Skye-inspired verse

Posted August 13, 2014 10:55 am by Anette Hagan | Permalink

We recently bought a privately printed book with lithographed illustrations of some wildlife and albumen prints of landscapes and sheep on the Isle of Skye set in beautifully ornamented borders.  The author, illustrator and printer all in one was the rural improver and gardener Sir Charles Isham (1819-1903). He probably produced the book at his family estate of Lamport, Northanptonshire.

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Inspired by a trip to the Isle of Skye, Isham wrote a poem about an eagle terrorising the sheep population of Skye. The poem is of a decidely poor quality, similar to the entertaining doggerel verse he wrote to accompany his display of garden gnomes.

The poem, dating from the 1860s, exists in various pamphlet versions with different ornamental borders and illustrations. Our new acquisition is a ‘deluxe’ edition, bound in morocco, with the text on thick card with gilt edges. Unlike the pamphlet version this copy consists only of the text of the poem. 

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Find out more about Sir Charles Isham in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (accessible through NLS Licensed Digital Collections).

A picturesque marriage proposal

Posted August 5, 2014 3:27 pm by Anette Hagan | Permalink

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A picturesque scene from Lady Anne Barnard’s 1772 ballad “Auld Robin Gray” is depicted in this hand-coloured mezzotint print (AP.5.213.13). Robin, an older Scotsman, is asking for a young girl’s hand. The girl, Jenny, is sitting at a spinning-wheel and Robin, wearing a kilt and tartan hose, and her mother are standing close-by outside a cottage. While Robin and Jenny’s mother are looking at her expectantly, Jenny is absorbed in a world of her own. As the ballad tells us, she was in love with a young man, Jamie, who has gone away to sea to earn money. But because of the destitute state of her parents, Jenny is forced to abandon Jamie and their love. When Jamie returns, he finds his sweetheart married to Auld Robin. Both Jenny and Jamie are heartbroken, but Robin turns out to be good husband to Jenny.

A verse from the ballad is engraved at the foot of the mezzotint:

   Auld Robin argued fair, tho my Mither didna speak
   She looked in my face till my heart was like to break
   So they gied him my HAND tho my HEART was at Sea
   But Auld Robin Grey proves a gude man to me.

The mezzotint was published 1 October 1786. The setting is rather melo-dramatic mix of Highland and Lowland imagery, with Robin in a uni-coloured kilt and shirt, Jenny in a rather sumptuous frock at her spinning wheel, blue grapes growing on the cottage wall, and the verse in below written in Lowland Scots.

Find out more about Lady Anne Barnard in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (accessible through NLS Licensed Digital Collections).

An early French chronicle with Scottish connections

Posted 2:02 pm by Anette Hagan | Permalink

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We  have recently received a fabulous donation from the collection of the late John Buchanan-Brown, an author and translator of French books. The book is the 1560 edition of Les annales et croniques de France by Nicole Gilles, (RB.l.282).  A vernacular history of France, this edition was printed in Paris for the female bookseller and publisher, Barbe Regnault. The title page vignette has an elephant in the centre.

blog 1013 011 signatureThe donation also includes a typescript article by John Buchan-Brown. It explains the history of the ownership of the book, also called its provenance.  The first owner of the book was John Somer (1527?-1585), an English diplomat who probably purchased the book when he was in Paris in 1559 to 1562. Somer was then serving Sir Nicholas Throckmorton, the English ambassador to the French court. Somer put his signature on the title page. 

 He also wrote down his motto “Iuste. Sobrie.pie”. This Latin phrase means “Soberly, righteously and godly”:

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Somer became a highly-regarded diplomat, being involved in negotiations with the French court during the reign of Queen Elizabeth. He was renowned for his skills in deciphering letters written in code. Ill-health prevented Somer from taking up the post of ambassador to the Scottish court in 1583, and his final post was acting as one the minders of the captive Mary Queen of Scots. No doubt his skills as a code-breaker acted as a deterrent to Mary’s supporters trying to send messages to her!

The book also has a rather illustrious Scottish provenance: the contemporary calf binding has a gilt stamp with the name “Franciscus Stevartvs”. We assume this is Francis Stewart, 1st Earl of Bothwell (1562-1612). Francis was a son of John Stewart, Lord Darnley, Prior of Coldingham, who was an illegitimate child of James V of Scotland by his mistress Elizabeth Carmichael.

Find out more about John Somer and Francis Stewart in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (accessible through NLS Licensed Digital Collections).

