A First Look at the Advocates Library

We have now taken delivery of a first set of images from the borrowers’ receipt books of the Advocates Library with the permission of our partners the Faculty of Advocates and via the digitisation skills of our partners the National Library of Scotland. Our Digital Humanities Research Officer Brian Aitken has loaded these to our content management system and I have the privilege of beginning this transcription.

For various reasons, not least our plan to target our activities, I have started with the records from 1788 to 1789 in MS FR262a.15 with the hope of finding revolution. I was not disappointed.

Why the Advocates Library?


The Advocates Library plays an important part of our study since both its books and its borrowers are significant not only in terms of our overall research questions: they are also very well documented. The Faculty of Advocates has existed since at least 1532 when the College of Justice was founded. Its library came into being in the 1680s with a remit of collecting and sharing books among members of the Faculty. Although law books were the primary focus, books that could be used to study and support legal activity – Sir George Mackenzie of Rosehaugh’s ‘Jurisprudentiae inservientia…Historia, Critica, & Rhetorica’ as he called them in a speech that celebrated the official foundation  of the library in 1689 – were included from the start.[1]

Scottish lawyers had a reputation for book collecting long before the foundation of the Advocates Library. A founding donation to the University of Edinburgh by the advocate Clement Litill’s began the collection of its library, another of our project’s partners, in 1580. Throughout the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, Scottish advocates studied abroad to acquire the training they needed for their careers. Whether in France, the Low Countries, or on Grand Tours to Italy, they bought and shipped books back to Scotland. The educations they obtained, ideally, went beyond legal textbooks. Ulrick Huber, professor of law at Franeker, set out his expectations about what he hoped his students would achieve in 1688. Before they came to him, Huber suggested that first-year legal students should have knowledge of Latin and Greek literature, universal and ancient history, logic, ethics, physics, mathematics, and rhetoric. Only then could they move on to the Institute and Pandects of Justinian. But they should continue to develop their knowledge of history alongside their study of Roman law as well as using philosophy, rhetoric, and poetry to enhance their understanding. [2]

This  approach to legal education explains why the Advocates Library was never just a legal library. Scottish lawyers saw the study of law as part of a wider educational process. Their continued interation with law in practice when they returned to Scotland meant that they needed access to legal and related books.[3]

The non-legal content of the Advocates Library was further enhanced in 1710 when the provisions of the Copyright Act which gave it the right to claim a copy of every book registered at Stationers’ Hall in London. The general works proved popular with both members of the Faculty and non-members, especially historians, who applied for permission to use the collection. By 1772, a special desk was set aside for non-members who conducted research  in the library and some were granted permission to borrow books under strict conditions.[4] By the early nineteenth century, the Advocates Library was the de facto national library for Scotland. The National Library of Scotland Act of 1925 established the separate library we know today. The Faculty of Advocates’ non-legal collection was transferred to the new institution.

The Advocates Library’s books are well documented. A manuscript catalogue appeared in 1683 followed by a printed versions in 1692, 1772-1807, 1831-1839, and 1860-1878.[5] This means that we can confirm which books were in circulation at the time of our study and identify books that have now moved to the NLS.


We have already enjoyed some celebrity spotting at Books and Borrowing. The Advocates Library has the potential to reveal many more weill-kent folk. The Scottish legal community of Edinburgh of the eighteenth and early nineteenth-centuries is exceptionally well-documented. Advocates and other lawyers were active in endeavours beyond law such as teaching at the universities, acting as elders in parishes, and providing civic administration. They were leaders in society culturally, intellectually, and socially.[6]

Scottish Advocates are especially well-recorded. The Minute Books of the Faculty of Advocates, as edited and printed by the Stair Society, record their dates of admission to the Faculty along with biographical details about their genealogy and sometimes their life dates. Their activities and careers can be traced in detail, especially if they took on roles within the Faculty or were promoted in the legal profession.[7] This important information will help us to identify individuals who borrowed books from the Advocates Library with precision and, ideally, find them in our other libraries. Advocates such as James Boswell, Sir Walter Scott, and Lord Cockburn are also notable keepers of journals and diaries which give details about their reading.

Although I have only begun to transcribe the receipt books of the Advocates Library, I have already found three famous borrowers: Alexander Fraser Tytler, James Burnett, and Thomas Muir. From April to August 1788 (all that has been so-far transcribed at time of writing), these three were the most prolific borrowers of books from the Advocates Library.

