Bruce, the Bible, and a Borrowing: James Bruce of Kinnaird and the Leighton Library, Dunblane

Working with historical borrowing records provides you with a host of names. In an earlier blog post, I wrote about the challenges of researching the biographical details of our library borrowers. In the modern age of scholarly research, the first step in such an endeavour is often a trusty web search in the hope of discovering whether somebody, somewhere, has already done the heavy lifting of biographical research. Some individuals require no such search and are instantly recognisable, as famous to a scholarly audience today as they were to wider eighteenth-century society then. So it was with a good deal of surprise and joy that I stumbled upon the name of ‘Mr Bruce of Kinnaird’ in the Leighton’s borrowing register, better known to all as James Bruce of Kinnaird (1730-1794), the famed author and traveller in Africa.

James Bruce of Kinnaird, 1730-1794. African explorer, by Pompeo Batoni, 1762 © Scottish National Portrait Gallery

Born 14 December 1730, into a landed family at Kinnaird House, Stirlingshire, Bruce acquired a taste for travel at an early age, first to France, Spain and Portugal, and later further afield to Algiers, Tunis, Tripoli and Aleppo.[1] In 1768, Bruce, now the laird of Kinnaird, travelled through Egypt and later Abyssinia (modern-day Ethiopia) observing and charting the Nile River with the intention of finding its source. On 4 November 1770, Bruce arrived at the springs of Gish, which he triumphantly toasted as the ‘Nile source’. However, Bruce had in fact discovered the source of only one of a number of tributaries of the Blue Nile and not that of the larger and longer White Nile located some 500 miles to the south, to be ‘discovered’ by John Hanning Speke later in the nineteenth century. Moreover, the source that Bruce visited had itself been charted by the Spanish missionary Pedro Paez in 1618, a fact known to Bruce. Nevertheless, when Bruce returned to Britain in June 1774, some eleven years after he had departed, he did so as a national celebrity and was presented to the court of George III and elected a fellow of the Royal Society. This enthusiasm, however, quickly waned and faced with increasing scepticism concerning the veracity of his feats, not least by Samuel Johnson himself, Bruce returned to Kinnaird.

It would be sixteen years later, in 1790, before Bruce published his own account of his journeys in his Travels to Discover the Source of the Nile, published in five quarto volumes. Bruce’s work, as well as an account of his own travels, is an ‘immethodical miscellany’, containing a mix of adventure stories, dialogues, a history of ancient Ethiopia, tales of contemporary Abyssinian life as well as politics and natural history. Despite favourable reviews in a number of periodicals and successful sales (followed by further editions in 1804 and 1813), Bruce remained a target of scepticism and criticism. He died on 26 April 1794, at the age of 63, after a fall at Kinnaird House.

Bruce’s name in the Leighton’s matriculation book, written by the Leighton’s librarian, Malcolm Coldstream. University of Stirling Archives, Leighton MS 25, Leighton Library Matriculation Book, 31 October 1734-1814, 21 December 1791

Bruce’s membership of the Leighton Library came in 1791, the year after the publication of his Travels and within the final years of his life. His use of the library was limited and precise, and it is unlikely that he ever personally visited it. On 21 December 1791, his name was signed into the library’s matriculation book (which served as a subscription book) as ‘Mr Bruce of Kinnaird’ by the librarian, Malcolm Coldstream. The page records that Bruce paid the customary five shillings subscription fee.[2] On 28 December, Bruce was provided a page in the borrowing register and is recorded as borrowing the Biblia Sacra Polglotta (or the polyglot bible) edited by the Bishop Brian Walton (1600-61) and published in London, in six volumes folio in 1657.[3] Again, that the borrowing entry is written entirely in the hand of the librarian implies that Bruce was not present when the book was taken out of the library.