A hand-coloured book

Posted May 1, 2014 7:32 pm by Rare Books Blog | Permalink

I am Marina Franceschi and I am a postgraduate student at the University of Edinburgh, currently doing an internship within the Rare Book Collections. While doing some research, I got very interested in one book entitled Notitia utraque cum orientis tum occidentis ultra Arcadii honoriique Caesarum Tempora Illustre Vetustatis Monumentum (K.63.b). Do not be afraid of the very long and dull book name! Far from being boring, as the title in Latin could have suggested, this military operations book contained several hand painted illustrations. According to the Ursus Book and Prints website the book was “a collection of works on the late Roman Empire, comprising a profusely illustrated guide to the workings of the Imperial Rome during the beginning of the 5th century, derived from a 9th or 10th century Greek manuscript”. This edition was published in 1552. Yet, the colours are still vivid and shining. This book exists in different copies but the very specific particularity of the National Library of Scotland one is the quality of its illustrations. For instance, there was a copy sold by Christies in March 2012 but the illustrations are not coloured as you can notice on Christies’ edition.

The book is about military operations and most of the images are personifications of the colonies and cities of the Empire. Rome is therefore depicted like a woman warrior sitting on a throne.


Personification of Rome

“Urbs quae aliquando desolata, nunc gloriosior, piissimo imperio restaurata” [the city that sometimes has been ruined now has established the most glorious, devoted imperium]



There are also illustrations of countries such as Italy.

This book was printed in Basel in 1552 by the very famous editing and publishing house Froben On the title page is the device of Johann Froben, as usual with books from his press, but this one has been hand-coloured.

the design of the device was attributed to Hans Holbein the Younger, who also painted Froben’s portrait.

The editor was Sigismund Gelenius who also wrote the“introduction”. According to the Grand dictionnaire universel du XIXe siècle by Pierre Larousse, Gelenius, or Ghelen, was “one of the most important scholars of his times”. He was introduced to Johannes Froben by Erasmus who was impressed by his knowledge.

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Title page

Rare Books Signed by Notable Authors

Posted March 18, 2014 4:06 pm by Rare Books Blog | Permalink

My name is Annemarie Maimone and I am a postgraduate student at the University of Edinburgh interning in the National Library of Scotland’s Rare Book Collections Department. While doing provenance research, I came across a few books in the collection of particular interest because they contain the signatures and inscriptions of notable authors.

The items I will be discussing for this blog post include books signed by H.G. Wells, Robert Bridges and Compton Mackenzie, as well as one owned by both Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth.

Signature of H.G. Wells

Signature of H.G. Wells

My earliest discovery was the signature of H.G. Wells in a first edition folio of his eccentric work of fiction, The Door in the Wall and Other Stories, published in 1915 (Hall.3.a). Wells’ signature appears on the verso of the flyleaf underneath the publisher’s handwritten note stating that “This edition is limited to sixty copies for the United Kingdom. January 1915. No.1”. This edition of The Door in the Wall includes photographic illustrations by Alvin Langdon Coburn, who also signed his name just below Wells’ signature.

Photograph by Alvin Langdon Coburn from "The Door in the Wall"

Photograph by Alvin Langdon Coburn from "The Door in the Wall"

Illustrating another type of authorial signature, I came across a lovely, 1926 edition of New Verse by the poet Robert Bridges which contains the handwritten inscription “Robert Underwood Johnson with best Xmas wishes from Robert Bridges 1926” on the half-title page ( H1.77.462). Johnson was a distinguished American diplomat, conservationist and published poet (Read More). Bridges was a major literary figure of the early 20th century and was given the honorary post of Poet Laureate in 1913. He counted Gerard Manley Hopkins, Roger Fry, W. B. Yeats, Ezra Pound, Henry Newbolt, Mary Coleridge, Robert Graves, Virginia Woolf, and E. M. Forster among his friends and acquaintances (Read more). Bridges apparently gave this “presentation copy” of his poems to Johnson as a Christmas gift, greatly contributing to the book’s material and sentimental importance.

Signature and inscription of Robert Bridges

Signature and inscription of Robert Bridges

Another book in the collection signed by its author is a first edition of Compton Mackenzie’s novel, Carnival (H2.81.1325). Mackenzie, a popular 20th-century Scottish author, wrote the dedicatory note “To Ralph Straus this rare book from Compton Mackenzie” on the book’s front free endpaper. It might seem bold to describe your own work as a “rare book”, but Mackenzie’s publisher is careful to note on the same page that “This first edition was entirely sold out by the day of publication” (Watch an interview with Mackenzie here).

