Rosemary Goring?The origins of Birlinn Ltd could not be called glamorous. Today, the company that is celebrating its 25th anniversary and can boast of being “Scotland’s largest publisher”, occupies a grand Georgian townhouse in Edinburgh’s Newington. Built in 1806, it was owned by the family of the renowned publisher Thomas Nelson. The spiral staircases and stone-flagged floors, on which lie a profusion of Persian rugs, are looked down on by so many framed oil paintings, watercolours and drawings it is as if a stamp-collector has taken to the walls. The basement rooms, opening onto the garden, are given over to a substantial staff of full-time and freelance editors, publicists, sales reps and designers, their tightly packed desks like the cells of a honeycomb. The office quarters, however, are quieter and at least as industrious as any bee hive.

When Hugh Andrew, the company’s founder, set up his firm in 1992, it operated from his back bedroom. A former bookshop manager and sales rep, he started with four titles, and now produces around 165 books a year. There are reputedly around half a million shelved in a warehouse. Starting his career with James Thin Bookseller in Edinburgh, and as manager at Hatchard’s in his hometown of Paisley, Andrew was quick to see gaps in the market. When the publishers whose lists he represented did not listen to his suggestions, he decided to take up the challenge. His earliest titles, he recalls, were Tales from Barra by John MacPherson, The Complete Para Handy, Parliamo Glasgow, by Stanley Baxter, and The Collected Poems of William McGonagall.

“All of them sold very well,” he says, settled upon an enormous sofa in front of a mirror that possibly came from Balmoral, in a room shelved to the cornices with books. At his feet Millie, his elderly Jack Russell, curls up in her basket. “And of course I made the usual mistake of thinking I knew it all.”?A history graduate from Magdalene College, Oxford, Andrew, 55, has always been confident and ambitious. Some of this can be attributed to his late father, a veterinary surgeon, who was a director of the firm. “He was very good at pushing me, and I don’t mean that in a nasty way. He was constantly making sure you raised the bar on what you did. So he was very influential.”

When his early list showed promise, and the numbers of people involved began to grow, he took an office in an old renovated school off the Royal Mile. “It was opposite the local homeless hostel,” he says, “so apart from being a pretty basic place, you also went in in the morning across the local worthies of the town, reeking of drink, sitting on the steps, having their first super-strength lager.”

It would be surprising if Andrew has not at times sympathised with the need for something restorative of a morning, as he has gone about building one of the most substantial publishing companies in Scotland during a quarter century of unprecedented technological and cultural change.

As the Royal Mile office grew increasingly irksome, West Newington House came on the market, and he pounced.

“It was an act of utter insanity. The building was a wreck, the company wasn’t doing terribly well at the time, it seemed to be an endless money pit. I remember when I had my 40th birthday, there were only two habitable rooms in the house. The floor out there there had no stone, I had to hop along the rafters by emergency lighting. I thought, is this it? That was the nadir. I thought the only positive about this is that I know I’m not going to have a nervous breakdown if I can get through all this.”

Breakdowns are not unusual in the publishing world, the trade often appearing to model itself on the trajectory of a big dipper. But Andrew, as his demeanour suggests, is made of tough stuff. Indeed, his is a face that one imagines Raeburn would have loved to paint. But there is another side to him, as I once saw when he was regaling dinner guests with the story of the day he was parading through Paisley, dressed as the Pink Panther for charity. Suddenly, his fancy-dress companions were no longer at his side. Through the narrow eye-slits he saw a crowd of football fans approaching down the street who, having spotted him, were breaking into a run. Fortunately, despite his swishing tail, he legged it faster.

He picks up the story in 2002, when he bought Polygon, the fiction and poetry imprint, and his fortunes began to improve. “People sometimes say, how very prescient. I say, the thing about publishing is, sometimes you strike lucky.” Since then, the company has grown steadily, buying other imprints, and in 2016 it took over Nicolson Maps, meaning that Birlinn is Scotland’s largest independent cartographic supplier.

The country has more than 60 publishing houses, but the majority are small enterprises that cannot compete with the bigger beasts. “I describe ourselves as Scotland’s largest publisher,” he says. “There are larger publishers up here – HarperCollins, Canongate, to name two – but none I think to whom Scotland is so central.” Although Andrew was joint managing director of Canongate for four years, he says they are such different companies there is little rivalry between them.?For most readers, a publisher’s size is irrelevant. What they appreciate is the range and quality of books that come out of West Newington House. The backlist is filled with Scottish history, culture, and politics. It has novels by James Kelman and George Mackay Brown, poetry by Norman MacCaig and Liz Lochhead, and children’s books by Debi Gliori, James Robertson and Mairi Hedderwick.

