Books and Borrowing 1750-1830

The Koran that Wasn’t: A Cataloguing Adventure from Craigston Castle

Craigston Castle’s ‘Koran’ is far from spectacular but as is so often the case with older books, appearances are deceptive. This well-worn volume has so many stories to tell both of its path to Craigston and its life since then. About the former we have some tantalising details but much is yet to be known. However the latter is perhaps a little clearer. It all began with the briefest of emails:

Image of spine of a book labelled as 'Koran'.

Craigston’s ‘Koran’

Craigston’s ‘Koran’









Yes you are quite correct it is Hebrew but [at this point I could almost hear a slightly apologetic cough] this is not a Koran, the image you have sent me is the opening page of Genesis – this is a Hebrew Bible.”

Opening page of Genesis in Craigston'e Hebrew Bible

Opening page of Genesis

I had been shelf checking some items and come across a volume I had forgotten about. Catalogued simply as a Koran and given a shelf number it was one of those few items the volunteers who catalogued the library did not have the expertise to deal with and was left for a later date. Just in case I could now add something, I opened it. I know enough to be almost certain I was looking at Hebrew (not Arabic as had been assumed).  There was something awry. It clearly said Koran on the spine yet it was in Hebrew – which was not impossible but this volume looked far too early. Printed Hebrew translations of the Koran are 19th century or later. So back to Lindsay (the e-mailer), a rare books librarian who also happens to be Jewish and to her Rabbi who kindly provided a translation of the colophon which allowed me to produce a somewhat more satisfactory catalogue record:

[Bible. O.T. Hebrew ] Antwerp: Christopher Plantin,  1566, Unnumbered pp: 22cm,

Inscriptions: 1. ‘Craigston Library’; 2. ‘ Ex. Libr. Alex. Falconer [?]; Thomas Gaskinge [?] His booke anno domini 1670’ ; possible other provenance very faint

An edition of the Bomberg text; Colophon translated reads “Printed by and in the house of Christophoro Plantin, with Bombergian types and letters, and completed in the month of Tevet 326 according to the small reckoning. Blessed be the Lord whose kindness has not forsaken us, so that we merited to complete this book without adversary or mishap”; Woodcut title borders and head-pieces.

Lacks main tp?; Some torn pp; full bound leather; ‘Koran’ on spine; some annotations

Thus we held a perfectly normal Hebrew Old Testament – very interesting in its own right for its bibliographic history, for physical evidence of use including annotations and for a number of provenances which remain to be investigated.

So problem solved? Well not quite. Two key questions remained. Why does it say ‘Koran’ on the spine, and crucially when was that done and by whom? Secondly it appeared to have been borrowed by three users of the Craigston Library during the life of the loans register – did they think they were borrowing a Koran?

Loan of the Koran

Loan of the Koran

Loan of the Koran

At this point another helpful friend, a theology academic, enters the story.  He visited the library with me to examine the text. He had several fascinating observations on the evidence of use but that is for another day – for our story it his observations on the borrowers that matter. While he could not vouch for Mr. Marr or Mrs Ferguson he simply found it inconceivable that a Church of Scotland minister of this period (Rev. Duff) did not recognise a Hebrew Bible.  Neither of us understood what the other two borrowers were doing with it at all.

The answer was they were borrowing something else altogether – a book which managed to evade us for some time.   And here we meet further characters in this trail – some slightly acquisitive monks from Fort Augustus Abbey who raided the library in 1915 – again a story for another day.

I have an ongoing project on the items the monks removed. Collating evidence from several sources, I have been creating a database of the monks’ acquisitions. What emerged was that Craigston formerly had a copy of George Sale’s 1734 translation of the Koran, the first reliable one in English, well known and widely available at the time. It was there before 1800 and is not in the library today. It is on the monks’ list.

This made a lot more sense. While we may have met the idea of Mrs Ferguson of Kinmundie curling up with the Hebrew Bible with incredulity, the idea of her taking an interest in the Koran through this English translation was entirely reasonable.

However the last piece of the puzzle only slotted into place when I was working on the register entries for this project – how the spine title on a Hebrew Bible came to be ‘Koran’.

It is clear from a couple of loans that our actual Hebrew Bible was borrowed twice, once in 1807, and once in 1815. Both entries [image 4] clearly indicate that it was on shelf B4. Suddenly the light dawned – I think – but here I have to admit I am making some assumptions.

Register entry showing loan of the Hebrew Bible

Loan of the Hebrew Bible

borrowing register entry for the Craigston Hebrew Bible

Loan of the Hebrew Bible

And here enters our last of the list of characters – Bruce Pollard Urquhart (1908-1995) who was laird of Craigston Castle for the latter half of the 20th century. He was responsible for the check marks in the 1800 catalogue done after the monks’ raid. For some reason he thinks the ‘Hebrew Bible’ then on shelf B4 is the entry on I3 ‘Koran of Mohammed’.

Page 8 of the Catalogue showing the entry for the Hebrew bible

Page 43 of the Catalogue showing the entry for the Koran (Sale’s translation) with annotation indicating mis-identification

This is made clear by his biro note of one of the ‘Koran’’s main provenances,  beside the entry.  He had no way of knowing that the copy of Sale’s translation of the Koran, to which this actually refers, ever existed. It is possible that he did not recognise Hebrew and went ahead and re-shelved the Hebrew Bible from B4 to I3, rather amateurishly marking the blank spine ‘Koran’ (see above) on the way. More likely is that someone between around 1830 and the 1950s marked the spine and Bruce Pollard Urquhart simply accepted the identification. What he certainly did was, on the inside cover of the book, enter the new shelf mark in ink – this is not the normal 18th/19th century Craigston format.

New shelf mark

There was therefore nothing odd at the time of the Register – both the copy of Sale’s translation of the Koran and the Hebrew Bible looked just as they would have been expected to, but the disappearance of the former, and the incorrect re-naming and thus change in appearance of the latter, had led us a merry dance. Our ‘Koran’ (i.e. actually the Hebrew Bible) is happily still with us and has more to reveal. And Mrs Ferguson’s reading habits, beyond her borrowing of Sale’s translation of the Koran, will surely be worthy of further investigation.

*My thanks must go to both Dr Lindsay Levy of Edinburgh and Dr Alistair Mason of Banff who gave me much help in solving this puzzle.