Printing Comes to Scotland
The early history of Scottish printing, like that of Scottish poetry, can be glimpsed only through remnants of what was produced. These glimpses are given not only in single copies of books but in brief statements in official or legal documents concerned with what seemed to men of the courts, royal and legal, or the church to be more important matters. This means that what follows should be qualified by a phrase such as ‘it may be’ more often than I have thought it helpful to do so. Of course the same can be said of some of the early history of printing across Europe.
A work by the English Poet and grammarian, Johannes de Garlandia, is one of two books believed to have been printed in Rouen for Androw Myllar by, perhaps, Pierre Violette and dated 1505 and 1506. John Garland studied at Oxford but taught at Toulouse and Paris, where he spent most of his life. His Equivoca, and his Synonyma, are treatises on grammar written in Latin hexameters; nine editions of his Equivoca were printed in England before 1520; the fifth, printed in London by Wynkyn de Worde, is, like the Myllar, dated 1505, and has a good woodcut of a schoolmaster and three pupils that is reproduced in Edward Hodnett’s splendid English Woodcuts 1480-1535, 1935, reprinted with additions and corrections, 1973.
Androw Myllar, Scotland’s first printer, learned the craft in Rouen, before returning to Scotland in 1507 to set up his press in Edinburgh’s Southgait (now the Cowgate). Myllar’s financial backer and partner was Walter Chepman, who had the ear of the King. The death of James IV at the battle of Flodden only six years later ended Edinburgh’s Renaissance court and the reigns of James V and the authoritarian Catholic Queen Mary saw less encouragement being given to men of the press. Till his flitting to London in 1603, James VI encouraged learning and Scottish poetry, and so printing.
All early Scottish printing was in Gothic, or ‘black letter’, type, and of the design known as Textura, which is the most formal of the Gothics. Textura was the Gothic design commonly used in Britain until the eighteenth century; William Caslon’s ‘black letters’, cast in London in the mid-eighteenth century, were similar to those used by the early Scottish printers. The design originated in France and when Myllar returned to Scotland from Rouen he brought with him three sizes of Textura. Whilst two of these sizes were commonly used in France and in London, the middle size may have been specially cut for Myllar. In London, Wynkyn de Worde had types similar to Myllar’s and he probably also got some of these in Rouen. The Royal Patent of James IV committed Myllar and Chepman to ‘bring hame ane prent with al stuf belangand tharto and expert men to use the samyne’. So it was that the ‘expert men’, like the types, were French.
Scholarly editors of Scottish poetry are fortunate that the earliest examples of Scottish printing to have survived are a group of verse pamphlets printed by Chepman and Myllar about 1508. These include Robert Henryson’s ‘Orpheus and Eurydice’ and William Dunbar’s ‘The Golden Targe’. A folio edition of Blind Hary’s ‘Wallace’, perhaps running to some 288 pages, is known by fragments, and this work may indicate something of the scope of Chepman and Myllar’s printing. They may also have printed Sir Richard Holland’s ‘Buke of the Howlet’, and much else for all we know. What we do have is the well-set out Aberdeen Breviary, which is a very significant achievement, although only eight complete, or more or less complete, volumes have survived. This work may have been the main reason for the king, prompted by William Elphinstone, Bishop of Aberdeen, to encourage the setting up of the Scottish printing press. Elphinstone wished to maintain the old Scottish liturgy against the English ‘Sarum Use’. Surprisingly, the two volumes, 1509-10, carry only the name of W. Chepman, yet Myllar is thought to have overseen production in the printing house; it may be that he died before the work was completed. Illustrations of the work of Scotland’s first printers are contained or recorded in The Chepman and Myllar Prints, a facsimile issued by the Edinburgh Bibliographical Society in 1950, with a bibliographical note by William Beattie.
There is a Walter Chepman aisle in St Giles’ Cathedral, Edinburgh, which the co-founder of printing in Scotland dedicated to the memory of King James IV and his Queen, Margaret Tudor, elder daughter of Henry VII. A plaque of 1879 commemorates Chepman, although it is more than a little overshadowed by the grand white marble effigy of James Graham, Marquis of Montrose, facing it.
Early printing survives by chance and we know of J. Story only because the small leaves of his The Office of the Lady of Pity, or Compassion of the Virgin, were bound into one of the few surviving copies of the Aberdeen Breviary. Story is the only printer, apart from Chepman and Myllar, known to have worked in Scotland before 1520, and he may have worked for, and succeeded, Chepman. A facsimile of Story’s Compassio (c. 1520) was made available by the Edinburgh Bibliographical Society (vol.14, 1930, pp.103-118). Other illustrations showing examples of early Scottish printing were made available by Frank Isaac, English and Scottish Printing Types, 1501-57 (2 volumes, 1930-32), and Robert Dickson and John Philip Edmond, Annals of Scottish Printing (1890), but there has been a lack of reproductions from Davidson, Scot and Lekprevik onwards.
