When I’m travelling within the UK I tend to look for somewhere historical en-route to break my journey, whether it’s a castle or stately home or ruin or some other interesting place. If there is a tea room and gift shop that’s a bonus. So when I was driving from the east coast of Scotland back to Glasgow a couple of weeks ago I got out the map to help me decide where to stop. The whole area is absolutely packed with castles so it was more a case of trying to whittle it down than find somewhere. Then I spotted an intriguing dot on the map at Innerpeffray, near Crieff in Perthshire. “Historic Library” it said. Well, that was enough to lure me in.
It was a bit of a bleak day when we reached Innerpeffray. The wind was whistling across the fields and the little collection of buildings we approached felt
as though they were all alone in the middle of nowhere. It seemed a curious location for a historic library but that just added to the interest. We scurried inside out of the wind and were met with the warmest welcome in Scotland. What can I say – a personal tour of the oldest free public lending library in Scotland is like my idea of heaven and Innerpeffray is a very special place indeed.
The library has a fascinating history. It was founded in 1680 by David Drummond, 3rd Lord Madertie, who was the friend and brother-in-law of the famous Marquis of Montrose. The original books in the library were from Lord Madertie’s own collections. Later Robert Hay Drummond, who had the present library built in 1762, also donated his collection. The library now has over 5000 books, many of them rare and unusual, many also published before 1800. Lord Madertie’s collection showed his broad interests, from history and religion, law and politics to hunting, fishing and gardening.
The library was originally housed partly in the chapel (more on that later) and also in an additional building at the end of the churchyard. Lord Madertie specifically wanted the library and school to be a resource for the community not only at the time but also into the future. It’s wonderful to see that the library is still fulfilling his wishes over 300 years later.
Our tour started in the shop and ticket office, from where we went out of the main door, up a spiral stone stair and took a left turn… I was already very excited to see what the library would be like! The room itself is relatively small but the most perfectly-formed library I’ve ever seen. Being surrounded by such old, beautiful and significant books literally struck me dumb. I was so overwhelmed I couldn’t speak for about 15 minutes.
There are so many treasures at Innerpeffray. One of the most fascinating documents is the “Borrowers’ Ledger” which gives details of every loan of a book from 1747 to 1968. A huge variety of borrowers came to Innerpeffray, not just students and scholars but also members of the local community who gave their addresses and occupations as well as their reading choices so you can see the broad appeal the library had and the eclectic mix of users from clergymen to stonemasons.
Things started to get really personal though when we were shown the little pocket bible that belonged to James Graham, 1st Marquis of Montrose, inscribed with his signature. We’d recently discovered the genealogical connection between my husband’s family and the Grahams and it was quite emotional to see how they all felt when they were allowed to hold such a precious book that connected them directly to their ancestors. It gave me goosebumps just to see it.
At Innerpeffray you are able to take out, touch and read any book that you would like, which is a true privilege and incredibly exciting if you enjoy books and history. It felt the closest I had ever come to the past, turning the pages of documents 300 years old that had also been touched by historical figures I’d researched. The maps in particular were full of information; comparing a map of the English counties from 1637 to one now you could see, for example, the rise and fall of towns and cities, the places that had not yet been built and the places that were later lost.
Downstairs as well as a shop with the best literary souvenirs you can find, there is the Scottish Collection donated in 2013 by American bibliophile Janet Burns St Germain. An exhibition of Robert Burns’s work completed our brilliant tour and left us all breathless. We’d barely had the chance to see a tiny amount of what Innerpeffray Library has to offer. I’ll have to go back, preferably for a week!
Outside in the cold wind I was determined to see something of the setting, which is very pretty. The River Earn runs along the bottom of a nearby valley and there is a viewpoint for the ruin of Innerpeffray Castle close by. A Roman road passes through the village, adding to the sense that you are literally stepping back in time, a feeling that is emphasised when you visit the ancient St Mary’s Chapel and graveyard. The Chapel was built in 1507 by John, 1st Lord Drummond. It’s empty today other than for the Drummond family tombs and monuments and the original 14th century altar, but this only adds to the atmosphere and palpable historical presence of the place.
So – history and books. What could be finer? If like me you are a fan of both, especially together, I recommend a visit to Innerpeffray on your next trip to
Scotland. It’s magnificent to see the survival of such a special library upholding the traditions of free access to books that we all support. As it says on the library’s excellent website: “Do you love books? You’ve come to the right place.”
Do you have a favourite library you’d like to give a shout out to? From the converted telephone box at the end of our road to my local Swindon Library, I love them all, and the people who keep them open for all. Let’s celebrate libraries!