The oldest private library in Scotland

While on holiday staying with friends in Doune in Stirling in southern Scotland we popped over to Dunblane and paid a flying visit to Leighton Library.

According to the sign outside, it is the oldest private library in Scotland. It dates from 1687, and was built for the 1,400 book collection of Robert Leighton, the Bishop of Dunblane from 1661 to 1670. The cost of the building was £162 and the Bishop left another £100 to help build on the original collection of mainly religious texts.

The number of books grew to 4,500, and cover a wide range of topics printed from 1504-1840. Apparently the Bishop could read several languages, although at least 80 have been identified in the collection so I’m not sure who would have read those.

They have quite a few first editions dating from those periods, including The Lady of the Lake by Walter Scott. However, in many cases they only managed to get  hold of second editions as they were often too slow coming up with payment to get hold of significant new publication before they had sold out their print run. So for instance they have a second edition of Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations.

We asked to have a look at Samuel Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language. Although not the first dictionary, this was certainly the most influential from the 1700’s. The library has a second edition from 1756, and it was wonderful to be able to look through the pages of such a significant publication.

We were very fortunate to have two librarians present to talk about the collection. One turned out to be the founder of the business library at Strathclyde University and the other had employed my old friend John Coll at the National Library of Scotland from the days when they had a science library.

We were made to sit on the original ‘turkie red lether’ chairs bought for the library in 1688, and still going strong today, and told lots of interesting stories about the collection and Johnson’s dictionary. I hadn’t heard about Johnson’s somewhat dubious definition for Oats before:
‘a grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.’
We have an image of the definition on our education pages.

The library is open to the general public from the beginning of May until the end of September as follows:

2011 – Robert Leighton was born in 1611 with the consequence that 2011 will represent the 400th anniversary of his birth. A number of events are planned to mark that occasion.

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