James Burnett, Lord Monboddo (1714-1799)[8]

image of Lord Monboddo in his study

John Kay, Contemplation (James Burnett, Lord Monboddo), etching, 1784, NPG D16264

As a student at King’s College Aberdeen, James Burnett showed a particular talent for Greek. He studied law in the Netherlands and was admitted advocate in 1737. He was a Curator of the Advocates Library from 1751 to 1756. In 1754 he clashed with the Advocates Library Keeper David Hume over the presence of certain books in the library resulting in Hume resigning his post. In the same year he was a founding member of the Select Society along with Hume, Adam Smith, William Robertson, and Lord Kames.

He acted for the Douglas family in the Douglas Cause in the 1760s and became sheriff of Kincardine before being raised to the Bench as Lord Monboddo in 1767.

receipt book entry for 31 July 1788 showing borrowing by Lord Monboddo

Lord Monboddo borrows works on grammar by two Vossius’s, 31 July 1788, lower entry, FR 262a.15

Burnett’s eleven borrowing acts between April and August 1788 may show that he was hard at work on his ultimately unfinished work Of the Origin and Progress of Language (6 vols., 1773–92). Volume 5 appeared in 1789. He was also researching and publishing his Antient Metaphysics (6 vols., 1779–99) at the time, but the books he borrowed are focussed on questions of language. They include works on poetry by Aristotle and Isaac Vossius, Greek grammar by Gerard Vossius and Theodorus Gazes, and on oratory by Dionysus of Halicarnassus.



Alexander Fraser Tytler, Lord Woodhouselee (1747-1813)[9]

Portrait of Alxander Fraser Tytler

Alexander Fraser Tytler, Lord Woodhouselee, 1747 – 1813. Judge and author, SNPG UP W 185

Alexander Fraser Tytler was an advocate, professor, and author of historical works. He was educated in London and at Edinburgh’s Royal High School before attending the University of Edinburgh in 1765. He was admitted advocate in 1770, and became joint-professor of universal history at Edinburgh in 1780, taking the full professorship of civil history in 1786. Alongside his legal and professorial roles, Tytler was a prolific writer of historical works and contributor to periodicals such as The Monitor and The Lounger. He was a founding member of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1783 and contributed to the Society’s transactions on historical topics. His historical work is notable for his interrogation of the authenticity of sources. He was raised to the bench in 1802 as Lord Woodhouselee.


Tytler's borrowing from 22 July 1788

Alexander Fraser Tytler borrows Beauties of Biography, 22 July 1788, top entry




Tytler’s other interest was in language and translation in theory and practice. He translated Petrarch and Schiller into English and published his Essay on the Principles of Translation in 1791.

In our sample of borrowings from April to August 1788, we find Tytler borrowing collections of plays, memoirs, the works of Ossian, Welsh law, and, as we’d expect, works of history and biography. In our small sample, Tytler was the most prolific borrower with twenty-one borrowing acts between April and August 1788. More work can be done to determine if these loans relate to his periodical contributions or other publications.

Thomas Muir of Huntershill (1765-1799)[10]

Portrait of Thomas Muir by John Kay

John Kay, Thomas Muir, etching, 1793, NPG D20495

Thomas Muir attended the University of Glasgow as early as 1777. After being disciplined at Glasgow in 1785 for supporting efforts to reform the university, Muir moved to Edinburgh to continue his legal studies. He was admitted advocate in 1787 and set up his practice. Muir was active in the Faculty, serving as a public examinator in 1787 and 1789, and successful. In the early 1790s, he became active in reform societies and in 1792 he and others  – among them William Skirving who appears in our database as a student borrower at the University of Edinburgh in the late 1760s and early 1770s – set up the Association of the Friends of the People in Edinburgh. The reform societies distributed literature and made speeches in favour of political reform and attracted the attention of the authorities who, in light of the ongoing French Revolution, looked on their activities as seditious.

Muir, along with six other ‘Scottish Martyrs’, was convicted of sedition in a series of trials that took place from 1793 to 1798. Muir represented himself and was found guilty and sentenced to fourteen years transportation to Botany Bay on 31 August 1793. He had been expelled from the Faculty of Advocates on 25 February. His subsequent life reads like an adventure story, including daring escapes, world travel, and sea battles.

