BY Staff Reporter | August 2 | comments icon 0 COMMENTS     print icon print

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Finding Sacred Ground in a Glasgow print office

Amanda Connelly speaks to printer Frank Burns about the family business and his new book, Standing on Sacred Ground.

“Friend, you stand on sacred ground, this is a printing office”. These eloquent words are taken from Beatrice Warde’s This is a Printing Office broadside, published in 1932.For one Glasgow printing firm, whose hand in the printing and publishing industry spanned almost 80 years and continues to leave its stamp on Scotland’s Catholic Church of today, these words perhaps have a particular resonance.

Having published the Catholic Directory for Scotland and the Liturgical Calendar for Scotland since 1937, their prolific work in ecclesiastical printing has even seen members of the printing business honoured by two popes for their dedicated services.

This year, Frank and Michael Burns, who operate Burns Publications Ltd and Burns Print Management Ltd respectively, have produced Standing on Sacred Ground, a commemorative book detailing the history of John S Burns & Sons Printers & Publishers, the family business which operated from 1926 until 2004. Established by their grandfather, John S Burns (1869-1932), uncle Jack Burns (1903-1948), and father Frank J Burns KSG (1905-1979), both Michael and Frank ‘continue the family tradition of printing and publishing mainly for the Catholic Church in Scotland.’


In the new book, Frank writes: “I have been fortunate to work all my life in an industry which was very much a part of my DNA. While not without its difficulties at times, it has been in the main an enjoyable and rewarding journey.”

The family and Faith elements were strong factors for the business. Frank said: “The fact that my six siblings, the seven of us, all worked in it, I mean it was my father and his brother, it was just two of them, so they were in it, and then my father had seven children. So we all came into the business at some stage, so it was very much a family business.

“The Catholic Church had pride of place for the business for most of its existence, so the Faith element was quite strong in the family.”

Inspiring history

The history of John S Burns & Sons is one that is in equal parts fascinating and inspiring. It began life as a family-run business in 1926, boldly opening up shop in the year of the General Strike and amidst the depression before going on to establish itself firmly within Glasgow’s printing trade for what was to be several decades to come.

Despite the less than favourable circumstances at the time for starting up a new business, the team’s determination, attention to detail and punctuality with orders saw them grow steadily, moving from Glasgow’s Parkhead to Buccleuch Street at Charing Cross due to the expansion of business, and moving a further twice to settle at Finlas Street, Possilpark.

After the elder of the sons, Jack Burns, died in 1948, aged just 45, the fate of the firm was left to Frank senior. The firm went on to produce a number of books, pamphlets and publications—many of which had close links to the Church.

Notable works

During the 1930s and 40s the firm published the magazine of Glasgow University’s Catholic students, a number of political and social pamphlets in the 1940s from notable authors, and has been the official printers for the Catholic Truth Society of Scotland since 1937.

Other notable Church publications include the official St Andrew Hymnal, the St Joseph’s Advocate missionary magazine, Mgr Thomas Taylor’s book on the life of St Therese of Lisieux, A Little White Flower, and countless other publications in its first 50 years.

An incredible insight into the history and strength of Faith is indicated in the long list of publications by the firm. As Polish soldiers and airmen arrived in Glasgow following the Nazi overrun of France, the people of Glasgow, in the welcoming spirit for which they are so often credited today, ushered in the Polish servicemen, attempting to keep them safe and sound until they could be moved elsewhere. The collapse of France saw the halt of a Polish prayer book being printed for troops.

Polish soldiers

Fr Samulski, the chaplain to Polish troops in Glasgow, approached John S Burns & Sons’ offices with Lieutenant Bunsch, bearing the incomplete type for the prayer book. The firm’s compositors struggled to match the French type, with Polish forces recruited to proofread the prayer book.

The half-French, half-Scots, completely Polish prayer book went on to be published in 1940, later being presented to St Pope John Paul II at the Vatican 40 years later. A truly triumphant testament to the strength and longing for Faith and prayer in difficult times—a story in which the family firm played a pivotal role.

Eventually, in 1973, the leaders of the Catholic Church in Scotland petitioned for Pope Paul VI to bestow the St Gregory the Great papal knighthood on Frank senior, in recognition of the business’ work.

Personal reflections

Standing on Sacred Ground includes the personal reflection of Frank junior, charting the history of the business from 1976, amidst the age of rising and ever changing technological advancements, until its eventual closure in 2004. Following his father’s death in 1979, Frank formally took over the business’ directorship—20 years on from his joining the firm after the general printing industry’s six-week long national strike action.

“The strike coincided with the school summer holidays and I was recruited to assist my father in keeping the doors open,” he writes in the new book.

“It had been his modus operandi to insist on his older sons helping in the firm during school holidays in any case.”

Moving forward

Leaving school at 15 and beginning his printing education, Frank saw the business move to newly commissioned factories in Possilpark, and was there as they made their first move into lithography in the 1970s.

He also witnessed as the business took on ‘arguably the most significant event in the life of the firm’: the securing of the contract for all printed material for St Pope John Paul II’s visit to both Glasgow’s Bellahouston Park and Edinburgh’s Murrayfield Stadium.

There was ‘a great deal of uncertainty’ surrounding the visit as a result of conflict in the Falklands, with printing delayed until the 11th hour. The following year, in recognition of the company’s continued services, Frank had the same honour conferred on him as his father had over a decade before, and was made a Knight of St Gregory the Great, by St Pope John Paul II.

A family business

The firm continued its work within both its traditional and the general commercial market, including for significant clients such as the Scottish Catholic International Aid Fund (SCIAF), while advancing to become a litho house by the 1990s, and the family’s fourth generation now working in the business.

However, with growing competition and minimal margins, this meant that there was a reluctant, but ultimately inevitable, decision to cease the printing operation of John S Burns & Sons in 2004. However, Frank and Michael have continued to keep the spirit of the business alive, both through their own respective businesses and in the creation of the new book.

He said: “I’ve been thinking about it for a long time, I just wanted to put it down, it’s quite an important history of the company, it’s kind of the history of Catholic printing and publishing. Particularly in the 1930s and 1940s and 1950s, I think it’s quite an interest story, but the catalyst for this was that I was 60 years in printing this year, this month actually, so I thought if I don’t do it now, I’ll never do it. That was kind of the catalyst for getting it done.”

Creating history

Upon reading another booklet on the history of printing in Glasgow, Frank noticed that his own family’s business was absent from the list, and as such set out to rectify this golden piece of history to ensure it was not lost.

He explained: “I did see a booklet recently about printing in Scotland, printing in Glasgow, and John S Burns was not mentioned in it. I thought that was an omission, so I thought I would rectify it by doing our own thing.”

The new book, although not for public sale, has been sent to libraries, the Scottish Printing Archival Trust, and the Mitchell Library, ‘just to have it there for a record for history.’

An ongoing legacy

Today, both brothers continue to operate within the printing industry; the continuing legacy of a wealth of printed and published history—in an industry that, despite shaping and adapting itself to the onset of the technological revolution, has withstood the test of time to carry an important place in the printed life of the Church in Scotland.

Frank said: “My brother Michael and I are still involved, we’re in separate wee companies, but in a smaller way than it used to be. More or less we’re almost back to where we started, in that the work that my brother and I do is almost exclusively for the Catholic Church.

For a free copy of the book, email:

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