03 January 2023
Members of the public will get to see the manuscript of ‘Rob Roy’, written in the hand of Sir Walter Scott, when it goes on display at the ‘Treasures of the National Library of Scotland’ exhibition from March 2023.
The manuscript was among the many literary treasures that were held in a private collection called the Honresfield Library. Formed in the 19th century by mill owner William Law, the Honresfield Library’s contents were kept hidden from all but a few scholars until now. The items were due to be sold at auction in 2021.
Fearing the items would be returned to private hands and possibly overseas, the library’s contents were purchased by a UK-wide consortium of organisations a year ago following an international fundraising campaign, and renamed the Blavatnik Honresfield Library in tribute to its majority donor.
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The manuscript of ‘Rob Roy’ is one of the items that came to the National Library via this UK-wide acquisition of materials. Manuscripts Curator Ralph McLean, who worked with partners in securing this acquisition said: “William Law formed a fairly close relationship with the Scott family, and was able to buy material from them directly. This is how the manuscript ‘Rob Roy’ came to be in his private collection. The manuscript wasn’t always in the Scott family’s possession however – its ownership tended to depend on how wealthy they were at any given time.
“When Sir Walter Scott and his business partners encountered financial difficulties after the crash of 1826 a number of his manuscripts were later auctioned off to reduce the debt incurred. ‘Rob Roy’ was sold, but was eventually bought back by Scott’s son-in-law John Gibson Lockhart, and returned to the Scott family in the mid-19th century. However once again, the family fell on hard times and it was purchased by William Law and added to his private library.”
A literary hit
‘Rob Roy’ was published in the early 19th century, the first run making up 10,000 copies which is a huge number for that time. Scott was still publishing anonymously, but the book was marketed as ‘written by the author of the Waverley novels’. As these novels were extremely popular, ‘Rob Roy’ sold out immediately. One of Scott’s most popular novels, it has never been out of print in the 200 years since it was first published.
Ralph McLean adds: “What’s interesting is that Rob Roy himself isn’t a central character in the novel – he only appears sporadically throughout. It was actually Scott’s publisher who suggested the title. The depiction of Rob Roy MacGregor as a character in the novel undoubtedly added to the myths surrounding this person, as has subsequent depictions since in various media. We expect this will be one of the star attractions at our Treasures exhibition next year.”
‘Treasures of the National Library of Scotland’ is on at National Library of Scotland, George IV Bridge, Edinburgh, and open Monday to Saturday. Entry is free.
Report & image courtesy National Library of Scotland.