William MacGregor Stirling: Minister, Historian, and Antiquarian

It may seem facile to remark that behind each borrowing record is a borrower. Library records alone often tell us little of their identity. Typically, this may include the price of admission paid by a library borrower, perhaps a signature signed into the subscription book, or details of their occupation or address. For most library borrowers, the only surviving biographical detail remains their name. For others in positions of authority or with public profiles we have the facts or outlines of their lives. Some have left the fruits of their labours, be it in writing, art or architecture. For even fewer, there are surviving archival records, notes, and correspondence which provide an insight into their everyday lives. This is the case for one of the borrowers and trustees of the Leighton Library, William MacGregor Stirling, minister of the Port of Menteith between 1801 and 1824.

As a Church of Scotland minister, much of the details of Stirling’s life come from Fasti Ecclesiae Scoticanae.[1] Born on 16 October 1771, he was the son of Robert Stirling who preceded him as minister of Menteith from 1769 to 1801 and was also both a borrower and trustee at the Leighton Library. Robert Stirling’s first recorded borrowings were on 10 October 1785, where he took out the first two volumes of Thomas Secker’s Sermons on Several Subjects (1771), the Annual Register for the year 1783 and William Bell’s treatise on holy communion. However, he had been a trustee of the library since 1774 and was a regular attender at meetings, so it is likely that he had been borrowing books before this.[2]

Image showing Stirling's signature in the Leighton Library Matriculation book
The signature of William MacGregor Stirling in the Leighton’s matriculation book, Leighton MS 25, Leighton Library Matriculation Book, 19 March 1803.

William MacGregor Stirling followed in his father’s footsteps in more ways than one and was ordained as his assistant and successor at Menteith on 15 August 1799. His association with the Leighton Library was altogether longer. He signed the library’s matriculation book on 19 March 1803, paying ten shillings and sixpence, yet he had been borrowing from the library since 1797, perhaps taking advantage of a decision made by the trustees in 1796 to allow local preachers and students in divinity free access to the library’s books.[3] In 1812, the Synod of Perth and Stirling appointed Stirling to the Leighton’s board of trustees. This was relayed to them at the next trustee meeting on 2 May 1815, with Stirling first attending the following meeting of trustees on 20 May 1817, as well as two following meetings, in 1818 and 1822.[4] Therein the Leighton minute book ends, but it may be that Stirling’s association with the library also ended soon after. In 1823, Stirling married for a second time, the circumstances of which, including conceiving a child out of wedlock, led to a Presbyterial inquiry and a sentence of deposition which was affirmed by the local Synod. Although this was later reversed by the Assembly, the following year, Stirling retired as minister and moved to Edinburgh.[5] There he continued his interest in history and antiquarianism before dying, at the age of sixty-two, on 23 January 1833.

Map of Stirlingshire and neighbouring counties, drawn by Stirling and included in the second edition of William Nimmo’s History of Stirlingshire (1817).

During his lifetime, Stirling’s interests resulted in numerous publications including Notes, Historical and Descriptive on the Priory of Inchmahome (1815), a history of a ruined Augustinian priory located on an island in the Lake of Menteith and the editing of the second edition of William Nimmo’s History of Stirlingshire (1817), to which Stirling added additional chapters and footnotes to bring it up to his own time.[6] He was forthright in his views, and unafraid to challenge others. In his History of Stirlingshire, he was critical of Richard Gough’s translation of William Camden’s Britannia (1789), describing it and Gough’s perception of Scotland as having been ‘observed incorrectly, noted hastily, and prepared for the press carelessly’. As noted by Stirling, these views persisted in the second edition of Camden’s Britannia, published in 1806, which included a rather disparaging and erroneous assessment of the Leighton Library and reading in Scotland more generally, which Stirling disapprovingly quoted; ‘Bishop Leighton’s Collection of books is little used, a striking proof how little literature is cultivated in the northern province of Scotland, though the country has lately produced so many authors’.[7] Although a history of Stirlingshire rather than of Perthshire, Stirling did make reference to the Leighton Library in an additional appendix, describing it as ‘an inducement, additional to the mineral waters, to spend a few weeks at Dunblane’.[8]

Stirling’s borrowing from the Leighton, 1797-1804. Leighton MS 27, Register of borrowings from the Leighton Library, May 1780-1833 and 1840, p.106.

