Birth of Scottish Publishing

William Dunbar was one of the first Scottish poets to benefit from a book deal –Chepman and Myllar were the very first publishers in Scotland, and they were the first to mass-produce the works of Scotland’s great poets. Their series of books were published in 1508, about fifty years after the world’s first printed book – the Gutenburg Bible in c.1455, in Mainz, Germany – and about 30 years after William Caxton established the first printing press in England.

Prior to the invention of moveable type by Johannes Gutenberg, manuscripts were copied by hand or printed using a cumbersome system invented by the Chinese where entire pages would be carved by hand then inked and pressed onto paper to make multiple copies. Gutenberg’s system allowed individual letters to be rearranged for each new page, making the printing of entire books much cheaper and easier.

Androw Myllar, an Edinburgh bookseller, travelled widely in Europe and learned his printing skills in France. He teamed up with Walter Chepman, a merchant also from Edinburgh, and with a special licence from King James IV they established the first Scottish press in 1507. Books were not unheard of before this, however, since many Scots went to Europe – Germany and France especially – for their education, bringing home a huge range of books (and, more importantly, new ideas) with them.

Difficult to believe now, but Edinburgh was once one of the centres of the publishing industry in the United Kingdom. This grew mainly from its status as a major financial, legal and educational centre – three of the most paper-dependent professions. Edinburgh was home to some of the biggest names in publishing – like Oliver & Boyd, Blackwood & Sons, Chambers dictionaries, and the Encyclopaedia Britannica. However, during the early to mid-20th century Scottish publishing went into severe decline, with many publishers moving to London. Today, Canongate Books in Edinburgh is one of the few publishing successes north of the border.

The reading public in the 15th and 16th centuries wasn’t what we have today. For a start, the ability to read was not as widespread: it would have been mostly scholars, lawyers and clergymen who formed the market for books. The publication of poetry so early in the history of printing in Scotland is considered unusual since the publishing industry in the 16th century catered primarily for the religious and legal institutions, not for private entertainment. In fact, it is thought that the main purpose for setting up the Chepman and Myllar press was to publish a handbook containing the daily service for Roman Catholic priests.

But from 1508 Chepman and Myllar published a great deal of Dunbar’s poetry along with other major contemporary works, including several by Robert Henryson and Blind Harry’s Wallace. His inclusion in the Chepman and Myllar books certainly assisted in gaining Dunbar a wider readership for his work and preserving his name for posterity. Some of these books survive only in fragments, whole parts lost forever, while others remain complete. You can view electronic images of the Chepman and Myllar publications and read more about the early history of Scottish publishing at the Scottish National Library website: www.nls.uk/digitallibrary/chepman/books.htm