Home > Research and Resources > Alec Follett, "140 years of Introductions: A Cautiously Optimistic Historiography of the Scottish Chapbook"

Alec Follett, "140 years of Introductions: A Cautiously Optimistic Historiography of the Scottish Chapbook"

(The author is a PhD candidate in the English Department

at the University of Guelph)


Between 1750 and 1850 the Scottish print industry produced roughly 200,000 chapbooks per year. These short and inexpensive books, peddled by itinerant salesman called chapmen, were the primary reading material for many Scots during the period. They comprised any combination of original or adapted song, poem, or story, covering topics as wide-ranging as religion, politics, family, and work. These diverse and popular books deserve serious academic study as documents that offer insight into artistic trends, the book trade, and quotidian life during a period marked by changes to industry and agriculture.[1] Despite their importance, Scottish chapbooks have received infrequent academic consideration. While there have been some studies of the Scottish chapbook, many of which this paper will review, a lack of sustained interest has resulted in a field that is under-theorized and trapped in a state of perpetual introductions. Consequently, individual chapbooks as well as the chapbook trade have not been studied in sufficient detail. These concerns are highlighted by the fact that only one book-length study of the Scottish chapbook has been published since William Harvey’s Scotland’s Chapbook Literature (1903).[2]


The most recent book published on the topic is Edward J. Cowan and Mike Paterson’s Folk in Print: Scotland’s Chapbook Heritage 1750-1850 (2007). The book’s introduction provides a thoughtful discussion of chapbooks and the chapbook trade.[3] However, the majority of the book is comprised of reprinted chapbooks that are accompanied by brief annotations and contextual comments. The tone and purpose of Folk in Print are made clear on the back cover: “this collection is a user-friendly introduction to the genre and a sampling of the attractions and possibilities, set, where appropriate, in the relevant cultural and historical contexts.”[4] This monograph succeeds as an overview that will be of interest to the general reader and will serve as a starting point for future studies; however, one should not expect to find lengthy analysis or theoretical considerations within this summary.


Despite noting that interpreting these texts is difficult, Cowan and Paterson view chapbooks as primary sources. They argue that chapbooks allow us “to listen to the voices of the past.”[5] This stance is further supported by their decision to categorize reprinted chapbooks according to the concerns of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Scots, such as “the chapmen, trades and occupations, courtship and wedding bliss, and the folk in their condition.”[6] This structural focus on daily life, which marks a break from nineteenth-century studies that often categorized reprinted chapbooks according to genre, further compliments the authors’ view that chapbooks reveal insights about the past.


The volume is a welcomed modern introduction to the field; however, its emphasis on reprinted chapbooks is both a blessing and a curse. These contextualized and reprinted chapbooks provide a useful foundation for future inquiries, but with digitized chapbooks becoming more readily available one desires fewer reprinted chapbooks and more analysis of specific printers, chapmen, and texts, especially from an accomplished historian such as Cowan.[7] Although Scottish chapbooks have been studied for nearly a century and a half, the field is still largely limited to introductions. With only one book printed on the subject in over a century, one must delve into past studies to conceive of a future for the study of the Scottish chapbook.


The Three Waves of Scottish Chapbook Scholarship

Scottish chapbooks have received increased attention during three periods. The first wave occurred between 1873 and 1903 in which more work was produced than in the next seventy years combined. In the early 1970s G. Ross Roy and Leslie Shepard offered important insights, but then interest lulled until the period between 1989 and 2009. Most studies have been published in this recent nineteen-year period; however, all but one study in this era are article length.


