The first Scottish printed Bible

Posted November 3, 2010 6:39 pm by Helen Vincent

Page from the Bassandyne Bible

Page from the Bassandyne Bible

Today is the last day of our Reformation display, and for a final post I would like to write about the first Bible printed in Scotland, generally called the Bassandyne Bible, after its printer Thomas Bassandyne.

Bibles certainly circulated in Scotland before the Bassandyne Bible was published – printed editions of the Latin Vulgate (the pre-Reformation edition, which was still used by Catholics) and editions of English translations published in London. We also know of at least one pre-Reformation translation into Scots, Murdoch Nisbet’s version of the New Testament, which probably dates from the 1530s but was not published until 1901. Other early reformers may have attempted their own vernacular editions which did not survive. There does not seem to have been a Gaelic translation of the Bible, although the Gaelic translation of the Book of Common Order was the first printed Gaelic book – Foirm na h-Urrnuidheadh (1567).

The version which the Church of Scotland chose to have printed in the 1570s was the Geneva Bible, so-called because it was translated at Geneva by English and Scottish exiles (possibly including Knox himself) and printed there in 1560. It quickly became the preferred text of reformers like Knox, as opposed to the Bishops’ Bible, the Church of England version.

The Geneva Bible is designed to help anyone reading the Bible by themselves, with notes, chapter guides, and even maps and other illustrations. It was the first English edition to break chapters down into the numbered verses still used today. All of this apparatus, which interpreted the text along Calvinist lines, was reprinted in the Scottish edition, including elaborate woodcut illustrations and maps.

The two things I find most interesting about the Bassandyne Bible are how it was printed and distributed, and the question of its language.  Firstly, the publication process. The Church of Scotland Assembly decided that every parish in Scotland should have a copy of this Bible – which meant that they had to set up the system by which these copies were bought and distributed. The printers also had to be funded for this project (Thomas Bassandyne worked with the merchant Alexander Arbuthnet, who completed the project when Bassandyne died in 1577 with only the New Testament completed). This meant that the Church and the printers set up the first known example of subscription publishing in the British Isles – albeit a compulsory subscription, with every parish in Scotland ordered to pay £5 for their copy. Displayed alongside the Bible in our exhibition is a rare surviving copy of the printed decree sent out from King and Privy Council to every parish ordering them to pay.  Householders and burgesses above a certain income were also commanded to purchase copies.

When I wrote about Archbishop Hamilton’s catechism, I said that he was not able to organise a system to make sure his book was distributed across Scotland. It was only with the Bassandyne Bible that publishers, Church and Court worked together to ensure the Bible was distributed.

The second point is about language. Bassandyne reprinted the Geneva Bible exactly, in English – he would certainly have faced accusations of inaccuracy had he deviated from the English text. However the Bible comes with a dedication to James VI – in Scots – which neatly elides English and Scots into one vernacular:  

‘Trueth it is that the godly (men of the nation of England for the maist part) banisht from thair countrie for the Gospelis cause and convenit at Geneva, quha did faithfullie and lernedlie translate this buke … aucht to have thair awne praise for thair labouris bestowit to the common weil of thame that speake our language.’

The dedication goes on to celebrate ‘thir daies of light quhen almaist in everie private house the buike of Gods lawe is red and understand in oure vulgaire language’.  This may perhaps be an overstatement, but it certainly illustrates a lot of the key elements of the Scottish Reformation: the importance of the circulation of texts, the way printed books were used by the Reformers to achieve their ends, and the effect those printed books had on Scottish culture and on Scottish languages.

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