THE following extract will give a very good notion of how Burns behaved in William Smellie’s office. The narrator is his son Alexander Smellie, who was quite a lad when Burns arrived from Ayrshire.
He says, “I perfectly remember the first appearance of Burns in my father’s printing house in 1787, at the time his poems were printing. He was dressed much in the style of a plain countryman, and walked three or four times from end to end of the composing-room, cracking a long hunting-whip which he held in his hand to the no small annoyance of the compositors and pressmen; and, although the manuscript of his poems was then lying before every compositor in the house, he never once looked at what they were doing, nor asked a single question. He frequently repeated this odd practice during the course of printing his work, and always in the same strange and inattentive manner, to the great astonishment of the men, who were not accustomed to such whimsical behaviour.
Burns, like many other people, had the wrong notion that a compositor, to be able to set up a work in a foreign language, must be intimately acquainted with it. Anxious to know how much learning an old rusty compositor possessed whom he saw setting up a Latin work, Burns one day stopped in his career through the case-room where he used to slap his thigh vigorously with his whip, and stopping opposite the old fellow’s frame, asked how many foreign languages he knew?
The compositor replied very candidly – “I wush I kent my ain weel eneuch!”