Visiting the Advocates Library in the 18th Century

We are fortunate that some of our Books and Borrowing libraries survive in forms our eighteenth and nineteenth century borrowers would recognise. The books of Innerpeffray Library and the Leighton Library still live in their original homes of 1762 and 1687 respectively. For other libraries, such as the university libraries in our study, the books have moved to new buildings but can still be found. For others, such as  Chambers’ Circulating Library, we have only a catalogue and a borrowers’ register, with the books that were eagerly read by Edinburgh’s New Town elite long dispersed.

In our online exhibition with the Centre for Research Collections at the University of Edinburgh, we consider four Edinburgh libraries and how their borrowing registers can reveal the hidden histories of reading in Georgian Edinburgh. One of these is the Advocates Library and I want to take a closer look at what it was like to visit it for an eighteenth-century borrower.

Athena – and her judgemental owl – supervise book-shelving putti
Source: Kreittmayr, Wiguläus Xaverius Aloysius, Freiherr von, 1705-1790. Grundriss des allgemeinen, deutsch- und bayrischen Staatsrechtes (München: In Verlag bey Johann Neopmuk Fritz, 1770); 21 cm. Call # ABCNY-X K878 1770.
Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

The Advocates Library’s foundation in the 1680s was a success and the Faculty of Advocates soon had a problem: where could it keep its growing collection of books? The library’s catalogues show and increase from about 26,000 entries in 1742 to another 18,000 in 1776 and yet another 3,500 in 1787.[1] The library’s first home was destroyed by fire in 1700 but its books were saved.[2] The books moved into the Laigh Hall, a set of rooms beneath Parliament House which being in a basement were hardly suitable for a library, but convenient for the law courts. The Faculty set about arranging its library, adding new furniture and shelving.[3] The entrance was a problem: the library was reached via a steep stair. This, however, offered unexpected opportunities as Lord Hailes noted in his private journal in February 1754 when a lady (her name is in cipher):

…being to go down the dark stairs into the Advocates Library, I offered her my hand & assistance. This she refused by an ill timed piece of prudery. I renewed my offer & necessity obliged her to accept of it. Ought I have suffered her to follow her fancy & tumble down stairs?’[4]

Who was this lady and why was she going to the Advocates Library? A client meeting her lawyer or a widow presenting a petition to the Faculty for funds? Hailes’s remark shows that non-advocates could access library. We will meet another female visitor below who visited just for fun.

Several proposals for a new building came to nothing so eighteenth-century users of the Advocates Library continued to visit the ‘ancient, dark, Gothic room’ as described by Sir Walter Scott in Old Mortality.[5] The core of the library remained in the Laigh Hall, expanding into more rooms as they became available in the Parliament complex. In 1772, this included a lumber room by Edinburgh Council immediately to the north of its space. The Faculty set about decorating its new premises, painting the walls and ceiling white, acquiring a white marble chimney-piece, and adding mahogany furniture, including a library table with a green-cloth top. This new room quickly became a social space with advocates using it as a coffee room and consultation space to meet clients thereby crowding out those who wanted to use the books.[6] The books themselves were kept in locked presses and protected by lattice work: browsing was not possible and readers relied on catalogues and the knowledge of the library staff to find what they wanted.[7]

A jaunty lawyer meets his clients in the library Source: Meurer, Noe. Tractatus juridicus de successione ab intestato, oder, Vollkommener Unterricht von Erbschafften, und Erb-Gerechtigkeiten (Nürnberg: In Verlegung Johann Albrecht, gedruct bey Johann Ernst Adelbulnern, 1730); 21 cm. Call # Germany 46 M5715. Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

James Boswell was a regular user of the Advocates Library. His Edinburgh Journal is peppered with references to visits to the library, who he met there, and what books he borrowed. His comments also show the social nature of the library. On 19 August 1776, for example, ‘while uneasy from David Hume’s conversation’:

I read part of his worst essays in the Advocates’ Library, from a kind of curiosity and self-tormenting inclination which we feel on many occasions. I was roused to noble hope again by an accidental conversation in the Library with Lord Monboddo, who talked of spirit like Plato himself and said ‘Show me anything destroyed, and then maintain the annihilation of mind.’[8]

It was a different meeting with Lord Monboddo – with whom Boswell had previously enjoyed good relations, often meeting in the library, walking along the Meadows, and enjoying dinners – on 12 January 1786:

Was at a meeting of the curators of the Advocates’ Library. Felt myself very easy. Lord Monboddo came in to the Library. I bowed to him, but he did not speak to me. I understood afterwards that he was violent against me. I did not care. I considered that it would make him fair game in Dr Johnson’s Life.[9]

Law library sociability Source: Struve, Burkhard Gotthelf, 1671-1738. Bibliotheca iuris selecta (Ienae: Apud Christian. Henr. Cuno, 1743); 21 cm. Hicks classification: BiblC St896 1743. Call # Rare26 00-0166. Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

Although the Library was primarily for the use of members of the Faculty of Advocates, others gained access to the books. Sometimes this was informal: we can see in the borrowing ledgers where names of non-advocate friends and relatives have been added to loans and we can safely assume that books were circulated beyond members of the Faculty. Advocates’ clerks often did the borrowing for some senior Lords of Session. One such clerk, John Hunter, went from being Lord Monboddo’s private secretary to becoming Professor of Humanity at and later Principal of the University of St Andrews.

