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G. Ross Roy on Scottish Chapbooks

From G. Ross Roy, Some Notes on Scottish Chapbooks, Scottish Literary Journal 1 (1974): 50–60. Reprinted with permission from SLJ.

Probably no area of Scottish studies covering the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries has been more neglected than chapbook literature. In view of the widespread interest in recording folk art (songs, tunes, riddles, street games, etc.) by the School of Scottish Studies and others it is surprising that so little recognition has been given to the need for a comprehensive survey of chapbook literature. The present essay will concentrate on poetry chapbooks produced during the period of their greatest popularity, from about 1750 to 1850. This is certainly not to suggest that no chapbooks were produced before this date—the earliest printing in Scotland, the Chepman and Myllar imprints of 1508, could be considered chapbooks. Allan Ramsay, too, printed what could be called chapbooks, for instance the separately issued pamphlets which he gathered up in such a confusing manner and issued in 1720 as Poems must certainly have been sold to the same trade as purchased chapbooks, although the pamphlets did not have the anonymity which is such a common feature of the chapbook.

The great period of Scottish chapbook sale was ushered in by Dougal Graham, Glasgow’s ‘skellat bellman’, chapman and printer of chapbooks as well as author of the well-known Impartial History of the Rise, Progress, and Extinction of the Late Rebellion in Britain, in the Years 1745 and 1746…, itself usually classified as a chapbook although in its 3rd (revised and enlarged) edition it runs to 189 pages and consists of 5,376 lines of Hudibrastic verse! Actually Graham was responding to a growing market for inexpensive reading material, usually light enough for a sizeable number of copies to be carried by a packman on his rounds to outlying districts. So popular did chapbooks become that a conservative estimate of their sale during this period runs to over 200,000 per year. This is a staggering number when it is considered that they were purchased by the working class. A comparable sale today would be over two-thirds of a million copies in Scotland, over twenty-five million in the United States.

The definition itself of what a chapbook is has led to much confusion. The earliest chapbooks, according to John Fraser, ‘consisted of a twenty-four page single sheet, duodecimo, execrably coarse in texture, dirty gray or whity-brown in colour, illustrated by one or more rough woodcuts, and printed in a rude and unfinished style of typography’.1 This certainly is not true of the chapbooks most frequently produced during the period under study. Of the 671 Scottish chapbooks in the Robert White Collection in Newcastle University Library almost 70% are of 8 pages, just over 29% are of 24 pages and only seven contain other numbers of pages. Needless to say most of the 8-page works are poetry, most of the 24-page ones are prose. Thus it would be safe to estimate the printing of poetry chapbooks at a better than two-to-one ratio. It would be useful, perhaps, to distinguish between the generally accepted chapbook which contains a small number of pages, and the inexpensively produced larger work, destined for the same reading public and in some instances carried in the same pack—Graham’s History of the Rebellion, and early editions of Pilgrim’s Progress too.

Many libraries, however, did not trouble to catalogue items separately; often several chapbooks were bound together (with the inevitable trimming which destroys bibliographical evidence) and listed as such-and-such a number of miscellaneous works. Booksellers, too, at least until very recently have tended to give but the vaguest description of collections of chapbooks. Even as devoted a collector as Sir Walter Scott did not catalogue his chapbooks and when George Huntly Gordon and J. G. Cochrane compiled the Catalogue of the Library at Abbotsford (Edinburgh, 1838, p. 159) a boyhood collection made by Scott is listed as ‘Popular Ballads and Stories. Collected by Sir Walter Scott. 6 vols. 12mo’.2

The fact that no author is given for most of the material published in chapbooks no doubt accounts for part of the difficulty in cataloguing. Even well-known works are frequently included under title only, although this procedure is not common to chapbooks alone as can be seen from a glance at many substantial poetical miscellanies. Nonetheless anonymity does appear to invite rather less detailed cataloguing.

