Inside Dunblane's historic Leighton Library, the oldest private library in Scotland

21 December 2015
The_Leighton_Library, Leighton Library, Dunblane
Discover some of the many historical artefacts held at the Leighton Library, in Dunblane, the oldest private library in Scotland, dating from 1687.

1. The building
In his will, Robert Leighton left a sum of £100.00 to build a library in Dunblane to house his books to be used by the clergy of Dunblane diocese. The two storey building was built between 1684 and 1688 and includes stones taken from the nearby derelict medieval Bishop's Palace. The original sum of £100.00 proved insufficient and was added to by Leighton's nephew and a local landowner. It functioned as a lending library until Victorian times and is now a tourist facility open 11.00 a.m. to 1.00 p.m., six days a week, May to September. Academic links are maintained also with nearby Stirling University. It remains the oldest private Scottish library continuously housed in its original building.

2. The Man… Robert Leighton
Robert Leighton agreed to become Bishop of Dunblane in 1661. He was appointed by King Charles II as one of his first acts following on from his restoration to the throne in 1660. Leighton had already been Principal of Edinburgh University and Minister of Newbattle Parish Church, near Edinburgh. He was fluent in twelve languages and was regarded as Scotland's foremost scholar in Hebrew. He agreed to become Bishop on condition that he was given the smallest and poorest bishopric in Scotland, namely Dunblane. We believed he hoped to use his skills in moderation and tact to help reconcile the different religous factions in Scotland. He was Bishop of Dunblane from 1661 to 1670 and Archbishop of Glasgow from 1671 to 1674 when he retired.

3. The Location
The library is located in the heart of the historic burgh of Dunblane at The Cross, only yards from the magnificent cathedral. It is visited by many tourists each year. From its south window there is a view down Dunblane's historic High Street. From here also you can see the Gold Post Box, painted to mark local boy Andy Murray's Gold Medal in tennis in the Olympics of 2012. Countless photographs have been taken of the post box in the years since it was painted including those of brides in full white bridal dresses en route to being married in the cathedral.

4. The Chairs
In his will, Robert Leighton made specific mention of his desire to have "twelve Turkie red leather chairs" included within the library and these are still in existence today. They are still in use and visitors to the library, who are permitted to handle the books themselves with proper care and appropriate supervision, may sit on a piece of history to carry out their reading.

5. The Books
When the building of the library was complete, the next task was to transport the books from Horsted Keynes in Sussex, where Leighton had lived in his retirement at the house of his step-sister. The books were transported by boat up the east coast to Leith and then to Stirling by way of the River Forth. Horse and cart then transported them to Dunblane where they were slotted on to the oak shelves which awaited them. The books along the east wall of the library are the ones which were in Leighton's possession at the time of his death and number around 1400. The other books, to a total of around 4,500 in 89 languages, were added over time by the Trustees and by donations.

6. The Oldest Book
The oldest book in the library is an exposition on the psalms by Pelbart, a Hungarian preacher. It was printed in 1504. Like most books of that date, it is still set out in many ways like a medieval manuscript. In particular, the printer has still deliberately left spaces for "rubrication" which was the inclusion of a decorative capital letter drawn in red or blue ink by a skilled hand. Leighton's copy has no rubrication; only gaps where the capital letters should be, with tiny guide letters to assist the artist.

7. The Smallest Book
The smallest book 'The Imitation of the Life of Christ' by St. Thomas a'Kempis has also claim to be Leighton's favourite book. He referred to it as one of the best books ever written next to those of the inspired works. There are three copies to be found in the library, one of which, the smallest, could have been carried conveniently in the pocket and was, we believe, the constant companion of the Bishop. Certainly it has been much used and contains many notes and jottings by the Bishop, a typical characteristic of his and always done in the language in which the book was written.

8. The Family
The Leighton family originated from the area of Usan, near Montrose in Angus. The three generations offer an interesting reflection on the religious changes of the time. The grandfather remained a Roman Catholic despite the reformation which swept Scotland during his lifetime in the sixteenth century. Leighton's father, Alexander, who was a medical doctor, became an extreme Puritan. He published pamphlets decrying Archbishop Laud, Charles I's main spiritual adviser. He was twicw imprisoned and tortured for this, having his nostrils split and his ears cropped for his pains. Leighton, the son, followed the more moderate path of favouring episcopacy and tolerance. Interestingly his brother, Elias, was effectively a spy for Charles II during his exile and is mentioned in Samuel Pepys' diary.

9. The Undercroft
Underneath the library is a long vault or cellar, known as the undercroft. With walls fully five feet thick it is a favourite attraction of local school parties. It was home to the Library Keeper, Robert Douglas, a son of the last Bishop of Dunblane. It is a dark and gloomy place now used for storage but would once have had fireplaces at each end, as indeed would the library above it. It is understood that alterations were made to the undercroft to e4nable it to function as a bomb shelter during the Second World War.

10. Maps
The Leighton Library boasts a number of fine maps which are a source of considerable interest to many visitors. There are a number of maps extracted from Munster's Cosmographia. Munster was a German cartographer whose maps were the earliest German portrayal of the world. The "upside down" map particularly intrigues visitors. There is also a handsome volume of maps of America and Canada compiled in 1776, presumably to assist the British Government in its preparations to prevent the secession of the colonies of America which happened that year.

11. The Plaque
On the east wall of the library there is a marble plaque. This was originally paid for by Robert Leighton's nephew, Edward Lightmaker. It is oval in shape and would have had the inscription 'Bibliotecca Leightoniana' inscribed upon it. It also had the Coat of Arms of Archbishop Leighton together with a mort head with a gilded mitre placed on the top. The plaque is now in a somewhat decayed state. It remains an ambition of the custodian, trustees and volunteers to secure the funding to have it restored to its former glory.


Content continues after advertisements

Find out more about Leighton Library.

QUICK LINK: An expert guide to Scotland's first printed book

Exterior image copyright Bill Cresswell, other images courtesy of Leighton Library