnt down in 1679 and he became temporarily the showman of an elephant. The Mill was rebuilt by 1680. And how did that happen? Drowning his sorrows at the loss of the Dalry papermill, he went to the pub, and happened to meet a man with a spare elephant? What was an elephant doing in Dalry in 1679 in the first place?
PS. Mark Jardine’s blog notes that a presbyterian minister called Robert Law, recorded the wonder of seeing a ‘bonnie’ elephant in Glasgow in January, 1681 in his Memorialls. According to Law the beast arrived in Scotland in 1680 and was eleven years old — some English merchants had bought it for £2000. Still doesn’t explain why this valuable creature was entrusted to a temporarily unemployed papermaker. How did he persuade its proprietors that he had an intuitive knowledge of how to keep an elephant healthy and happy?