The historian Robert Henry requested access to the collection on 26 July 1766. The Faculty Minutes record that he

…was engaged in writing the history of England. That in carrying out this work it would be of the greatest Benefit to him to have use of the Books of the Library.[10]

The Faculty granted Henry’s request. The permission was limited to printed books and Henry was obliged to take out a bond with a local baillie – who happened to be his brother-in-law – promising ‘to return safe into the Library the Books… and that within the time limited in the Receipts’.[11] Incidentally, James Boswell was admitted advocate on the same day that Henry was granted access to the library.

Henry was a full-time practising clergyman alongside his historical research and publishing. His History of Great Britain, from the first invasion of it by the Romans under Julius Caesar appeared in 5 volumes between 1771 and 1785. This ambitious project was inspired by a ‘new plan’ based on a French model of covering topics such as civil, political, legal, religious, artistic, educational, economic, and social history within historical periods.

Robert Henry’s borrowings 13 May 1771, NLS FR 262a_4, f. 62

We can see him here borrowing the first volume of Thomas Carte’s A general history of England and the first volume of William Maitland’s The history and antiquities of Scotland from the earliest account of time to the death of James the First, anno 1473 leaving a deposit of £2 for the two volumes in folio on 13 May 1771 and promising to return them by 13 June. Note that ‘Advocate’ as been crossed out.

It wasn’t just books that attracted visitors to the Advocates Library. On 28 December 1795, Agnes Witts, an Edinburgh resident from 1793 to 1798, visited in quest of amusement:

…at ½ past nine to the Court of Justiciary, to hear an interesting Trial that was expected to come on, but being put off were disappointed & was not half an hour in the Court, after which we went into the Advocates Library till the Carriage came much entertained by the Sight of some fine Prints….[12]

The Advocates Library had manuscripts, prints, coins, and other antiquities at the service of curious visitors. From 1773, the library was open from 8:30 am until 3pm during the week and from 8:30 am until the closing of the Courts on Saturdays.[13]

Legal work Source: Gentili, Scipione, 1563-1616. Opera omnia in plures tomos distributo (Neapoli: sumptibus Joannis Gravier, et nepoltis, 1763-1769); 25 cm. Call # ABCNY G289 1763 tall v.1-2./ Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

A reoccurring problem in the second half of the eighteenth century, and one that continued into the early nineteenth was the length of time borrowers kept books. Advocates were frustrated when seeking books to find them borrowed. The Curators noted in February 1800 that ‘in some instances the Advocates Library has been employed to fill the private libraries of members with a choice collection of books, which remain there till their death…’[14] This is a problem we also see at the university libraries, such as at Edinburgh, where books that furnished professors’ offices even being ‘inherited’ by new holders of chairs upon the deaths of their previous incumbents.

Sir Walter Scott raged in his Journal on 17 February 1829 about a failed attempt to see a book in the library:

I went to the Library but not a book could I get to look at. I think a wrong system the lending books to private houses at all and leads to immense annual losses.[15]

In sum, users and visitors to the Advocates Library would find a brightly decorated room once they’d navigated steep stairs with comfortable furnishings and book-lined walls. It would be busy with scholarship, discussion and debate, meetings, and legal work. And, just maybe, the books they wanted to see would be available. The Books and Borrowing database shows active borrowers and a wide variety of books being borrowed.

For more images of 18th-century law libraries, see Yale Law Library’s Law Libraries Album (Flickr):

[1] Peter Wellburn, ‘The Living Library’, in For the Encouragement of Learning: Scotland’s National Library, 1689-1989, ed. Patrick Cadell and Ann Matheson (Edinburgh: HMSO, 1989), pp. 186-214, at p. 200.

[2] Iain Gordon Brown, Building for Books: The Architectural Evolution of the Advocates’ Library, 1689-1925 (Aberdeen: Aberdeen University Press in association with the Natioanal Library of Scotland, 1989), p. 23.

[3] Ibid., p. 27.

[4] Quoted in Brown, Building for Books, p. 43.

[5] Quoted in Brown, Building for Books, p. 30.

[6] Brown, Building for Books, pp. 53-55.

[7] Wellburn, ‘Living Library’, p. 204.

[8] James Boswell, Boswell’s Edinburgh Journals, 1767-1786, new edn, ed. Hugh M. Milne (Edinburgh: John Donald, 2013), p. 262.

[9] Boswell, Edinburgh Journals, p. 537. Milne notes that Boswell had insulted Monboddo in his Letter to the People of Scotland of 1785 and some of his references to him in Journal of a Tour of the Hebrides may have caused offence. Boswell served as a curator of the Advocates Library from 1784 to 1788.

[10]  The Minute Book of the Faculty of Advocates, Vol. 3: 1751-1783, ed. Angus Stewart (Edinburgh: Stair Society, 1999), p. 167.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Agnes Witts, An Edinburgh Diary, 1793-1798, ed. Alan Sutton (Fonthill, 2016), p. 254.

[13] Wellburn, ‘Living Library’, p. 202.

[14] Ibid., p. 205.

[15] Walter Scott, The Journal of Sir Walter Scott, ed. W. E. K. Anderson (Edinburgh: Canongate Classics, 1998), p. 584.