Getting Scottish Printing Started

This post is based on a formal essay I wrote that was published in the 35th issue of Garm Lu. Much has been omitted.

To celebrate 500 years of the domestic printing industry, the Scottish Printing Archival Trust, the National Library of Scotland, and the Scottish Print Employers Federation held a series of events from 2007 to 2009 to educate the public about the industry’s history. All of these events were listed on the campaign’s website together with a brief overview of “How Printing Started in Scotland.” My aim for this post is to merely spark an interested in the first century – the sixteenth century – of Scottish printing. If you want to learn more about the politics behind and resulting from Scotland’s printing industry, hit me up – I have a whole paper on it.

Scotland was pretty late in establishing a domestic printing industry. By 1500, thousands of trained printers were printing in over two hundred towns across Europe, and many printing houses had multiple presses. Scotland had none. Despite Scotland’s lateness, though, the country had a solid (oral) literary tradition and, until Scotland’s education system was firmly established, people seemed pretty darn happy with it.

By 1500, Scotland had three universities – St. Andrews, Glasgow, and King’s College, Aberdeen – and there was a grammar school in every major town. Education wasn’t just about theology, but also addressed advanced grammar and secular classical and contemporary texts. Hence, people needed all sorts of texts, and they needed a heck of a lot of them. But, until 1507, Scottish scholars depended on England’s and the Continent’s presses for printed books. So Scottish scholars were at a disadvantage; they had to work with English printers who may not have been too eager to associate with the Scottish, whom England had been hostile towards for the previous two hundred years. Scottish intellectuals began to demand their own domestic printing industry, which would grant them a sense of autonomy.

King James IV and Margaret Tudor. Aren’t they adorable?

Scotland’s first printing press was commissioned by King James IV. He’s been described as “a wonderful linguist, able to speak Latin, German, Flemish, Italian, and Spanish, in addition to ‘the language of the savages who live in some parts of Scotland and on the islands,’ [and] a student of the Bible and other devout books, as well as of profane histories, of which he had read many, both in Latin and in French.” A literate and clearly learned guy, James surely had use for a nearby printing press. Probably motivated by his own needs, on September 15th, 1507 he issued a royal patent to Walter Chepman and Andrew Myllar to establish a printing house in Edinburgh “with whatever foreign equipment and skills they required, to produce and sell law books, acts of parliament, religious books, lives of saints, and all other books that shall be deemed necessary.” James’ ultimate goal for Scotland’s new printing industry was for “na mer of sic bukis of Salusbery use by brocht to be sauld within our Realme in tym cuming,” which shows his desire to swat away dominant England. However, there’s no persuasive indication that the inauguration of the printing industry was to promote anti-English sentiment. After all, James IV was one of the signatories of the 1502 Treaty of Perpetual Peace between Scotland and England and he himself married the English Margaret Tudor. Rather, Scotland’s print autonomy appears to have been more of an attempt to emulate England’s technological, intellectual, and codicological progress. Dependence on England for printed material hindered Scottish scholars’ ability to share their knowledge in their chosen language, and ultimately degraded the use of Scots in academia. With a domestic printing industry, literature could be printed in vernacular Scots, the Scottish language. Consequently, the Scottish culture could be legitimized though the fixity of print despite English dominance.

Walt seems to get all the credit, while Myllar did all the work. I guess money does get you recognition!

Printing houses began to pop up all over the country, and the sixteenth century revealed the Scottish to be producers – in addition to consumers – of knowledge. Nevertheless, even after a printing tradition was embedded in Scotland the country was unable to self-sustain its printing industry. Books were printed on paper imported from the Continent until 1590, when a domestic paper industry was finally established. It wasn’t until Scottish printers began to use a new kind of press in the 1580s – one that printed up to two hundred impressions per hour – when people rushed to learn how to make paper. Presses were getting faster and more efficient, and printers no longer had the time to sit around and wait for paper shipments from the Continent. Thus, by the 1590s there was as a steady supply of resources to satisfy this demand. Scotland’s printing industry was finally gaining momentum.

Want to learn more about printing in Scotland? (It sounds boring but, I promise you, it’s not!) Check out this website by the National Library of Scotland. The NLS may not have much of its collection digitized, but its has tons of Scotland’s early stuff available for those of us who can’t take weekend trips to Edinburgh. This is why I love the Internet, people.

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