Innerpeffray: Scotland's Ancient Library is a Bibliophile's Paradise

The oldest free public library in Scotland began as an attempt by Scottish Protestants to ensure their tenants were learned and could think for themselves. Today, Innerpeffray stands as a landmark for Bibliophiles and an important repository of Scottish history.

In the centuries after the Middle Ages the wars between Protestant England and Catholic Scotland reached an intensity that tore Scotland apart. Catholic Spain and, especially, Catholic France were always ready to keep the ill will going. In fact the Catholics in Scotland long referred to their relationship with France as the “Auld Alliance.”

European historians write about the Age of Enlightenment that followed the Protestant Reformation initiated by Martin Luther. Maybe so, but the animosity between the Protestants and the Catholics in Britain reached its peak between the middle of the 16th Century and the mid-17th, (the Protestant Queen Elizabeth I of England even had her cousin Mary, the Catholic Queen of Scots, executed in 1587 for treason). So what was going on in Scotland around this time was not “enlightenment” but a virulent hatred between the 2 religions.

Why is this relevant? Because wealthy Scottish Protestant land owners were determined to have their tenants educated and able to think for themselves—and not follow what they called “Papist dogma from Rome.” John Knox, a fiery Protestant preacher despised the Catholic Church, which he regarded as a closed shop whose doctrines could be followed only if you could read Latin. He felt the future for Scotland was a government working with the Scottish Protestant church whose drive was an education that allowed its people to read the Bible every day in their own language.

Just as Luther translated the Bible from Greek and Latin into German, so a lord of the Drummond family, 3 miles south east of Crieff in Perthshire in the middle of the Scottish countryside sought to fund education by donating his private libraries to the community. This was not common. Libraries of that time were mostly attached to universities and churches.

When the Drummonds opened their library doors in 1680 there were no other libraries for the general public in Scotland. The doors have remained open since at Innerpeffray Library, the oldest free public lending library in Scotland. Five thousand books sat, immediately available to the community, on the shelves of the Chapel of Innerfeffray then, after 1739, on the Georgian building erected next to it.

The white painted building behind the chapel is the library.

In the years that followed the Reformation, Scotland was widely seen as the best-educated country in Europe, arguably because Protestant endeavors created a population that could think for itself. Interestingly enough a report issued by the Office of National Statistics (the UK's largest independent producer of official statistics) in the summer of 2014 declared Scotland still had that same position.

One can only marvel at what Drummond’s tenants must have thought in 1680 when they held in their very hands the firste volume of the chronicles of England, Scotlande, and Irelande By Raphael Holinshed At London, for George Bishop. The source book for many of Shakespeare’s plays and printed in 1577 it was already more than a century old!

The Scots throughout the last centuries have always been interested in what even then could be called Current News. Indeed, copies of The Scots Magazine, the oldest (1739) still published magazine in the world, are conveniently available in the library including one with the news of a declaration from the Americas dated July 4, 1776 that begins “When in the course of human events…” But the staggering fact about the library’s copy of this monthly printed magazine (and this issue that was published in August 1776) means the fast mail packet boat service the magazine used gave Europe the news—printed within one month of the event!

Volume 24 of the Scots Magazine with its publication date (middle image top left) marked with our red dot. Bill Gray, library volunteer and resident Bible expert. Lara Haggerty, the Keeper of Books. Some of the collection. An original first edition collection of Burns ’poems.

Since Robert Burns is such a favored son in this land of the heather and the kilt, it’s no surprise to find Lara Haggerty, the Library Manager and “Keeper of Books” (a title that goes back to more than 300 years in the records) has much of Burns’ original work to show visitors. From Burns’ celebrated paean to that indescribable, and some would say inedible, Scottish culinary oddity, the Haggis, to some of the most lyrical love songs composed by a poet who surely loved the ladies.

This is the 1794 manuscript of one of Burns’ love songs dedicated to his landlord’s daughter. Her name was Janet Miller but the last part of the message is somewhat generic and cynics have said that Burns told more than one young woman she was the inspiration for this famous Scottish love song. This explains the manuscript which was one of the ever so generous gifts from an American bibliophile of Scottish descent.