Signature and inscription of Compton Mackenzie

Signature and inscription of Compton Mackenzie

For enthusiasts of the Romantic era, I found the signatures of both Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth in a 1569 edition of John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion (Hall.293.f.4). Their names appear side by side on the title page, the recognizable “S.T. Coleridge” and “W. Wordsworth” inscribed in each poet’s own handwriting. Unlike the other books mentioned, this is an example of a work that was personally owned, not simply written and signed, by popular authors.

Signatures of Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth

Signatures of Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth

Identifying famous signatures is not always so straightforward,  however. A good example of this is a book I found containing what first appeared to be Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s signature on the title-page. The name looked right; an italicized “S. T. Coleridge” with the address of “Torrington Place”, a neighbourhood in Bloomsbury frequented by Coleridge. A past librarian had even left a note identifying the signature as that of the famous poet. While looking at web images of Coleridge’s known signature, however, I came across the name of his nephew, a certain John Taylor Coleridge who also lived at Torrington Place. Looking back at the signature in the book, I could definitely identify that the “S” was in fact a “J” and the rest of the name fell into place (See a description of John Taylor Coleridge’s signature).

Further reading:

Carter, John. “Presentation Copy.” ABC for Book Collectors. 7th edition. With Corrections, Additions and an Introduction by Nicolas Barker. Oak Knoll Press 1995. International League of Antiquarian Booksellers.

Jane Austen’s Scottish Sisters

Posted December 10, 2013 2:38 pm by Helen Vincent | Permalink

This year I’ve been involved in celebrating the two hundredth anniversary of Jane Austen’s novel Pride and Prejudice with a display at NLS – but I’ve also been casting some light on her Scottish contemporaries – women novelists who in some cases were more famous than Austen during her lifetime, but who are now much less well known.

Engraving of Elizabeth Hamilton

Engraving of Elizabeth Hamilton

There are quite a few Scottish women authors from that period who have been overshadowed by Austen and by their great contemporary Sir Walter Scott, but I’ve concentrated on a few in particular:

  • Susan Ferrier, whose novel Marriage is often seen as the closest contemporary relation to Austen’s own
  • Elizabeth Hamilton, whose The Cottagers of Glenburnie was praised by Scott himself in Waverley – and was seen at the time as bringing about revolutionary social change
  • Mary Brunton, author of novels which Austen herself enjoyed reading, though they did not escape her acerbic pen
  • Catherine Sinclair, author of Holiday House, a pioneering children’s book, who also wrote best-selling adult fiction
Modern Accomplishments by Catherine Sinclair

Modern Accomplishments by Catherine Sinclair

Besides giving some talks about these authors around the country and writing about them for the latest issue (number 24) of our in-house magazine Discover NLS, I’ve also been working with our education team to produce a feature on them for our Learning Zone, which we hope will open these authors’ lives and works up to those who want to explore them further inside and outside the classroom. It contains lots of information about who they were and what they wrote, links to copies of their novels that can be found online, and suggestions for discussion points and creative writing and other activities inspired by their books.

These are some of my favourite authors – they all have laugh-out-loud funny moments, and there are some fascinating portrayals of the Scotland they lived in alongside the strong heroines, dashing heroes, and gallery of eccentrics who populate their novels. I hope that people enjoy discovering them.

‘Forgotten Women Writers: Jane Austen’s Scottish Sisters’ is freely available on our website.

A Scott binding

Posted October 21, 2013 3:04 pm by Anette Hagan | Permalink

In the 18th century, decorative arts underwent significant developments. Two outstanding Scottish bookbinders, James Scott and his son William, were at the forefront of such design changes. James Scott of Edinburgh is generally acknowledged as the finest bookbinder in Scotland in the 18th-century and indeed one of the finest in Britain at this time.

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In the 1770s and 1780s Scott broke away from the traditional Scottish wheel and herringbone designs, and replaced them with first rococo and then neo-classical styles. We recently bought an outstanding example of his distinctive work: 


1013 binding 2 smallThis binding of a York printing of the 17th-century English scholar John Evelyn’s “Silva” is a magnificent example of Scott’s craftsmanship. The binding is brown tree calf with gilt column style tools and musical trophy on the boards and Minerva ornament on the spines.

