Imprentit: 500 years of the Scottish printed word

Summer exhibition at the National Library of Scotland

From bibles to the Beezer, dictionaries to demonology, Lanark to logarithms and from temperance to television, the printed word in Scotland has had a profound impact on every aspect of our nation's life over the last five centuries. 'Imprentit: 500 Years of the Scottish Printed Word' is a major new exhibition at the National Library of Scotland, which takes a fascinating look at this rich history, giving visitors a rare chance to view some of the highlights from the Library's vast collection of treasures.

From the very earliest books from the presses of Chepman and Myllar in 1508, visitors have a unique opportunity to see a number of firsts: in politics, the first printed acts of the Scottish Parliament from as early as 1540, and the proclamation of its dissolution in 1707. From science, Napier's logarithms, Logie Baird's Televisor, and Hutton's theories which paved the way for Darwin and others. Among the other firsts:

  • The first bible printed in Scotland
  • The first medical book
  • The first book written by a woman
  • The first historical novel
  • The first newspapers and the first ever Beezer annual.

Children's books from across the centuries, football and sci-fi fanzines and the runners and riders for the 1728 Leith Races are all there too.

The exhibition covers a lot of ground; starting with the very origins of printing in Scotland, before going on to explore key themes including politics, education, religion, literature, science, entertainment, children's books and the story of some of Scotland's most famous publishers. Each of these themes could be a major exhibition in itself but, to mark this major anniversary, the Library is bringing them all together to show the role print has played in people's lives, whilst showing off the remarkable breadth and depth of the NLS collections.

The exhibition is part of a year-long nationwide celebration of 500 years of printing in Scotland which has seen a programme of events and exhibitions across the country. Details of current and future events can be found at a dedicated website [500 Years of Printing]. NLS has also produced a created a web feature charting the spread of printing throughout Scotland, which features digitised versions of the first items printed on the first presses from over 30 locations across Scotland.

A book, entitled Scottish Printed Books 1508-2008, written by Antony Kamm (foreword by Alexander McCall Smith) and published by NLS in association with Sandstone Press, will be published the same week as the exhibition opens.

The exhibition will be supported by a summer-long programme of free events including talks on a wide range of subjects including fanzines, print and politics, Scots language, Gaelic in print and a range of family events and learning workshops. Full details will shortly be available on the NLS website [events page].

National Librarian Martyn Wade said: 'This exhibition is a wonderful showcase for the Library's collections and for the amazing and diverse output printed in Scotland over the last 500 years. There's something for everyone; the unique first printed items, groundbreaking ideas like logarithms and television. Historic figures and landmark events, literary giants past and present, pioneers of self-published fanzines, poetry and political pamphlets sit alongside a host of fascinating snapshots of lifestyle, education and childhood throughout the ages. The scope of what is on show really is impressive - all of Scotland's story is in here.'

Highlights of the exhibition

Origins of printing

The only surviving copy of the first printed Scottish book from Chepman and Myllar, is one of the undoubted highlights of the exhibition and the section on display for 'Imprentit' is from a 'flyting', or poetic duel of sorts between William Dunbar and Walter Kennedy from 1508, in which they use colourful and at times downright insulting language. Also in this section are the Aberdeen Breviary (a book of prayers, hymns and psalms from 1510), the earliest printed acts of Parliament (1542), the first printed book on Scottish history (1540) and James VI's Daemonologie (1597), decrying 'these detestable slaves of the Devill, the witches or enchaunters'.


The proclamation of the dissolution of the Scottish Parliament (1707), and Basilikon Doron, James VI's treatise on kingship (1599) sit alongside pamphlets and journals such as a 1995 edition of The Scottish Anarchist, and Miner, a monthly journal produced by Keir Hardie in the days before he founded the Labour Party (1887).

Science and technology

Logie Baird's article in the Chambers Journal (1923), sandwiched in between articles on door-latches and a bean-slicing machine, is the first published account of his newly patented prototype television apparatus, and a leaflet from 1926 promotes the 'splendid reality' of his Televisor. Also in this section, Napier reveals his invention of logarithms (1614). The only known copy of the first medical book printed in Scotland, Ane Breve Descriptioun of the Pest (1568), is on show, as is the first full version of Hutton's theory (1788) which proposed that the interior of the earth was hot, and that the planet was far older than previously suggested, thus paving the way for new scientific thinking, not least Darwin's theory of evolution.


The first ever Encyclopaedia Britannica originated in Edinburgh, and the first edition is on display here (1771). A Galick and English Vocabulary (1741) is notable as the first secular book printed in Gaelic, and another fascinating piece is James Beattie's A List of Two Hundred Scoticisms (1779), which sees the Aberdeen poet and philosopher give a list of Scots words and phrases to avoid using, particularly if you wanted your writings to be acceptable in London.


The first bible printed in Scotland (1579), the first printed work by a female author (Ane Godly Dreame by Elizabeth Melville - 1603) and a miniature Koran from around 1900 sit alongside two rather more incendiary works: Laud's Book of Common Prayer (1637) which sparked riots which led to the Covenanter wars, and a poster from students at the Royal College of Edinburgh who were announcing their intention to burn 'the Effigies of Antichrist, the Pope of Rome' at the Mercat cross at 12 noon on Christmas day, 1689.


The first edition of Sir Walter Scott's Waverley (1814) marks Scotland as the birthplace of the historical novel. Burns features as well, with an 1823 chapbook containing 'My Love is Like a Red Red Rose' which was only a penny, meaning that even the poorest readers were able to obtain it. Many more contemporary artists feature, from Sorley MacLean to Alexander McCall-Smith, and the languages and voices of Scotland across Scots, English, Gaelic, Latin and Shetlandic are all represented. Also of interest is a 1994 edition of Kevin Williamson's Rebel Inc fanzine, which is famously the title in which Irvine Welsh's Trainspotting began life.

Other highlights

  • Scotland's first newspaper - two issues of the Caledonian Mercury from 1661.
  • A host of children's books from across the centuries, including the first ever Beezer annual (1957).
  • A look at self-publishing and fanzines, including diverse items from a Motherwell football fanzine (1990) and science fiction from Dundee (1984) to modern pamphlet poetry. Another pamphlet, 'Condemned from the Dock' (1918), contains John MacLean's address to the jury at his trial during the Red Clydeside period.
  • The list of horses to run for the 'Fifty Pound Sterling Plate' at Leith Races in 1728.
  • Leisure and lifestyle items such as 19th century puzzle books, 'The Scots Gard'ner' (1683) and 1907's 'Cutting-Out of Underclothing: With Diagrams'.
  • Trade catalogues (including the classic 1893 Illustrated Catalogue of Sanitary Appliances).
  • The rules of the Select Society (1754), whose membership included David Hume and Adam Smith, including the instruction that 'during the time of the debates, no Gentleman shall stand before the fire'.

The exhibition will be officially opened by Linda Fabiani MSP on Thursday 26 June at 6pm and will open to the public on Friday 27 June, closing on Sunday 12 October. Opening times are Monday to Friday 10am to 8pm, Saturday 10am to 5pm and Sunday 2pm to 5pm.


National Library of Scotland
George IV Bridge

Tel: 0131 623 3700


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23 June 2008

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