How to get the right end of the stick

3rd May 1996 at 01:00
Helen Anderson visits the printing company that time forgot. Are you prepared to "mind your ps and qs" if you are "out of sorts" and perhaps "getting the wrong end of the stick"? A visit to Robert Smail's Printing Works at Innerleithen, now owned by the National Trust for Scotland, will not only explain the origin of these expressions but reveal many other aspects of a 120-year-old family business.

In the printing trade it was easy to confuse the characters p and q when putting them back into cases after they had been used, so extra care had to be taken - "minding your ps and qs" was essential for any apprentice. A collection of letters in one type font, say all the As or Cs, is known as a "sort". If a compositor ran out of these, he was "out of sorts" - and when a person picked up the setting stick wrongly he or she was "getting the wrong end of the stick".

Robert Smail's Printing Works was sold in 1986 to the NTS when its third-generation owner, Cowan Smail, decided to retire, aged 76. This working time-capsule is now safeguarded for the nation and today's children - and their parents and teachers - can have a vivid experience of printing and see techniques and machinery preserved for more than a century, most of which is still in good working order.

All the printing required for the local community was carried out at Smail's and the 50 guardbooks preserved in the Works Office contain examples of every item printed from 1878 to 1983 with details of the date and type of machine used.

These invaluable records give a graphic insight into the business and social life of Innerleithen. Printers were required by law to keep copies of printed work for six months - Smail's kept them for over 100 years! They include advertising leaflets, dance tickets, concert posters, funeral notices, labels for the woollen industry and hundreds of other items of print. From 1893 to 1916 Smail's published a weekly newspaper, the St Ronan's Standard and Effective Advertiser. Bound copies of each year's editions give fascinating details of business and social affairs. Front-page advertisements in a 1916 issue ranged from "high-class artificial teeth" (painless extractions without the aid of gas or chloroform) to an appeal for new laid eggs for feeding wounded soldiers and sailors.

As part of the NTS's ongoing education programme, an education pack on Smail's Printing Works has been compiled by Margaret Cameron, head of education at the NTS, Rachel Woods, education development officer and a volunteer, teacher Heather Barr. Launched at Smail's at the end of April, the pack contains material which meets the aims of the 514 curriculum and is designed to complement a visit to the works and help plan a wider programme of classroom project work.

A useful table of curriculum links sets out key features for relevant curriculum areas. Project suggestions and ideas for activities based on the material are adaptable to different age groups and cover topics such as the material resources of the earth, ways in which technology meets human needs, the meaning of "heritage" and investigating visually and recording. Background information draws on primary sources such as photographs, copies of original documents, transcriptions of interviews, original printed material and first-hand accounts of the Smail's business.

Edward Nicol has been property manager at Smail's for four years, having worked previously as a master printer in Arbroath. His full-time colleague is Alison Cox, an ex-librarian who "fell in love with type" on a course at the London School of Printing. She has worked as a compositor for the past eight years, four of these at Smail's.

Both enjoy their dual roles of working at their crafts and talking to the 7,000 or so visitors who come each season from May to October. They acknowledge that Smail's is a working museum and that "visitors must come first".

Especially during the winter months, they are happy to carry out commissions from locals for business cards, headed notepaper, wedding stationery, etc. Nicol and Cox have one volunteer helper who was, in his youth, an apprentice printer at Smail's. Nicol is concerned about the need to prepare for the future by training people in old skills as these are not being handed on in today's high-tech printing firms.

Ed Nicol finds that children particularly enjoy seeing things working, for example the reconstructed waterwheel and the printing machines. "We try to get the names of the children before a visit so that they can all have a bookmark with their name printed on it. Some may even try their hand at some typesetting. Whether you are eight or 80, everyone enjoys their visit."

The education staff of the NTS co-operate closely with local education authorities and advisers. At Innerleithen the local primary school, St Ronan's, has a most successful involvement with Smail's in its programmes of cross-curricular project work and has produced, for example, in the printing works an exciting Book of Days as part of a project on "Time".

An educational group visit must be booked in advance by telephoning Edward Nicol (01896 830206) to arrange a suitable date and time. At least one and a half hours should be allowed for the guided tour of the office, composing room and machine room with hands-on activities led by property staff. The old Smail's shop, now run by the NTS, completes the tour.

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today