Muir's borrowings 21 June 1788

Thomas Muir borrows, Jean Jacques Burlamaqui’s Principes du droit naturel and Principes du droit politique, 27 June 1788, lower entry

Between April and August 1788, Muir borrowed twelve times from the Advocates Library, including classical works by Cicero, Isocrates, Euripides, and Demosthenes, a New Testament in Greek, multiple volumes of Parnaso Italiano, and perhaps as a sign of what was to come, Jean Jacques Burlamaqui’s Principes du droit naturel and Principes du droit politique on 27 June 1788.

It will be very interesting and informative to see if Muir’s further borrowings from the Advocates Library reflect his reform activities. He is certainly a borrower to watch as we move through the Advocates Library receipt books.

The Advocates Library and Books and Borrowing

This brief scratch on the surface has already shown the significance of the books and borrowers of the Advocates Library and I’m very much looking forward to delving deeper into the records. I hope this small selection has shown something of the variety of works held in the library as well as its users. The interests of advocates went beyond law or legal practice and encompassed classical learning, languages and history, and a concern for the rights of man.

It also shows the range of places the advocates come from across Scotland with our three subjects coming from Aberdeen, Edinburgh, and Glasgow respectively. We will be able to link the well-documented advocates to other libraries in our study and trace them in some cases from their school days at the Royal High School, through to their time at university, their professional careers, and their participation in intellectual culture via their printed works. We may even find them as ‘Water Drinkers’ at the Leighton Library or as members of Chambers’s Circulating Library.

I also want to see if and how advocates used their communal collection of law and other books of the Advocates Library in their legal practice in the composition of the Session Papers they wrote for presentation to the Court. But that is a question for another day.

[1] George Mackenzie, Oratio Inauguralis habita Edenburgi Id. Mar. 1689 (London, 1689), p. 24. For a recent account of the Advocates Library and its founders see, Kelsey Jackson Williams, The First Scottish Enlightenment: Rebels, Priests, and History (Oxford: OUP, 2020), pp. 26-29.

[2] Ulrick Huber, De ratione juris docendi & discendi diatribe per modum dialogi nonnullis aucta paralipomenois, trans. Margaret Louse Hewett (Nijmegen: GNI, 2010), p. 51-52.

[3] Scottish advocates also developed private libraries but they continued to use the Advocates Library. See, for example, my Charles Areskine’s Library: Lawyers and Their Books at the Dawn of the Scottish Enlightenment (Leiden: Brill, 2016). Mackenzie’s hope that books would flow into the Faculty’s care at their owners’ deaths did not always come to pass. Many families, as did the Areskines/Erskines, retained their books through generations of lawyers. Some of Charles Areskine’s law books eventually arrived in the Advocates Library in 1927 as a donation from the Dollar Academy. His non-legal books from the Dollar Academy went to the National Library of Scotland in the same year. These are now held in the Alva Collections of each institution.

[4] Peter Wellburn, ‘The Living Library’, in For the Encouragement of Learning: Scotland’s National Library, 1689-1989, ed. Patrick Cadell and Ann Matheson (Edinburgh: HMSO, 1989), pp. 201.

[5] The Advocates Library catalogues have been digitised by the NLS and are available at https://www.nls.uk/collections/rare-books/collections/advocates/catalogues/.

[6] John Finlay, The Community of the College of Justice: Edinburgh and the Court of Session, 1687-1808 (Edinburgh: EUP, 2012), 33-61.

[7] The Faculty of Advocates’ Minute Books have been transcribed and published by the Stair Society. http://stairsociety.org/publications/search_results/e97b489eb2ee2d27a487533421a3b8a0/

[8] Ian Maxwell Hammett, ‘Burnett, James, Lord Monboddo (bap. 1714, d. 1799), judge and philosopher’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: OUP 2004) https://www.oxforddnb.com/view/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-4074. Accessed 19 Nov. 2021.

[9] Alexander du Toit, ‘Tytler, Alexander Fraser, Lord Woodhouselee (1747–1813), historian’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: OUP, 2004) https://www.oxforddnb.com/view/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-27965. Accessed 19 Nov. 2021.

[10] H. T. Dickinson, ‘Muir, Thomas (1765–1799), political reformer’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: OUP, 2004), https://www.oxforddnb.com/view/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-19498. Accessed 19 Nov. 2021. See also, Emma Vincent Macleod, ‘Scottish martyrs (act. 1792–1798)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: OUP, 2008) https://www.oxforddnb.com/view/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-96891. Accessed 19 Nov. 2021.