The first book printed at St Andrews, and a key work in Scottish religious and publishing history.
The Reformation was closely bound up with both the spread of regional printing and the use of the language of the people, rather than Latin. This book shows both of these factors in action in Scotland — but on the side of the Catholic party, not the Reformers.
The full title of the book explains its intentions: it is designed by the church authorities to make the doctrines of the faith accessible to the people. And to achieve this aim, the catechism is written in Scots — it is one of the best surviving examples of Middle Scots prose.
'The catechisme, that is to say, ane co[m]non and catholik instruction of the christin people in materis of our catholik faith and religioun, quhilk na gud christin man or woman suld misknaw: set furth be ye maist reverend father in God Johne archbischop of sanct Androus legatnait and primat of ye kirk of Scotland, in his provincial counsale haldin at Edinburgh the xxvi. day of Januarie, the yeir of our Lord 1551. With the advise and counsale of the bischoppis and uthir prelatis with doctours of theologie and canon law of the said realme of Scotland present for the tyme.'
While the doctrines in the catechism were aimed at everyone, the actual copies were sent to the clergy, for their own instruction and for that of the people, as Hamilton's preface explains:
'Heirfor it is to yow expedient to use this present Catechisme, first to your awin instructioun … Secundly, according to the decreit maid in our prouincial counsale, our will is that ye reid ye samyn Catechisme diligently, distinctly & plainly ilk ane of yow to your awin parochianaris, for thair common instructioun & spiritual edificatioun in ye word of God.'
The Archbishop wrote the preface himself, but the catechism text was probably compiled by one or all of a group of theologians at the University of St Andrews. It was intended to meet some of the challenges of the Reformers from inside the Catholic Church, as part of a programme of moderate reforms by Archbishop Hamilton.
The book itself tells us that it was printed 'at sanct Androus … the xxix. day of August, the zeir of our Lord M.D.liii'. But we know very little about how it came to be printed there.
One theory is that John Scot was an English printer, in spite of his name, who was brought to Scotland to print the 'Catechisme' by Archbishop Hamilton. Another is that he was a Scottish printer more concerned with his business than with politics — among a variety of other books, both sacred and secular, he went on to print the Reformers' Confession of Faith in 1561.
In their 'Annals of Scottish Printing' (1890), Robert Dickson and John Edmond conjecture that he was a printer working in Edinburgh who fled the capital when the English army took possession of it in 1544, and took his printing equipment with him. During the period of the Reformation in Scotland, from the 1540s to the 1570s, Scot was in trouble several times with the authorities on either side because he kept printing unlicensed material that they regarded as offensive.
All images from the Blairs College Library collection are reproduced with the kind permission of the Blairs Museum, Aberdeen.