This might lead one to the conclusion that most of the listing has been done; probably nothing could be further from the truth. A spot check, though very limited in scope, was most revealing: of 55 copies of Michael Bruce’s ‘Sir James the Ross: an Historical Ballad’ (the title varies) listed in the Lauriston Castle Collection, the British Museum, Harvard and the White Collection only one copy was to be found in all four collections (perhaps none, again incomplete data made it impossible to determine in some instances if we were dealing with the same issue). Using a maximum likelihood estimate this would suggest that there were 73 editions published, although if this figure is in error the number would probably be higher, not lower.3

This points up one of the major difficulties in dealing with chapbooks: only very rarely is a full bibliographical description of the work given, so that it may be impossible to distinguish whether or not copies in different libraries are identical. For example, J. C. Ewing in his bibliography of the Brash and Reid chapbook series mentions that there are three issues of Tam O’Shanter, but does not indicate how to distinguish them. Between copies in the Mitchell Library and the National Library of Scotland I have identified seven distinct title pages, three of them (probably early issues) with a single ‘l’ in Alloway—the full title is Al(l)oway Kirk; or Tam O’Shanter. A Tale. The only distinction between two of the issues is the distance between the lines of type of the title pages. Some might argue that this is too slight a difference to be concerned with, but when it is recalled that the title pages were not produced separately but formed the first page of the eight in a half-sheet one must assume that the two variants are distinct editions since no printer would be whimsical enough to remove his forme from the press to rearrange a title page when the total difference amounted to little more than a centimetre, nor is it likely to be the result of an accident occurring to the page locked up in a single forme. So far I have collated only title pages; quite possibly a collation of the contents of the chapbooks would reveal other significant differences. Mr. J. Fisher of the Mitchell Library, which has the largest collection of these imprints, tells me that there are interesting differences in watermark which also suggest multiple printings. Interestingly Brash and Reid used a superior quality of paper with watermark and in a later edition the date 1805.

Since the Brash and Reid chapbooks were sold individually at a penny and gathered into volumes of twenty-four titles with a volume title page and a table of contents (in all ninety-nine were issued) the printers were obliged to keep all the titles available. We are not surprised, therefore, to find that Tam O’Shanter was apparently the most frequently reprinted. Another title by Burns was issued at least three times—The Soldier’s Return. Oddly enough this was a very popular song for several decades; we find it in chapbooks, broadsides and miscellanies published on both sides of the Atlantic, and it was one of the titles in those sumptuous publications of the Royal Association for the Promotion of the Fine Arts in Scotland produced in the mid-nineteenth century.

The question of format is of central importance. Few people today would class broadsides or single sheets with chapbooks, although they may all be printed on the same size half-sheet. Most chapbooks appear to be either 8vo’s or 12mo’s, but could we consider a 4to to be a chapbook? Considering the productions of the eighteenth century the tentative answer would be ‘No’ since most 4to publications of that period were considerably more carefully, and expensively, produced than chapbooks. We should not be tempted to place in this category James Thomson’s Britannia (2nd edn., corrected. London: Ptd. for John Millan, 1730. 16 pp. Sigs. A–B4) even though the work was anonymous and contains only a small number of pages. What rather obviously excludes this work from the chapbook category is the price—one shilling—which placed it well out of the reach of all but a handful of the chapman’s customers. Neither, for that matter, does the existence of signed gatherings rule out a work as a chapbook. Since by far the greatest number of them are printed on a single sheet or a half-sheet we should not expect to find a signature, but signatures are to be found on some of the more extensive chapbooks.

There is also the question of works originally issued in parts. Not infrequently these parts were issued (weekly?) with paper wrappers in an 8vo or 12mo format and contained 8, 16 or 24 pages. When the set was completed a printed or engraved title page, or both, and sometimes a frontispiece, was issued to subscribers, or perhaps to those who had a complete run of the parts. Since these parts were often bound up, in the process of which the wrappers were removed, and since by the nature of things bound copies have a much better chance of survival, we may now be misled into the belief that the work was in fact first issued as a complete volume. We find this in the 2-volume Paisley 1801–2 edition of Burns which is described in J. W. Egerer’s bibliography (#63) as ‘issued in boards?’ Since no copy was then known in other than bound (assumed to be rebound) state one could accept the assumption. However a copy in my possession is in the original parts complete with paper wrappers.

The question of format is made especially difficult of resolution due to the quality of paper frequently used by chapbook printers. By the end of the eighteenth century the very cheapest of wove paper was used so that we have neither watermarks nor chain lines to help us. (The use of this sort of paper was by no means restricted to chapbooks, of course.) Apparently a large proportion of eighteenth-century and early nineteenth-century (to about 1830) eight-page chapbooks were 8vo printed in half-sheets and were sold folded but unopened. Presumably the purchaser either stitched these himself or collected several and had them bound. It is possible that folded but unopened chapbooks are copies which remained unsold by the printer although it seems more likely that such copies would be left unfolded in the warehouse. Here again the paucity of information about the entire chapbook trade makes much of what one says highly conjectural.

