Researching the Brechin Collection

Books of Brechin Diocese Library collection

When I first began studying history at the University of Dundee, I could have never have imagined that it would eventually lead me into an academic love affair with Scottish Episcopalian books. Fast forward to 2018 and I am six months into my PhD supervised by Dr. Kelsey Jackson Williams and Dr Katie Halsey at the University of Stirling, and Caroline Brown at the University of Dundee. My focus is on Scottish Episcopalian libraries in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and looking at the writing (or marginalia) which has been left in the books by their previous owners. These books are an untapped resource for understanding the intellectual development of the Church, which after refusing to pray for William and Mary, became disestablished in favour of Presbyterianism in 1689. Subsequently the Scottish Episcopalians spent most of the eighteenth century as a Church which was not legally tolerated, until the repeal acts of 1792.  

Copy of Joannis De Fordun Scotichronicon (Edinburgh, 1759) with a letter from Abernethy Drummond dated 1792, donating the book to Lord Gardentstone. (BRUQ 941.01 365)

So how did I come to be in this extremely favourable position of studying these books? My introduction to the collection came in the third year of my undergraduate degree at the University of Dundee, as part of the History of the Book module taught by Dr Jodi-Anne George and Dr Martine van Ittersum. Exposure to early modern printed books was rather life changing for me; it ignited my interest in book history and ultimately led me to this PhD. This experience has led me to become an advocate for introducing undergraduates to primary source materials, which has also given my purpose in the Brechin Collection another dimension as I think about identifying books to use as teaching tool.  

During the module I had the opportunity to spend time with the Brechin Collection and began noticing that many of the books had been written in by their previous readers and ownersIt appeared that Bishop Abernethy Drummond had been mildly occupied with warning prospective readers of what lay within many of the books, while other clergy had simply taken the time to make disparaging remarks about the author of the book. There were also a variety of exciting ownership inscriptions recording the fascinating lives the books had had before they came to the Diocese library, including a life in the library of the family of the poet William Drummond of Hawthorden.  Yet despite the clear evidence of an interesting history, very little seemed to be known of how the collection had come to be, how it had been used by the clergy, and the reasons for clergy writing in the books.  

A tip from Dr Mark Towsey at the University of Liverpool suggested that there were more books previously owned by Scottish Episcopalians which had annotations. Subsequently I wrote my undergraduate dissertation on Bishop Alexander Jolly 1756–1838), a serious bibliophile and a serial annotator of books. A pattern was emerging among Episcopalian Libraries that could not be ignored. After an MLitt at the University of St Andrews in Book History, which gave me the bibliography skills to physically examine the books, I applied for a PhD, and was successful (the second time round!) in my application for funding by the Scottish Graduate School of Arts and Humanities.  

For the last six months I have been in the very fortunate and exciting position of re-discovering the books of the Diocese of Brechin Library, whose existence is not widely known outside the circle of librarians and archivists who have worked with them. Presently I spend my time going through the books shelf by shelf, looking for marginalia and inscriptions of previous owners. The marks of ownership, which include signatures and bookplates, allow me to understand how the books came to be in the Diocese Library and where they were before. Some of these books were printed hundreds of years before the Diocese library was established and have their own individual stories to tell, prior to serving the Episcopal clergy. They lived their lives in the personal collections of Jacobite spies, German Monasteries and Scottish noblemen and women; and these are only the stories I’ve uncovered so far! The feeling of anticipation while sliding a book from the shelf and the pleasure of discovery as I open it to reveal its contents is one of the highlights of this project for me and a privilege as a researcher.   

Studying the Brechin Collection is a starting point to studying Episcopalian Libraries, which will include the venerable Bishop Jolly. By tracing how the books came into the collection, I aim to uncover intellectual networks between Episcopalians in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and to recover the reading responses and use of books by a religious minority. By investigating the physical books themselves, I intend to tell the individual stories of some of the volumes: where they came from, who they were read by, and why there are significant. 

Mhairi Rutherford, PhD candidate

Follow my research through pictures