Scotland’s First Public Library

Republished here with kind permission of the Stronsay Limpet from Ian Cooper’s fine collections of writings Records of a Bygone Age

In a chance conversation with Carol Cotterill some months ago, she made mention of Scotland’s first public library having its origins at Holland, Stronsay.

Holland Farm Stronsay credit Ian Cooper

While I have a dim recollection of hearing this before, it was something I had completely forgotten about, and, curiosity aroused, I delved a bit deeper into the story.

This account has its origins in the first half of the 17thC  when William Baikie, a son of James Baikie 1st of Tankerness and a keen reader and collector of books, went to study at Edinburgh University where he graduated MA in 1657. William never married and apparently lived a fairly solitary life at Holland, which he had acquired from his father in 1670. Although much of his study was on theology and many of his contemporaries were men of the cloth, William never entered the ministry, preferring to stay at Holland, studying his beloved books. He had a reputation as a good and likeable man and a compassionate landlord who cared deeply for his fellow man and gave encouragement to those with an aptitude for study. In a letter to the father of one boy who was showing academic promise, William wrote:

“Faill not to keep your sone diligent reading and wreating yt he loss not what he hes attained”

Does that quote ring any bells for you? More later!

A man of means, William added considerably to his collection of books over the years and was an avid studier of books as well as collector, with many of his books having copious notes and observations written on the flyleaf in his small and neat handwriting.

It seems he didn’t enjoy the best of health in later life and, in failing health shortly before his death in 1683, wrote bequeathing his books ‘extending the number thereof to eight score’ to the care of his long time dear friend Rev James Wallace, minister of St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall, that they were to be left ‘to the ministers of Kirkwall successive for the Publicke Liberarie to be keept within the town of Kirkwall.’ James Wallace conscientiously carried out those instructions to the letter, adding a number of his own books to the collection and handing them over to the Bishop and Presbyteries of Orkney where they were deposited in St Magnus Cathedral for safe keeping. Then in 1689, the Church authorities ordained that “..a Press should be builded at the expense of the Session for ye books mortified by Mr William Baikie and oyrs to the church in Kirkwall.”

When a new tollbooth was built in Kirkwall, around 1740, the Bibliotheck found a new home within the building. Little is then heard of these books until 1815. An appeal for books and donations resulted in the receipt of around 200 books and £70 in cash, and with the incorporation of the ‘Bibliotheck of Kirkwall’, the Orkney library as we know it today had its beginnings.

A gift of money from Andrew Carnegie in 1889 enabled the library to buy a large and varied selection of new books and, with this influx of new material, many of the older books were deemed as surplus to requirements. These books including nearly all those from the original ‘Bibliotheck of Kirkwall’ , were sold by public auction in 1891.

Following another generous donation from Andrew Carnegie to fund a new library, a splendid new building was erected in Laing Street, opened in 1909 by Carnegie himself.

Christmas spotting old library 1

The Laing Street Library today which is a retail outlet, exhibition space and live music venue

This new library slowly built up its book collection and its distribution methods, with an innovative ‘Family Book Service’ offering boxes of books on loan to readers in the outer isles. This started in North Ronaldsay in 1954, where, amazingly, 54 of the 56 households on the island at the time made use of the service.

Over the next four years, this service spread to all the outer isles and few homes were without their ‘Library Box’  sitting in the living room.

A mobile library service was started up on the Orkney Mainland in 1963 and, with the advent of the roll-on-roll-off ferry service to the isles in the early 90s this service spread to all the isles with ro-ro facilities and quickly became an important and accepted part of island life.

The Archives became an established part of the Library in 1973 and the ‘Orkney Library and Archive’ moved into its superb purpose built new premises in Junction Road in 2003.

Orkney Library

Orkney Library and Archive

It has gone from strength to strength ever since and currently provides access to over 145,000 items! I wonder what William, with his love of books and his thirst for knowledge, would have thought of the multitude of resources freely available here and of the part he played in its establishment!

But what of the books themselves? As stated earlier, back in 1891, the original Bibliotheck books were deemed surplus to requirements and were sold off by public roup where they were all purchased by Archdeacon J.B. Craven of the Episcopal Church in Kirkwall ‘in the hope that this ancient and curious Bibliotheck may be preserved to future generations.’

Dr Craven found the books to be in a deplorable condition after almost 200 years of disuse and had several of them rebound, a number of them mended and all of them cleaned.

In 1914, Dr Craven, a graduate of Aberdeen University, then gifted to the university this collection of almost 500 printed items and 50 manuscripts all contained in a handsome mahogany bookcase (the self same Press that had been ‘builded at the expense of the Session’ in 1689).

Now back to the quote from William Baikie’s letter

“Faill not to keep your sone diligent reading and wreating yt he loss not what he hes attained”

Can you remember seeing it before?

This quote was shown on the bookplate inside a great number of Orkney Library books up until around 2003 when, with a change of book supplier, the bookplate was no longer used and I suppose that after more than 300 years the quote was possibly becoming a little dated! It is still rather sad to see the passing of what is possibly the last direct link back to the foundation of the library in 1683.

Orkney Library Bookplace Credit Ian Cooper

Leave a Reply