Women Borrowers at Westerkirk Library

The rural settting of Westerkirk Parish Library

To mark Women’s History Month, we’re running a series of blogs to highlight the women who wrote and borrowed the books found in our libraries. Today, I’m returning to Westerkirk Library in Dumfriesshire, where a small but active cohort of women members made over 250 borrowings between 1813 and 1818. Eight of the 120 borrowers to appear in the ledger so far are women. Westerkirk’s borrowers’ register or ‘Kalendar’ gives their names as: Margaret Armstrong of Langholm, Mrs Bell of Enzieholm, Mrs Bell of Whitcastles, Mrs Brown, Mary Little, Miss Malcolm, Miss Murray, and Miss Nugent.

An example of Mrs Bell’s borrowings for 1816, including volumes of Burney’s Cecilia and Edgeworth’s Tales. Courtesy of Westerkirk Parish Library.

The presence of women borrowers at Westerkirk appears surprising at first, given that it was founded for the workers of the James Town antimony mine in 1793. By 1813 however, Westerkirk seems to have developed into a more conventional subscription library, open to a wider membership of local borrowers. Yet male attitudes towards women readers may have remained an obstacle to female library members at Westerkirk. The memoirs of a local farmer, Thomas Beattie of Muckledale, give a somewhat bleak impression of the hardships faced by women in this locale and period. In 1791, Beattie complained that his wife, Margaret, ‘by reading the Revelations and afterwards the Arabian Nights entertainments, became possessed of most extraordinary notions.’[1]

Frances Burney [author of Cecilia], by Edward Francisco Burney. Oil on canvas, circa 1784-1785. NPG 2634.

Unfortunately, Margaret Beattie never seems to have borrowed from Westerkirk library, but of the women who did, the most prolific was Mrs Bell of Enzieholm, who made 60 borrowings between 1813 and 1817. Bell’s borrowings range widely across Westerkirk’s collection, from Walter Scott’s Lay of the Last Minstrel, to Marshall’s Rural Economy of the Midland Counties. Within this broad span, Bell shows something of a preference for prose fiction, including Maria Edgeworth’s Popular Tales, Tobias Smollet’s comic novels Humphry Clinker and Peregrine Pickle, John Moore’s Zeluco, Frances Burney’s Cecilia, and Laurence Sterne’s Works. As with many of her fellow borrowers, histories such as William Russell’s History of Modern Europe also feature prominently in Bell’s record.

At the other end of the scale, we find Miss Nugent, associated with a handful of borrowings over September and October 1816: Robert Lindsay of Pitscottie’s Historie and Chronicles of Scotland, two volumes of Edgeworth’s Popular Tales, and William Dodd’s novel, The Sisters. Nugent’s borrowings are shared with a Lord Alloway and an Admiral Nugent. The latter was probably Sir Charles Edmund Nugent, a naval officer who had served in the American Wars of Independence, and later in the Caribbean. Miss Nugent, then is likely to be his daughter Georgina Charlotte Nugent (1799-1875), who would later marry the politician George Banks; the National Trust hold a miniature portrait of Georgina Charlotte and three of her children from 1830. Nugent and her companions only appear briefly in Westerkirk’s records, perched on the end of the borrowers’ ‘Kalendar’ for 1816. This suggests that they may have visited the library as part of a longer tour of Scotland (a fashionable thing to do throughout the Romantic period) and were given permission to borrow from the collection due to their high social status.

Miss Nugent’s brief appearance in the ‘Kalendar’ in 1816. Courtesy of Westerkirk Parish Library.

The teenage Georgina Charlotte Nugent is atypical among Westerkirk’s women borrowers, both because she was a guest rather than a subscriber, and because her elite standing makes it possible to find out more about her life. With the exception of Margaret Armstrong of Langholm and Mary Little, the ‘Kalendar’ only records the title and surname of its women borrowers, making fuller identifications difficult. In the case of Mrs Brown, there is a sliver of extra information available, in that her name is inserted in place of that of a James Brown for the borrowing record for 1816. At Westerkirk, it wasn’t uncommon for borrowers to transfer their borrowing rights (and place in the strict borrowers’ rota) to a family member, and that may be what’s happening in this case. The library’s  Minute Book records a similar event in 1829, when Isabel Knox assumed the borrowing rights of her father, George.

Isabel Knox takes her father’s place as a borrower. Courtesy of Westerkirk Parish Library.

From a glance at her 48 borrowings, Brown’s tastes skew more towards sermons and devotional reading, and less towards the works of fiction preferred by Mrs Bell.Like Bell’s however, Brown’s tastes were eclectic, incorporating Anne Grant of Laggan’s Letters from the Mountains, William Marshall On Planting, Scott’s Lady of the Lake, James Macpherson’s Poems of Ossian, and several volumes of Buffon’s Natural History.

Anne Grant of Laggan, author of Letters from the Mountains.

As the Books and Borrowing project progresses, we hope to create a much fuller picture of not only the borrowing habits of Westerkirk’s women subscribers, but of how they fit into broader patterns of library use in Scotland across the Enlightenment and Romantic period.

[1] Edward J. Cowan (ed.), Chronicles of Muckledale, being the Memoirs of Thomas Beattie of Muckledale, 1736-1827 (The European Ethnological Research Centre, University of Edinburgh: ND), p.209. http://www.dumfriesandgalloway.hss.ed.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/2012/12/Cowan-The-Memoirs-of-Thomas-Beattie-op.pdf