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11 Oct 2021

Why we love Robert Smail’s Printing Works



RM – Robert Smail’s Printing Works is a Victorian-era letterpress printers in the town of Innerleithen in the Scottish Borders.
It was founded in 1866 by Robert Smail.
What makes it a special place is that the technology and equipment that was used here originally is the same technology and equipment that we use today to produce work for our shop and for our customer jobs.
It's almost entirely unique in the whole of the UK as being the last continually operating letterpress printers, so it is really a special and magical place.
Printing at one time was incredibly essential to everybody who had a business, who had an organisation.
So when Smail’s was first founded, all the local community would have had something to do with it.
They would come in here and place their order for any types of printing.
Nowadays, the kind of things we print is wedding stationery, business cards and bespoke printing jobs, more art-based.
And the process is the same as it has been for 160 years, almost: where the customer comes in and gives us an outline of the kind of job that they would like and then the compositor selects the type and designs the job for the customer.
It does take a long time to typeset a job because each individual letter space and piece of punctuation has to be put into the right position, so we always say a rush job for us is two weeks!
After the job’s been approved by the customer, it goes down to the machine room where the printer is responsible for making a good impression and getting the job printed up for the customer.
‘Making a good impression’ is one of the many phrases that comes from printing, so when you come to visit us, you get a lot of these on your tour!

VISITOR – I love this place because my grandfather was a compositor. The tour is really interesting;
it told me everything I wanted to know and I just feel that little bit closer to my history now.

VISITOR – What I love best about Roberts Smail’s Printing Works is that Robert Smail, or the company as it was, kept every single record of every bill, letter, invitation to parties ... anything you had printed has been kept as a record and they're all there in the books for you to see.
It’s just absolutely staggering.
You’ve got a social history in books in front of you.

ROBIN – I’m a volunteer here at Smail’s, a place I've heard about throughout my working life in printing.
When I retired, I decided to come and help them be a volunteer, so I came on the tour and I was stunned.
It’s amazing.
The office that we’re standing in here was remodelled in 1900, believe it or not, and when the Trust took the place over, they archived everything but they photographed it and they put this office back exactly like the day that Cowan, who was the last of the Smails, when he retired, and it’s been the same ever since.
So it's basically a time capsule, isn't it?
Well, I love Smail’s just because of its history and because it was continuously worked as a printing works for 150-odd years and it never really modernised, so you've got the history of printing all in one building.
People from all over the world come visiting here, so you get to chat to lots of different folk ... and it keeps me out of mischief.

VISITOR – I love this place because it’s fascinating to come and see the history of the printing.
It’s amazing that they’ve still got the old equipment, and the knowledge of the people who take you round and show you how it works.
It’s absolutely fascinating.

GS – One of the many things I love about Smail’s is the hidden treasures it has behind that front shop door. Personally, I used to drive past the printworks everyday, never really knew what they had to offer.
But getting the opportunity to work with the Trust has really opened up the Tardis-like effect that the whole property has, with the press room, with the uniqueness of all the machinery, the printing machinery that it has, and also the passion and involvement of the team that Smail’s has working with it.

RM – What I love the most about Smail’s is it could appear to be such an everyday and ordinary place on the surface.
You think about printing works: it's maybe not got the glamour and appeal of say a castle or a country home where you've got this amazing art collection, but what is really special about Smail’s is it’s something that we can all identify with.
Most of us are used to going to work and this property is really all about people's working lives.
Also we're all sitting in front of our computers.
We use our mobile phones every single day without thinking about it, but this technology was really the birth of all of that.
We may not realise that when we're using this modern technology but this is really where all that originated, places like the Caseroom all those years ago.

Enjoy a fascinating look at how newspapers, tickets, posters and cards were printed before the digital age in our amazing ‘living museum’ of Victorian history. There are just so many things to love about Robert Smail’s Printing Works.

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