The Origins of Scottish Copperplate Engraving (Musical and Otherwise)

It is with great pleasure that we share our second guest blogpost, this time by Dr Kelsey Jackson Williams, Lecturer in Early Modern Literature at the University of Stirling, and Printer, The Pathfoot Press.  If you’ve ever wondered what the process of music engraving actually entails, then your questions are about to be answered here.

One of the vast treasure trove of musical scores which falls within the remit of the Claimed from Stationers’ Hall project is the imposingly named A Collection of the Ancient Martial Music of Caledonia, called Piobaireachd as performed on the Great Highland Bagpipe. Now also adapted to the Piano Forte Violin and Violoncello. With a few old Highland lilts purposely set for the above modern instruments. To which is prefixed a complete tutor for attaining a thorough knowledge of the pipe music, compiled by the Skye native and prominent bagpipe-maker Dòmhnall MacDhòmhnaill (1766/7-1840) and published in Edinburgh in 1820.

A Collection of the Ancient Martial Music of Caledonia

Like many musical scores of the period, MacDhòmhnaill’s work was reproduced through copperplate engraving, a process which remained a mainstay of music publishing until the dawn of the twenty-first century (I was surprised to discover in the process of my research for this blogpost that even the Henle Verlag scores I practiced from as a teenager were still made by this traditional process!).  Copperplate engraving, as the names implies, involves the etching of the image, in this case a score, on a copper plate with a stylus known as a burin.  For musical publishing, it offered what could often prove to be a more economical, cleaner method of producing a score than the setting of music in moveable type, a slow, expensive, and painful process at the best of times.

But copperplate engraving was also a highly specialised skill, only invented in the fifteenth century and slow to spread across Europe.  As late as 1732 Alexander Munro’s Collection of the Best Scots Tunes escaped the net of the 1709 Copyright Act because it was printed not in Edinburgh, as might have been expected, but in Paris, quite probably because the engravers of Edinburgh were not yet up to the task of preparing forty-five pages of music for the press.

A Collection of the Best Scots Tunes

How, then, did Edinburgh music publishing make the leap from the Parisian workshop of Jacques Dumont in the 1730s to the Edinburgh offices of Walker and Anderson in the 1820s?  Many aspects of that story remain, as yet, unknown and I don’t propose to answer this question here, but rather to digress somewhat – in typical academic fashion – and look at the origins of the Scottish engraving industry, the same which would eventually produce craftsmen able to create such polished and elegant pieces as MacDhòmhnaill’s Piobareachd.

That industry had its origins in the Scottish early Enlightenment.  Only a handful of engravers were active in Scotland in the latter part of the seventeenth century, though some of those produced work of a very high standard.  Beginning around 1700, however, the Scottish engraving market began to expanded exponentially with somewhere in the region of fifteen to twenty engravers being active in Edinburgh alone during the first quarter of the century.  It was no coincidence that this coincided with a shift in the Scottish printing economy.  Beginning with the 1707 publication of volume one of George Mackenzie’s Lives and Characters of the Most Eminent Writers of the Scots Nation, Scottish printers and booksellers turned to a subscription model for producing specialist, high-cost works, whether those were antiquarian, literary, or musical in their contents.  By shifting the economic risk from the printer to the individual subscribers, the Scottish book trade was suddenly able to produce far more of these works than it had before and this, in turn, led to the creation of a niche but growing market for print luxuries like engraving.

While Munro’s Collection fits within this narrative – boasting as it does an impressive subscription list of the great and the good of early eighteenth-century Scottish society – it was by no means the first time that engravers had been co-opted into the subscription publication model.  Instead, this had previously happened with works on antiquarianism, particularly heraldry.  Scholars such as Alexander Nisbet (1657-1725) had come close to bankrupting themselves commissioning lavish engravings for their works, engravings which offer some of our best evidence for the extent and skill of the trade at the time.

Robert Wood's
Robert Wood’s engraving of the heraldic achievement and probative quarters of the Duke of Queensberry, commissioned by Alexander Nisbet.

It was no surprise that Edinburgh engravers were more comfortable with heraldry than with music.  Some of our earliest evidence for Scottish engraving comes in the form of heraldic bookplates and it seems likely that the first growth of the trade in Edinburgh was in response to the growing fashion for bookplates amongst the middle- and upper-class reading public of Enlightenment Scotland.  As private libraries grew apace, their owners looked to the urban luxury trades – whether engravers, book binders, or others – for ways to distinguish theirs from the mix.

What the ultimate origins of Scottish engraving were – whether lying with Scots training on the continent or continental engravers immigrating to Scotland – and how it first developed its musical side are areas which remain to be studied.  I’ll happily leave the latter to other, more knowledgeable scholars than myself, but I’m currently working on the former as part of a larger project on the arts and thought of early Enlightenment Scotland (which you can read more about here).  I’ll sign off for the moment, though, with the reflection that, odd as it may seem, the origins of Scottish musical engraving lie in the production of bookplates for aristocratic readers in the intellectually teaming environment of Edinburgh at the turn of the eighteenth century.

Kelsey Jackson Williams

University of Stirling







5 thoughts on “The Origins of Scottish Copperplate Engraving (Musical and Otherwise)

  1. Great. This chimes nicely with the recent Twitter thread regarding Alexander Bell, engraver and fiddler who had links to Munro, surgeon and anatomist (and perhaps the same as the publisher of music in Paris). Karen is aware of the thread.


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