Saved for the nation: Scottish institutions celebrate appeal’s success

16 December 2021
Robert Burns First Commonplace Book, courtesy Sothebys
The Scottish members of a consortium set up to save a unique collection of literature for the nation have welcomed the news that their international appeal has reached its target of £15 million.

This means that the Blavatnik Honresfield Library (formerly Honresfield Library) – a treasure trove of items from the world’s most beloved writers, unseen by the public for almost a century – will no longer be sold at open auction and instead will be shared with libraries and other organisations across the UK.

What is the Blavatnik Honresfield Library?

The library, collected and curated by a Rochdale businessman in the 1800s, comprises priceless manuscripts, rare first editions and irreplaceable letters. These include works by Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott, Jane Austen and the Brontë siblings.

A UK-wide consortium led by The Friends of the National Libraries, which includes Abbotsford, the National Library of Scotland and the National Trust for Scotland, was successful in raising half the funds needed from hundreds of individual donors, as well as the National Heritage Memorial Fund, the Scottish Government, the Foyle Foundation, and other organisations, with the balance coming from a generous donation by Sir Leonard Blavatnik – the largest ever given to the UK by an individual for a literary treasure. This achievement has also been made possible by the vendor’s willingness to give the consortium the time needed to launch and run the fundraising appeal, to which countless people from Scotland, the UK and around the world contributed. 

The path to public accessibility

Arrangements will be made in the coming months for the Scottish organisations to take possession of key works from the collection, conserve them and make them publicly accessible. These include an early volume of poems by Robert Burns in his own hand – containing some of his earliest recorded literary works – known as the First Commonplace Book, as well as individual autograph poems (Cessnock Bankand the Brigs of Ayr), and some of the poet’s earliest correspondence, including the only extant letter to his father.

Other Scottish material of huge importance is the complete working manuscript of Sir Walter Scott’s iconic novel Rob Roy, part of the autographed manuscript of Scott’s verse romance, The Lay of the Last Minstrel, his travel journal of an expedition off the Scottish coast in 1814, a copy of Border Antiquities with extensive manuscript revisions, and an 'exceptional group' of Scott first editions in their original condition.

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Amina Shah, Trustee of the FNL and National Librarian and Chief Executive of the National Library of Scotland, said:

“Never before has a consortium worked so quickly and effectively to secure hidden literary treasures. This is a triumph for the people, for heritage and for the power of partnerships.

“At the National Library of Scotland we are thrilled to continue working with the Abbotsford Trust and the National Trust for Scotland, to share these Scottish literary treasures with the public and researchers – in Scotland and across the world – and we are grateful to the many supporters who helped to make this happen.” 

(report courtesy National Library of Scotland, Robert Burns, First Commonplace Book. Credit: Courtesy of Sotheby's)