QUIET PLEASE! from the Bawdy Works of Burns to a Tiny Version of the Koran, the Whispered Secrets of Scotland's National Library Are Uncovered

Daily Mail (London), September 28, 2009 | Go to article overview
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QUIET PLEASE! from the Bawdy Works of Burns to a Tiny Version of the Koran, the Whispered Secrets of Scotland's National Library Are Uncovered


IT contains some of the rarest and most unusual books in the world among its 14million printed items which together offer a vibrant portrayal of the social and political history of Scotland. Following the opening in Edinburgh earlier this month of the National Library of Scotland's new [pounds sterling]2.2million visitor centre, GAVIN MADELEY delves into the library's remarkable collection and lays bare its lesser-known literary secrets.

THE library owns the first book ever printed in Scotland. The Complaint of the Black Knight was printed on April 4,1508, by Edinburgh publishers Chepman and Myllar. They were granted a monopoly on Scottish printing by James IV, who expected them to publish Bibles and Acts of Parliament. Instead, their first effort was this romantic poem by John Lydgate. Only nine of their books survive.

A PRICELESS complete copy of the Gutenberg Bible - the earliest book printed with moveable metal type - also graces its shelves. Printed in Mainz, Germany, between 1453 and 1455, there are only 21 surviving copies of the complete Bible left in the world.

THE library holds the entire archive of respected London-based Scots publisher John Murray from 1768 to the 1920s. It includes a precious first edition of Charles Darwin's On The Origin of Species from 1859, of which a mere 1,250 copies were printed.

THE National Library of Scotland (NLS) once paid [pounds sterling]9,000 for a copy of the world's largest published book. Each measuring 71/2ft wide when open by 5ft high, only 500 copies of Bhutan: A Visual Odyssey Across the Last Himalayan Kingdom were printed in 2003.

IT also owns what was the world's smallest book when it was published in Paisley, Renfrewshire, in 1978 - Three Blind Mice, measuring 0.8in x 0.8in - and a miniature Koran from around 1900 in a metal locket complete with the magnifying glass needed to read it.

BOOKS banned for obscenity, blasphemy or breaching the Official Secrets Act were saved from being pulped by staff who consigned them to the 'Tin Room' before more liberal attitudes restored them to public view. No one was immune from the crackdown. A 1799 volume of Burns, entitled The Merry Muses of Caledonia and containing spectacularly rude verse, remained locked away from the public gaze until 1965.

THE NLS, which started life in the 1680s as the Advocates Library, contains the world's finest collection of the writings of Sir Walter Scott, himself a former defence advocate. It was clear from margin notes one case was not progressing well as Scott sketched a hangman's noose around his client's head.

IF the library's vast bound collection of daily and weekly British and foreign newspapers were laid end to end, it would stretch from the NLS to Cumbernauld, Dunbartonshire, 40 miles away.

THE NLS boasts more than two million maps, including a 200-year-old chart of Scotland in Arabic; a 1739 map of the Polish port of Danzig (now Gdansk) showing the burgeoning suburbs of Neu Schottland and Vorstadt Schottland, set up by Scots traders. There is also a 'silk map' of wartime France and Germany printed on rayon to help Allied soldiers reach safety from behind enemy lines.

FINDING volumes in the labyrinthine 15-storey building requested by its 100,000 annual visitors means its army of 'bookfetchers' each walks up to ten miles a day. In return, they receive an allowance of two new pairs of work shoes every year.

AMONG the three miles of shelving devoted to rare manuscripts is the original order for the Massacre of Glencoe of August 1691 in which Captain Robert Campbell of Glenlyon is ordered to spare no MacDonald below the age of 70 'that those miscreants be cut off root and branch'.

'FINE day but cold and dull.' So begins the understated and sober entry for Armistice Day - November 11, 1918 - in the private war diary of Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig owned by the library. The British commander-in-chief on the Western Front's only apparent nod to the momentous ending of the Great War was to head that day's page in larger-than-usual block letters.

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QUIET PLEASE! from the Bawdy Works of Burns to a Tiny Version of the Koran, the Whispered Secrets of Scotland's National Library Are Uncovered
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