Sunday 9 July 2023

The National Library of Scotland

It's mind-blowing that someone like you or me can walk in off the street and consult original 17th century source material at the national library!

Yet that is what membership of the National Library of Scotland gets you. Membership is free and open to all, and so long as you can get to George IV Bridge in Edinburgh during opening hours, it is yours to enjoy. The library has a legal right to a copy of every book published in the UK. One of my own books, The Weekend Fix is in there:

But that counts as a modern book. I've been going to the NLS to get references for my next Scottish history book, 'Covenant'. As well as the Wars of the Covenant it covers the Protestant Reformation, Union with England, Empire in America, and the Napoleonic Wars which finished in 1815 - and to the NLS, only books published since 1850 count as modern. The books I've been needing to see are in the Special Collection, a rarified inner sanctum whose librarians treat their books with a monk-like reverence. 

When you get a book in the Special Collection, it is handed over in its own fitted box, as if you have been given something packaged just for your birthday. You take the box over to a reading station and carefully open it. Inside is the book you've requested - in the case above, a book from 1692 published in Paris of the deposed James VII's letters, one of which (his letter to the Convention of Estates which decided to depose him) is hard to find anywhere else, unlike William of Orange's letter to the same assembly. I wanted to show readers the comparison between their styles.

Sorry folks, but that's the level I am geeking out at these days.

The Special Collection has its own rules, and I fell foul of one. Each reading station has a cradle that lets you open a book only three-quarters of the way, so as not to damage the spine - and in my excitement, I failed to put the book in the special cradle. A librarian glided over to correct my mistake. Mi dispiace. I won't do it again!

Royal Tracts wasn't the only old book I consulted. My favourite was James Beattie's Scotticisms. In the second half of the 18th century Scots worried about being mocked by the English for how they spoke, and to the rescue came a series of books listing words and phrases to avoid. I suppose this was the start of the 'Scottish cringe'. But the surprise for the modern reader is that amongst the kens and outwiths are words and phrases that seem natural pain English, like saying 'pen' instead of 'quill' for a writing instrument, or 'come here' rather than 'come hither'. It's a delightful thought that modern English may have been influenced by the Scots language in subtle and unexpected ways.

It's astonishing that the only place you can find most of these books of Scotticisms is in the National Library of Scotland. There are thousands of ancient books on esoteric subjects digitised for posterity on the likes of the Internet Archive, but just not enough Scottish ones! Maybe, once my series of history books is done, I will see what I can do about that...