On the 15th of September, 1507, James IV granted a Royal Patent authorising Scotland’s first printing press.
You will no doubt be surprised that the printing press with moveable types wasn’t invented by a Scotsman. However, Scots have certainly made good use of the technology since it was invented by Johannes Gutenberg in Mainz, around 1439. It was a good fifty years after Gutenberg’s monopoly was revoked before a press found its way to Scotland. By the arbitrary Incunabulum date of 1500, when around a thousand printing presses were in operation throughout Western Europe and had produced anything between eight and twenty million books, Scotland still lacked a press of its own.
Nevertheless, the Scots hadn’t been idle bystanders as many were educated in France and elsewhere and brought back printed books from the Continent. Some Scots, such as the Aberdonian philosopher, James Liddell, had their work published in France. In fact, according to ‘The Story of Books’ by Gertrude Burford Rawlings (New York; D. Appleton & Co., 1901), Liddell’s Ars obligatoria logicalis and Tractatus conceptuum et signorum, were printed in Paris in the mid-1490s. There were also a few early Scottish exponents of the art of printing based in Paris. Amongst those was David Lauxius of Edinburgh, who in 1496 was named as a press corrector in the colophon of Jordanus Nemorarius’ Arithmetica. Another Scot who had served his apprenticeship as a printer in France was Androw Myllar and he was the man who brought the art to his native country.
Myllar was an Edinburgh bookseller who imported books from England and France, where he learned the printer’s craft in Rouen. Myllar’s windmill device appeared on at least one book he had printed in Rouen, in 1506. According to Rawlings, two books, which are extant, were printed in Rouen for Myllar, probably by Laurence Hostingue, albeit Duncan Glen, in a 2006 article called ‘Printing Comes to Scotland’ suggests it could’ve been Pierre Violette. According to a translation of its colophon, the first is “The Book of certain ‘Words Equivocal’ …along with an interpretation in the English tongue… Which Androw Myllar, a Scotsman, has been solicitous should be printed… In the year of the Christian Redemption, One thousand five hundred and fifth.” That work is by the English Poet and grammarian, Johannes de Garlandia (John Garland). The second ‘Myllar’ book is an Expositio Seqentiarum, which was printed in 1506.
When he arrived back in Scotland in 1507, Myllar gained the financial backing of Walter Chepman, a wealthy Edinburgh merchant trader and a man who appears to have had the ear of the King, James IV. Chepman also seems to have gained a lot of the credit for Scotland’s first printed books, but then, he was the money man; with enough sillar to be able to fund the building of the Chepman aisle in St. Giles’ Cathedral, which he dedicated to his King and Queen. Nevertheless, Myllar was the man with the knowledge, who brought a printing press, type and most likely skilled craftsmen with him from France. When Myllar went into partnership with Chepman, the two men established Scotland’s first printing press, according to Rawlings, at the foot of Blackfriars Wynd in the Sou’ Gait (now the Cowgate) in Edinburgh.
Myllar and Chepman sought a print licence, which was granted by royal privilege on the 15th of September, 1507. William Elphinstone, the Bishop of Aberdeen, was influential in the granting of the patent as he was very keen on getting his Breviarum Aberdonense printed; against the ‘Sarum Use’. That is clear from the document, which states: “…[that] mess bukis, efter our awin Scottis use …as is now gaderit and ekit be …our traist consalour Williame Bischope of Abirdene …and that na maner of sic bukis of Salusbery use be brocht to be sauld within our Realme in tym cuming. The letter also sets out the King’s demands to “furnis and bring hame ane prent with al stuf belangand tharto and expert men to use the samyne.” Apart from “mess bukis and portuus” (breviaries), the stated purpose of the grant was “for imprenting within our Realme of the bukis of our Lawis, actis of parliament, [and] croniclis.” Looks like novels were ruled out as any persons infringing James’ decree were to be punished and have their books forfeited.
Scotland’s first printed books are known as ‘The Chepman & Myllar Prints’, the earliest of which is dated the 4th of April, 1508, which was an edition of John Lydgate’s ‘The Complaint of the Black Knight’ falsely attributed in its colophon as “the maying and diſport of Chaucer.” Extant are a single copy each of nine small tracts “of a popular nature” – wee pamphlets (around 15 cm high), which are the most precious items held by the National Library of Scotland. The booklets contain works by two important medieval poets, Robert Henryson and William Dunbar and their rarity might be explained by their having been practice runs, prior to embarking on the ambitious Breviary. There are also surviving fragments of a folio edition of Blind Harry’s ‘Wallace’, printed in the same type – a Gothic or ‘black letter’ type known as Textura. Another example existing in fragments is Richard Holland’s vernacular poetical text ‘Buke of the Howlat’, which can be seen via the website of the Library of Cambridge University.
The nine books comprise a range of metrical romances, instructive and lyrical poetry, and one item in prose. They include ‘The Knightly Tale of Golagros and Gawane’, which includes ‘Rhyme without Accord’ by John Lydgate; ‘Sir Eglamoure of Artoys’, which includes the incomplete ‘Balade’ – ‘In all oure gardyn’; ‘The Goldyn Targe’ a major poem by William Dunbar; ‘The Praise of Age with Device, Prowess and eke Humility’ by Robert Henryson; and ‘The Ballade of Lord Bernard Stewart’ by Dunbar, which is the shortest piece of all at a mere eight pages. You can find the text of ‘In all oure gardyn’ and ‘The Ballade of Lord Bernard Stewart’ as well as ‘Golagros and Gawane’ in the third volume (1762) of ‘SCOTISH POEMS, REPRINTED FROM SCARCE EDITIONS.’ collected by John Pinkerton of Perth, which refers to ‘BALLADS FIRST PRINTED AT EDINBURGH 1508’.
The two volumes of the ‘Aberdeen Breviary’ were printed in 1509–10 and carry only the name of W. Chepman; it may be that Myllar died before the work was completed.