Leighton Library: An exploration of its history, collection and secrets

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Located in Dunblane, Scotland’s oldest purpose-built library opened its doors in 1687 after Robert Leighton, Bishop of Dunblane from 1661 to 1670, donated his private collection for the benefit of the clergy. The Insider reveals the past, present and future as well as the treasures of one of Scotland’s hidden gems.

“It would be impossible to put this collection together again,” explains Michael Osborne, Leighton’s honorary custodian, as he carefully passes his fingers over a calfskin book cover. Published in 1631, the title in his hands is a signed edition written by Francisco de Quevedo, one of the most notorious authors of the Spanish Golden Age.

Quevedo’s masterpiece is part of Leighton’s original collection, books that the former Bishop of Dunblane and later Archbishop of Glasgow gathered until his death. “He died on a day trip to London in 1684, and he had written his will a year before, making it clear that his books were to be left for the benefit of the clergy of Dunblane. In addition to the books, he left £100 for the building of the Library, which he thought was sufficient,” Osborne explains.

Michael Osborne in front of Leighton’s original books. ALBERTO LEJARRAGA MOLINA

However, this was not enough as “the whole project cost £162 so Edward Lightmaker, Leighton’s nephew and one of the executors of his will, completed the budget,” Osborne reveals. He adds that “the construction took longer than it had been anticipated, a total of three years due to the lack of labour and building materials.”

Leighton Library shares the end of Dunblane’s High Street with the Cathedral and the Museum. ALBERTO LEJARRAGA MOLINA 

The collection

Osborne shows how the Library “is divided in two halves”. The first one, nearer to the main door, contains Leighton’s original collection of roughly 1,400 books while the other, closer to the windows, stores in its wooden shelves around 3,900 volumes donated over the years.

The white Library building, located at the end of Dunblane’s High Street, next to the Museum and the Cathedral, is history in itself. Once inside, after going up the stairs that connect the street pavement with the magical dimension of books and shelves, it is not hard to get lost in the smell of ancient wood and paper. Within its walls, visitors may feel transported back more than half a millennium when they feel the leather cover of its oldest title: a book of psalms published in 1504, over a century before Leighton was born and only 64 years after printing was invented.

View from the Library’s furthest end. The shelves on the right contain Leighton’s original collection. ALBERTO LEJARRAGA MOLINA

Near the large oak table close to the entrance, it can be felt how the eyes of paper of thousands of precious and historical books oversee the room. Among them, is a first edition of Sir Walter Scott’s poem The Lady of the Lake (1810), the Edinburgh edition of Robert Burns’ poems (1787), a signed copy of Queen Victoria’s Highland Journal, presented to the library by Queen Victoria and a number of travel books by John Moore as well as a first edition of his novel Zeluco (1789). According to Osborne, although there is almost no fiction at Leighton, Zeluco has always been “one of the most borrowed” books.

The Library is a multicultural time machine. Besides the large number of publications in English, there are thought to be at least 89 languages within its 4,500 printed volumes, including Greek, Gaelic, Latin, Spanish, Italian, Mongol and America’s indigenous languages such as Eskima, Algonquin, or Chipewyan among others.

The piece of paper points a Leighton’s oldest book (1504). ALBERTO LEJARRAGA MOLINA

However, Osborne believes that “the Library’s greatest treasure” is a first edition of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations (1776). “There are known to be only 120 copies left. 90 copies in American libraries and 30 copies elsewhere in the world, and we have one,” he proudly claims.

Leighton’s historical borrowers: the water drinkers

Although originally built for the exclusive use of the clergy, Leighton functioned as a lending library during the 18th and the first half of the 19th century. In fact, it was during the early 1800s that the Library experienced its largest number of visitors.

Jacqueline Kennard is a fourth year English studies student at Stirling University who worked last summer with Books and Borrowing, a three-year funded research project that analyses Scottish borrowers’ registers between 1750 and 1830.

Jacqueline studies at the University of Stirling, where her exhibition takes place. ALBERTO LEJARRAGA MOLINA

As part of her work, she created an exhibition, displayed at the University of Stirling from October to December 2021, about the water drinkers of Leighton Library. “These were a group of tourists that came to Dunblane when it was established as a spa town back in the early 19th century, following the discovery of mineral springs at the Cromlix estate, three miles from the town, in 1813,” Kennard explains.

The water drinkers were wealthy – “People that had the time and the money to travel.” Kennard’s findings show that they were mostly militaries (35%), ministers (31%) and members of the gentry (13%). There were also professors, provosts, teachers and writers to the Signet.

The Library was a place for travellers to find new destinations, as Kennard’s analysis displays “they were mostly interested in travel books”. Out of the 10 most borrowed volumes by the water drinkers, five were travel books, the most read written by the Scottish author John Moore. Moore’s novel Zeluco was also popular among the group of visitors, as it was the third most lent book.

