As Scotland celebrates five hundred years of printing, Martin Moonie’s investigations into the earliest printed books in Scots leads him on a trail to Paris.
Across Scotland this year, the five-hundredth anniversary of the arrival of printing will be marked by exhibitions and events celebrating the establishment of a press run by Walter Chepman and Andro Myllar in Edinburgh in 1508. Some of the treasures of the National Library will be on display in Edinburgh in a major commemorative exhibition running from June to September. Elsewhere in Scotland libraries and museums will showcase printed treasures of their own – including early editions of the Beano and the Dandy published by D.C. Thomson in Dundee. Yet printing had probably arrived in Scotland before 1508, and the first printed books in Scots – the language of the lowlands in the medieval and early modern period, very different from the southern English of London and the court – had appeared, not in Edinburgh, but in Paris five years earlier, in 1503.
The story of the invention of printing by Johannes Gutenberg in Mainz around the year 1450, and its rapid spread across Europe in the later years of the fifteenth century, is well known. William Caxton set up the first press in England at Westminster in the 1470s. By the end of the fifteenth century more than 29,000 separate publications had been issued from presses across Europe.