John Fraser’s The Humorous Chap-Books of Scotland (1873) was the first of four books published between 1873 and 1903. Fraser’s study is split into three chapters. Chapter one defines chapbooks, includes a short review of William Motherwell’s and Walter Scott’s interactions with chapbooks, and contextualizes chapbooks within the social and political history of eighteenth-century Scotland.[8] The second chapter is focused on the history, origin, and genres of ballads and chapbooks.[9] The final chapter is devoted solely to Dougal Graham, a noteworthy chapbook author and salesman. It includes a thirty-page biography, reprints of his work, and an analysis in which Fraser aims to demonstrate how Graham’s writing accurately depicts eighteenth-century Scottish life.[10]


Aside from his outdated nationalist commentary, Fraser’s scholarship is surprisingly modern. He laments that there is more scholarship on French, English, and Irish chapbooks than there is on Scottish chapbooks: a statement that is still true today.[11] He argues that scholars must turn to chapbooks “for the fullest and truest expression of the habits, humours, and every-day life of the Scottish commonality during that period.”[12] He then boldly proclaims that


it is impossible thoroughly to understand the history of Scotland, or the character of her people during the last century, without studying these vulgar, but graphic and intensely Scottish, productions… they were the reading material of the lower and agricultural middle classes, throughout the lowlands; and in them we have reflected the mind, superstitions, customs, and language of the people who read them.[13]


Fraser, like a number of contemporary historians, believes that chapbooks are necessary objects of study that reflect quotidian life.[14]  For example, his argument that Graham’s work is an accurate reflection of daily life is reinforced by Alexander Fenton, over a century later, in his article “The People Below: Dougal Graham’s Chapbooks as a Mirror of the Lower Classes in Eighteenth Century Scotland.”[15]


Shortly after Harvey’s overview, George MacGregor and John Strathesk wrote extensively on Scottish chapmen. The Collected Writings of Dougal Graham “Skellat” Bellman of Glasgow (1883), edited by George MacGregor, is a two volume study of Dougal Graham that contains a short discussion of his life, his writing, and Scottish chapbooks as well as a number of introduced and annotated reprints of Graham’s chapbooks.[16] By building on Fraser’s work, MacGregor is able to produce a lengthy study on a specific chapman’s career. Fraser and MacGregor’s interest in the chapman is carried on by John Strathesk, the editor of William Cameron’s autobiography titled Hawkie: The Autobiography of a Gangrel (1888). William Cameron, like Dougal Graham, was a prominent chapman. His experiences selling chapbooks in Glasgow during the early nineteenth century are recounted in chapter twelve of his autobiography and include performance locations and titles sold. This section is the most pertinent to those interested in the chapbook as it provides valuable insight into the chapman’s relationship with printers and consumers.[17] However, the reliability of Cameron’s narrative must be questioned because, according to Ian Hutchison, Stathesk altered the original text after Cameron’s death in order to support an anti-charity agenda.[18] Although this source must be approached critically, it provides a valuable view into a specific moment in the Scottish chapbook trade.


William Harvey’s Scottish Chapbook Literature (1903) builds on previous work by Fraser, MacGregor, and Strathesk.[19] It also sets the unfortunate trend, continued here, in which scholars publish introductory studies of the Scottish chapbook that rely too heavily on previously published ideas without adding many new insights of their own. One of Harvey’s insights is his criteria for defining a chapbook which places emphasis on context rather than form or content. Chapbooks, for Harvey, include single sheet broadsides, large volumes, and those texts in between, as long as they were sold by chapmen.[20] This is an important, though disputed, definition that preferences how printed materials existed within their historical context rather than defining them by potentially anachronistic genres or categories. Despite emphasising the book trade in his definition, Harvey’s table of contents follow previous studies by organizing chapters according to genre.[21]


Harvey raises issues that are of interest to subsequent scholars. He shares concerns with Cowan and Paterson such as identifying the first Scottish chapbook and discussing their popularity. Harvey argues that the first Scottish chapbook was printed in 1508 and that they were at their most popular between 1688 and 1830.[22] Like Fraser, MacGregor, and Paterson and Cowan, he provides descriptions of reprinted chapbooks. He argues, like most, that chapbooks can “give a striking and faithful representation of rustic life and manners in the eighteenth century.”[23] Harvey’s study marks the end of a vibrant thirty years in chapbook scholarship and is the final book-length study until Cowan and Paterson’s 2007 Folk in Print.


