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The Commonplace Notebook

We've been asked for more details about the commonplace notebook:

The ‘commonplace book’ popular in the 16th and 17th centuries was a sort of personal scrapbook.

Writers, scientists, philosophers, thinkers – let’s call them writers, used commonplace notebooks where they could copy, or jot down, items of interest. The commonplace, then, was a personal treasure trove of information. Although the printing press had been invented in 1450, by Gutenberg, and thus enabled the mass production of books and fast flow of knowledge across Europe, it would take another 400 years for printing presses to be ‘common'.

Sharing with friends

Paper and notebooks were expensive, so in the 1500s and 1600s, writers lent their commonplace books to friends. Friends then would pore through the entries and copy anything of interest for themselves in their commonplace notebook.

The practice of maintaining a commonplace book and exchanging texts with others also served as a form of self-definition. The poems or aphorisms you chose to copy into your book, or to pass on to your correspondents, said a lot about you. The commonplace book as a whole was a reflection of your character and personality.

John Locke: 'What worries you, masters you'

Today we have different and more immediate forms of sharing thoughts and ideas. Through social media, and blogs, we are building on centuries-old traditions of sharing personal writing, drawings, and ideas. It was the seventeenth century philosopher John Locke who first wrote ‘what worries you, masters you’. Many writers have since claimed that phrase as their own, but Locke and those who went before us centuries ago knew that to write things down was a way of organizing, and sharing thought.


For us here at Waverley, several ideas and influences came together when we had the idea to create notebooks bound in British tartan cloth. We knew we wanted to create notebooks with space inside to both write and draw, because we do that on a daily basis. We wanted to reflect the commonplace notebook method so we thought that the mix of plain and lined would be good. We wanted to use real tartan cloth. We wanted to be able to tear out pages at the back, so we decided to perforate some pages at the back, and we wanted a little pocket too for odd scraps we keep.

Our inspirational notebooks...

We have been book publishers for the past 30 years, but we have been journaling and sketch booking for longer than that. We are a team of publishers, astonishingly experienced editors and a hugely talented designer. Piles of notebooks of all shapes and sizes are filed in our office and at home. Some notebooks are neat, others are pretty random. We have thoughts and plans, and good intentions. Some notebooks contain hasty scribbles – others more considered ramblings. There are sketches, bits and pieces stapled or taped in place, exchange rates clipped from newspapers, and there are notes about Cabernets and Merlots and big Italian wines with now crumbling, dried-up post-it notes struggling to stay in place. The pencil notes are hard to decipher now – the softness of the marks on the page seem faded, but the record is there still. In the weeks to come, we will post some pictures of some of them.

One of us keeps and uses only black notebooks. These are a mixture of A6 hardback notebooks. Some are ruled, some are blank and some are squared. Their ribbons are frayed, and their bindings have fallen apart, held now with elastic bands. Business cards – long lost - are found - in the pockets at the back. There are punch lines written – but they lack the joke. Phone numbers without names and sizes of things in centimeters, and prices, with drawings, and scorings-out, ticks and crosses of jobs done and not. Kept for over 40 years. Pretty typical random notes.

Another collection contains one notebook from the 70s, with an orange velvet case; purples, light blues, black, reds, every colour, size and make – used as diaries, notebooks, and sketches. Gifts from all over the world.

It took us 25 years...

It took us 25 years to figure out that we should put something of our experience as book publishers and journalers together and create something special.

The idea to create Waverley Tartan Cloth Commonplace Notebooks arose from two quite different publications – the first a book entitled Scottish Traditions – which Waverley Books produced for Kinloch Anderson Scotland as an illustrated beautiful history of their 150-year-old firm.

Scots everywhere know Kinloch Anderson – they have Royal warrants to supply Tartan and Highland Dress to The Queen, Prince Philip and The Prince Of Wales.

Robert Burns

During the course of that book’s creation, the Waverley team found themselves learning more about tartan, tartan cloth and its history than the average Scot needs to know. At the same time, the team was working on another book, Robert Burns in Edinburgh, and references the authors made, which we checked, related to notebooks kept by Robert Burns, known as his Commonplace Notebooks.

‘Commonplacing’ is what we call journaling these days. Journaling is nothing new – indeed, once we started looking at the subject, we became fascinated by the history of Commonplace Notebooks back over the past 400 years and more.

As we explored the history, we started to think - why had no one produced journals, or notebooks, in genuine tartan cloth?


Some years ago we published a Waverley imprint book The Comic Legend Of William McGonagall. We thought it would be a great idea to bind this book in jute to make the connection between the so-called "world’s worst poet" and Dundee, the home of jute. (Spike Milligan was a big fan of McGonagall.) As we keep finding out, great ideas often bring problems, but we overcame those and published our first book bound in jute.

So now, we were inspired by two great poets: Burns and McGonagall, and we created Waverley Scotland Tartan Cloth Notebooks, bound in genuine tartan cloth, woven with the authority of Kinloch Anderson Scotland. Launched early in 2016, Waverley Scotland now has journals and notebooks in 48 tartans in 60+ versions. Each notebook comes with a bookmark that explains the background to the tartan used for the binding, and a leaflet The Story of Tartan translated into many languages. Each one is a wee bit of Scotland – but even if that doesn’t invoke passion and emotion, it may stimulate you to set down your thoughts, plans, hopes and dreams.

If one of our notebooks inspires you to write, than we will have done our job, and you can choose a different tartan next time, so that you have a visual recollection of what you wrote when.

Commonplacing is about reading, writing and remembering. The process can help with stress and anxiety. Organising thoughts and writing simple lists of many tasks can help break the difficult into the possible. Commonplacing, we find, increases and stimulates creativity. But the most important of all for us, we think, are the colours and tactile feeling of the tartan cloth.

Colour, dye and threads

Perhaps it is the source of the threads, the traditional dyeing process, the weaving itself and the history of tartan attached to the design that we enjoy so much. We think each Waverley Tartan Cloth Commonplace Notebook has beauty and history – each tartan is an inspiration with a story to tell to encourage you to tell yours. Commonplace books of centuries ago were like today’s Tumblr and Pinterest. Then as now, people celebrated their ability to describe their interests and define themselves by selectively creating, sharing and re-sharing content created by others. The quality of our Waverley Commonplace Notebooks, we hope, is inspiring journal and notebook users across the world. The inspiring thing about a new journal or notebook is the sheer quality, beauty and promise of the space before you.

Blogging ahead

We are being asked to give examples of commonplacing, so we will be posting blogs about this over the coming weeks and months and hope to help answer some of your questions. Thank you for reading. Please get in touch with us if you have ideas or questions. We love hearing from notebook fans and we love to send out samples to interested fans to test out the notebooks! Thanks again.

(We have also posted this information as a blog post on our site)

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pic of Ron's 2018 tartan notebooks