Scotland's oldest purpose-built library awarded conservation grant

20 November 2023
Historic Environment Scotland has awarded £188,000 to help secure the future of 17th-century Leighton Library in Dunblane.

Scotland’s oldest purpose-built library is set to benefit from funding from Historic Environment Scotland (HES).

The category A-listed building, near Dunblane Cathedral, dates from the 17thc entury, and was commissioned through the will of Robert Leighton, a former Principal of Edinburgh University, Bishop of Dunblane, and Archbishop of Glasgow, who died in 1684.

Engraving found on replaced crowstep stone

In bequeathing a sum for a building to house his books, Robert Leighton gave his collection to the clergy of the Cathedral of Dunblane. The oldest book dates from 1504. Beyond the Bishop’s personal collection, the Trustees added to the collection from 1701 with many important books from the Age of Enlightenment. The building and collection has remained in use as a library and, unusually, the books and many of the original library fixtures survive intact, including six Jacobean chairs and the original book presses that line one wall.

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The HES funding will go towards a programme of restoration that includes repairs to the walls, stonework, chimneys, and roof to ensure the collection of rare and antique books can remain housed in their original building.

Central to the project is work to remove modern cement-based harling and replace it with a lime-based material, closer to that used on the original 17th-century exterior. The project will also restore the marble cartouche ordered by the Bishop’s executors, his sister and her son, a wealthy City of London brewer.

The restoration project, started earlier this year, has already unearthed some unexpected finds. A fireplace and press, still with its original lime plaster, were discovered after the removal of harling applied around 1990. One notable find was a finely carved stone with the initials ‘MGK’ which had been reused to bolster a chimney, identified as those of a Dean of Dunblane in the 1680s. One replaced crow-step stone was found to have carving beneath it suggesting it was reused from another building nearby, possibly the (then) ruined Cathedral or Bishop’s Palace.

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Engraving found on replaced crowstep stone

Dr Susan O’Connor, Head of Grants at Historic Environment Scotland, said, “We’re thrilled to award funding to this project and to play a part in the incredible history of the Leighton Library and, by extension, Scotland’s world-renowned history of libraries and learning.

“Not only does this project conserve a historic building, but, through the care and patience of those involved in the work, we now know more about the library’s history and have a further insight into the centuries of change witnessed by this building.”

Alastair MacDonald, Restoration Lead from the Leighton Library Trust said, “We are very grateful for the significant support HES has given to our wonderful library. The restoration work has revealed that the repairs we have now been able to undertake are in the nick of time, as the fabric had deteriorated badly over the years. This grant, and other generous donations, have made a significant difference to the project. There’s still a long way to go to ensure the collection and its unique building are saved for future generations.”

The Leighton Library Trust hopes that, following repair works, the library will offer increased opportunities for tourists and locals alike to visit and experience the remarkable building and collection for themselves.

(report courtesy of Historic Environment Scotland, images by Tom Astbury)