Books and Borrowing 1750-1830

Broughton House Visit

Broughton House in the coastal town of Kirkcudbright is the former home of the colourist painter Edward Atkinson Hornel (1864-1933), who was part of the ‘Glasgow Boys’ circle. This beautiful Georgian townhouse, which once belonged to Alexander Murray (c.1680-1750), Provost of Kirkcudbright and formerly a local MP, is now a museum managed by the National Trust for Scotland. Broughton House in its current form is a testament to Hornel’s various preoccupations as an artist and antiquarian, including a garden inspired by his time in Japan.

As many of his best-known works testify, Hornel was also passionately interested in the cultural history of Galloway. The Brownie of Blednoch, for example, responds to a ballad of the same name by the Kirkcudbrightshire poet William Nicholson (1783-1849). As part of this interest in Galloway, Hornel collected a wide range of literary materials that are preserved in his library in Broughton House, in what constitutes one of Scotland’s most important acts of regional antiquarianism.

Broughton House. Credit: Tom Parnell (

The Hornel library includes a number of unique items in both print and manuscript. Most significantly, from our point of view, it holds the records of both the Kirkcudbright Subscription Library (founded 1777) and the Wigtown Subscription Library (founded 1795). Sadly, borrowing records do not survive for the Kirkcudbright institution but they do for Wigtown.

Mark Towsey published ground-breaking work on the Wigtown Subscription Library in a 2009 article for PBSA and 2010 monograph, Reading the Scottish Enlightenment. In those pieces, Towsey identified and analysed borrowing records from the first five years of the library’s existence: that is, 1795-9. Towsey recorded 898 borrowings in that period in an institution that served the upper echelons of the local society, offering part of the evidential basis for Towsey’s case that Enlightenment literary culture spread far beyond Scotland’s urban centres.

Broughton House has been under threat of closure for an extended period recently and there have been redundancies among the staff. A local campaign made the case for the importance of the site and it is now reopen in a reduced capacity. I am grateful to the NTS for granting me special access to consult the subscription library materials in the Hornel library.

The good news, then, is that there is a significant tranche of later borrowings also included in the Wigtown records. More time is needed to properly interpret this data, but these later borrowings appear to be clustered between roughly 1828 and 1836. As we would expect of these years in general, Blackwood’s Magazine is a favourite and, in addition to contemporaries such as John Galt, the borrowings feature a very significant emphasis on Walter Scott’s Waverley Novels.

A page from Wigtown Subscription Library MS 11/29. Hornel Library, Broughton House, Kirkcudbright.

These exciting records will allow us to flesh out our picture of Scottish borrowings at the tail end of our project timeline. They are additional evidence of the rich library culture in southwest Scotland. Equally, they offer further insight into the transition between eighteenth-century and Victorian library history. This includes the extraordinary rise of Scott’s work to cultural dominance that had begun with his earlier narrative poems and reached a new level when the Waverley Novels began appearing in the 1810s.