Stirling made a total of 49 borrowings from the Leighton Library, over a period spanning October 1797 to January 1812. Unsurprisingly, many were of theological works or sermons by authors including Thomas Burnet, Richard Hurd, William Paley, Jacques Saurin and Richard Watson, though he also borrowed some of the classic texts of the Scottish Enlightenment by William Robertson, Adam Smith and Dugald Stewart. He also maintained an interest in poetry, borrowing the works of John Armstrong, Geoffrey Chaucer, William Hayley and Edmund Spenser. It may be that these borrowings encouraged Stirling to attempt his own poetry, as he did with introductory verses, titled ‘Inschemachame’, in his Priory of Inchmahome.[9]

Title page of Stirling’s Priory of Inchmahome (1815).
Title page of Stirling’s Priory of Inchmahome (1815).

Stirling’s last recorded borrowing from the Leighton was John Drinkwater’s History of the Late Siege of Gibraltar (1790) on 10 January 1812. As a borrower, Stirling reminds us that none of our libraries existed within a bibliographical vacuum and readers sourced their literary material from a variety of sources. Stirling’s surviving records and additional source material reveals that he owned a substantial library of his own. In 1834, the year following Stirling’s death, this was auctioned off over the course of four days including ‘many rare and curious works relating to Antiquities and Genealogy, and standard works in general literature’, alongside several oil paintings, engravings and ‘several cases of stuffed birds’.[10] Moreover, Stirling was either a member himself, or had access through his friends to the books of the Stirling Subscription Library, which had been founded in 1805 and consisted of 2,350 volumes by 1817.[11]

Stirling’s sketch in his Priory of Inchmahome (1817).

Stirling’s borrowing from the Leighton Library may have ceased in 1812, but his connection to it did not. In the same year he was appointed to the board of trustees and became a regular attender at meetings. His correspondence demonstrates that he was part of a network of Perthshire residents, including Patrick Graham of Aberfoyle and John Allan of Dunblane, who were united by interests in reading, history and antiquarianism and who all had connections to the Leighton Library. Stirling’s role afforded him a privileged position at the heart of the library’s management. It is probably not without a little degree of satisfaction that he recorded in his own reading notes that ‘The clerical trustees [of the Leighton Library] are the Revd John Grierson of Dunblane, Dr Murray of Kilmadock, and William MacGregor Stirling of Port’.[12]

[1] Hew Scott, ed., Fasti Ecclesiae Scoticanae, IV (Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1923), p.360.

[2] Leighton MS 16, Minutes of the meetings of the trustees, 13 October 1774, p.114.

[3] Leighton MS 25, Leighton Library Matriculation Book, 19 March 1803; Leighton MS 16, 3 May 1796, p.149.

[4] Leighton MS 16, 2 May 1815, p.209.

[5] A. F. Hutchison, The Lake of Menteith (Stirling: Eneas Mackay, 1899), pp.38-39.

[6] Despite his role as a borrower and a trustee, none of Stirling’s works were purchased by, or gifted to the Leighton, though it did already own the first edition of Nimmo’s History of Stirlingshire (1777).

[7] William Nimmo, History of Stirlingshire, ed. William MacGregor Stirling, 2 vols., (2nd edn; Stirling: Andrew Bean, 1817), I, pp.212-13, n.

[8] Ibid, II, p.659.

[9] William MacGregor Stirling, Notes, Historical and Descriptive on the Priory of Inchmahome (Edinburgh: James Ballantyne and Co., 1815), pp.8-19.

[10] Edinburgh Evening Courant, 3 April 1834.

[11] Stirling makes frequent reference to the Stirling Library in his History of Stirlingshire, including quoting directly from its ‘original constitution’, see Nimmo, History of Stirlingshire (1817), p.382, n.  At the very least, he had access to its books through his friend Andrew Bean, a Stirling bookseller. In a letter dated 27 November 1818, Bean promises to get for Stirling a work of John Pinkerton when it next returns to the library. In doing so, it is unclear if Bean is promising to reserve the book for Stirling to take out himself, or intends to sub-let the book to Stirling. This latter method was often expressly outlawed in subscription library regulations. NRAS 2362/366, Andrew Bean to William MacGregor Stirling, 27 November 1818.

[12] NRAS 2362/367, Miscellaneous papers and historical notes of William MacGregor Stirling, unpaginated.