An account of The trewe encountre or Batyle don betwene Englande and Scotland has been described as the first English news pamphlet. This account of the Battle of Flodden, 1513, was printed in London, probably in the year of the battle, by Richard Faques. The English claimed that only a few hundred English died at Flodden against 10,000 Scots, but records of the payroll show that Surrey, the English commander, lost two-fifths of his own retinue. It was a great victory for the English but Surrey did not consider it advisable to follow this up and, in 1514, King Henry VIII made a peace with France that also included Scotland. The effects of the death of the dashing and personally over-brave King James IV, alongside many of his nobles, at the Battle of Flodden have been much exaggerated. His army may have failed the King of Scots, who was responding to a war instigated by the bellicose Henry VIII, but politically there was continuity and the nation retained a hard won confidence in its institutions. What did suffer was the continued expansion of printing and it has been suggested that no press was established until King James V came of age and into full kingly power in 1528. That I doubt, but it is likely that no printer of note established a press until Thomas Davidson, who may have been printing in the late 1520s.
We know for certain that Davidson printed The new actis and constitutionis of Parliament maid be the Richt Excellent Prince James Fift Kyng of Scottis, which is dated 1540 and has a very fine woodcut of the royal arms on the title page. As might be expected, James V made Davidson King’s Printer for this work. Nothing is known of him after the king’s death in 1542. Such is fame by association that we do know that, soon after the printer’s death, George Hopper, an Edinburgh merchant, married his widow.
Much of the work of Davidson must have been lost, and there may well have been printers of whom we know nothing. Davidson mostly used Gothic types, but he is the printer who introduced roman and italic types into Scotland. About 1536, he printed what is regarded as the first example of printed Scottish prose; a translation from Latin into Scots by John Bellenden of Hector Boece’s History and croniklis of Scotland. In their Annals of Scottish Printing, 1890, Robert Dickson and J. P. Edmond described this work as ‘an almost unrivalled specimen of early British typography’. Since most early British printing is of a poor standard, and Davidson was capable, the exaggeration into ‘unrivalled’ may be forgivable. Also, there is a remarkable woodcut of the Crucifixion on the verso of the final leaf. Davidson’s two romans and his italic were used by several London printers who had imported them from Europe. The italic was cut in Cologne and brought to London, says A. F. Johnson, by Thomas Berthelet, King’s Printer. Davidson also used two woodcut illustrations and a woodcut border that had been used by Peter Treveris in London.
Despite there being no documentary evidence, it has been confidently said by A. F. Johnson and others that Davidson bought the matrices for his types in London. It is a strange logic that leads to the belief that all typefaces used in Scotland but unknown in England came to Scotland directly from France, Germany or the Netherlands, whereas all typefaces already known in London were imported from there and not directly from continental Europe. For almost two centuries the accepted Scottish view was that the ideas and styles of the Renaissance came late to Scotland and did so through London. Now architectural historians stand in Stirling or Falkland and look at stones that tell them a different story; one that relates an earlier arrival of Renaissance ideas directly from Italy or through France. What today’s Australians have called the ‘cringe factor’ was also at work when Scottish literary historians termed Robert Henryson and William Dunbar ‘Scots Chaucerians’, but it could not be denied that Gavin Douglas’s magnificent translation of Virgil’s Aeneid, 1513, was the first complete version of a classical text printed in the British Isles.
We do not know whether or not Thomas Davidson and other sixteenth century Scottish printers imported their typefaces from London but what we do know is that before the Reformation, Scotland looked more to continental Europe that to England. The French influence was strengthened when King James V married Madelaine, daughter of Fran
çois I of France, at the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris on 1 January 1537. Very soon after, the Scottish King married his second wife, Mary of Guise-Lorraine, whose French loyalties were inherited by her daughter, Mary. In the early 1540s Scotland and England were at open war. Also, many Scottish scholars had studied in Europe and some made their reputations there, including Hector Boece, John Miar (or Major), George Buchanan, and Andrew Melville. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries there was a tradition that Scottish students went to the Universities of Cologne and Louvain to take second degrees. With the coming of the ideas of the Reformation, by 1600 Scots were going to Heidelberg rather than Paris and by 1625 large numbers of law and theology students were going to the Netherlands, especially to Leiden. This is the European tradition within which the earliest Scottish printers worked until 1603, when London became more important north of the Border.
© Duncan Glen 2006