500 Years of Scottish Printing

Dr Brian Hillyard &
Dr Anette Hagan

28th January 2009

A good turnout of members welcomed Drs Brian Hillyard and Anette Hagan from the National Library of Scotland with their presentation on 500 years of Scottish printing.

The person who invented printing with moveable type and therefore a mechanical way of making books was Johann Gutenberg in Germany in 1450s. Previously all books had to be copied by hand. The first real book he printed using his technique is the Bible in Latin of which he may have produced as many as 180 copies in 1454 or 1455. Although Gutenberg’s invention had commercial potential it did not make him a rich man.


It is not until 1508 over 50 years later that we have the first two Scottish printers in Edinburgh. Andrew Myllar and Walter Chepman. Chepman an Edinburgh merchant who provided the money and Myllar an Edinburgh bookseller who had been involved in printing in France and brought the experience of the book trade to the venture were granted a patent or licence to set up a press by James IV in September 1507. They set up their press in the South Gate (now the Cowgate) of Edinburgh and it was specified that it be largely to print books for Government and Church use.

The only known copies of nine books printed by Chepman and Myllar are the most precious items held by the National Library of Scotland. They are known as ‘The Chepman and Myllar Prints’.

The nine books originally totalled 216 pages. The shortest is eight pages and is William Dunbar’s poem welcoming Lord Bernard Stewart to Scotland in 1508. The rest of the pieces are a range of romance, instructive and lyrical poetry of Scots and English origin many printed anonymously. Dunbar one of Scotland’s most important medieval poets is well represented with some of his major poems included. After 1510 there is no further mention of Chepman or Myllar and no further evidence of anything printed on their South Gate press. Perhaps it had been a financial disaster.


Printing spread over Scotland over the next 400 years. In the first 300 years Scotland had 65 printing towns but over the following 100 years another 153 were established across the Scottish mainland mainly setting up where there were routes and where trade flourished. Until the end of the 18th century it was confined to the south and east of Scotland apart from Inverness and Banff. In the 19th century a revolution in printing took place. The days of the hand press came to a close with the invention of the printing machine allowing more actions to be performed automatically or partly mechanical. Paper became much cheaper and was produced in greater quantities. The desire to read among the general population created a demand for affordable reading material. The spread of printing towns was much further reaching some of the Western and Northern Isles as well as the north east of Scotland.

The spread of printing in our area however started in Berwick upon Tweed in 1753. Berwick is commonly counted among Scottish printing towns because of its geographical location and historical links with Scotland. The first item printed there was titled ‘Plan of Education’ and was a short pamphlet printed by R Taylor, who was also a bookseller, dealing with the subjects a prince would have to cover with his tutor until he was aged 15. Printing then spread to Peebles 1770 (printer unknown), Kelso 1782 (James Palmer), Duns 1793 (James Brown), Hawick 1783 (George Caw), Jedburgh 1815 (Walter Easton), Selkirk 1817 (Thomas Brown), Coldstream 1844 (Robert Kerr), Innerleithen 1871 (Robert Smail), Earlston 1889 (Thos. Weatherly), and Stow in 1897 ((Sanderson & Son).


The first printer in Galashiels was David Fair in 1830. The first item printed in Galashiels was for Tweed Fisheries and is a list of the rules and regulations for fishing on the River Tweed. At the end of the presentation Anette Hagan gave the club a laminated copy of this item, which we were delighted to receive.

Norman Houldsworth gave a hearty vote of thanks for an interesting evening.



For more information, seehttp://www.nls.uk/printing/index.cfm