The Laing Collection is Edinburgh University Library's most important manuscript collection.
David Laing (1793-1878) was the son of an Edinburgh bookseller, who became the leading Scottish expert on early books and manuscripts. In many ways he could be described as a “consulting bibliographer”- a man who tried to help anyone with a question about books. He travelled across Europe to buy precious volumes, but also rescued countless important papers from offices and family homes. When he died, his library of printed books was sold at and is scattered throughout the world. His collections of art works and objects are now held in the National Galleries of Scotland and the National Museums of Scotland. However, his manuscript collection was gifted to Edinburgh University Library.
Laing was a friend of the University over many years. His first publication was a reprint of the catalogue of the library of William Drummond of Hawthornden, given to the University in 1626, and it may be that Drummond’s example inspired Laing to make his later, even more generous gift. Before 1878 Edinburgh University Library had only a handful of manuscripts - since then, building on the Laing bequest, it has become an internationally important centre for Special Collections.
The Laing Collection is one of the great Victorian collections but differs from most of the “gentleman’s collections” of the era with its focus on particular themes. It includes beautiful items of iconic importance, such as Michael Van Meer’s wonderfully illustrated “Album Amicorum”, but also many boxes of densely packed closely-written manuscript, the raw primary source material on which historians rely.
Some of the known highlights include: • 103 Western medieval manuscript books, very finely illuminated or textually important, and a substantial number of fragments, some of the highest historical significance • early Islamic manuscripts, including fragments from a 9th-century Koran • letters by Kings and Queens of Scotland and England • poems in the hand of Robert Burns • over 3,000 charters, many with original wax seals • manuscripts on the arts and performance, including dance and theatre • early manuscripts in Gaelic and Middle Scots • early manuscript music books • manuscripts on science, alchemy and medicine • finely painted manuscripts on European heraldry and travel • early writing by women, such as the 17th century poet Elizabeth Melville • Laing’s personal papers, journals and 9,000 letters, including correspondence with great writers such as William and Dorothy Wordsworth • crucial Scottish governmental and legal documents
Access to the collection is currently through a variety of handlists and printed finding aids, but work is in progress to develop a project that will create a modern online catalogue.
David Laing’s outstanding library was sold by Sotheby, Wilkinson & Hodge in almost 12,000 lots over thirty-one days in 1879 and 1880, and realised £16,137. However, many of the annotated books were treated as manuscripts and so were included in the bequest of material to the Library in 1878. An example is the fine copy of the 1566 Acts of the Scottish Parliament with the magnificent woodcut royal arms (La.III.655). Most of the printed material is in Laing division lII; a few items are catalogued online but most can only be found by examining the printed handlists.
The handlist provided here is the inventory drawn up in 1878. It should be used with caution - the descriptions of the manuscripts are basic and in some cases inaccurate, some items have been transferred to other shelfmarks, and a few items recorded in the inventory never actually made it into the University's collections. However, it is still the main finding aid for La.I, La.II and La.III (confusingly, La.III is the first section of the inventory).
For further information please contact staff at the Centre for Research Collections.