Fundraising appeal launched to save Scotland's oldest purpose built library with incredible collection of historic books

Among the numerous attractions in Dunblane’s historic Cross - the Cathedral, the Museum, Andy Murray’s gold postbox - sits a small, quirky 17th century building which can easily be missed.

Historic Leighton Library in Dunblane is in need of restoration work.

In fact, many local people have never set foot in it, yet it houses the oldest purpose built library in Scotland with a truly eye watering collection of national importance.

Built in 1687, the Leighton Library contains around 4500 books, the oldest dating from 1504, including seminal masterpieces and first editions. These include the Edinburgh edition of Robert Burns’ poems (1787), Dr Johnson’s ‘Dictionary of the English Language’ (1755), Thomas Paine’s ‘The Rights of Man’ (1791), a signed copy of Queen Victoria’s Highland Journal, presented to the library by Queen Victoria herself, and a first edition of Adam Smith’s ‘Wealth of Nations’.

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A fine collection of early maps is also within the collection, including a rare American atlas from 1775. Lady Jane Grey’s prayer book can also be found, plus a number of rare early bibles.

The beautiful interior of the Leighton Library.

Originally intended to house the collection of Bishop Robert Leighton, who bequeathed his library to Dunblane in 1684, the collection grew over the 18th and 19th centuries and the building is now Category A listed of special historical and architectural interest.

When it first opened its doors, the library was originally intended for the clergy of Dunblane Cathedral, however, it later became a subscription library and a reading room until the mid-19th century, when it was effectively closed until restoration by volunteers in the late 1980s. It is now managed by a small charitable trust and opens to the public in the summer season.

Unfortunately, while the book collection remains in very good condition, the building housing it, now some 333 years old, is in pressing need of restoration, as Alastair MacDonald, restoration programme lead for Leighton Library, explained.

“We’re keen to raise the profile of this ‘hidden gem’ library for a number of very special reasons,” he said. “Cement-based harling applied some 40 years ago is now considered detrimental to the fabric, as it effectively prevents the building from breathing and encourages damp in the walls, so this needs to be removed and a breathable lime-based harling applied. Additionally, several areas of stonework are eroded and need repair, and the roof and chimneys need repair.

Among the remarkable collection at the library is the complete works of Machiavelli in Italian.

"The front of the building also has a particularly fine marble cartouche from the late 1600s, which once bore the Bishop’s coat of arms. Specialist advice has been received that this too needs to be removed, the fixings replaced, and the whole thing restored by specialist conservators.”

Alastair explained that, keen to save the building, the Trustees have set up an executive group to address the conservation project.

“We have an architect on board who is qualified in the conservation of historic buildings,” he said. “We now have a detailed schedule of required works, for which the current cost estimate is around £390,000. It’s a great deal of money to find.

“Even although the Trust has a small income from donations, and occasionally benefits from legacies, these reserves cannot even begin to meet the cost of the repairs, so we have made applications to various funding bodies for grants, including Historic Environment Scotland, but there still needs to be a considerable local fundraising effort, up to at least £150,000 to preserve this treasure for future generations."

If funding can be secured, it is hoped to start the repairs early in 2022 and Alastair added that, following discussions with Stirling Council, and taking on board feedback from potential funders, his group was also now looking at how to open up the Undercroft, situated on street level, with the library on the first floor, both as a community and library asset.

“We hope to work with neighbouring historic sites, such as the museum and the cathedral, both of whom get a great many more visitors than us, to promote the library and the wonderful Cross area of Dunblane,” he said.

The owner of another of the local attractions in the area, Old Churches House Hotel, a former Scottish Churches House transformed into a characterful nine bedroom hotel with event space and its own secret chapel, has pledged its support to the Leighton Library project.

Alex McKie of the Fusion Group of companies, who owns and operates Old Churches House, has promised to help the Trust develop a viable plan for private tours for both individuals and tourist groups, which it can charge for.

He said: “We are happy to help in any way we can, perhaps giving a more commercial edge to proceedings by advising on how the Trust can best market the library as an attraction, how best to publicise the fundraising, and how to effectively price and promote tours and other opportunities.

"We’d be delighted to mention these to our guests at the hotel, and those that stay at Chimes House B&B, which is another of our properties. Many of our guests are extremely interested in the local history and heritage, in what we refer to as a triangle of attractions – it’s one of the main reasons why they come to Dunblane.”

You can find out more about Leighton Library at www.leightonlibrary.org.uk.