Books and Borrowing 1750-1830

The Road to Westerkirk

Westerkirk Parish Library.

With the tentative lifting of Covid-19 restrictions, I was recently able to conduct my first bit of Books and Borrowing fieldwork since the project officially started in June. Thanks to the generosity of the library Trustees (and with suitable precautions taken) I’ve begun to dig into the rich collections of Westerkirk Parish Library, which lies above the town of Langholm, on the narrow road that winds its way through Eskdale to the Ettrick Valley. After the past few months, any chance to visit an actual library feels like a privilege, but all the more so given Westerkirk’s spectacular situation in a purpose-built nineteenth-century structure overlooking the broad, uncoiling river Esk below. I was met at the library by one of the Trustees, April Davey, who gave me a fantastic introduction to the site and collection in their present forms, as well as to the history of the institution itself, which reaches back to the foundation of a library for the ‘mutual improvement’ of antimony miners in the early 1790s. On that note, Westerkirk’s own website has lots of great information on the library’s history and collection.

Outside the library, looking over the Esk towards the site of the Westerhall antimony mine.

The library still holds the original Minute Book from 1793, a wonderful source for anyone, like me, interested in the history of labouring-class reading in Scotland. The formal borrowing records date back to 1813, after the closure of the Westerhall antimony mine that employed its founding members, so it will be interesting to see if any of the names from the original Minute Book appear later as borrowers.

Setting up the camera.

I spent three days at Westerkirk, mainly photographing the Kalendar in which borrowings were recorded, along with the Minute Book and historic catalogue, the last of which will hopefully help me to match titles to the number system used to record borrowings. Along the way, I got to grips with the project’s camera equipment, a Canon DSLR equipped with a tripod and powerful macro lens, the latter of which took some getting used to after too many years using  tiny camera phones. When I needed a break from taking photos, I treated myself by exploring the shelves of the library itself, often to the soundtrack of the swallows, swifts, and martins which nest under the building’s eaves, or swoop around chasing insects over the grass outside. Some of the books here date right back to the original collection of the Jamestown miners’ library. Many others were purchased from a bequest left by the road builder and engineer, Thomas Telford, who was born in this valley. Amazingly, Westerkirk is still a working parish library, and the books themselves are still available for local readers to borrow.

One set of volumes that immediately caught my eye is John Williams’ 1789 Natural History of the Mineral Kingdom, which the Minute Book records as one of the very first books donated to the miners’ library in 1793. The title of Williams’ book would seem to make it an

Some of the library’s oldest books. Courtesy of Westerkirk Parish Library.

obvious choice for this particular readership, but in fact it was a controversial work in its time, prophesying the exhaustion of Britain’s coal fields and the nation’s subsequent economic decline. It turns out to be a particularly tantalising book to pick up, as while the first volume is the original from 1793, the second seems to be a later replacement, and bears an inscription noting that it was a gift from one ‘Thomas Telfer’ — presumably a variant spelling of Telford. As I start to work through the data in the coming weeks and months, I suppose I’ll find out whether either volume was popular among Westerkirk’s later borrowers, though initial signs suggest otherwise! In any case, like the books in its collection, Westerkirk is clearly a library with stories to tell.

Inscription in the second volume of Williams: ‘Anno 1800. Presented to the Westkirk Library by Mr. Thomas Telfer’. Courtesy of Westerkirk Parish Library.