I have seen one example of an 8-page chapbook with horizontal chain lines, Allan Boyd’s The Whole Explanation of Thomas the Rhymer’s Prophecies (Ptd. for the Company of Flying Stationers, 1778). The copy has been heavily cut down but was probably made from one third of a sheet printed in 12mo. If this was the case we should not expect to find a watermark and in this instance the paper, which is of very inferior quality, does not contain a countermark. If this was indeed the method of production it would be similar to that of the 8-page production in strips of children’s chapbooks printed by Bishop and Co. of London which were folded by doubling and redoubling, leaving leaves 3 and 4 unopened along the foredge. In this method of printing pages 4, 5, 8, 1 run from left to right on the outer forme, 2, 7, 6, 3 on the inner.

In addition to 8-page chapbooks there were occasionally printed ones with 12 or 16 pages. There are, however, only three 12-page and two 16-page chapbooks of a total of 671 in the White Collection. Because there are so few copies in the original condition we have little to go by, and much of what can be said must be conjectural. I have examined a 12-page chapbook printed by T. Oliver of Edinburgh in 1799 which appears to have been produced as a small 8vo in halfsheets with leaves 2, 3, 4 and 5 each bearing a part of the watermark on the upper inner margin. Leaves 1 and 6 were apparently produced independently of the other leaves, although all we can say at this point is that leaves 1 and 6 are conjugate.

Turning to the 24-page chapbooks we again assume that most of them are 12mo printed on a single sheet. How most of them were folded it is impossible to say since once again so few copies appear to be extant in the original form, and of course there are several ways to produce a 12mo which involve cutting. Although Gaskell mentions a printing manual of 1770 which describes production of the 12mo without cutting he says that there are ‘no early records of its use’.4 Given that we assume 24-page chapbooks to have been single sheets which were sold without paper wrappers, it seems highly improbable that the printer would have cut the sheets, for to have done so would have obliged him to open and stitch the chapbooks. Even in those days one doubts if this could have been done economically for a penny. And since chapbook readers were quite used to uneven paper, Gaskell’s further objection that in folding a 12mo ‘the top edges of four of the leaves were formed by the edge of the sheet, and the deckle edges of hand-made paper were frequently uneven’,5 can have had little inhibiting effect on the chapbook trade.

At a later date there can, of course, be no doubt that 24-page chapbooks were 12mo’s folded without cutting. However two copies which I have examined6 do not follow the folding pattern laid out by Gaskell.7 Whereas his method has the sheet twice folded horizontally first and then doubled and redoubled vertically, the chapbooks I have examined were first folded vertically and then folded three times. Thus Gaskell’s outer forme has the following arrangement: A1a (page 1), A12b (24), A7a (13), A6b (12) / (inverted) A2b (4), A11a (21), A8b (16), A5a (9) / A3a (5), A10b (20), A9a (17), A4b; whereas the copies I have examined run as follows: A1a (1), A12b (24), A11a (21), A2b (4) / (inverted) A6b (12), A7a (13), A8b (16), A5a (9) / A3a (5), A10b (20), A9a (17), A4b (8). Since neither method appears to possess any distinct advantage (and indeed there are other possible combinations) one may assume that the method of folding followed the preference of the printer.

So far we have considered chapbooks principally from a bibliographical point of view, one which, it may be argued, is of interest mostly to a specialised segment of the scholarly community. However I would submit that these ephemera deserve far wider attention. Considering that broadsides and chapbooks were the staple reading material of a very large proportion of the population of Scotland for over a century, anyone interested in the social and cultural history of the period must, if he is accurately to assess the reading habits of the nation, familiarise himself with this aspect of the literature of the period. Fraser says:

Towards the end of the seventeenth, and the beginning of the eighteenth century, the libraries of poor folk consisted of only a Bible, the Confession of Faith, a bunch of ballads, and Sir William Wallace—the first for the gudewife, the second for the gudeman, the third for the daughter, and the last for the son.8

And we may be certain that the daughter’s and son’s reading came into the house in the chapman’s pack.

