Legal: Keeper of the key closes Herculean chapter

Share this article
Have your say

When the Faculty of Advocates agreed to take on the task of cataloguing the 9,000-book library of its most celebrated member, Sir Walter Scott, the actual work fell to Lindsay Levy.

“I was faculty rare book cataloguer when they decided to catalogue the Abbotsford collection,” says Levy. “So I was in the right place at the right time.”

Levy had previously worked at the Bodleian Library, Oxford, and the University of Edinburgh library before joining the faculty, but even she found it hard to appreciate that the task before her would take a decade and take her to her own retirement.

“This is such a wonderful library. It contains books on every subject imaginable, written in 20 different languages. Every book has its own story, whether it’s a 17th-century manuscript of magic and alchemy written to be circulated clandestinely, or a cheaply printed sentimental ballad hawked on the streets of Scotland in the wake of the Burke and Hare trials. I never knew what I’d pick up next.”

During the work Levy unearthed a series of discoveries that have established Scott’s library as a rich source of “lost” literary treasures. These include:

• A letter to the king from Archibald Campbell, 9th Earl of Argyll, (1629-85) pleading for his life.

• Flora MacDonald’s wedding lines.

• The only complete manuscript of O saw ye my Maggie, a bawdy Burns poem.

• Legenda Aurea, a lavishly illustrated medieval compilation of saints’ lives, written between c.1450 and 1475 and bought by Scott at Sotheby’s for 15 guineas in 1809. Its rediscovery in 2004 was described as one of the most significant literary finds for 70 years.

• Book of Hours, written and decorated in Flanders and dating from the 15th century

• Teuerdank, co-written by Maxilimian 1, the Holy Roman emperor and published in 1519, with 118 woodcuts by artists trained by Albrecht Durer.

• The Nuremberg Chronicle, an illustrated world history first published in Latin in 1493.

• The Grotesquiad, a long-lost 9,000-word poem by Scottish scholar and philosopher James Beattie, who reported the disappearance of the work in 1762.

Apart from his love of books, Scott was an avid collector of historical curios, which include Henry Raeburn paintings, Rob Roy’s gun and purse, and a pair of pistols belonging to Napoleon Bonaparte.

Scott’s library at Abbotsford near Melrose in the Borders had remained almost as he left it on his death in 1832. While major refurbishments were being undertaken the library was shipped in its entirety to Edinburgh.

The contents of the library were returned over a three-week period earlier this month. “It felt like a race against time to complete the project,” said Levy, “with the last consignment shipped back the day I retired.”

To celebrate the milestone and mark Levy’s retirement, the faculty held a reception in the Laigh Hall in Parliament House.Richard Keen QC, dean of the Faculty of Advocates, says: “ It’s a tremendous achievement, largely attributable to Lindsay Levy and I would like to thank her for her enormous contribution.”

Abbotsford House and Scott’s library will reopen to the public in July. Levy, however, is not finished with Sir Walter: “I am completing a doctoral thesis with Glasgow University on Scott as a book collector, and collaborating with Abbotsford on their exhibitions and AV guides.”