Robert Smail's Shop

Robert Smail's Shop

Composing Stick on movable type

Composing Stick on movable type


Robert Smail's Printing Works is a fully functional Victorian era letterpress printing works in the small Scottish Borders town of Innerleithen, now preserved by The National Trust for Scotland as an Industrial Heritage museum showing visitors the operation of a local printer around 1900 while still carrying out orders for printing and stationery. The firm was established in 1866, carrying out print jobs for the local community as well as operating a stationer's shop, and between 1893 and 1916 published a weekly newspaper. It remained in the ownership of the Smail family, who made little effort to keep up with twentieth-century advances in technology, and, through an initiative from Innerleithen Community Council, led by Iain Henderson and Nettie Watson, was run by the third-generation owner Cowan Smail until he retired and the property was acquired by the National Trust for Scotland in 1986 and opened to the public in 1990. Visitors are given a one-hour tour showing the various stages of the process as well as a chance to try hand typesetting, and at certain times the opportunity to print their own work.


While it may seem hard to believe today, Innerleithen was described as a ‘boom town’ when Robert Smail set up his first business there in 1856. He was inspired to move into printing by his brother Thomas, who already ran a successful printing and bookselling business in Jedburgh. Spurred on by his success, Robert bought the works in 1866 for £500 and set about acquiring the machinery, while still selling books, stationery and fishing tackle. When Robert died in 1890, his three sons took over the business. Robert Cowan Smail swiftly became the driving force behind the firm, sending his two brothers out to canvass for business while he worked long hours on his father’s trusty machinery; he also developed a shipping agency business from the office. He was certified to print and sell tickets for steamships to America.


The youngest brother Adam served in the First World War but was tragically killed in 1930, struck by lightning while he fished in the River Tweed. The third generation took over in 1950 when Robert Cowan died, passing the business on to his son Cowan. The property came into NTS ownership almost by happy accident. By 1986 Cowan, now in his mid-70s, was keen to retire and very nearly sold the premises to a newsagent. Maurice Rickards, founder of the Ephemera Society, just happened to be passing when he spied the ‘for sale’ sign in the shop window. He alerted the Trust, who made the unprecedented decision of purchasing the works and its contents to keep this precious gem of printing history alive today.


The ground floor of a two-storey building on the main shopping street of the town is divided into a shop, now a gift shop and the entrance for visitors, and the printer's office. This has a connecting door to the shop as well as its own door to the street which leads to a counter for serving customers. A large desk at the office window has the clutter typical of the early twentieth century, drawers contain stationery including writing slates, pencils, sealing wax, pen nibs and bottles of ink. Wall shelves store job dockets, invoices, wages books and ledgers dating back to the start of the business. Framed photographs show how little the office has changed since 1900, and a certificate shows the authority to issue tickets for steamships to America.


A door leads out the back to the paper store, a large room now housing an archive of nearly every printed job for a century. At one end the undershot water wheel which originally powered the works has been reconstructed. Stairs lead up to the caseroom, a large rooflit room for typesetting with racks around the perimeter of drawer-like letter cases. The racks are up to a worktop height, with the pairs of cases in use by the compositors on top so that the case of minuscule (lower-case) letters is at a shallow angle, and the case of majuscule (capital or upper-case) letters stands above and behind it at a steep angle leaning against the wall. The letters are cast metal sorts, and visitors are shown by the compositor how to set this movable type by hand into a metal composing stick. He then binds the type forme set by each visitor in a galley, and (time permitting) prints these using a hand-operated printing press to make a galley proof of each for the visitor. The room also has many galleys which were made up and set aside for possible future use, including the last job set by Cowan Smail, "Closing Down Sale from Today". The machineroom is also roof-lit, and the printing presses include a hand-fed pedal-operated platen press, a large belt-driven Wharfedale Reliance print machine bought in the 1870s which was originally powered by belt drive from the water wheel, and an automated Heidelberg Platen bought in 1952. A printer demonstrates the operation of these machines to the visitors.


The machinery is kept in good working order as it is still used today for a variety of commercial print jobs, including some of the Trust’s own literature. Most parts of the museum are fully accessible though there are stairs to the Caseroom. There are no public toilets at Smail’s but there are public toilets on Hall Street at the other end of the High Street (approx 5 minutes walk away). The shop is fully accessible to wheelchair users. There are large print versions of the Guidebook available. There are Interpretation Panels. All sections of the tour are guided by experienced and knowledgeable members of staff. Assistance dogs are welcome:


Location : Robert Smail's Printing Works, 7/9 High Street, Innerleithen, Scottish Borders EH44 6HA

Transport: Edinburgh (National Rail) then bus (X62). Bus Routes : 363 and X62 stop close by.

Opening Times : 25th March - 31st October, Friday, Saturday, Monday 11:00 to 17:00; Sunday 13:00 to 17:00

Tickets : Adults £6.50;  Concessions £5.00

Tel. : 01896 830206