A Signet Library Tour for the Books and Borrowing Team

The Books and Borrowing team was recently treated to a private tour of the Signet Library by our very own Kit Baston! Kit has worked with and alongside the library and archives for years, so there was no better person to show us around. Located behind St Giles Cathedral, just off the Royal Mile, the Signet Library holds one of the biggest collections of books and archive material in Edinburgh, with archival records dating from 1594, an estimated 90,000 books, and historic maps and newspapers.

Sofa owned by Sir Walter Scott

Couch belonging to Sir Walter Scott, the Napier Room, Signet Library. Scott’s father was a Writer to the Signet and the young Walter was his apprentice before he changed his legal tack and became an advocate.

We began our day in the Napier Room, named for Signet Librarian and editor of the Encyclopaedia Britannica Macvey Napier, WS (1776-1847), where Kit had laid out some fascinating archival documents. After carefully perching and posing on Walter Scott’s couch (yes, really!), we looked at some of the papers held by the Signet, including its ‘Genesis’ document, an account of books purchased by the society from Edinburgh bookseller Alexander Symmer in 1723 – almost all of which are still in the collection today; the oldest surviving Signet Library manuscript catalogue, from 1778; a pair of eighteenth-century receipts from a society night out; and a collection of documents connected to the 1829 ‘Murderer at Haddington’ Robert Emond.

Tavern receipt, 1722

Manuscript account of a ‘wryters to the Signet’ evening out on 22 December 1722, showing what they paid for their food and drink, including ‘scollops’ and ‘oysters’, ‘a Racke’ of lamb, ‘win’, ‘Bread & ale’, and ‘Lemons & oringes’. WS Society Archives.

Documents collected about the murderer Robert Emond

Collection of documents concerning the “Murderer of Haddington” Robert Emond, assembled by Charles Kirkpatrick Sharpe and purchased by William Roughead, including Emond’s signed confession from 12th March 1830. Signet Library, William Roughead Collection R343.1 Em69.

Souvenir print of Robert Emond, the 'Murdurer at Haddington'

Robert Emond, ‘The Murderer at Haddington 1829’





















We then ascended the grand staircase to the recently restored Upper Library, a beautiful room lined with Corinthian columns, stained glass panels and, most importantly, bookshelves![1] In addition to holding much of the library’s impressive local history collection, the Upper Library frequently hosts weddings – a continuing tradition from the nineteenth century, when Writers to the Signet often used the space for their own wedding ceremonies. The Upper Library was, for a time, the home of the Advocates Library, one of our partner libraries.

Engraving of the Signet Library in the 1820s

Engraving of the Upper Library in the 1820s, from a drawing by Thomas H. Shepherd. © Ian Smith

The Upper Library of the Signet Library, December 2021

The Upper Library, The Signet Library, December 2021. For Apollo and the Muses see A Painted Literary Parthenon for the Athens of the North





















Next, we visited the Commissioners’ Room,  a dream come true for any True Crime enthusiast as it contains the collection of William Roughead WS (1870-1952), one of the earliest Scottish criminologists and founding father of the true crime genre. As well as acquiring the Robert Emond papers, above, Roughead wrote his own accounts of Scottish crime and collected hundreds of books on the subject. I, for one, want to spend more time in this room to read more about poisonings, murder, and high treason!

Books from the Library of William Roughead WS, the Signet Library

Books from the Library of William Roughead WS, the Signet Library

Signet Library Shelves

Despite working on the Books and Borrowing project together for eighteenth months now, some of us had never met in person before this trip! In addition to confirming that we all exist outside of our computers, in these ongoing pandemic times it is an absolute treat to actually get to a library in person.

Finally, we finished off our day with a festive celebration and team lunch. Unlike the 1722 Writers to the Signet, there were no scallops and oysters to be found, but we might have indulged in a little bit of ‘Bread & ale’…!

Books and Borrowing Project team (missing Alex and Maxine!), L-R: Katie, Matt, Josh, Cleo, Kit, Isla, Brian and Gerry

Thank you so much to Kit Baston and James Hamilton for hosting us, providing home-made gingerbread biscuits, and protecting us from the ghosts! If you are interested in pursuing research at the Signet Library, you can view many of the library’s catalogues online and find more information here. The WS Society 2021 Virtual Exhibition, The Great Affair is to Move: Travel and Topography at the Signet Library can also be found on their website. Next year will mark 200 years of the Signet Library in their current building, so keep an eye on their Instagram and Twitter pages for news about their exciting 2022 events line up!

[1] The WS Society are currently fundraising for the installation of a lift to improve accessibility to the Upper Library – see: https://www.wssociety.co.uk/charities/slhf.