Rare chance to see Scotland’s oldest books

Helen Vincent with The Complaint of the Black Knight. Picture: Greg Macvean
Helen Vincent with The Complaint of the Black Knight. Picture: Greg Macvean
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IT looks like any other old book you would expect to find in the deepest, darkest vaults of the National Library of Scotland.

Fragile, likely a little whiffy, and only to be handled by the most careful of experts donning specialist gloves in a protective atmosphere.

But there is something that sets this particular volume apart from the many treasured items in storage at the George IV Bridge attraction – it contains the first ever books published in Scotland.

In a rare event on Monday, the public will have just two hours to grab a look at the item as it is heaved out of the vaults and placed – ever so delicately – on general display.

“It will be closely guarded,” says senior curator Helen Vincent. “A lot of thought has gone into this. We want to show it off and give people a chance to see what, after all, belongs to the nation, but we don’t want anything to go wrong.”

Quite right. The collection of 11 books has survived since 1508 when they were first printed by Edinburgh’s Walter Chepman and Androw Myllar who were granted a licence by King James IV to do so. To this day, apart from a digital version now available online through the National Library of Scotland, the collection is the only one of its kind.

Monday, September 9, has been chosen to showcase the precious volume as it marks the anniversary of the Battle of Flodden, considered to be the bloodiest of its kind between the Scots and English in which around 12,000 lives were lost. King James IV himself died in the conflict in 
Northumberland, leading his invading army against an ultimately victorious English side headed by the Earl of Surrey.

Before his death on September 9, 1513, King James IV had developed a huge fascination with the printing press and the possibilities it had for a Scotland, therefore granting royal patronage to merchant Walter Chepman and bookseller Androw Myllar to bring the phenomenon to the country. Without him – and these Cowgate men – the collection the public will marvel over on Monday may never have existed.

“James IV was fascinated by modern technology,” says Helen, who specialises in rare books. “He saw the possibilities of print, mainly to help him run the country the way he wanted it to be run. He asked Chepman and Myllar to print law and history books as that would likely have helped him centralise government with all administrations working from the same texts.”

But these first books – printed in pamphlet form and later bound into this single volume – seem to have instead served a thirst for popular culture, offering up poetry by the likes of William Dunbar and Robert Henryson, as well as The Complaint of the Black Knight by John Lydgate.

“There are 11 different books in the volume,” explains Helen. “We know that nine of them were definitely printed by Chepman and Myllar in Edinburgh, one has nothing to do with them, and the final one was likely printed by Myllar when he was in France.”

The volume was given to the National Library of Scotland in 1925 having been under close guard in the city’s Advocates Library, in Parliament House, since the 1780s. It is not known when the pamphlets were bound together into one single volume, but they have remained as such since they were discovered by the National Library, which explains the inclusion of the work not printed by the Edinburgh men.

Printed on rag paper – made from old fabric – the paper used in the volume is surprisingly strong and in good condition, aside from some pages which have been missing since they arrived at George IV Bridge.

“All the text is hand printed,” says Helen. “We know that Myllar went to France to learn how to print and he would have brought back all the equipment he needed to print here in Edinburgh, 
including printers to help.”

In premises thought to be near Blackfriars Street – and therefore just a short distance from where the books are now stored in the National Library of Scotland – Chepman and Myllar got to work, carefully and methodically printing texts for the 
relatively few people who were able to read them in the 1500s. It is thought that in the years between April 1508 – when the first book is thought to have been finished – and his death in September 1513, King James IV would have enjoyed access to many of the works the pair produced.

“But after Flodden things changed,” says Helen. “The country was in a state of disruption, the king was dead and there was therefore no organisation to push printing. We do not know quite what happened after that.”

However, books from Thomas Davidson, licensed to be the king’s printer, began to emerge in the 1530s, including much of the legal works King James IV had so keenly wanted 
before his death. But on Monday, between noon and 2pm, the public can celebrate the contribution Chepman, Myllar and King James IV made to the rise of the printing press in Scotland, viewing this rarely seen collection of works through a special glass cabinet, which is needed to preserve its condition.

Helen and her colleagues will be on hand to answer questions and shed more light on the fascinating piece of history.

“I hope people will enjoying seeing the first thing to have been printed in Scotland, as well as seeing what people enjoyed reading 500 years ago.”

Prints charming

Edinburgh’s Walter Chepman and Androw Myllar have a firm and well-regarded place in the fascinating history of the rise of the printing press.

It is a phenomenon that began in China in the 1040s with the creation of the world’s first movable type printing technology, with Korea then developing the first metal one in the early 1200s.

Printing hit the West on a larger scale in 1450 thanks to an invention by German goldsmith Johannes Gutenberg, whose creation improved mechanical printing, allowing for the first mass production of books.

By 1600, printing presses across Europe were capable of producing more than 3500 impressions a day, in comparison with early hand printing which produced barely a few.