In 1934, James Cameron Ewing wrote a short piece titled Brash and Reid Booksellers in Glasgow and their Collection of Poetry Original and Selected. Although Brash and Reid were involved in the chapbook trade, Ewing’s article is more concerned with their poetry publications. Included in the article are reprinted Brash and Reid advertisements, brief biographies of Brash and Reid, and a history of the firm, which was active between 1790 and 1817.[24] Although the article is short, and not centred on chapbooks, this publication gives insight into how Brash and Reid marketed themselves to their Glaswegian patrons and thus gives insight into the many-sided nature of Glaswegian booksellers. After Ewing’s article the study of Scottish chapbooks is non-existent for almost forty years.


Renewed interest in Scottish chapbooks occurred briefly in the early 1970s. Leslie Shepard’s A History of Street Literature (1973) is a comparative survey of street literature from different locations and periods. Shepard’s cross-cultural perspective that compares the Scottish chapbook with chapbooks from other countries is a welcomed approach that has not been emulated in the largely insular area of Scottish chapbook studies.[25] Unfortunately, Shepard’s insights are overshadowed by a lack of imbedded citations that makes finding and evaluating his sources bothersome, but the included bibliography, which contains studies by Fraser, MacGregor, Cameron, and Harvey, provides some help.[26]


G. Ross Roy’s Some Notes on Scottish Chapbooks (1974) provides another overview and, as the title indicates, does not have an overarching argument. Nevertheless, the article offers insightful commentary on several aspects of the Scottish chapbook. For example, Roy defines chapbooks by length and cost and in doing so challenges previous definitions. He contests Fraser’s definition by stating that most chapbooks were eight page, rather than twenty-four page, booklets. He also challenges Harvey’s definitions, which included all books sold by chapmen, by arguing that neither broadside nor expensive four page books should be considered chapbooks.


Roy, like others, argues that chapbooks are important to historians’ understanding of the period. He states: 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.”[27] Although Roy appreciates the historical value of chapbooks, he acknowledges that very little is known about the arrangement between author, printer, and chapman. Nevertheless, Roy’s comment about Dougal Graham illuminates the economics of the chapbook trade. He argues that 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.”[28] This remark points to an understanding of Graham not as a writer whose primary goal was to accurately depict daily life, but rather as a writer who was responding to a market. By acknowledging economic factors, Roy implicitly challenges the commonly held notion that Graham, or anyone else involved in the chapbook trade, was simply reflecting daily life.


Roy also discusses the state of the field. He is surprised that Scottish chapbooks are being neglected even as the study of popular culture is pervasive. One reason why historians of popular culture may be so hesitant to explore Scottish chapbooks, according to Roy, is because they lack bibliographical information such as author, date, publisher, and location, all of which are important to archival categorization.[29] These obstacles are certainly one of the field’s hazards and may have deterred some scholars from studying these texts; however, the study of English chapbooks has succeeded despite having the same archival issues to overcome.[30] Roy’s suggestions for future studies, such as an updated survey of the Scottish chapbook as well as more studies on major chapbook printers have been answered albeit only in part and only after a lengthy delay.[31] Adam McNaughtan’s “A Century of Saltmarket Literature, 1790-1890” (1990) addresses printers; however, there are many printers that have yet to be studied.[32] Roy’s call for a new survey of Scottish chapbook literature was answered by Cowan and Paterson, in 2007, twenty three years later.[33] The study of Scottish chapbooks lay dormant for the fifteen years following Roy’s 1974 article, until he published two articles on Brash and Reid’s publication of Robert Burns’s poetry.[34]


In 1990 two detailed articles were written. Alexander Fenton’s brief article, “The People Below: Dougal Graham’s Chapbooks as a Mirror of the Lower Classes in Eighteenth Century Scotland” focuses on several chapbooks that were likely written by Graham. By comparing these texts with aspects of eighteenth-century life such as homes, sleeping, sanitation, and goods Fenton demonstrates that Graham’s chapbooks offer an accurate description of daily life. Fenton rightfully warns that scholars must critically interpret texts, but if chapbooks are approached cautiously they can be used to construct a social history of eighteenth-century Scotland.[35] In the same year Adam McNaughtan published “A Century of Salt Market Literature 1790-1890.” This article explores publishers who specialized in inexpensive literature and contends that between 1790 and 1890 the Salt Market area of Glasgow went from being a publishing hub to having no publishers at all.[36] Despite only writing a short amount about each printer, his study, like Fenton’s, is beneficial because it is limited to one aspect of the chapbook trade.


