Scot Press: As Scotland Celebrates Five Hundred Years of Printing, Martin Moonie's Investigations into the Earliest Printed Books in Scots Leads Him on a Trail to Paris

By Moonie, Martin | History Today, June 2008 | Go to article overview

Scot Press: As Scotland Celebrates Five Hundred Years of Printing, Martin Moonie's Investigations into the Earliest Printed Books in Scots Leads Him on a Trail to Paris


Moonie, Martin, History Today


A cross Scotland this year, the five-hundredth anniversary of the arrival of printing will be marked by exhibitions and events celebrating the establishment of a press run by Walter Chepman and Andro Myllar in Edinburgh in 1508. Some of the treasures of the National Library will be on display in Edinburgh in a major commemorative exhibition running from June to September.

Elsewhere in Scotland libraries and museums will showcase printed treasures of their own--including early editions of the Beano and the Dandy published by D.C. Thomson in Dundee. Yet printing had probably arrived in Scotland before 1508, and the first printed books in Scots--the language of the lowlands in the medieval and early modern period, very different from the southern English of London and the court--had appeared, not in Edinburgh, but in Paris five years earlier, in 1503.

The story of the invention of printing by Johannes Gutenberg in Mainz around the year 1450, and its rapid spread across Europe in the later years of the fifteenth century, is well known. William Caxton set up the first press in England at Westminster in the 1470s. By the end of the fifteenth century more than 29,000 separate publications had been issued from presses across Europe.

Although Scotland lacked a printing press until relatively late, the period itself saw a major literary flowering under the Renaissance king James IV, with the poetry of poets such as Robert Henryson, William Dunbar and Gavin Douglas among its greatest achievements. It is hardly surprising, therefore, to find that Scots were actively involved in the development of printing technology on the Continent. Before the century was out a number of Scottish authors had had Latin texts printed. One Scot, probably called David Lewis, had found work as a press corrector in Paris. And an anglicized version of the Scottish religious text The Contemplacioun of Synnaris (1499) was printed in Westminster by Caxton's successor, Wynkyn de Worde.

The standard history of the arrival of printing in Scotland concentrates on the careers of the two men known to have established the first Scottish press in Edinburgh--the merchant Walter Chepman and his colleague Andro Myllar. It is generally assumed that before entering into partnership with Chepman, Myllar had learned the craft of printing in Rouen, where his name appears on two books, a grammar and a Latin liturgy for the English market, printed around 1505-06. A Royal Patent granted by James IV to the Chepman and Myllar partnership in 1507 stipulated that the pair will 'furnis and bring hame ane prent [press], with all the stuff belangand therto, and expert men to use the samyne'. The following year, the first dateable books appeared from their press.

[ILLUSTRATIONS OMITTED]

Information about their earliest productions is largely down to the survival of eleven pieces bound together in a single volume known as the 'Chepman and Myllar prints'. This volume, which forms the centrepiece of the National Library of Scotland's exhibition, was discovered in the eighteenth century. It contains pieces by Robert Henryson and William Dunbar, together with material from the English author John Lydgate and others. The earliest dateable text within the collection was printed in 1508 and it is on the basis of this evidence that the current quincentenary is being celebrated.

Research, however, suggests that Myllar had probably experimented with a small-scale printing operation in Edinburgh before 1508. From this perspective, the words of James IV's Patent to the Chepman-Myllar partnership take on a greater significance. Crudely, in place of the amateurish first efforts of Myllar, the Patent anticipates a well-furnished printing operation within Scotland, complete with skilled workers brought from the Continent 'for the honour and profit of our Realme and Leigis'. The patent also protects the partnership from books brought into the country from abroad. …

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