But still, the Leighton library is little known.
At the heart of the oldest purpose-built library in Scotland is the private collection of Bishop Robert Leighton, a multilingual scholar who was installed near Dunblane Cathedral in the 17th century after coming to the attention of Charles II at the height of the Wars of Religion.
Bishop Leighton was a moderating force, a man absorbed in spiritual and intellectual matters who was often seen walking the banks of the nearby Allan Water, deep in thought, book in hand.
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Today, his books can now be taken out of locked cabinets in the library, handled – albeit very carefully – and read. The collection, despite its age and rarity, seems open and lively. Here you can get your hands on the very important reading material from hundreds of years ago. It’s like a rare and powerful thing, to have a direct link to the past in your hands, to hold it like they did then.
Not only does the collection trace the development of ideas, from the beautifully handwritten polyglot bible in eight languages, to the original copies of Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man and Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations (which is actually preserved by arrangement at the University of Stirling), but also the history of bookmaking and publishing itself.
Books range from ‘prototype paperbacks’ carried by Leighton and bound over 400 years ago in vellum to a first edition of Sir Walter Scott’s Lady of the Lake, hugely popular and influential poem publishers could not not print fast enough and which launched the Scottish tourist industry.
A first edition of Burns’ Edinburgh edition, which sealed the poet’s commanding reputation, is also here.
In an age of digital information overflow, it’s easy for Alastair MacDonald, retired civil servant, amateur historian and tour guide, to see why Leighton’s library still matters.
“I describe it as a book museum. You can probably read the contents of all the books here on Google, but we have the originals and there are a lot of first editions. You can touch history here,” he says.
“It’s not like the books here are locked away. Everything you can read here. You can handle the books that have been handled by the bishop, although of course we want people to be careful,” adds Mr. MacDonald.
White gloves are not required for touching books, as fingers are considered more sensitive to handling pages without them.
“If you put a little finger oil on the leather cover, it doesn’t hurt it,” Mr MacDonald says.
After his death in 1684, Bishop Leighton bequeathed his collection of 1,400 books to the Dunblane clergy. His will included 12 17th century red chairs in Turkish leather, which you can pull out to sit at one of the reading tables. Over time, the collection grew, with the library containing around 4,500 books.
The monetary value of the collection remains a private matter, but it is said that Bishop Leighton’s collection was once better than that of the University of Edinburgh, where he was appointed director in 1653.
Bishop Leighton lived through the religious wars of the 17th century and preached during the period that saw the execution of Charles I and Oliver Cromwell’s Killing Times.
His grandfather was a Catholic and his father a Protestant Puritan fanatic. As a seditionist, his father’s ears were cut off and his nose slit open.
Amid the horrors that surrounded him, Leighton was known for his piety and gentle spirit, his book collection no doubt an essential peaceful refuge. Remarkably, he won the favor of Oliver Cromwell and Charles II, who managed to convince the Presbyterian Leighton to support his Episcopalian bishops,
Mr MacDonald says: ‘Charles II basically pushed Leighton to become a bishop, but he would only agree if he had to tackle the poorer diocese, which was then Dunblane.’
Here, Bishop Leighton has cut a rather “otherworldly” figure. He was well regarded, if not considered somewhat pedantic, and spoke nine languages, including Biblical Hebrew.
“He was a very holy man, but he has this impossible task of reconciling Episcopal and Presbyterian forces during the Killing Times. It weighs very heavily on him,” the guide adds.
In 1674, after some attempts, he was allowed to retire and traveled to Sussex – with his books in tow – to live with his sister.
After his death 10 years later, his books returned, first by boat to Leith, then by horse and cart from Stirling. In his will there was also £100 for the construction of Leighton Library. The collection was then enriched, with works from the Age of Enlightenment heavily invested. About 4,500 books make up the collection.
First used by clergy as instructed, then turned into a subscription library, the Leighton remained locked up for about 120 years in the mid-19th century after the new public library attracted readers.
Now an appeal is underway to raise £500,000 to preserve the library, as the 17th century building needs to be redone to stop water seeping in. It looks like urgent work – much like the need to open a visitor center in the vaulted ground floor to bring it to a wider audience.
“It’s a real gem of Scottish culture, but not many people know about it. We want to change that,” says Mr MacDonald.
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