The British Library actively seeks to acquire materials created or published in all parts of the UK. Scottish books, manuscripts and sound recordings are found throughout the collection. Written materials in English, Scots, Gaelic and Latin are all held; voice recordings are predominantly in English, with some Scots.
The story of Scottish printed book production begins in the first decades of the 16th century, and the British Library holds some important examples. These include the ‘Shepherd’s Calendar’ in Scots (Paris, 1503) [C.132.i.2] and a fragment of the ‘Aberdeen Breviary’ (Edinburgh, 1509-10) [C.35.c.4]. The strength of the collection however is in the period from the late 16th century through to the present day. Highlights include:
- The 1637 Book of Common Prayer (Edinburgh, 1636-7) [468.b.10; C.36.g.1; G.12088]
- The first New Testament published in Gaelic (Edinburgh, 1767) [466.a.13]
- Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (London, 1776) [31.e.9,10]
- Robert Burns, Poems, chiefly in the Scottish dialect (Kilmarnock, 1786) [C.28.f.2; C.39.e.38]
- Sir Walter Scott, Waverley (Edinburgh, 1814) [C.59.g.16].
From the middle of the 19th century through to the present day, arrangements for legal deposit have become increasingly effective. The result is that copies of almost all British books and periodicals relevant to the study of Scotland and the Scottish people are held, including historical texts, government publications and literary first editions.
Holdings of ephemeral materials (handbills, pamphlets, etc.) are less comprehensive. Nevertheless, there are collections relating to the Court of Session in Edinburgh (late 18th century), popular ballads (18th and 19th century), and theatrical playbills (mainly 19th century). 20th century ephemera range from football fanzines (e.g. Partick Thistle and Forfar Athletic) to pamphlets and booklets issued by smaller institutions, societies and pressure groups (e.g. North Edinburgh Action Group).
The Library holds runs of most newspapers issued in Scotland. These are accessed through the British Library Newspaper Reading Room. Some titles have already been digitised as part of ‘British Newspapers 1600-1900’, including the Aberdeen Journal and the Caledonian Mercury. Work is now underway to build the ‘British Newspaper Archive’ by digitising further 19th and 20th century titles. Information about access to these and other relevant electronic resources can be found via Electronic Databases in Our Reading Rooms.
Manuscript and archival materials
Highlights from the medieval manuscript collection include:
- The 12th-century ‘Chronicle of Melrose Abbey’ (the oldest Scottish chronicle) [Cotton MSS Julius B. XIII; Faustina B. IX]
- The 12th-century ‘Glasgow Pontifical’ [Cotton MS Tiberius B. VIII]
- Medieval cartularies of the monasteries of Arbroath, Coldstream and Melrose [Add. MS 33245, Harley MS 6670 and Harley MS 3960].
The British Library also holds significant manuscripts and archival sources from later centuries. These include:
- Scottish royal charters and seals
- 16th-century state papers relating to Anglo-Scottish affairs (e.g. documents relating to Mary, Queen of Scots)
- The correspondence and papers of statesmen, such as George Hamilton-Gordon (4th Earl of Aberdeen) and Lord Arthur Balfour
- The correspondence and papers of scientists, such as Sir Alexander Fleming and Marie Stopes.
The Library’s oral history collections contain voices from across the UK, capturing testimony from diverse walks of life such as artists and craftspeople, scientists, water industry engineers and post office workers.
Collections with a significant Scottish component include:
- Lives in the Oil Industry
- Scottish artists interviewed for Artists' Lives
- BBC Radio Scotland interviews produced for the Millennium Memory Bank.
Materials of Scottish interest are listed in the main British Library catalogues, namely Explore the British Library, Search our Catalogue: Archives and Manuscripts and the Sound & Moving Image Catalogue.
For some categories of material, specialist catalogues and handlists provide the fullest descriptions. These include the English Short Title Catalogue (printed materials from the 16th to 18th centuries) and the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts. Playbills are listed in the typescript ‘Register of Playbills’, available for consultation in the Rare Books and Music Reading Room.
Comprehensive lists of British Library catalogues can be accessed from the homepage of the British Library website.