Robert Smail’s Printing Works [Review]

A plate ready to be inkedInnerleithen, the Scottish Borders

One of the last remaining relics from the bygone era of pre-digital publishing, Robert Smail’s Printing Works is well worth a visit. The works was established by Mr Smail in 1866 and the business remained in the family until it was eventually taken over by the National Trust for Scotland in 1986 and converted into a living museum. The original set-up, including the machinery, the layout of the workshops and the printing process itself have all been preserved and the works are still fully operational to this day with the centre continuing to print niche jobs such as wedding invitations, posters and personal stationery.

The Compositor's RoomThe museum provides an insight into the various processes and trades that formed part of the printing industry and that have fundamentally shaped so much of the digital infrastructure we have grown to rely on in this day and age. In an era in which so many of us are often responsible for writing, checking, setting and printing our own texts, it is easy to forget that not so long ago, each of the separate stages in this process was carried out by a highly skilled tradesman: a handwritten copy of the text would arrive at the works and would be passed to the compositor to be set; a proof would be created, which would be carefully checked for typesetting errors and, when approved, would be passed to the printer who would then set to work fulfilling the order.

The Columbia Eagle PressThe layout of the museum itself reflects this process: the casing room is located upstairs and is filled with the equipment required for producing the plate from which the text will be printed. Here there are a myriad of trays filled with letters of varying sizes and fonts, there are the materials required to pack the letters tightly into the frame, and there is the old Columbia Eagle press used for printing proofs of the assembled texts. Downstairs, the printing room boasts an impressive collection of machinery: from the early pedal-powered Arab Clamshell letterpress, whose design dates back to 1872, to the legendary Heidleberg windmill machine, described by the British Letterpress website as the final letterpress workhorse used in the UK. Finally, separate to the print room, there is the office, preserved as it was on the final day of the works’ commercial operation in 1986. Peering through the guardbooks, which hold a copy of every job printed at the works, visitors are given a fascinating glimpse of an era that has long since passed. They show both the works’ links with the thriving local community and the world beyond: close to home are posters for local community events and the annual St Ronan’s calendar, named after the monk who is said to have founded Innerleithen, and still updated and printed by the works to this very day; further afield, tickets printed for passages on boats travelling to the New World hint at the formation of Scotland’s diaspora, and the tweed pricelists destined for cities all over the world show links with another borders’ industry has also perished.

The place is pervaded by a sense of nostalgia: watching the Arab Clamshell in operation it is hard not to be struck by a reverence towards the ingenuity and imagination of the engineers of the industrial revolution; it is hard not to be amazed when confronted by an industry whose operation required neither computers nor electricity; and it is hard not to feel a pang of sadness at the passing of an era in which craftsmanship was used to produce tangible, physical artefacts with a sense permanence that is markedly absent from those of our own.

CasesLike so many of the phrases and sayings explained by the guides—upper and lower case (in the casing room, the capital letters were kept in the case above the small ones), put it to bed (putting the frame on the bed of the printer and printing it forces us to forget all about it because it can no longer be changed), not the full shilling (a shilling was often used to check the height of lines of type—an afternoon spent in the sanctuary of Innerleithen is rewarding, not only for being an entertaining way to pass an afternoon, but also for its ability to remind us of where we have come from and reveal something of the industrial heritage that has so heavily shaped the world in which we live.

 

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