Home  »  Volume IV: English PROSE AND POETRY SIR THOMAS NORTH TO MICHAEL DRAYTON  »  § 32. The Scottish Press: Chepman and Myllar

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IV. Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton.

XVIII. The Book-Trade, 1557–1625

§ 32. The Scottish Press: Chepman and Myllar

The art of printing was introduced into Scotland in 1508, and the work of the Scottish press at once assumed that strongly national character and detached attitude towards the outside world which continued to be its distinguishing feature until the eighteenth century brought with it the Union and other elements of a broadening influence. Its chief productions were official documents, such as statutes and proclamations, for the service of the state, native Latin works for the scholar, school books for youth, vernacular literature for the people, and theology for all.

As in the case of the first English press, Chepman and Myllar of Edinburgh made their first essay with a series of small tracts of a popular nature, and of these there have survived nine pieces, each extant in a single copy. There has also been recorded a fragment of an edition of Blind Harry’s Wallace, printed in the same type. The Aberdeen Breviary, the real work for which the press had been imported, was printed by Chepman alone in 1509–10, and with it the work of this press came to an end.

John Davidson, who was printing in Edinburgh in 1541, issued shortly before that date a folio edition of Bellenden’s translation of Boece’s History of Scotland, which is one of the monuments of early Scottish printing. From a fragment of a single leaf, discovered by the late David Laing, it seems probable that an edition of Gawin Douglas’s Palice of Honour was also printed by Davidson. John Scot, who printed at St. Andrews and afterwards at Edinburgh between 1552 and 1571, issued works by Sir David Lyndsay, Quintin Kennedy and Ninian Winzet. The earliest Scottish printer whose extant issues reach any considerable number is Robert Lekpreuik, who began printing in 1561; he is to be especially remembered for the numerous ballads by Robert Sempill and other reformation politicians, which in his broadsides have survived to the present day. The first Bible printed in Scotland, which, after some vicissitudes, made its appearance in 1579, was the work of Bassandyne and Arbuthnet, the latter of whom also published in 1582 the first and faulty edition of Buchanan’s Rerum Scoticarum Historia.

The earliest known edition of the collected works of Sir David Lyndsay is that printed in Edinburgh in 1568, to which the publisher, Henry Charteris, who probably began his long career with the issue of this book, prefixed an introduction. Charteris, who, in 1580, acquired John Ross’s printing business, is the most notable figure among the Scottish booksellers of the sixteenth century. In addition to works by Barbour, Blind Harry, Henryson and others, he issued, before his death in 1599, at least six editions of the works of Sir David Lyndsay. The position occupied in Edinburgh by Henry Charteris in the sixteenth century was, for the first twenty years of the following century, held by Andro Hart, the bookseller, who took up printing in 1610 with the acquisition of the plant which had been used by Charteris. The first book known to have been issued from his press is a folio Bible (1610), which gained considerable reputation for its correctness; and among the large number of interesting books which he printed are first editions of works by Drummond of Hawthornden, Napier of Merchiston and Sir William Alexander, earl of Stirling, also several reprints of the older writers. John Wreittoun, who printed in Edinburgh from 1624 to 1638, issued in 1627 an edition of Venus and Adonis, the only work by Shakespeare known to have been printed in Scotland before the eighteenth century.

The strongly national character of the productions of the Scottish press has already been indicated; but it must not be forgotten that these by no means represent the whole literary output of the country. The close intellectual and commercial intercourse between Scotland and the continent, together with the restricted facilities at home, naturally resulted in many of the works of the more scholarly writers, who wrote almost entirely in Latin and appealed to a European audience, being published abroad, and scholars not unfrequently made the journey overseas for the purpose of seeing their work through the press.

There was in Scotland no trade combination corresponding to the London Stationers’ company; indeed, the limited number of persons engaged in the trade rendered such an organisation unnecessary. Measures, however, were adopted from time to time by the state for preventing the printing or importation of undesirable books, and a more or less watchful eye was kept on the trade; but, on the whole, there was considerable liberty, and it was not until the latter half of the seventeenth century that the cramping effects of monopoly were experienced. When Edinburgh booksellers felt themselves aggrieved by incursions of alien traders, they found means of protecting themselves by appeal to their town council, and Thomas Vautrollier, John Norton, and others were on various occasions proceeded against in this manner.