18 Jun 2010

Ink and images: Robert Smail's legacy

I was not firing on all cylinders the day I visited Robert Smail’s Printing Works in Innerleithen. Perhaps this had something to do with the fact that prior to joining the tour I had skipped breakfast and spent most of the morning walking the hills.

Led by costumed tour guides playing characters from Victorian times, I wandered, slightly dazed, over the wooden floorboards, through the room where the waterwheel once churned power for the machinery, and upstairs to the caseroom, where the air hung thick with the tang of eau du ink and wrought iron. This was my favourite room. I loved the light and airy feel of the place, despite knowing that when it was still in use, it would have been cold, drafty and lit by oil lamps.

Modern living sometimes makes us forget the countless small details that go into creating a finished product. The caseroom is a shrine to detail. What initially can be perceived as clutter is actually the meticulous filing of thousands of metal cases, each carved with a tiny letter or number.

This is moveable type, in which the cases are stacked one by one to form words and sentences, with separate cases for gaps and punctuation. When they are all loaded and crammed into a form so they do not shift or fall out, the ink roller is swept over the top, making a sound like a strip of wet Velcro being peeled away.

An aloof looking eagle sits atop the ornate manual printing press, which glides smoothly on rollers to and from its destiny of transferring ideas onto what were once unassuming blank sheets of paper. Words in print. It is still magic.

Throughout the tour my attention was drawn by the numerous photographs hanging on the walls. Along with running the family's successful printing business,  Robert Smail was a keen photographer and with his trusty bellows camera, gathered hundreds of images of local scenes and people. One of the museum staff members said they still have many of Smail’s original plate glass negatives.

They are remarkable photographs, simple but capturing the intricate character of the people and landscape of Innerleithen. I took photos of two of the photos, but the reflection of the glass made it difficult and these shots do not do justice to the story Smail’s images tell.
The printing works is run by the National Trust for Scotland and is open from April to October. Even if you have no interest in Victorian era printing technology, the property is worth a visit just to see these photographs. I may have been too tired to make the most of other elements of the tour that day, but since my visit I have often thought of these photos. If ever a book of Smail’s photographs is published, I shall be among the first in line to buy a copy.
Thank you for visiting my blog today. I have a surprise banoffee curd update. Having read of my regret for not having purchased a jar of Baxters banoffee curd when I had the chance, my friend Alison (also known around Edinburgh as “Miss Spotlight”) was at Ocean Terminal recently and very kindly bought me a jar.
It is…delicious. Thicker than I thought it would be but so smooth and rich, a perfect mingling of banana and toffee. Sweet. Very sweet. So sweet that if you eat half the jar in one sitting, it will feel like your teeth are disintegrating (Not that I would know anything about this). I have this great idea to make profiteroles filled with banoffee curd and cream, and doused thoroughly in chocolate. I would call them Banoffee Diabetes Balls.

It’s a good thing my veggie box from East Coast Organics was delivered this week. I can offset today’s overindulgence with a weekend of green goodness.

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