John Morris has published two introductory articles on the Scottish chapbook. His first effort is titled “Scottish Ballads and Chapbooks” (1997). This short article explores different printers, periods, and texts, but is diluted by an assessment of both chapbooks and broadsides. Morris’s follow-up overview is titled “Chapbooks and Ballads” (2007).[37] Unlike Morris’s overviews, David Buchanan’s “Scott Squashed: Chapbook Versions of the Heart of Midlothian” (2009) offers an example of the detailed contemporary scholarship that can and should be carried out on Scottish chapbooks. Buchanan addresses the relationship between publishers, readers, and the historical moment. By exploring these connections, Buchanan demonstrates how Sir Walter Scott’s canonical novels were adapted to the chapbook format.[38] The study of Scottish chapbooks has had a checkered existence oscillating between moments of interest and disregard. In those periods of sustained interest scholars have demonstrated the importance of the Scottish chapbooks through their many overviews and occasional in-depth studies.


Future Directions

In comparison to the total amount of scholarly work produced on Scottish chapbooks, there are an abundance of introductions: Fraser (1873), Harvey (1903), Roy (1974), Morris (1997 and 2007), and Cowan and Paterson (2007). While the length between these publications surely warrants revised introductions that reflect advances in historical knowledge and methods, the issue with surveys is that they lack detail and are not substitutes for focused studies, despite serving as worthwhile foundations. Detailed articles and monographs on specific aspects of Scottish chapbooks are now required to break the pattern of introductions and inactivity and advance the field.


The lack of detailed studies is not due to the chapbook’s form or content, nor is it due to insufficient primary resources; instead, one possible explanation for the disproportionate amount of introductions is that most who have published on the topic only do so once or twice. Although scholars of popular culture have been hesitant to study Scottish chapbooks, they have assessed French and English chapbooks with sustained interest and have thus produced detailed studies.[39] Andrew O’Malley, for example, has written extensively on English chapbooks.[40] Surely Scottish chapbooks warrant the same attention. What follows are brief recommendations for the field that aim to promote future research that extends beyond introductions. These suggestions include increased attention to cultural theory, Scottish history, comparative perspectives, and quantitative and digital methods.


Most who have written on the Scottish chapbook believe that these texts are primary sources that provide insight into the past: this stance, if accepted uncritically, is problematic. Chapbooks have literary, rhetorical, and representational elements that complicate their use as primary sources that reveal daily life during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. There is a complex relationship between written works and the historical moment that bore them, which must be accounted for. This is not to say that chapbooks cannot be read as primary sources, but rather those choosing to use chapbooks in this manner must justify and explain their methods and perspectives. R.A. Houston shares this concern in his review of Cowan and Paterson’s Folk in Print where he states that


throughout the book the assumption seems to be that chapbooks represent popular mentalities. This may well be true, but the exact nature of the representation needs to be shown rather than left to speak for itself, for listening to ‘the voices of the past’ is not straightforward… for all their apparent crudity and simplicity, chapbooks are complex and layered with meaning… some detailed content analysis or engagement with theories about authorial intent and readers’ reception would have provided a better springboard for future work.[41]


Houston’s critique of Folk in Print applies to many studies of the Scottish chapbook. If chapbooks are a window into the past, then the glass is blurred.


