Detail from title page
King James Bible
first title page
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The Bible has been central to the development of the printed book. It claims the position of the first book to be printed using moveable type; the demand for copies in the original Hebrew and Greek, and in Latin and vernacular translations drove the book trade across Europe; and thousands of copies of Bibles, New and Old Testaments and Psalters were printed in almost every country.

The National Library of Scotland's holdings provide evidence for all of these points. The Advocates Library acquired a copy of the Gutenberg Bible (1455), appropriately shelfmarked as Inc.1, the first item in our collection of incunabula (items printed before 1501). We also hold important examples of early modern Biblical scholarship, such as the first Polyglot Bible (shelfmark: L.1.c). The Hugh Sharp collection contains a fine copy of the first edition of the Authorised or King James Bible (H.S.385).

Silver binding
Silver Psalter
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The Bible in Scotland

In Scotland, the Bible and the Psalms were for centuries found in almost every home, and the many copies in the Library reflect the social history of book ownership in Scotland, from such luxury items as a silver-bound edition of the Psalms (Bdg.s.888) (shown left) to the humble mass-produced copy used by a Church of Scotland minister who happened to be the father of John Logie Baird, inventor of television (AB.1.201.15).

Some Bibles in our collections were used to record generations of the families who owned them. Others still are fine examples of Scottish bindings, demonstrating the high esteem their owners held them in. Images of some of these are available in the Scottish Bookbinding section of our Digital Gallery. Increasingly this kind of information about our copies is being added to our main catalogue.

The first complete Bible to be printed in Scotland was the 'Bassandyne Bible', of which there are two copies in the Library (H.9.a.7; Cwn.1091). Thomas Bassandyne was an Edinburgh printer who published the New Testament in 1576. He died in 1577. His fellow burgess Alexander Arbuthnet added the Old Testament and published the complete text in 1579. Bassandyne and Arbuthnet reprinted the second edition of the Geneva Bible, first published in English in 1560. The earliest part of the Bible to appear in print in Scotland was the metrical psalter which appeared in the Book of Common Order. Robert Lekpreuik printed the first dated edition in Edinburgh in 1564; copies are held by the Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington DC, and Corpus Christi College, Oxford.

The Bible in Scots

No complete text of the Bible in Scots has yet been published. Murdoch Nisbet produced a Scots version of the New Testament, translated from the Wycliffite Bible of John Purvey, between 1513 and 1539, but it remained in manuscript, known only to his family. Now published by the Scottish Text Society, it is available on the open shelves of the General Reading Room (SCS.STES1.46). The first translation of the New Testament into Scots from the original Greek was produced by William Lorimer and published posthumously. A copy of the first edition is also in the General Reading Room (Misc.12).

Detail from Gaelic page
The first Scots
Gaelic Psalter
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The Bible in Gaelic

While the Book of Common Order ('Foirm na nurrnuidheadh', 1567) was the first work in Gaelic to be printed in Scotland or Ireland, the Bible in Scottish Gaelic was not complete until 1801. During the 17th and 18th centuries, Irish Gaelic versions were available in Scotland. The complete metrical Psalter in Gaelic appeared in 1694 (F.7.g.8(1); RB.s.1414). The Scottish Society for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge (SSPCK) published a Gaelic New Testament in 1767 in Edinburgh (L.38.d). The Old Testament was published in four separate parts between 1783 and 1801 (L.95.d). In 1807, the full text appeared (NF.719.d.10); this edition was revised entirely and republished in 1826 (L.85.e).

Finding Bibles in the National Library of Scotland

We aim to record all our Bibles in our main catalogue, although for pre-1700 Bibles it is still sometimes necessary to check catalogue 1 on microfiche. The Library's holdings of books printed in Great Britain and North America before 1801 appear in the English Short Title Catalogue (ESTC). You can access ESTC free via the British Library website.

Many of our special collections contain editions of the Bible that are Scottish or otherwise important in the history of printed Bibles. The Haxton collection consists of 127 volumes containing editions of the Bible and parts of the Scriptures in English, nearly all dating from the 16th and the 17th centuries. Other relevant special collections include the Cowan, Fort Augustus, Hugh Sharp, Perth St Ninian's Cathedral Library, Royal Blind School, Thorkelin and Westlake collections, containing material ranging from Bibles printed in Braille to the first complete Bible in Icelandic.

Further reading

  • Chamberlin, William J. 'Catalogue of English Bible Translations'.New York: Greenwood Press, 1991. (Shelfmark: SU.37 (shelved at B.2 Bib))
  • Daniell, David. 'The Bible in English: its History and Influence'. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003. (H4.204.0195)
  • Darlow, T H and H F Moule. 'Historical Catalogue of the Printed Editions of Holy Scripture in the Library of the British and Foreign Bible Society'. London: The Bible House, 1903-11 (SU.37 (shelved at B.2 Bib))
  • De Hamel, C F R. 'The Book: A History of the Bible'. London: Phaidon, 2001 (H8.202.0768)
  • Herbert, A S. 'Historical Catalogue of Printed Editions of the English Bible. London: The British and Foreign Bible Society, 1968 (NRR) This is a revised edition of part of Darlow and Moule
  • Hillyard, Brian. 'History of the National Library of Scotland's 42-line Bible'. 'The Bibliotheck' vol. 12(5), 1985, p.105-125 (NRR)
  • Lampe, G W H. 'The Cambridge History of the Bible'. Cambridge: Cambridge University Pres, 1987. (GRR: Misc 12)
  • McGrath, Alister. 'In the Beginning: The Story of the King James Bible'. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2001 (H3.202.3951)
  • Rogerson, J W. 'The Oxford Illustrated History of the Bible'. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001 (H4.201.0505)
  • Tulloch, Graham. 'A History of the Scots Bible'. Aberdeen: Aberdeen University Press, 1989 (H3.89.2126; HP2.89.3639).


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