I’m in the lucky position of joining the group of academics, writers and students from UHI for the exciting ‘Meet the Books’ project. It’s a joint enterprise between HighLife Highland and UHI which aims to bring a greater awareness of the rare books collection held in Inverness Public Library, through workshops and an online blog where writers discuss books of their choice and highlight their importance.
It’s a vast collection, some 5000 volumes, with many first editions of books and poems.
The collection is accessible to the public via the reference section of the library, although you will need to liaise with librarians who will bring the books to you. It’s never been busy any time I have ever visited the reference section, and it is a wonderful way of taking time out of our overstimulated world and immersing yourself in some gems from the past in the quiet and space of the library.
I’m a fairly frequent visitor to the Gaelic Society of Inverness Library in the upstairs gallery of the reference library, and have often looked longingly across the chain into ‘the other side’ where the FM collection is housed, with its long, uninterrupted stretches of leather-bound books. I was to learn that this section, with its bookshelves bigger than the side of a house, was only a fraction of the collection.
Behind a nondescript door in a storage section of the library, lies the rest of the collection. It is a veritable treasure trove. Sedition and conflict, politics, satire and language, religion, land use and the environment-centuries of the church and social life of the Highlands is contained here. There are also 16th Century European books in Latin, lavishly bound and illustrated, beautiful examples of the craftsmanship and artistic skills of times past. It is a breathtaking amount of books, rollered shelves and floor to high ceiling cases fill the room; if I were to start reading now, it is unlikely I would ever be able to read every book in the collection in my lifetime. Today though, I have to be content with cherrypicking, flitting between books that catch my eye, disrespectfully perhaps in a collection so mindfully gathered.
I quickly find the Gaelic section.
Fraser MacKintosh was a great supporter of Gaelic as his collection testifies. At the time he was the only Gaelic speaking member of the House of Commons and was the driving force behind the establishment of the Crofters’ Commission. Gaelic material is one of my areas of special interest, and it is rare to be among so many old Gaelic texts in the one place. I come across a copy of ‘Orain Ghaidhealach’ by Donnachadh Bàn Mac an t-Saoir (Gaelic Songs, Duncan Ban MacIntyre), printed in Edinburgh in 1768. It fits in my hand, its leather cover beaten like an old shoe. The paper is crispy and faintly lined, the text indented under my fingers.
The first poem is one of my favourite songs, which I’ve heard sung so beautifully by Gaelic singer Arthur Cormack:
Òran do Bhlàr na Eaglais Brice- Oran do chloidheamh Mhic-an-leastair, agus Blàr na h- Eaglais Brice
A Song on the Battle of Falkirk- A song about Fletcher’s Sword and the Battle of Falkirk”
The song relates to MacIntyre’s service with the Argyll Militia, fighting on the Government side against the Jacobites at the Battle of Falkirk in 1745. MacIntyre had borrowed his friend Archibald Fletcher’s sword-Fletcher had been due to sign up with the Militia but could not, and MacIntyre went in his stead, borrowing Fletcher’s sword, and Fletcher promised him 300 marks. Not only did the government side lose the battle, but in the disorganised fleeing rout, MacIntyre lost Fletcher's sword.
Not just any sword.
Fletcher's ancestral broadsword.
Upon MacIntyre's return home, Fletcher "cho fiadhta ri broc liath a bhiodh an garaidh -as cross and surly as a badger in his burrow" refused to pay MacIntyre the money on account of him losing the sword. MacIntyre subsequently used the poem as an opportunity to get his own back and run down Fletcher’s useless sword:
Claidheamh bearnach a’ mhì-fhòrtain, ‘S ann bu chosladh è ri greidlein
Jagged weapon of misfortune, Twas like a stick for turning bannocks
lùbach, leumnach, bearnach...chò trom ri cabar fearna
pliant, starting, notchy....as heavy as a pole of alder
He also also indicates some disillusion that in serving for the government, he was treated little better than the Jacobite men he was opposing and he vows:
'S cha tèid mi tuilleadh gu dìlinn, Chuideachadh le Rìgh na Cuigse
Ne’er again shall I go forward, To the Whiggish King’s assistance.
There is so much contained in this one poem alone, let alone in all of MacIntyre’s book.
It's difficult to keep focus in a collection so vast and it's as well there aren't any comfy armchairs in the archives or I would never leave. I'm looking forward to exploring further: I have my eye on other areas of the collection. The Jacobite material which contains pamphlets from the time and Martin Martin’s beautifully illustrated A Late Voyage to St Kilda from 1698.
Although I will likely try to keep to areas of my research interest, I can see it is going to be difficult. And for the sake of my family, it's as well there are no armchairs in the archives.