Book binding

Mark Ramsden in his binding workshop
Mark Ramsden in his binding workshop

A former horologist is helping keep alive one of the oldest art forms - not watchmaking, but book binding.

Mark Ramsden, originally from Lincolnshire, recently moved to Sinclairshill after leaving the University of Aberdeen, where he had gone from keeping watches ticking over to flicking through pages, specialising in book repairs in his role as Head of Bindery.

Dos-a-Dos book, bound by Mark Ramsden

Dos-a-Dos book, bound by Mark Ramsden

“I found myself doing it as a night course about 20 years ago,” he said, “and I found that I was quite good at it.”

That is probably an understatement: Mark is the only person to win the National library of Scotland’s book binding competition, which attracts competitors from around the world, three times, in 1998, 1999 and 2001.

He showed some of his entries. A leather design inspired by the Spanish flag, with a bullethole, covers a repurposed textbook on the Spanish Civil War.

Another, for a collection of poems by Ireland’s W B Yeats - “a favourite of mine” - incorporates the Irish green with a subtle faerie ring design, a nod to Yeats’ interest in myths and legends. “I love that this cover has changed,” says Mark. “It was originally paler than this, to suggest the mists of Ireland, but the leather has aged and darkened a little bit.”

Complete Nonsense, bound by Mark Ramsden

Complete Nonsense, bound by Mark Ramsden

Another favourite work, Edward Lear’s Complete Nonsense, saw Mark design a jacket with cut-out letters reading ‘Complete’, which when closed allowed the ‘Nonsense’ on the front papers to be read through the holes.

These books have been lovingly remade - the competition organisers send out the pages, and the competitors work to bind them how they please. Mark, for example, has made use of some very soft leather - he has a contact who supplies him with ‘leather’ made from all sorts of odd animals, from fish and eels to chickens’ feet.

But for some of his projects, binding just one book was too simple - and he turned to Lewis Carroll.

Mark picked out a book that actually consists of two books, bound into the same copy, that can be opened and read form either end.

Mark Ramsden peeking through one of the covers of his bound books.

Mark Ramsden peeking through one of the covers of his bound books.

“This is called a ‘dos a dos’ which literally means back to back,” he explains.

“It originated with preachers in Germany who had their services and songs bound together.”

And if that wasn’t impressive enough, Mark bound his favourite poem, the eight-part The Hunting of the Snark, in a dos a dos that allowed each part to be opened on a different axis, a veritable Rubik’s cube of a book for Carroll’s nonsense poem.

“All in all, and with a lot of thinking about it, that probably took me about six months,” he said.

Mark’s change of career has seen him combining teaching and entering competitions with binding to order, including, he says, “Thousands of family bibles. I’m a dead cert to get into heaven, me.

“Although I was asked to rebind a Mills and Boon for somebody, as well.” He was hesitant, but, he says: “They told me that it had been the only book their aunt ever read, and it had been left to them, so I did it.”

After trialling a binding course in the Borders, he is set to provide training in bookbinding at Borders College, in Galashiels, and also to the south at Northumberland College.

“My job,” he says, “as I see it, is to protect what’s in the books.

“I love everything to do with them, how they’re made, put together, the language used, how they’re written.

“I’ve done just about everything, tried everything, that I want to, but I still find challenges. When I’m teaching, students come up asking ‘Can I do this’ or ‘Is this possible?’ and we find a way to do it.

“What I really want, I suppose, is for somebody to be lit up by this, and to take over my role.

“It’s a pity that nowadays, with the lack of professional qualifications, this is something of a dying art.”

Which raises the question: has Mark ever thought about trying his hand at Kindle covers? They couldn’t be too difficult, right?

“I have been asked to make some, of course,” he says ruefully. “I politely declined.”