Langholm and the World in the year 1800.
King George III had reigned for 40 years, over a Britain whose population numbered no more than 12 million (Langholm’s population was very similar to today in the year 1800, at 2500).
Napoleon ruled France and it would be another 5 years before Nelson eliminated the threat of an invasion by his victory at Trafalgar.
Candles and oil lamps were the only means of illumination, and the stagecoach was the fastest means of travel.
There were people still alive at the time who could remember the march of Bonnie Prince Charlie to the south, and his following retreat north to Culloden.
But in spite of wars, and rumours of wars, this was a time of great literary flowering. Between 1770 and 1795 were born Walter Scott, William Wordsworth, S.T. Coleridge, Lord Byron, John Keats, Thomas Carlyle and Robert Burns.
From 1792 to 1802, 4096 new works published, an average of 372 per year. From 1800 to 1827 an average of 588 new books were published. Books were expensive however and, for most people, were a luxury. The government had taxed papers and newspapers, afraid that an educated lower class might act in the same way as the revolting French.
The only books commonly found in Scottish homes at the time were the Bible, Samuel Rutherford’s ‘Letters’ and Boston’s ‘Fourfold State’.
The Early History of Langholm Library
It was in this setting, that the Langholm Library was started on July 1st 1800 by a number, probably about 30 to 40 persons, in Eskdale and Liddesdale.
It was first known as “The Public Library of Langholm” but later the name was shortened to “The Langholm Library”. An entrance fee of one Guinea (21 shillings) was payable with an annual subscription of 8/- (8 shillings) per year. Before long the entrance fee was raised to one and a half Guineas, and the annual subscription to 10/-. (at this time a labourer’s wage was £26 to £30 per year (£1 = 20 shillings), so the reason for the small membership was obvious).
No catalogue of these early books has been found. To know what people were reading during this time we need to consult the records of our neighbouring library, Westerkirk.
The Library at Westerkirk was founded in 1792 for the use of the antimony miners. In 1800, the mine having been closed, the library was moved to Kirktonhill, then Carlesgill in the early 19th Century and then in 1862 to a new building at Bentpath.
The first books were presented to the miners by the Westerhall Mining Company including :-
Tillitson’s “Sermons”,Guthries “Grammar”,Cromsted’s “Mineralogy”,Ferguson’s “Lectures”,Robertson “History of Scotland”,Seneca’s “Morals”,Rae’s “Wisdom of God etc.”,Lavoisier “Chemistry”
The men then contributed 5/- each to buy more books, including Ridpath’s “Border History”, “Perigrine Pickle”, “Roderick Random”, “Excursion to Margate”, Burn’s Poems (Must have been Kilmarnock or Edinburgh editions). The total bill came to £12.11/-
The comparatively high entrance fee and annual subscription for the Langholm Library may have put off prospective members, for in 1813 a second Library called the New Library was started. It afterward became known as the Trades Library. It had more than 80 members, chiefly tradesmen, mechanics and artisans, living in Langholm and within an 8 mile radius of the town. The entrance fee was 3/6d and annual subscription 2/6d (shilings/pence).
Thomas Telford’s Bequest
Both Libraries must have been seriously hampered by lack of funds. It was not until Thomas Telford’s Bequest that money for books became more plentiful.
Telford died in 1834.
He never married and his will made bequests to many individuals most of whom he had met and worked with during his career. To the Langholm Library he left £1,000, the capital to be invested and the interest used for buying books.
‘To the Ministers of Parish of Langholm, in trust for the library, the interest to be annually expanded on the purchase of books under the discretion of the committee for the time being, the sum of £1000. ”
He further stated that should his estate be more or less sufficient for his various bequests, the amount of each should be adjusted accordingly. In fact, the final amount was about £3000.
Unfortunately, Langholm had two libraries, and both claimed the bequest. It was not until 1849 that Langholm Library received this funding.
In 1852 it was agreed that “any present member of the Trades Library may become a member of the Langholm Library at a reduced entry fee of £1.15/- with an annual subscription of 5/-. This, with other minor concessions, seemed to have finally settled the legacy question and shortly after this the Trades Library seemed to have disappeared. No record has been found of the fate of its books. They may have been incorporated onto the stock of Langholm Library.
With the income from the Telford Bequest, and the falling price of books, the Library Committee was now able to purchase many more volumes.