Increased engagement with cultural theory would be useful to the study of Scottish chapbooks, as it would help strengthen perspectives, such as providing insight into what chapbooks might reveal about the past. Roger Chartier makes use of cultural theory in order to better understand French chapbooks. In “Culture as Appropriation: Popular Cultural Uses in Early Modern France” Chartier argues that chapbooks do not simply reveal the lives of the lower class; instead the ideas and sources from which chapbooks derive come from both elite and popular cultures. Consequently, studying how different groups of people appropriated and adapted the same text to suit their specific needs is a worthwhile method of investigation.[42] For example, Walter Scott and an urban labourer may have read the same chapbook, but likely did so in different ways. This argument is made possible because of Chartier’s engagement with cultural theorist Michel DeCerteau’s work that explores the intertextual elements in written documents as well as the varying ways that different readers use texts.[43] Chartier’s perspective challenges those who accept that chapbooks provide a clear depiction of the past. Chartier’s technique is certainly not the only way forward; however, he does provide an example of the benefits of cultural theory to the study of chapbooks.


The insularity of Scottish chapbook studies demonstrated by its lack of engagement with cultural theory is further highlighted by a hesitancy to use comparative methods and its reluctance to bring the study of Scottish chapbooks into conversation with larger concerns within Scottish history. For instance, the many definitions of the Scottish chapbook are constructed in relation to previous definitions; however, they do not engage with definitions of English, French, or German chapbooks. Comparing the study of Scottish chapbooks with the study of chapbooks from other countries would bring fresh perspectives to the chapbook definition debate, among other concerns in the field. Forging connections with other areas of Scottish history, such as gender studies, would be beneficial as well. Doing so would help elucidate the masculine bravado associated with the chapmen and would provide insight into how chapbooks represented, perpetuated, and challenged eighteenth and nineteenth century gender roles. Provided here are just two of the many ways that the study of the Scottish chapbook can converse with larger historical issues.


In addition to drawing on cultural theory, other chapbook traditions, and larger themes in Scottish history, chapbooks could be studied using quantitative and digital methods. If the evidence exists, quantitative methods could illuminate the economics and geography of the chapbook trade. How many texts were printed? What texts were printed in a given area? How many chapbook printers were in a given region? How far did chapmen travel? How much money did families of different classes allocate to popular reading materials? And, how much money did chapbook printers and sellers make? One resource that may act as a starting point for this type of investigation is the National Library of Scotland’s Scottish Book Trade Index (SBTI). The index includes a list of “printers, publishers, booksellers, bookbinders, printmakers, stationers, [and] papermakers.”[44] Mapping information found on the SBTI, in relation to the above questions, using GIS would help uncover the spatial dimension of the chapbook trade. Digital tools can also be put to use to construct interdisciplinary and collaborative digital humanities projects on Scottish chapbooks that can aid researchers, libraries, and students alike.


The largely insular study of Scottish chapbooks has been impeded by many issues, including years of inactivity, an abundance of surveys, and a lack of sustained engagement with the topic. This trend is at odds with those working on chapbooks from other countries who have written more often and in more detail and have engaged with theoretical and methodological concerns. But, because Scotland has a rich chapbook heritage, and because chapbooks are of cultural, historical, and literary importance it is absolutely vital and possible that in-depth studies are conducted. Doing so would not only result in a better understanding of the chapbook but would also benefit other areas of study within Scottish history and literature including the book trade, popular culture, and gender, to name only a few. Fortunately, the future of the Scottish chapbook is bright. Digitization projects at the University of Guelph, and elsewhere, and print access at the University of Guelph, the University of Glasgow, the University of South Carolina, and the National Library of Scotland offer an abundance of primary sources. Cowan and Paterson’s expansive and contemporary introduction, in addition to the many other studies referenced in this paper, can serve as the foundation for more focused investigations. Joining primary resources with previous studies and new theories and interest can make the study of the Scottish chapbook both strong and relevant.

End Notes


Buchanan, David. “Scott Squashed: Chapbook Versions of The Heart of Midlothian.” Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net 56, (2009).


Cameron, William. Hawkie: The Autobiography of a Gangrel, edited by John Strathesk. Glasgow: David Robertson, 1888.


Chartier, Roger. “Culture as Appropriation: Popular Cultural Uses in Early Modern France.” In Understanding Popular Culture: Europe from the Middle Ages to the Nineteenth Century, edited by Steven Kaplan, 229-254. New York: Mounton Publishers, 1984.


