Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Creech, William

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CREECH, WILLIAM (1745–1815), Edinburgh publisher and lord provost of Edinburgh, son of Rev. William Creech, minister of Newbattle, Midlothian, and Mary Buley, an English lady, related to the family of Quarme, Devonshire, was born 21 April 1745. After the death of his father his mother removed to Dalkeith, where the boy received an education qualifying him to enter the university of Edinburgh. There he manifested good abilities and is said to have become an elegant and accomplished scholar. With the view of entering the medical profession he attended a course of medical lectures, but having made the acquaintance of Kincaid, her majesty's printer for Scotland, who had succeeded to the publishing business of Allan Ramsay, he became apprentice to Kincaid & Bell, with whom he remained till 1766, when he went to London for improvement in his business. He returned to Edinburgh in 1768, and in 1770 accompanied Lord Kilmaurs, afterwards fourteenth earl of Glencairn, on a tour through Holland, France, Switzerland, and various parts of Germany. On the dissolution of the partnership of Kincaid & Bell in May 1771 he became partner with Kincaid, under the firm of Kincaid & Creech, until Kincaid withdrew in 1773, leaving Creech sole partner, under whom the business, as regards publishing, became the most important in Scotland. According to Lord Cockburn, Creech owed a good deal to the position of his shop, which ‘formed the eastmost point of a long thin range of buildings that stood to the north of St. Giles's Cathedral.’ Situated ‘in the very tideway of our business,’ says Cockburn, it became ‘the natural resort of lawyers, authors, and all sorts of literary allies who were always buzzing about the convenient hive’ (Memorials, p. 169). Cockburn, however, does not do justice to the attractive influence of Creech himself, who, in addition to intellectual accomplishments, possessed remarkable social gifts, and was an inimitable story-teller. His breakfast-room was frequented by the most eminent members of the literary society of Edinburgh, the gatherings being known as ‘Creech's levees.’ Archibald Constable characteristically remarks that Creech ‘availed himself of few of the advantages which his education and position afforded him in his relations with the literary men of Scotland’ (Archibald Constable and his Correspondents, i. 535). This is an undoubted exaggeration, for he was the original publisher of the works, among others, of Dr. Blair, Dr. Beattie, Dr. George Campbell, Dr. Cullen, Dr. Gregory, Henry Mackenzie, and Robert Burns. At the same time his business was conducted on the old narrow-minded system, and on account of his social habits it did not receive a sufficient share of his attention, a fact which in great part explains the unpleasant result of his business relations with Robert Burns. He was introduced to Burns through the Earl of Glencairn, who recommended to him the publication of the second edition of Burns's ‘Poems.’ His delay in settling accounts caused Burns much worry and anxiety, and although after the final settlement Burns admitted that at last he ‘had been amicable and fair,’ his opinion of Creech was permanently changed for the worse. While he knew him only as the delightful social companion, Burns addressed him in a humorous eulogistic poem entitled ‘Willie's Awa!’ written during Creech's absence in London in 1787, expressing in one of the stanzas the wish that he may be

streekit out to bleach
In winter snaw,
When I forget thee, Willie Creech,
Though far awa!

In a ‘Sketch’ of Creech written two years afterwards, while the dispute about accounts was in progress, Creech is bitterly described as

A little, upright, pert, tart tripping wight,
And still his precious self his dear delight.

The lines were written when Burns was keenly exasperated, but although ultimately on an outwardly friendly footing with Creech, Burns never again addressed him on the old familiar terms, and even in a letter enclosing him some jocular verses and begging the favour in exchange of a few copies of his ‘Poems’ for presentation, addresses him merely as ‘sir.’

Creech was the publisher of the ‘Mirror’ and ‘Lounger.’ He was also one of the founders of the Speculative Society. Besides excelling as a conversationalist he carried on an extensive correspondence with literary men both in England and Scotland. Several of his letters to Lord Kames are published in Lord Kames's ‘Life’ (2nd edit. iii. 317–35). Under the signature of ‘Theophrastus’ he contributed to the newspapers, especially the ‘Edinburgh Courant,’ a number of essays and sketches of character, the more interesting of these being ‘An Account of the Manners and Customs in Scotland between 1763 and 1783,’ which was ultimately brought down to 1793, and published in the ‘Statistical Account of Scotland.’ The greater portion of the ‘Essays’ were collected and published in 1791 under the title ‘Fugitive Pieces,’ and an edition with some additions and an account of his life appeared posthumously in 1815. He was also the author of ‘An Account of the Trial of Wm. Brodie and George Smith, by William Creech, one of the Jury.’ In politics Creech was a supporter of Mr. Pitt and Lord Melville, with the latter of whom he was on terms of special intimacy. Creech was addicted to theological discussion, held strongly Calvinistic views, and was a member of the high church session. He was the founder and principal promoter of the Society of Booksellers of Edinburgh and Leith, took an active part in the formation of the chamber of commerce (instituted 1786), and was the chairman of several public bodies, as well as fellow of the Royal and Antiquarian Societies. At different periods of his life he was a member of the town council, and he held the office of lord provost from 1811 to 1813. He was never married, and died 14 June 1815. His stock was purchased by Constable.

[Memoir prefixed to Fugitive Pieces; Scots Magazine, lxxvii. (1815), 15–16; Chambers's Dictionary of Eminent Scotsmen (Thomson), i. 398; Wilson's Memorials of Edinburgh, pp. 198, 200, 235; Works of Robert Burns; Lord Cockburn's Memorials.]

T. F. H.