By the early 1870s the time had come for the books to be properly accommodated
The permanent Housing of Langholm Library
In 1872, Mr. Alexander Reid, of Reid and Taylor’s, offered £1000 towards the cost of a Library Hall, if the Library members could raise a similar sum within one year. A subscription list was immediately started. At the same time an approach was made to the Duke of Buccleuch for a site. The Committee requested that the site of the Town Hall and the buildings behind it might be made available. The Duke agreed on the condition that one part of the new building, be set aside as a Town Hall. Fortunately, when plans were being considered, it was found that this scheme was going to be too expensive, so it was agreed to erect the Library building on the site behind the Town Hall replacing The Swan Inn and a row of whitewashed houses with steps up to their doors.
The required funds had not been raised within the stipulated year, but Mr. Reid generously extended the time and by 1874 the Committee had raised its £1000. Unfortunately in the interim, Mr. Reid had died but had made provision in his will for the £1000 to be paid.
In 1878 the Library was completed, the total cost amounting to £3385.8s.3d. A sum of £1100 was borrowed, using the building as security, to meet the extra cost. This sum was gradually paid off, from subscriptions and from rent of the shop etc. on the ground floor of the building. It is probably from this time that the books in the Library were bound in 1/2 leather, the spines being stamped in gold with the words “Langholm Library” and “Telford’s Legacy”.
After World War One the Library slowly declined. The income’s value declined and the running costs rose. Most of the books purchased latterly were fiction and the opening of a branch of the County library in the town, membership of the Langholm Library slowly declined. The annual membership subscription remained at £1 for members who wished to borrow the newest books, and 50p for those content to read the older volumes.
By 1973 the membership had dwindled to single figures and the building was falling into decay. The Committee reluctantly decided that they were unable to continue. The Town Council was interested in the building as an extension to the Town Hall. A small selection of the books was to be made, to remain in the town, and the rest were to be disposed of, by sale or by pulping. Any funds obtained were to be applied to restoring the selected books.
The Foundation of Langholm Library Trust
When the proposed fate of the book stock became known, a number of local people determined to save the Library, and established the Langholm Library Trust, and the total book stock was handed over to it, to be formed into a reference library for the town. The Library Building passed, via Langholm Town Council to Annandale and Eskdale District Council on regionalisation, and hence to the Regional Council.
The invested capital of Langholm Library, £900, was transferred to the Trust, and the Town Council added £100 from the town’s Common Good Fund. This £1000 was reinvested to provide an income for the care of the books.
Today the collection consists of some 6000 volumes including some items published in the 1800 century. Many of the books are of local interest both of Langholm and the wider Border area.
All the books have been catalogued, and entered into a computer for ease of cross referencing. The Trust buys new books of local interest as they are published and has a policy to replace badly worn or missing volumes as opportunity and finance permits. The Library houses microfilm copies of the Langholm paper, and also bound volumes of early Langholm papers.
There is also an important collection of books formerly belonging to the poet, Hugh MacDiarmid and bearing his autograph.
Christopher Murray Grieve (11 August 1892 – 9 September 1978), known by his pen name Hugh MacDiarmid, was a Scottish poet, journalist, essayist and political figure. He is best known for his works written in ‘synthetic Scots’, or Lallans, a literary version of the Scots language that MacDiarmid himself developed.
The son of a postman, MacDiarmid was born in the Scottish border town of Langholm, Dumfriesshire. He was educated at Langholm Academy before becoming a teacher for a brief time at Broughton Higher Grade School in Edinburgh. He began his writing career as a journalist in Wales, contributing to the socialist newspaper The Merthyr Pioneer run by Labour party founder Keir Hardie before joining the Royal Army Medical Corps on the outbreak of the First World War. He served in Salonica, Greece and France before developing cerebral malaria and subsequently returning to Scotland in 1918. MacDiarmid’s time in the army was influential in his political and artistic development.
After the war he continued to work as a journalist, living in Montrose where he became editor and reporter of the Montrose Review as well as a justice of the peace and a member of the county council. In 1923 his first book, Annals of the Five Senses, was published at his own expense, followed by ‘Sangschaw’ in 1925 and ‘Penny Wheep’ and ‘A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle’ in 1926. A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle, is generally regarded as MacDiarmid’s most famous and influential work.
Moving to the Shetland island of Whalsay in 1933 with his son Michael and second wife, Valda Trevlyn, MacDiarmid continued to write essays and poetry despite being cut off from mainland cultural developments for much of the 1930s.
He died at his cottage, Brownsbank, near Biggar, in 1978 at the age of 86.