Sharing hidden treasures

A Lawyer without history or literature is... a mere working mason.
— Sir Walter Scott, Guy Mannering

In 1916, the Signet Library received what is without doubt the greatest single donation in its history — the manuscript to Sir Walter Scott’s novel The Bride of Lammermoor. The novel is a reworking of a remarkable series of incidents in the life of James Dalrymple, Lord Stair, the legal genius whose elegant Institute of the Law of Scotland has been one of the nation’s core juridical texts since its first publication in 1681. There is no more appropriate library in which to locate such a manuscript than one established and maintained by a foundational body of lawyers.

Scott was the son of a Writer to the Signet and was apprenticed to a WS. No other figure so encapsulates the links between the law, literature, history and the arts: “A lawyer without history or literature is a mechanic, a mere working mason,” the Advocate Paul Pleydell declares in Scott’s novel Guy Mannering.

The manuscript of The Bride of Lammermoor is only part of the WS Society’s inheritance of manuscripts and material by and relating to the master of Abbotsford. It stands alongside a rich collection of autograph letters, an early Turner print of Abbotsford annotated in pencil by the artist, and the contracts, accounts, correspondence and pamphleteering surrounding the Ballantyne Controversy over Scott’s bankruptcy. The Signet Library holds rare first editions of Scott’s poetry and novels, most of the important biographies and commentaries, and George Combe WS’s death mask of Sir Walter, one of only a handful of copies of the missing original to survive. These holdings have as yet been little studied. In recent years, the WS Society has worked hard to change this, build collaborative links with major academics in the field of Scott, present collections at the International Scott Conference and lay groundwork with the heritage team at Abbotsford.

The Sir Walter Scott Collection is a small part of a far larger collection of manuscripts at the Signet Library, from the oldest surviving fragment of written music in Scotland to Prime Minister Balfour’s notes for a speech during the 1911 Constitutional Crisis. The ‘45 Jacobite Collection includes first-hand witness accounts and papers on the trial of Edinburgh’s Lord Provost for neglect of duty during the rebel occupation. The Roughead Collection has manuscript letters from the sensational Victorian murder trial of Madeleine Smith. Other specialist collections include the History of Edinburgh and Mary Queen of Scots.