Most famous of all, perhaps, is Alexander McCall Smith, whose international acclaim has helped pave the way for Birlinn. Andrew is quick to laud McCall Smith: “He is both a friend, a supporter, and a genuinely philanthropic and altruistic individual to whom we owe an enormous debt of gratitude.” Others to whom he pays tribute are Ainslie Thin the bookseller – “he made me realise the importance of a family business in which all those in the business were family, in a strange way” – and his own tireless staff, “who get what this company is about”.

As one of his authors, I can attest to that. It is an odd experience interviewing your publisher. I had hoped to be allowed to sit in on one of the famous editorial meetings, but this was vetoed, not only by him. “You would find them a bit eye-openingly brutal,” he says, unapologetically. “We have about 150 projects either to be looked at or in various stages of contractual matters. We daren’t sit around saying, ‘I particularly liked that beautiful phrase on page...’ It’s much more bish-bash-bosh, yes, no, etc.”?It would be a brave author who’d dare earwig when their own work was under discussion. Like his staff, Andrew is a man of strong and swift opinions. I witness this for myself a few minutes after our conversation, when the subject of extending the deadline for a book I will soon be writing for them is broached by my editor. It doesn’t take a psychic to read Andrew’s expression, as he signs a pile of papers, and silently squashes any hope of procrastination. ?Now partly based in Mull, where he spent months renovating a country house, Andrew still acts as a sales rep across Argyll and the islands, as far as Mallaig and Ardnamurchan. This, he says, is essential for keeping him in touch with what readers want. There is another more personal factor too, he drily adds. “There’s often a connection with the books I do and the fact we can have launches on remote Hebridean islands which I can claim back on expenses. It’s often a very powerful motive for me commissioning a book!” ?One such is Ben Buxton’s Mingulay, one of the three titles he selects to encapsulate Birlinn’s ethos. On crossing to the island, he recalls, “the then Mingulay boat man, now dead, turned to a friend behind him and said, ‘I never knew there was anything important to say about us until this book was published.’ At the launch that night at Castlebay I realised just how much this book meant to a community. It gave them a voice.”?Equally important is Andy Wightman’s The Poor Had No Lawyers, which he believes helped shape recent legislation. “A good publisher acts as a conscience, and a conscience often when politicians are too cowardly or self-serving to speak.”?And the third element, encapsulated by the children’s series Bear’s Adventures, by Benedict Blathwayt, is of giving good books a new lease of life, capitalising on their Scottish backdrop, and reinvigorating their authors. ?Behind the almost bewildering array of titles and subjects over which he presides is a straightforward principle. “What I hate is the Scotland of tat, of See You Jimmy hats, of tartan and shortbread. It’s as infectious in books as it is infectious in everything else. And it’s an image of Scotland that many cultural bodies seem to think that our country is about. If I have one mission in life, it is to slay that myth. Everything we are about is a challenge to the bargain tat, which illustrates to me both cynicism and crippling lack of confidence. ? “The High Street in Edinburgh is an embarrassment. This ethos extends right through government. You can go to tourist site after tourist site – ” he breaks off, exasperated. “People say, this is what our customers want, and I say, well isn’t it funny that I have £3.75million of customers who want my books.”

Clearly, Birlinn absorbs his attention. Unable at present to take a holiday far from home, because of his old dog – “Also, I get stressed when I relax” – he palpably relishes his work. He admits he is, however, “at twanging point”.

“It’s an immensely satisfying job, but it’s also terrifying. Each book you do is a gamble. It’s like going to a casino. You’re putting down thousands of pounds on each chip. You get things that you think are certain bankers, which bomb completely, and you have no idea why.” ?So where will Birlinn be in another 25 years? The prospect makes him look weary. “I really don’t know. There’s aways a great fear in publishing that you just run out of creativity. That is something that does worry me, that I’ll stop having ideas. Publishing burns through books at a rate of knots. One thing I am very proud of: we have published more books that will be central and seminal to Scottish culture in 50 and 100 years time than just about anyone else.”?The interview ends and he disappears into the hallway. A moment later he returns. “Edmund Burke said, ‘we in the present are not simply existing in that present but we are guardians of the past, and trustees for future generations’. What a publisher is, is providing the bridge of words from the past for the future, across which we all can walk.”

And with that he strides off once more.?