Scotland's Bookbinding Heritage

Scotland’s Bookbinding Heritage

Scotland’s Bookbinding Heritage is both a storied past and vibrant present of Scottish bookbinding, a craft that interweaves tradition with modernity. The journey into Scotland’s bookbinding heritage begins in the 17th and 18th centuries, where Scottish binders developed distinctive styles, profoundly reflecting their cultural identity and craftsmanship.


The National Library of Scotland houses an extensive collection of decorative bookbindings, showcasing the evolution of Scottish styles over five centuries. Notably, two designs stand out: the wheel and the herringbone, both established by 1725 and continuing their influence into the early 19th century. The herringbone pattern, typically featuring a vertical stem with symmetrical ‘ribs’ on either side, adorned with various tools, is a testament to the artistic desire to fill the rectangular centre-panels of designs prevalent at the time. The wheel design, derived from European ‘fan’ bindings, features a sceptre tool and scalloped rim, with the area above and below the wheel usually filled with small tools.


These designs were often used to decorate Bibles and theses, and they showcase the immense creativity and skill of Scottish binders, allowing for significant imaginative variation, especially in the herringbone pattern. The endleaves of these books typically consisted of ‘Dutch gilt’ paper, imported through the Low Countries from France, Germany, and Italy.


Moving into the late 18th century, Edinburgh bookbinder James Scott brought a radical shift in style. Scott’s introduction of rococo and later neo-classical styles marked a departure from the traditional Scottish wheel and herringbone designs. His bindings, particularly for John Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost,’ are celebrated for their distinctive approach, combining earlier rococo elements with his later neo-classical style.


Fast forward to the present day, contemporary Scottish bookbinders like Tom McEwan are bridging the gap between the traditional and the modern. McEwan, an award-winning bookbinder based in West Kilbride, is celebrated for his innovative approach to bookbinding. Drawing on his Fine Art background from the Glasgow School of Art, he brings a bold and imaginative flair to his work. His bindings are a fusion of traditional techniques and modern design elements, marked by vibrant colour schemes, intricate patterns, and a mix of textures and materials. McEwan’s work not only pays homage to the past but also pushes the boundaries of bookbinding into new, creative territories.


His studio, a hub of creativity and craftsmanship, is a testament to the enduring appeal of hand-bound books. Here, McEwan not only creates unique bindings but also crafts bookbinding finishing tools and conducts workshops, sharing his knowledge and passion with others. This practice of passing down skills is crucial in keeping the tradition alive and relevant in a digital age.


McEwan’s work, along with that of other contemporary Scottish binders, illustrates a vibrant and evolving craft. They honour the legacy of their predecessors while infusing their creations with a modern sensibility, ensuring that the art of bookbinding remains a living, breathing part of Scotland’s cultural landscape.


Scotland’s bookbinding heritage, thus, is a narrative of continuous evolution, where history and innovation intertwine. It’s a legacy that speaks of the country’s rich cultural fabric and the unbroken chain of artisans who have kept this art form alive and thriving.


For more insights into Scotland’s bookbinding heritage and to view some of these exquisite designs, you can visit the National Library of Scotland’s digital gallery, which showcases a representative collection of Scottish decorative bookbindings from the last five centuries. Also, to explore the contemporary scene and the work of Tom McEwan, his website offers a glimpse into his innovative approach to bookbinding.


The image on this page is the work of Tom McEwan