What then were the contents of these chapbooks? As Fraser points out, some account of Wallace was almost certain to be in most homes—we recall Burns’s comments that one of the first two books he read ‘in private’ was ‘the history of Sir William Wallace’ which he does not identify further. He does go on to say, however, that, ‘the story of Wallace poured a Scottish prejudice in my veins which will boil along there till the flood-gates of life shut in eternal rest’.9 There were available, of course, Blind Harry’s History of Sir William Wallace and William Hamilton of Gilbertfield’s version of the same poem, both of them rather too long for the usual chapbook publication (and it was probably the Hamilton recension Burns was referring to), but there were also shorter metrical versions to be had in chapbooks of which there appear to have been at least three titles, one of which also included Smollett’s ‘Tears of Scotland’ (anonymously). This combination must have been popular as three printers brought it out (one in 1838, two n.d.). There was also The Gude Wallace, a Ballad… (Glasgow, n.d.), and William Harriston’s Sir William Wallace and Earl Percy; or, the Battle of Glasgow (Glasgow, 1822) a dramatic tragedy, as well as others. But the prose histories and lives are much more numerous, although many of them were, no doubt, pirated by one printer from another.

The established book trade does not appear to have considered them a serious threat and so chapman printers pretty well ignored the niceties of copyright. This applied to the better chapbook printers as well—for instance Brash and Reid brought out Tam O’Shanter in 1795 or early 1796 although the poem was first published in 1791. As with all the poems by Burns which this firm printed the poet’s name was given. In this Brash and Reid were the exception for many well-known poems and songs are tucked away anonymously in chapbooks.

This is not the frequent anonymity of an author’s first edition, for most of the known works to be found in chapbooks had already appeared in signed editions of the author’s works—in fact the text was no doubt often taken from these editions. Of course some would have come from MSS which circulated freely in those days; for instance ‘Holy Willie’s Prayer’ was first published in a chapbook The Prayer of Holy Willie, a Canting, Hypocritical, Kirk Elder (NP, 1789) no doubt without the knowledge or consent of the author. At least the text was accurate though, which cannot be said of many chapbooks. Burns’s song ‘I love my Jean’ (Of a’ the airts the wind can blaw), for example, is found in a chapbook Lovely Jean… (Stirling, 1820) with four additional stanzas, two of them by a music publisher John Hamilton which are quite frequently printed with the song, and two others by a Mr. Richardson. While the song is anonymously published in this chapbook, another one (Glasgow, 1829) credits Burns with all six stanzas. One of the worst corruptions I have seen is in No. 12 of the series Excellent New Songs (Alnwick, c. 1820–35). There are four songs in this number, two of them by Burns. ‘The Soldier’s Return’ is quite accurately transcribed, but the second stanza of ‘The Banks of Doon’ reads:

Oft ha’e I roam’d by bonny Doon,
To see the rose and woodbine twine,
Where ilka bird sung o’er its note, (a misprint for “mate”?)
And cheerfully I join’d wi’ mine,
Wi’ heartsome glee I pu’d a rose,
A rose out o’ its thorny tree:
But my fause love has stown the rose,
And left the thorn behind to me.

Probably to fill out the final page an additional two stanzas were added which can only be qualified as rubbish. Strictly speaking we are here dealing with an English chapbook but it is well known that a number of the chapbooks printed in Alnwick, Berwick, Carlisle and Newcastle were destined for the Scottish trade and, as we can infer from the above chapbook, their contents reflected this destination.

Another chapbook, Watty’s Travels to Carlisle… (Paisley, 1826), contains two ‘Burns’ songs. The first, ‘Will ye go to the Trosachs’, a copy of ‘Will ye go to the Indies, my Mary’, is made more obvious by the anonymous author indicating that the tune is, ‘Will ye go to the Ewe Bughts, Marion’; Burns indicates ‘Ewe Bughts Marion’ as the tune of his song. The first two lines will suffice to show how exaggerated the notation ‘original’ really is:

Will ye go to the Trosachs, my Mary,
And sail ’cross Loch Katrine sae blue.

The other song is even odder. Entitled ‘Down the Burn Davie’, the casual reader might at first think this to be the Burns song, but then be misled by the opening stanza. In fact it is not until the third eightline stanza that the first line of Burns appears: in all, five of his eight lines are used in the last two stanzas.

Burns was not the only author to suffer at the hands of the chapbook printers. This same chapbook contains ‘Blue Bonnets over the Border’ (‘Border March’ from The Monastery) credited to Scott but containing a third stanza which, needless to say, falls far short of the original. ‘Jock of Hazeldean’ was a favourite and appears in more than one more or less accurate chapbook version.