Bruce’s page in the Leighton borrowing register. University of Stirling Archives, Leighton MS 27, Register of borrowings from the Leighton Library, May 1780-1833 and 1840, p. 57

Bruce’s choice of reading is a work well known to modern guides at the Leighton and is a favourite book to be shown to library visitors. Described as the ‘apogee of Renaissance biblical productions’, it was the first polyglot bible to be printed in Britain, following others printed in Alcala, Antwerp and Paris between the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The bible had originally been owned by Archbishop Robert Leighton (1611-1684) and was a part of his own collection of books which had founded the library in 1688. Published by subscription, at a rate of £10, it was probably Leighton’s most expensive book and was certainly a valuable work in the Leighton Library’s collection. It is beautifully printed, each page translating the same section of the bible into eight different languages, including Hebrew, Arabic, Persian, Greek, Latin and, significantly for Bruce, Ethiopic. Bruce borrowed the first volume, which contains the first part of the Old Testament.

Biblia Sacra Polyglotta, 6 vols. (London, 1657), © Newberry Digital Collections, Newberry Library

Bruce’s use of the Leighton provides an interesting insight into the potential different methods of borrowing from an eighteenth-century subscription library. He made no further borrowings, and it seems that his use of the library was solely to access this specialist text. It is interesting to speculate how Bruce knew the Leighton owned the polyglot bible he sought. The Leighton Library regularly featured as a point of interest in travel journals and tours, yet the library’s first printed catalogue was not produced until 1793.[4] The librarian did maintain a manuscript catalogue, but this probably acted as a finding aid for those who physically visited Dunblane. Perhaps Bruce knew another Leighton borrower who could have informed him of the library’s contents, or perhaps he corresponded directly with the librarian. The absence of Bruce’s signature from his borrowing page implies he did not physically collect his book from the library and likely sent a servant to retrieve it or received it through the post.[5]

In a different sense, Bruce’s connection to the Leighton preceded his borrowing from it. Although the library did not have a first edition of Travels, it did have the third edition of its abridgement by Samuel Shaw, published in 1790 in duodecimo, which the library acquired in the year of its publication.[6] Clearly this abridgement was not enough for the Leighton’s trustees and in 1805 the library ordered the second edition of Bruce’s travels, now expanded and newly printed in eight volumes octavo.[7] Bruce’s escapades made him a famous figure. No doubt his association with the Leighton, no matter how brief, brought an added excitement to those Leighton members who borrowed and read his travels.

‘James Bruce of Kinnaird, Lord of Geesh, discovering the sources of the Nile and drinking the health of George III in its waters’, by James Gillray, after Richard Morton Paye (1793). ©British Museum

[1] Nigel Leask, ‘Bruce, James, of Kinnaird (1730-1794)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (May 2006).

[2] University of Stirling Archives, Leighton MS 25, Leighton Library Matriculation Book, 31 October 1734-1814, 21 December 1791.

[3] University of Stirling Archives, Leighton MS 27, Register of borrowings from the Leighton Library, May 1780-1833 and 1840, p.57.

[4] For example, see Richard Pococke, Tours in Scotland: 1747, 1750, 1760 (Edinburgh: T. and A. Constable for the Scottish History Society, 1887), p.202; Robert Heron, Scotland Delineated, or a Geographical Description of Every Shire in Scotland… (Edinburgh: Bell & Bradfute, 1799), p.160. A Catalogue of the Leightonian Library, Dunblane (Edinburgh: William Smellie, 1793).

[5] There are references in the borrowing register to books being sent out to borrowers, see University of Stirling Archives, Leighton MS 27, pp.40, 41, 45. Other notes and letters, found loose in the borrowing register, request for books to be sent via the post or a servant. University of Stirling Archives, Leighton MS 28, Book requests, letters and scraps taken from Leighton MS 27.

[6] It was first borrowed by Mr Alexander Blackadder of Blair Drummond on 14 December 1790. University of Stirling Archives, Leighton MS 27, p.36.

[7] University of Stirling Archives, Leighton MS 16, Minutes of the meetings of the trustees, 31 October 1734-March 1822, 18 June 1805.