Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Ballantyne, James (1772-1833)

BALLANTYNE, JAMES (1772–1833), the printer of Sir Walter Scott's works, was the son of a general merchant in Kelso, where he was born in 1772. His friendship with Scott began in 1783 at the grammar school of Kelso. After mastering his lessons, Scott used to whisper to Ballantyne, 'Come, slink over beside me, Jamie, and I'll tell you a story;' and in the interval of school hours it was also their custom to walk together by the banks of the Tweed, engaged in the same occupation. Before entering the office of a solicitor in Kelso, Ballantyne passed the winter of 1785-6 at Edinburgh University. His apprenticeship concluded, he again went to Edinburgh to attend the class of Scots law, and on this occasion renewed his acquaintance with Scott at the Teviotdale club, of which both were members. In 1795 he commenced practice as a solicitor in Kelso, but as his business was not immediately successful he undertook in the following year the printing and editing of an anti-democratic weekly newspaper, the 'Kelso Mail.' A casual conversation with Scott, in 1799, led to his printing, under the title of 'Apologies for Tales of Terror,' a few copies of some ballads which Scott had written for Lewis's Miscellany, 'Tales of Wonder.' So pleased was Scott with the beauty of the type, that he declared that Ballantyne should be the printer of the collection of old Border ballads, with which he had been occupied for several years. They were published under the title of 'Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border,' the first two volumes appearing in Jan. 1802; and the connection thus inaugurated between author and printer remained uninterrupted through 'good and bad weather' to the close of Scott's life.

Induced by the strong representations of Scott, Ballantyne, about the close of 1802, removed to Edinburgh, 'finding accommodation for two presses and a proof one in the precincts of Holyrood House.' Scott, besides advancing a loan of 500l., exerted himself to procure for him both legal and literary printing; and such was the reputation soon acquired by his press for beauty and correctness of execution that in 1805 the capital at his command was too small to fulfil the contracts that were offered him, and he applied to Scott for a second loan, who thereupon became a third sharer in the business. In 1808 the firm of John Ballantyne & Co., booksellers, was also started, Scott having one half share, and James and John Ballantyne one fourth each. John Ballantyne [q.v.] undertook the management of the book-selling and publishing business, the printing business continuing under the superintendence of the elder brother; but the actual head of both concerns was Scott, who, although in establishing them he was actuated by a friendly interest in the Ballantynes, wished both to find a convenient method of engaging in a commercial undertaking without risk to his status in society, and also as an author to avoid the irksome intervention of a publisher between him and the reading public. The publishing business was gradually discontinued, but the printing business was in itself a brilliant success. The high perfection to which Ballantyne had brought the art of printing, and his connection with Scott, secured such enormous employment for his press that a large pecuniary profit was almost an inevitable necessity. But though not deficient in natural shrewdness, he was careless in his money transactions, and it was the artistic and literary aspect of his business that chiefly engaged his interest. Much of his time was occupied in the correction and revision of the proofs of Scott's works, the writing of critical and theatrical notices, and the editing of the 'Weekly Journal,' of which, along with his brother, he became proprietor in 1817, Scott's hurried method of composition rendered careful inspection of his proofs absolutely necessary, but the amendments of Ballantyne had reference, in addition to the minor points of grammar, to the higher matters of taste and style. Though himself a loose and bombastic writer, he had a keen eye for detecting solecisms, inaccuracies, or minute imperfections in phrases and expressions, and his hints in regard to the general treatment of a subject were often of great value. If Scott seldom accepted his amendments in the form suggested, he nearly always admitted the force of his objections, and in deference to them frequently made important alterations. Indeed, it is to the criticism of Ballantyne that we owe some of Scott's most vivid epithets and most graphic descriptive touches. (For examples, see Lockhart's Life of Scott, chap. xxxv.) Love of ease and a propensity to indulgence at table were the principal faults of Ballantyne. On account of the grave pomposity of his manner Scott used to name him 'Aldiborontiphoscophornio,' his more mercurial brother being dubbed 'Rigdumfunnidos.' In 1816, Ballantyne married Miss Hogarth, sister of George Hogarth, the author of the 'History of Music.' He lived in a roomy but old-fashioned house in St. John Street, Canongate, not far from his printing establishment. There, on the eve of a new novel by the Great Unknown, he was accustomed to give a 'gorgeous' feast to his more intimate friends, when, after Scott and the more staid personages had withdrawn, and the 'claret and olives had made way for broiled bones and a mighty bowl of punch,' the proof sheets were at length produced, and 'James, with many a prefatory hem, read aloud what he considered as the most striking dialogue they contained.'

The responsibility of Ballantyne for the pecuniary difficulties of Sir Walter Scott has been strongly insisted on by Lockhart, but this was not the opinion of Scott himself, who wrote: 'I have been far from suffering from James Ballantyne. I owe it to him to say that his difficulties as well as his advantages are owing to me.' Doubtless the printing-press, with more careful superintendence, would have yielded a larger profit, but the embarrassments of Scott originated in his connection with the publishing firm, and were due chiefly to schemes propounded by himself and undertaken frequently in opposition to the advice of Ballantyne. In 1826 the film of James Ballantyne & Co. became involved in the bankruptcy of Constable & Co., publishers. After his bankruptcy Ballantyne was employed at a moderate salary by the creditors' trustees in the editing of the 'Weekly Journal' and the literary management of the printing-house, so that his literary relations with Scott's works remained unaltered. He died 17 Jan. 1833, about four months after the death of Scott.

[Lockhart's Life of Scott; Refutation of the Misstatements and Calumnies contained in Mr. Lockhart's Life of Sir Walter Scott respecting the Messrs. Ballantyne, 1835; The Ballantyne Humbug handled by the author of the Life of Sir Walter Scott, 1839; Reply to Mr. Lockhart's pamphlet, entitled 'The Ballantyne Humbug handled,' 1839; Archibald Constable and his Literary Correspondents, 1873.]

T. F. H.