Five hundred years of printing history in Scotland is encapsulated in Edinburgh's survival of the trials, successes and pitfalls of producing bestsellers.
Only fifty years after Gutenberg printed his bible using moveable type, King James IV of Scotland granted permission for Walter Chepman and Androw Myllar (Chapman and Miller) to set up a printing press in Edinburgh. Soon after, their press began producing books at premises in what is now Cowgate.
Examples held by the National Library of Scotland show that Chapman and Miller set a high standard for a burgeoning industry to follow, and featured Scottish authors.
The printing industry spread slowly, and many books by Scottish authors continued to be printed outside of Scotland during the sixteenth century, but the printing trade gradually developed, particularly after 1550. During the eventful seventeenth century, when Scotland shared a monarch with England, King James I and VI, his interest in a new version of the Bible in English, published 1611, led to an Edinburgh printing of it. By the end of the century Edinburgh had a solid book trade and a library.
Edinburgh Publishes Bestsellers
Disturbances and disputes during the eighteenth century, alongside the failed Jacobite rebellion, saw a slower development of the industry in Scotland, but a number of printers offered a variety of print services. The invention of steam-powered printing machines brought about rapid expansion of the industry.
Early in the nineteenth century several major publishers in Edinburgh were producing books for growing markets. The most well-known are:
- Archibald Constable in High Street
- William Blackwood moved to Princes Street in the new town in 1816
- Oliver & Boyd, in Tweeddale Court, off High Street
Sir Walter Scott had bought into a partnership with Richard Ballantyne, the printer, in 1805, to help the firm through the unexpected pressures of producing Scott's runaway bestseller, The Lay of the Last Minstrel. Eventually Scott and John Ballantyne formed a publishing partnershipwhich unfortunately had to be bailed out by a complex web of investments from Scott's acquaintances and Constable, who was another of Scott's publishers.
Scotland's printing and publishing industries came under pressure in the financial crash of 1825. Thus an effect of Constable's investments in London stock is magnified and he died, leaving Scott to deal with the aftermath, effectively writing to pay off debts for the rest of his life.
Edinburgh Printing Industry in Modern Times
By the 1860s, Edinburgh employed over three thousand people in printing, and a century later, by the 1960s, the industry provided employment for over five thousand workers. More recently, reports show, eighty five publishers working throughout Scotland employ only about twelve hundred and fifty workers. Finkelstein sees this as the result of nineteenth century expansionism followed by twentieth century specialisation.
Audiences, business structures and world markets for the published product have changed.
There are substantial archives and collections of artifacts from the printing industry in Edinburgh. The National Library of Scotland, the Writers' Museum and the People's Museum host accessible historical exhibits, while three Edinburgh universities all host extensive online facilities.
David Finkelstein (2005) History of Scottish Publishing Books from Scotland.com