Women are a crucial a part of Leighton’s history. Kennard explains “the first water drinker was a woman that appears in the registers as Mrs Dalzell”. She adds that 41% of the water drinkers were women, which is a number “ridiculously high for this time period”.

The most borrowed items by the water drinkers were travel books. ALBERTO LEJARRAGA MOLINA

Within the water drinkers, Kennard says John Murray and William Patrick Esquire were the best known. While Murray wrote a report about the mineral waters – the Library’s 20th most borrowed book in the period, Esquire was a landowner and has his portrait hanging on Leighton’s end wall.

However, the fame of Dunblane’s mineral springs started to fizzle out like the River Allan dissolves its limestone bedrock. From 1824, the water drinkers started to frequent the mineral springs of Bridge of Allan instead. The number of Library visitors decreased over the years and Thomas Fraser, who visited Leighton once in July 1833, was the final water drinker.

Because of its mineral springs, Dunblane was the destination of the water drinkers. ALBERTO LEJARRAGA MOLINA

The miracle

With its visitors gone, the Library closed its doors around 1840 and was shut until the late 1980s, when it was restored by volunteers. During this period of 150 years, Osborne says the books “remained on the shelves as they are today”. He is surprised they survived during more than a century of neglect. “It needs to be borne in mind that this was a period when there would have been much colder winters than the ones we have now and yet, they are all in remarkably good condition,” he outlines with fascination.

The survival of Leighton’s books can be described as some sort of miracle, a mysterious wonder coincidently taking place in a Library where most books focus on religion and faith.

The Library’s climatic conditions are still a problem. “The recommended temperature for this material is 16 degrees and we never get close to that. We are generally warmer indoors than outdoors, yet when January and February come, it can go down to three or four degrees in here,” Osborne says with his coat on. As a result, several priceless and delicate items from Leighton are stored at the University of Stirling Library.

Partnership with Stirling University

Helen Beardsley, academic liaison librarian at the University of Stirling, is the liaison between the University and the board of trustees that currently run Leighton Library. Standing near the main table inside the glass walls of the University’s archive, she smiles as she explains the history shared by both institutions.

“Way back in the 1970s, the University helped to catalogue Leighton’s books and materials and we have maintained a professional relationship ever since,” she says. “The books at Leighton Library are included in the University’s online catalogue and we bring materials from there upon request so researchers can look at them.”

Helen Beardsley stands next to four maps that are part of an American Atlas from 1775. ALBERTO LEJARRAGA MOLINA

Since the University Library has “better storage facilities,” some items from Leighton are kept here. Beardsley points at the table, where a collection of maps which are part of a rare American Atlas from 1775 are displayed. “There is also a collection of manuscripts that are, by nature, unique, as they are the only copies in the world,” she says with concern. “Heaven forbid that anything happens to them.”

She leaves the archive and returns with two treasures of paper and leather in her hands. “Please, do not mention to anyone what room these are stored in,” she says as she delicately places on the table the two volumes of Moore’s novel Zeluco and a first edition of Smith’s Wealth of Nations.

Two of the gems of Scottish literature are kept at the University of Stirling. ALBERTO LEJARRAGA MOLINA

Leighton Library’s present and future

Leighton is run by a board of trustees and functions thanks to a number of local volunteers. Since its reopening in 1990, the Library had been open to the public Monday to Saturday during the summer season, from May to September. However, the pandemic forced the building to close its doors during the whole of 2020. In 2021, the trustees made an effort to open the Library during August.

Osborne explains they have launched a funding appeal to embark on the renovation of the building. He believes the works “will reveal architectural detail that we cannot see at the moment and that may throw some surprising facts about how the building was originally constructed.”

Even though Osborne does not know when and how long they will open for the summer season, “as that will depend on the number of volunteers available,” a Library visit is currently available for groups booking in advance. Leighton has also an arrangement with Dunblane’s local Old Churches House hotel. “People who stay at the hotel should know that if they want to visit the Library, it will be opened for them,” he explains.

The Library’s undercroft, now used for storage, is aimed to be used for the display of exhibitions. ALBERTO LEJARRAGA MOLINA

Finally, a currently unrevealed secret regarding the Library’s undercroft, where the Librarian used to live in the 18th century. Although it is currently being used as a storage space, Osborne discloses they are “hoping to use it for exhibitions soon”.

“A storage of knowledge with no velvet ropes” is how Osborne defines Leighton Library. “In museums, there is usually a velvet rope that prevents you from getting closer to what you are watching. Here, you pick up a book and read it on the table. At Leighton you are touching history.”

About Post Author

Alberto Molina

Spanish trying to become a journalist in Scotland. Internship in the summer of 2021 at 'El Diario Montañés', largest regional newspaper in Spain.
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