Place in the history of printing

The 'Chepman & Myllar Prints' – their place in the history of printing

When Walter Chepman and Androw Myllar set up the first Scottish press in 1508, over 50 years had passed since printing with moveable types was first carried out in Germany (the completion of the Gutenberg Bible dates from late 1454 or 1455), whence it spread to other countries in mainland Europe, and then to England, where William Caxton, who had earlier done some printing in Cologne and Bruges, set up his press in Westminster in 1476. Therefore over 30 years separated the beginning of printing in Scotland from its beginning in England, and then the know-how spread from France and not England.

Printed in France
But between the 1450s and 1508 Scots were not strangers to books and their printing, and it was largely the close relations between France and Scotland which were responsible for this. Many Scots went to France or occasionally elsewhere in mainland Europe for their higher education, and they brought back printed books. Some of them also had their work published on the Continent: for example, the two undated books by the Aberdonian philosopher James Liddell, 'Ars obligatoria logicalis' and 'Tractatus conceptuum et signorum', printed in Paris in the mid-1490s, may have been the first books by a Scot printed during their author's lifetime. Moreover, a few were involved in printing: the clearest example is provided by David Lauxius of Edinburgh, who was named as a press corrector in the colophon of Jordanus Nemorarius, 'Arithmetica', printed in Paris in 1496. It was in this tradition that, in 1505 and 1506, Androw Myllar had two books (one with his windmill device) printed for him in Rouen.

Early Scottish printing
The introduction of printing into Scotland itself followed the granting, in September 1507, by James IV to William Chepman and Androw Myllar, of a patent, or licence, to set up a press, 'to furnis and bring hame ane prent [i.e. printing press] with al stuf belangand tharto and expert men to use the samyne'. The purpose of this press was specified as being largely, though not entirely, to print books for government and church use, 'for imprenting within our realme of the bukis of our lawis, actis of parliament, croniclis, mess [i.e. mass] bukis and portuus [i.e. portable breviaries] efter the use of our realme, with additiouns and legendis of Scottis sanctis … and al utheris bukis'. Indeed, the largest product of this first press was a breviary designed to be used by the Church in Scotland, the 'Aberdeen Breviary' of 1509-1510, and it may be that it was William Elphinstone, Bishop of Aberdeen, mentioned in the patent as the King's adviser, who caused the press to be set up with a view primarily to printing this breviary.

Vernacular texts
Be that as it may, the 'Chepman & Myllar Prints' are the earliest substantial works of this first press to survive (Richard Holland's 'Buke of the Howlat' and Henry the Minstrel's 'Wallace' are each preserved in an extremely fragmentary state), and are important as examples of early printed poetical texts in the vernacular. The printing of vernacular texts does not come early in most countries' printing, and in Scotland's case it is possible to speculate that this volume of literary texts which we now value so highly was regarded by their printers as test material and printed in very few copies; their rarity today would certainly be explained by their rarity at the time.