The question of multiple use of certain poems has been touched upon by William Harvey in an important work on the subject but which only points the way for most of the needed investigation. He writes:

A comparison of a number of song-chapbooks, with the same imprint, shows that the early printer was alive to the possibility of variation. … When a song was put into type, it was seemingly kept ‘standing’ for some time, and made to serve several chapbooks ere the type was distributed. This afforded the printer an easy and cheap method of producing a number of publications, and meant that if any one wanted a collection of songs, he had to buy a greater quantity of books. …10

I think that Harvey has over-estimated the time which chapbook printers could keep their type standing, for they were apparently chronically short of type; what does appear likely is that chapbooks were printed at the same time in the manner above described. The observation that the same song will appear in several chapbooks with the same imprint is accurate, but although I have examined several such, it would require a Lindstrand comparator or a Hinman collator to verify that the pieces were run off from the same setting.

There are other unanswered questions about the chapbooks of the period. What were the arrangements made with authors? Were they all content to receive a few free copies for the joy of seeing themselves in print, as is suggested by the advertisement William Smith ran in his collection The Edinbury (sic) Gleaner (c. 1825) soliciting MSS ‘free of postage’, promising that ‘if he approves of the same, and print it, they shall receive a few copies without any expense whatever’. We know little of the terms under which chapbooks were printed, wholesaled and sold. Harvey quotes a price of twopence a dozen for eight-page chapbooks, even three half-pence, and mentions that they were sold by the ream upon occasion.11 And George MacGregor says of the Glasgow firm of James and Matthew Robertson that they made £30,000 from the sale of chapbooks at the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth century.12 But beyond that we know little.

And what of the production methods? As we have seen there are few unopened copies extant, but a census of these might give an idea of how they were produced. The question of paper is more difficult, but if we were to have a detailed examination of those earlier chapbooks which were printed on laid paper (beginning, perhaps, with the Brash and Reid printings) it would suggest how the industry operated at that time.

Of greatest interest to students of literature or sociology would be much more information on what these booklets contained. A start could be made by compiling a computer index of first lines for all the Scottish poetry chapbooks in the National Library of Scotland (not only those in the Lauriston Castle Collection), the Mitchell Library, the White Collection, and at least the four oldest Scottish university libraries. But even this would not identify all the borrowings, as we have seen in the case of ‘Down the Burn Davie’, although in that instance a title index would alert us. Probably having a person widely-read in the poetry of Scotland read through the chapbooks would still be the best way of identifying this sort of incorporation of well-known works.

Before anything as ambitious as a history of the chapbook literature of Scotland can be written we should have studies of the production of the individual printers, at least the major ones. This is probably the kind of study which Scottish, English, American and other universities could set their students as a Ph.D. dissertation topic. There are signs of a growing interest in chapbooks of all sorts and we may hope for some important work to be done in the field.


  1. The Humorous Chap-Books of Scotland (New York, 1873), p. 3.
  2. See James C. Corson, ‘Scott’s Boyhood Collection of Chapbooks’, The Bibliotheck, III (1962), 202–218, for a description and a list of the works contained in the six volumes.
  3. I am grateful to Mr. A. C. Gillon for calculating this estimate for me.
  4. Philip Gaskell, A New Introduction to Bibliography (Oxford, 1972), p. 196.
  5. Ibid.
  6. The Wife of Beith: With a Description of her Journey to Heaven (Falkirk, n.d. [c. 1840–50]; Burns’s Popular Songs (Paisley: Ptd. by G. Caldwell n.d. [c. 1835–50]).
  7. Op. cit., p. 197.
  8. Fraser, op. cit. p. 111.
  9. The Letters of Robert Burns, ed. J. De Lancey Ferguson, 2 vols. (Oxford, 1931), 1, 106–7.
  10. Scottish Chapbook Literature (Paisley, 1903), p. 29. Much of Harvey’s information is taken almost verbatim from the works by Fraser and MacGregor mentioned in this article.
  11. Scottish Chapbook Literature, p. 131.
  12. ‘Editorial Introduction’, The Collected Writings of Dougal Graham, 2 vols. (Glasgow, 1883), I, 78. Incidentally, this useful collection was reprinted in 1968.
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