The book also has a distinguished provenance: an inscription “Lauderdale” on the title page of vol. 1 indicates it once belonged to James Maitland, 7th Earl of Lauderdale (1718-1789). It was presumably bound for him.

Bindings by James Scott and his son William are much sought after by collectors, and the Library has the most extensive collection in existence.

Find out more about Scottish book binding on our website.

Effects of light and the weather

Posted October 17, 2013 3:42 pm by Anette Hagan | Permalink

We recently bought a rare first edition of a book illustrating the effects of light and the weather on the landscape. It reproduces landscape sketches by William Gilpin (1724-1804), an English writer on art, school teacher and clergyman. His picturesque books became very popular especially among amateur artists , though his didactic and pedantic tone grated with some professional artists.

One of the reasons for acquiring a copy of his A practical illustration of Gilpin’s day (AB.10.213.02) is the fact that this 1811 edition includes an introduction and descriptive text for each plate by the Scottish painter and aquatint engraver John Heaviside Clark (1771-1863). He even hand-coloured the plates, thus adding spectacular dashes of colour and dramatic effects such as rainbows and flashes of lightning, which were a great improvement on the rather muted monochromatic aquatints of the earlier edition.

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Clark cites two excerpts from the famous poem “The Seasons” by the Scottish poet James Thomson (1700-1748) and describes “the deep toned clouds skirted by the glowing tinges of electrified vapours” and the use of colours such as prussian-blue, gamboge  and vandyck brown, but fails to make any mention of the figure suspended from what looks like a gallows tree.

Find out more about William Gilpin and James Thomson in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (accessible through NLS Licensed Digital Collections).

James IV and the Coming of Print to Scotland

Posted September 9, 2013 12:01 am by Helen Vincent | Permalink

Today from 12-2pm at NLS we are marking the 500th anniversary of the death of James IV by displaying the Chepman and Myllar prints – Scotland’s first printed books. What, you may ask, had this particular Scottish king to do with the history of the book in Scotland?

A Renaissance King

James IV, print from a contemporary portrait. View the original portrait on the <a href=

James IV, print from a contemporary portrait. View the original portrait on the Your Paintings website.

James IV (1473-1515) was the epitome of the Renaissance monarch. Famed for his expert performance in knightly tournaments, he spoke Latin and several European languages in addition to Scots and Gaelic. His interest in new ideas led him to sponsor new buildings, alchemists’ experiments, and even an attempt at flight. During his reign, celebrated scholars such as Hector Boece and Archibald Whitelaw brought the new ideas of humanism to Scotland, and writers such as William Dunbar and Robert Henryson composed some of the country’s finest poems.

James and Printing

It was probably during James’ reign that the first printed books arrived in Scotland, most likely brought back by travelling scholars, diplomats and clerics. Printing must have appealed to a king fascinated by all kinds of new technology. In 1507 James granted a patent or licence to Walter Chepman and Androw Myllar to import Scotland’s first printing press.

James saw the potential of print for spreading many copies of the same version of a text quickly and widely. He wanted Chepman and Myllar to print laws and chronicles – books which would help his project of centralising government.

The first dated Scottish book: colophon Continue reading James IV and the Coming of Print to Scotland

Come and see Scotland’s first printed books

Posted September 3, 2013 3:56 pm by Helen Vincent | Permalink

Come to NLS on Monday 9 September, 2013, 12-2pm, for a rare opportunity to see Scotland’s first printed books!

September 9 is the 500th anniversary of the battle of Flodden, which saw the death of King James IV. We will mark the 500th anMaying title pageniversary of the battle and celebrate the contribution of James IV to printing in Scotland by displaying the first known books to be printed in this country.

James IV has been acclaimed by historians as the king whose reign brought the Renaissance to Scotland. Printing was introduced to Scotland when he granted a patent to merchant Walter Chepman and bookseller Androw Myllar allowing them to import the country’s first printing press.

NLS holds the only surviving copy of Scotland’s first dated printed book in a volume with other unique works from Chepman and Myllar’s press – one of the most precious items in our collections.

The importance of the Chepman and Myllar prints was highlighted when they were added to UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register in 2010.

There is no need to book, just turn up on the day to view the books. Expert curators will be on hand to explain the background to their unrivalled place in Scotland’s printed heritage.

If you can’t come, we have digitised the Chepman and Myllar prints and they are freely available to view online on the NLS website in our Digital Gallery.