Celebrity Spotting – Robert Riddell at St Andrews

Work has been continuing on the massive body of borrowing data we have from St Andrews University library. With the roughly 4,000 records of the 1748-1753 mixed professors/students register entered into our system, my attention has recently been on the 1772-1776 student ledger. This volume presents some distinctive challenges. In general, librarians’ record-keeping develops a range of individual nuances, which evolve over time. In this case, the 1772-1776 ledger features a prevailing use of ditto marks to indicate return dates (as in fig.1 ). These dittos marks, somewhat maddeningly, refer variously and unpredictably to the line above, the borrowed date, and in some cases apparently no specific date whatsoever.

Fig. 1. From St Andrews Library Receipt Book UYLY207-2.

Putting aside such headaches for now, however, I want to dig into a specific page of this ledger here.

The ‘lad o’ pairts’ ideal of Scottish culture has long emphasised the egalitarian social composition of the Scottish universities as compared to Oxford and Cambridge, suggesting that Glasgow, Edinburgh and St Andrews, plus both King’s College and Marischal in Aberdeen (not united until 1860) were comparatively open to talented scholars from less privileged backgrounds. Still, university attendance in this period remained the preserve of a small cross-section of Scottish society. For this reason, student borrowing records fairly frequently throw up well-known individuals, while the university professors – such as the mathematician David Gregory at St Andrews, or Glasgow’s chemist Joseph Black – were, by definition, conspicuous members of the nation’s intellectual culture.

An interesting example of student notoriety is the borrowing record (fig. 2) of Robert Riddell of Glenriddell (1755-1794), remembered today as a close friend and patron of the poet Robert Burns. When Burns left Edinburgh to take up the lease of Ellisland farm in Dumfriesshire in 1788, Riddell was his immediate neighbour upstream on the Nith river. Prior to an abrupt cessation of their friendship in 1793 following what was felt to be inappropriate drunken behaviour on Burns’s part, the two men had engaged in a fruitful exchange around their mutual literary and antiquarian interests. Riddell was also a significant literary figure in his own right, having carved out a niche as one of the leading antiquarians of Dumfriesshire and Galloway through his correspondence, membership of learned societies and publications that include articles on the region’s archaeology.

Riddell’s brief time at St Andrews across 1772-1773 has attracted the attention of scholars previously. Ailsa Hutton and Nigel Leask, exploring Riddell’s customised or ‘extra-illustrated and annotated’ copies of Thomas Pennant’s Scottish tours, found a marginal note at p. 198 of the third volume of the 1772 tour in which Riddell reflects on his time at the university. Contradicting Pennant’s praise of St Andrews in the main printed text, Riddell’s marginalia complains:

In 1772 I was at the university of St Andrews and found it more expensive than Edinburgh. The Professors (except the worthy Principal Tullidaff) were at no pains, nor took the slightest care of any students, who did not reside in their house. R[obert]. Watson the Prof of Rhetorick had 5 Boarders who each paid £100 per annum. I sometimes dined at the college table – which was shamefully bad – every kind of dissipation was carried on openly.[1]

This is a valuable glimpse into the university in the 1770s, including the intimate (and to Riddell’s mind prejudicial) relationships between professors and the students who boarded with them personally. Such circumstances are certainly pertinent to the study of library records, since we always need to consider alternative means of accessing reading material: affluent students, in general, may have been less reliant on the library holdings for certain types of material.

Fig. 2. From St Andrews Library Receipt Book UYLY207-2.

Riddell’s 1772-1773 borrowings themselves lean heavily towards what we would think of today as ‘literature’: five volumes of poetry including a two-volume 1765 edition of William Shenstone’s works in duodecimo format. There are three novels featured including Defoe’s Moll Flanders in one of the 1722 editions (possibly a first edition) and Henry Brooke’s widely popular Fool of Quality, being read in the first London edition of 1766-69. Hutton and Leask note Riddell’s marginal reference to Robert Watson in light of Robert Crawford’s argument that the Scottish universities were cultivating the modern study of English literature in this period.[2] Certainly Riddell’s borrowings might be constituted in narrowly curricular terms, though (as ever) we need to allow for uncertain motivations: in the eighteenth century’s own terms, for combinations of reading for improvement and diversion.

Travels also feature prominently: John Bell of Antermony’s Travels from St. Petersburg in Russia, to diverse parts of Asia (Glasgow, 1763); John Harris’s Navigantium atque itinerantium bibliotheca; Or, a complete collection of voyages and travels (London, 1744-48); and Alexander Drummond’s Travels through different cities of Germany, Italy, Greece, and several parts of Asia (London, 1754). And while travels existed in close proximity to the novel as a feature of eighteenth-century light entertainment, they were also an important venue for the culture of antiquarianism that would dominate Riddell’s lifelong interests. And indeed, those interests are reflected here in more straightforward terms by borrowings of four of the ten volumes of A description of England and Wales; Containing a particular account of each county … Embellished with two hundred and forty copper plates, of palaces, castles, cathedrals (London, 1769-70); and Henry Rowland’s Mona antiqua restaurata; An archæological discourse on the antiquities, natural and historical, of the isle of Anglesey, The Ancient Seat of the British Druids (London, 1766); both of which perfectly anticipate Riddell’s preoccupation with antiquarian chorography.

Riddell’s footprint in the borrowing registers at St Andrews, then, not only supports and fleshes out what we already know about his life, but it throws up the changing interconnections between literary genres in this period. And in doing so, it begs a set of enormously complicated questions around the motivations for and effects of reading that the study of borrowing records can helpfully approach, encircle and reframe.

[1] Quoted in Ailsa Hutton and Nigel Leask, ‘“The First Antiquary of his Country”: Robert Riddell’s Extra-Illustrated and Annotated Volumes of Thomas Pennant’s Tours in Scotland’, in Mary-Ann Constantine and Nigel Leask (eds), Enlightenment Travel and British Identities: Thomas Pennant’s Tours in Scotland and Wales (London: Anthem, 2017), 122-37, (p. 135)

[2] Robert Crawford, Devolving English Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992).