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Scottish printers

In 1694, seven years after the death of his father, Aberdeen-born printer and bookseller James Watson, who was of Catholic Scottish-Dutch descent, continued the family printing business in Edinburgh. It has been suggested that Watson spent several years in Holland developing his understanding of printing, but there is no evidence to support this claim. As a printer Watson left a considerable legacy. He is known to have printed over 500 titles, with an annual output ranging from three in 1696, to a peak of forty-eight in 1710. Of these more than 400 are books and pamphlets, and over 100 broadsheets, or single-sheet folios. From 1700 onwards he printed the Edinburgh Gazette and, from 1705, the Edinburgh Courant. Watson was an important bookseller, selling his own books as well as new and second-hand books from all over Europe, principally English imports. He also acted as an auctioneer.

In 1713 he published The History of the Art of Printing, one of the earliest accounts of the origins of printing in the English language. The work includes a specimen of types of Dutch origin. In his attempts to raise the quality of Scottish printing, Watson issued a set of Rules & Directions to be Observed in Printing Houses (1721), which was influenced by Dutch printing-house practice. The broadside, of which there is only a single copy left (National Library of Scotland), seems to have been displayed in all the main Edinburgh printing-houses.

The rules and regulations were approved by six master printers in Edinburgh on 6 October 1721. The general rules include the prohibition of ‘promiscuous drinking’ which was punished by a fine; for ‘stealing of books, paper, or materials’, the penalty was dismissal. There are detailed rules for the compositors (the workers who arranged the metal type in the frames ready for printing) and the pressmen (workers who did the printing). Fines for careless work or untidiness are also listed.

The large broadside itself is a fine piece of printing, with red ink used to print the woodcuts and ornamental initial letter, and a decorative border.