Cowan, Edward J. “Alexander McLaughlan: The ‘Robert Burns’ of Canada.” In Robert Burns & Friends: Essays by W. Ormiston Roy Fellows Presented to G. Ross Roy. Create Space, 2012.


Cowan, Edward J. and Mike Paterson. Folk in Print: Scotland’s Chapbook Heritage 1750-1850. Edinburgh: John Donald, 2007.


Ewing, James Cameron. Brash and Reid Booksellers in Glasgow and Their Collection of Poetry Original and Selected. Glasgow: Robert MacLehose, 1934.


Fenton, Alexander. “The People Below: Dougal Graham’s Chapbooks as a Mirror of the Lower Classes in Eighteenth Century Scotland.” In A Day Estivall: Essays on the Music, Poetry and History of Scotland and England & Poems Previously Unpublished, edited by Alisoun Gardner-Medwin and Janet Hadley Williams, 69-80. Aberdeen: Aberdeen University Press, 1990. 


Fraser, John. The Humorous Chap-Books of Scotland. Vol 1. New York: Henry L. Hinton, 1873.


Fraser, John. The Humorous Chap-Books of Scotland. Vol 2. New York: Henry L. Hinton, 1873.


Graham, Dougal. The Collected Writings of Dougal Graham, "Skellat" Bellman of Glasgow. Vol 1, edited by George MacGregor. Glasgow: Morrison, 1883.


Graham, Dougal. The Collected Writings of Dougal Graham, "Skellat" Bellman of Glasgow. Vol 2, edited by George MacGregor. Glasgow: Morrison, 1883.


Harvey, William. Scottish Chapbook Literature. New York, Burt Franklin, 1903.


Houston, R.A. Review of “Folk in Print: Scotland’s Chapbook heritage, 1750-1850.” The Scottish Historical Review 88, no. 1 (2009): 181-183.


Hutchison, Iain. “Hawkie.” The Glasgow Story. 2004. Accessed December 5, 2012. http://www.theglasgowstory.com/story.php?id=TGSCH02.


Lenman, Bruce. Enlightenment and Change: Scotland 1746-1832. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2009.


McNaughtan, Adam. “A Century of Saltmarket Literature, 1790-1890.” In Six Centuries of the Provincial Book Trade in Britain, edited by Peter Isaac, 165-180. Winchester: St. Paul’s Bibliographies, 1990.


Morris, John. “Chapbooks and Ballads.” In Scottish life and Society: Oral Performance and Culture, edited by John Beech et al., 260-378. Edinburgh: John Donald, 2007.


Morris, John. “Scottish Ballads and Chapbooks.” In Images & Texts: Their Production and Distribution in the 18th and 19th Centuries, edited by Peter Isaac and Barry McKay, 89-112. Winchester: St. Paul’s Bibliographies, 1997.


O’Malley, Andrew. Children’s Literature, Popular Culture, and Robinson Crusoe. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2012.


Roy, G. Ross. “Robert Burns and the Brash and Reid Chapbooks of Glasgow.” In Literatur-im-

                Kontext-Literature in Context: Festschrift für Horst W. Drescher, edited by Joachim


Schwend, Suzanne Hagemann, and Hermann Völkel, 53-69. Frankfurt-am-Main: Peter Lang, 1992.


Roy, G. Ross. “Some Notes on Scottish Chapbooks.” University of South Carolina. June 20, 2002. Previously published as “Some Notes on Scottish Chapbooks.” Scottish Literary Journal 1, (1974): 50-60.


Roy, G. Ross. “The Brash and Reid Editions of ‘Tam o’ Shanter’.” Burns Chronicle 98, (1989): 38-44.


“Scottish Book Trade Index (SBTI)." National Library of Scotland. 2012. Accessed December 5, 2012. http://www.nls.uk/catalogues/scottish-book-trade-index/caitchean-carson.

Shepard, Leslie. The History of Street Literature: The Story of Broadside Ballads, Chapbooks, Proclamations, News-Sheets, Election Bills, Tracts, Pamphlets, Cocks, Catchpennies, and other Ephemera. Detroit: Singing Tree Press, 1973. 


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