Christmas in Kirkwall

As the festive season approaches, I thought I would write something to get us all in the mood for Christmas. This time last year, I looked at Christmas borrowings at the Library of Innerpeffray. This year, I’m going to be focussing on the Orkney Library, and reporting on what borrowers were returning to the library exactly 200 years ago, in December of 1821. Avid readers of this blog will perhaps be surprised that I haven’t chosen to focus on what they were taking out, but since the Orkney records record first when a book was returned, rather than when it was delivered to the subscriber, it seemed fitting to replicate the Library’s priorities here.

Page of Orkney borrowing register

Orkney Library C05-100-5, fol. 30, showing the date of return before the date of borrowing.

We are lucky that in addition to the borrowers’ registers of the Orkney Library, the Kirkwall Archives also hold its 1816 catalogue, which includes a list of subscribers to the library, as well as its earliest Rules. This allows us to identify borrowers with some degree of certainty, sometimes including their occupation (e.g. merchant, tax-collector) and/or location (e.g. Holm, Stromness, Kirkwall).

page of Orkeny Library Catalogue with list of subscribers

‘List of Contributors and Annual Subscribers to Orkney Library, 1815’, from Institution, Rules & Catalogue of the Orkney Library (Edinburgh, Printed by John Moir, 1816), p.4 Orkney Library Catalogue, p.4.

The earliest date of return in December of 1821 is 3 December, on which James Smellie of the parish of St Andrews to the East of Kirkwall returned three books: John Jamieson’s An Historical Account of the Ancient Culdees of Iona, and of their Settlements in Scotland, England, and Ireland (1811), The History Of The Invasion Of Switzerland By The French, And The Destruction Of The Democratical Republics Of Schwitz, Uri, And Unterwalden by Heinrich Zschokke (1803), and Johnson and Boswell’s Tour of the Hebrides (1785). On the same day, Mr Peterkin, the Sheriff-substitute (judge of the sheriff court in today’s parlance) of Orkney, returned Coquetry, a now forgotten 1818 novel by Charlotte Champion Pascoe and Jane Louisa Williams, and four days later Paradise Lost and a volume of Poets (thus far unidentified) were returned to the library by either William or Walter Traill. Hugh Murray’s Historical Account of Discoveries and Travels in Asia (1820), which had been borrowed by Thomas Polloxfen, Collector of Customs, on 16 November, also returned to the library on 7 December, along with five novels, Frances Sheridan’s Memoirs of Miss Sidney Biddulph (1761), Arthur Mower’s The White Cottage (1817), Johnson’s Rasselas (1759) and Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764), the anonymous The History of Lord Clayton and Miss Meredith (1769), and a work called Travels in France (currently unidentified).

On 8 December, the Reverend Andrew Smith of Holm, six miles south of Kirkwall, returned the Episcopal Magazine and the Edinburgh Magazine. On 11 December, John Urquhart of Elsness returned Thomas Pococke’s Journal Of A Soldier Of The 71st, Or Glasgow Regiment, Highland Light Infantry: From 1806 To 1815 (1819).  Mr Baco, who does not feature in the Subscriber’s List,  returned Euphemia, which appears in the library catalogue as a 4-volume novel. I have been unable to trace a 4-volume novel of this title, though it seems possible that this work is Fortitude, or Euphemia, a novel originally published in 2 volumes in 1816 by B. Taylor. Also on 11 December, The Reverend Mr Taylor (again, not on the Subscriber’s List) returned Amelia Opie’s 1801 novel The Father and Daughter, and Thomas Moore’s 1817 poem Lalla Rookh, and Mr Fotheringham returned Hume’s History of England (1754-61). It’s possible the ‘Mr Fotheringham’ recorded here was either Patrick Fotheringhame, Controller of Customs, and resident on Orkney, or William Fotheringhame, who is recorded in the Subscriber’s List as ‘writer, Edin[burgh]’. 14 December saw Mr Jolly returning Volume 1 of ‘Tillotson’s Works’, which could be one of two editions of Tillotson’s Sermons owned by the library, and Mr Henderson returning Walter Scott’s The Abbot (1820) while Smollett’s Works, a Life of Cromwell, and the Quarterly Review were among the other books returned.

As in many of our other libraries (such as the Royal High School, Innerpeffray Library, and the Wigtown Subscription Library) Christmas Day at the Orkney Library did see action at the library, a reminder that the Church frowned on Christmas Day holidays in Scotland.  On 25 December, Mr Jolly returned James Beattie’s Essay on the Nature and Immutability of Truth (1771), and Mr Fotheringham returned Robertson’s Works, held by the library as a 12 volume edition of 1812.  On Boxing Day, Mrs Annish returned two novels, Maria Edgeworth’s Patronage (1814) and Charlotte Smith’s Desmond (1792) while 2 December saw the return of Mungo Park’s Travels in the Interior of Africa (1799).

Title page of Beattie's Essay on Truth

Light Christmas Reading: Beattie’s Essay on the Nature and Immutability of Truth

More books than I have been able to detail here went in and out of the library in December of 1821, but this brief snapshot gives some sense of the most popular genres in the Orkney collections. As elsewhere, travels, histories and biographies were popular reading, but the genre represented most heavily in these December returns is the novel. Orkney borrowers seem to have favoured novels of all kinds, and these records remind us of the contemporary popularity of a number of now forgotten fictional works and writers of fiction.