The women behind New College Library

If you visit New College Library today, International Women’s Day, women might seem  hard to find amongst the portraits and busts of Thomas Chalmers and John Knox, and the shelves filled with works by or about male authors. Nevertheless, women have left their mark on New College Library from its earliest foundation.

Unknown Woman 49. 2 calotypes, 2 carbons, print size 4.

Unknown woman reading, 1840s. Hill & Adamson Calotypes Collection, University of Edinburgh.

When the first Librarian, Prof. David Welsh addressed the new assembly of the Free Church on the subject of creating a library for Free Church ministry students, he called for specific categories of individuals to donate books : private individuals, booksellers, authors – and women. The 1843 Donations Register, held in the New College Library Archives, allows us to see how those women responded to the call.  A Miss Jemima Hunter Blair (1787-1864) is conspicuous as the very first donor to New College Library, giving The Whole Works of the Rev’d Ebenezer Erskine, 1791 and 3 volumes of Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Bible. Miss Hunter-Blair was also active in soliciting donations from others on behalf of New College Library, as we can see from entries such as ‘A Gentleman a per Miss Hunter Blair”  (Historical Defenses of the Waldenses, now at Z.178). Mrs Laurie, the widow of the Rev. James Lawrie, Minister at Gargunnock, Stirling presented 266 volumes as a donation to New College Library. including Religious Cases of Conscience Answr’d – [Z.3329], Adam Smith – Theory of the Moral Sentiments – [Z.3560], Life of Abraham Booth – [Z.3600], Sermons by Ministers belonging to the Associate Synod –[ Z.755]. These were books formerly part of a private home, for individual reading, which then became part of a public collection.  Being able to donate to New College Library allowed these women to engage in the cultural and religious capital of the new Free Church. Just as the Disruption turned private qualms of conscience into public action, donations to New College Library brought books formerly for women’s private reading into the public domain.

Further evidence of women’s contribution to New College Library as donors can sometime be found in the books themselves. A rare example is Hore beatissime virginis Marie ad legitimum Sarisburiensis ecclesie ritum … Paris: Francis Regnault, 1534 (MH 193). This printed Catholic book of hours retains its original sixteenth century decorated binding with the gilt tooled inscription of the first owner, Margaret Nicol – an exceptional instance of early Scottish female book ownership. A later example is Folio Z.29 The Holy Bible (Liverpool : Caxton Press 1815). This heavily illustrated volume is bookplated Harriet McDonald, 1816, and the volume included this photograph which may well be Harriet McDonald herself:

Folio Z.29 photo


Christine Love-Rodgers, Academic Support Librarian – Divinity

With thanks to the New College Library Donations Register Project Volunteers.


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