‘How much would libraries (perfect antipodes to each other) marvel were they to meet half way or to examine the decorations of the one and the cobwebs and confusion of the other?’
(11-13 June 1803, Letters of John Ramsay of Ochtertyre p.80)
Ramsay of Ochtertyre is the most recognisable borrower from the Leighton Library, celebrated as an author in his own right, as well as patron to figures such as Robert Burns and Walter Scott. 199 of his borrowings from the Leighton Library are recorded between October 1785 and January 1814, and there is evidence he had been using the library before the records begin, paying 10 shillings and sixpence for his subscription as early as January 1762.
What sets him apart from the other borrowers is the existence not only of portions of his letters, but the richness of references to reading within them. He clearly read voraciously, and used every method possible to access works, old and new. The quote above suggests that the Leighton Library (perhaps a contender for ‘cobwebs and confusion’) was not the only library he frequented. The letters record that he also sourced books from multiple private individuals such as James Finlayson (Professor of Logic at Edinburgh) and Mrs John Erskine, as well as purchasing his own. This means, therefore, that he exemplifies how use of the Leighton Library, for gentlemen in his position at least, was one small part of a wider reading life.
As it is worthy of far greater study than can be presented here, a full transcription of Ramsay’s borrowings is given here.
Ramsay’s borrowing record from the Leighton Library certainly attests to his fascination of the lives of others throughout, even more so than in the works he references in his letters. It is dominated by histories, memoirs, biographies and travel books, all giving insights into people from across the ages and across the globe. Literature is barely to be seen, though we know from his letters he accessed it elsewhere (Clarissa, The Arabian Nights, Shakespeare). We know from other borrowers and from the Leighton’s 1793 catalogue that similar works were available, but it seems Ramsay was not minded to borrow them. Possible reasons for this could include his being influenced by the history of the library and the religious and historical tendencies of its collections (though other works were available, they were certainly not the collection’s core focus). He may also have borrowed specific titles and authors from his friends for discussion and reading socially, while those works borrowed from the Leighton were for more individual and solitary attention. Items borrowed also include a huge range of sermons and other religious works.
Only one work is borrowed from the Leighton Library and discussed contemporaneously in Ramsay’s letters: ‘I have just re-read Sir John Dalrymple’s memoirs, one of the most pleasing pieces of history I know’. The letter is dated 11 October 1803, with Ramsay borrowing two volumes of Dalrymple on the 19th of September that year, borrowing volume 2 again in November that same year. It does not seem he is using the library, therefore, primarily to acquaint himself with new works (purchases and borrowing from friends seem to fulfil that role) but, in this instance, to revisit works already read. This is also reflected in the general age of the works he borrows and the borrowing of classical works with which he would have been acquainted since childhood.
It is not just reading habits that emerge from Ramsay’s Leighton record , but also a broader impression of the man. Unlike many of the other borrowers who rely on the librarian sending and receiving their books by post, Ramsay seems to borrow in person, his signature attesting to his presence. The frequency of his borrowing too indicates that Ramsay was often to be seen around the town, especially since the library is so centrally located. It also perhaps suggests his preference for browsing, or even a distrust of the librarian and his processes. If the ‘cobwebs and confusion’ description above is applicable to the Leighton Library, as it may well be, perhaps we ought not be surprised.
Letters of John Ramsay of Ochtertyre, 1799–1812, ed. B. L. H. Horn, Scottish History Society, 4th ser., vol. 3 (1966)
L. H. Horn, ‘Ramsay, John, of Ochtertyre (1736–1814)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004.
Scotland and Scotsmen in the eighteenth century: from the MSS of John Ramsay, esq., of Ochtertyre, ed. A. Allardyce, 2 vols.,1888.