The Drummonds’ bequest of 5,000 Scottish Merks to maintain the property ran out of funds 200 years ago. (The Merk then was worth about 0.7 Scottish Pounds.) The Library has never received any funding from the government and now relies on public support—and, says a spokesperson, “Each year we hold our breath, cross our fingers. It is never easy for us to raise the funds.” An American benefactor of Scottish descent in 2013 made gifts of rare and extremely valuable early Scottish books and documents assembled by the American bibliophile Janet Burns St. Germain. For information on how to support the Library click here.

If you find an exiled Scot humming a Scottish tune you could guess it was written by Robert Burns. First editions of his Original Scottish Airs can be seen by visitors. The details of the song Scots often sing Scots Wha Ha’e are not generally known. The 1314 Battle of Bannockburn, 26 miles from Innerpeffray, was a substantial Scottish victory against a superior English force. The words sung to an old Scottish melody and converted from broad Scots read, as if an exhortation from Bruce: “Scots who have bled [in battle] with Wallace [a previous Scottish leader] and whom Bruce [the current Scottish king] has often led, welcome to your gory bed, or to victory.” The battle site is near Stirling.

Lara Haggerty, the Keeper of Books. Bill Gray, resident Bible expert. John Duns Scotus (1265-1308) was a Catholic philosopher-theologian who made complex medieval arguments for the existence of God and the Immaculate Conception. He traveled widely in Europe acclaimed somehow as the “Subtle Doctor.” This retrospect of his Oxford teachings of 1298 was published in Venice, Italy in 1476. The family tree of Royalty (here Mary Queen of Scots who was executed in 1587) was of popular interest to the church and the sovereigns themselves. The correct record got you on the throne although few European monarchs died of natural causes. Top image: This first edition of the kings and queens of Scotland was published in Rome in 1578. Originally written in Scots it was presented to Mary, Queen of Scots in 1571. Bottom image: A fawning book about The Young Pretender who was defeated in 1746 at the Battle of Culloden in his Jacobite attempt to gain the throne of Scotland. This was the personal copy of author Sir Walter Scott and bears his signature top right. Scott’s best known novel was Ivanhoe. Born in Edinburgh in 1771; his mother was the daughter of the Professor of Medicine. The famous 1613 King James Bible. Bill Gray explains the 1560 Geneva Bible was the one brought to America by the Plymouth Fathers.

The Library has several medical texts, one published in 1617 The General Practise of Physicke. It also has the Scots Magazine Volume 24 with the Nicholl’s autopsy report of King George II who died in 1760. Historical novelists are not known for severe accuracy but one by Laura Purcell has an intimate take on where George II died (on his closet toilet) and the Scots Magazine has the details showing it was aortic dissection and cardiac tamponade.

The General Practise of Physicke was “compiled and written” no doubt modestly “by the most famous and learned Doctor…” It has interesting observations on urinary retention. How often do physicians get a chance to read a learned postmortem report from 250 years ago? And to hold it in their hands?

An unusual aspect of this historic library is the ability of visitors to pick up books based on the fact that this was always a lending library and, until 1968, locals could take books home.

But there is more. The library has records of borrowers going back 250 years and it has this story: “In May 2010, Bob MacRobbie from Pennsylvania visited the library and discovered his great-great-great-great-grandfather in the Borrower’s ledger, described as James McRobbie, Taylor in Innerpeffray.” MacRobbie was able to hold the books his ancestor borrowed from Innerpeffray in 1757

Photography by the authors The Andersons, who live in San Diego, are the resident travel & cruise columnists for Physician's Money Digest. Nancy is a former nursing educator, Eric a retired MD. The one-time president of the New Hampshire Academy of Family Physicians, Eric is the only physician in the Society of American Travel Writers. He has also written 5 books, the last called The Man Who Cried Orange: Stories from a Doctor's Life.