The smallest score in the National Library of Scotland

A locket with accompanying magnifying glass above the title-page and frontispiece of the score
William Moodie (ed).
Old English,
Scotch and
Irish Songs
with music.
David Bryce, [1893].
Shelfmark: MH.s.124
This miniature book of songs comes with an accompanying locket featuring a magnifying glass. In this era of budget air travel this tiny score would still be the ideal travel companion. Interestingly musicians would not refer to this as a miniature score. Miniature scores to the musician are scores of a height of around 15-20 cm. They are used by students and concert-goers for study and reference. Conductors use large scores, often as high as 40-45 cm. The score you see here is a mere 2.8 cm high.

It was published by David Bryce, one of the major publishers of miniature books. The National Library of Scotland featured its renowned collection of miniature books in an exhibition in 2013. Information about this past exhibition and miniature books in general is still available.

For enquiries email or

Continue reading >>

Soviet Space Dogs


(Photo credit:

(Image shows two dogs sitting on top of a planet alongside the title of the book: Soviet space dogs)

On 3 November 1957, Laika was the first living being in outer space, giving her instant global fame. Her death a few hours after launching was used to transform her into a symbol of patriotic sacrifice. She has inspired films and songs, had monuments erected to her, and countless mementos made with her image.

Laika is not the only canine cosmonaut that died at the hands of the Soviet space program; more than a dozen other dogs lost their lives before her. (Similarly, during the Cold War-era Space Race, NASA in the United States sacrificed several monkeys and apes to test flight conditions for humans.)

Subsequent canine space travellers, Belka and Strelka, were the first to return alive, and were immediately featured in children’s books and cartoons. They became beloved stars at a time when the USSR frowned on celebrating individual achievements.   (more…)

Continue reading >>

By way of illustration

Earlier this year we bought a gorgeous album of sketches and engravings by Joan Hassall. Hassall was a celebrated English wood engraver and illustrator, and the album tells the story of one book, ‘The Collected Poems of Andrew Young’. He was Scottish, and that’s why we bought it.
The album includes Hassall’s account of how the book came into existence. She knew and admired Andrew Young’s poetry, and – in 1938 – while walking near Malham in Yorkshire, saw a tree that brought his poem ‘The Old Tree’ to mind. She sketched it, and that was that for the time being.

Old tree sketch snip

In 1946, Jonathan Cape published a collection of Mary Webb’s poems with wood engravings by Joan Hassall.  The publishing company was so pleased with the book that they asked the artist if there was any other poet whose work she would like to illustrate.  She suggested Andrew Young, knowing that Cape also published him.  It was an attractive proposition, though Cape were quick to point out that they always lost money on poetry and couldn’t afford to pay her more than £40.  Hassall was determined that the small fee should not make any difference to the number of wood engravings she would do, and Cape got something of a bargain. (more…)

Continue reading >>

Graph about something to do with the earth's surface from p.432 of the Fourth International Symposium...

Because we are bipeds

I’m the worst kind of scientist, because I’m not one. A little knowledge and all that…

When someone is behaving in an irritable way, it is quite reasonable to think of the experience as an emotional one, not as a biochemical crisis (leaving aside whether emotions are just biochemical processes anyway). But we shouldn’t rule out the possibility that the person is irritable because they have not eaten since eight o’clock the night before and are consequently biochemically distracted as their brain instructs their body to deconstruct itself so as to route glucose to fuel the liver-brain axis. Next time someone is unkind to you, acquire a bowl of porridge for them as soon as you can, and wish them all the best.

I know about the liver-brain axis because of a man that studies at the National Library of Scotland. I have had excellent conversations with him three or four times about the research that he has done here. Our glucose energy systems are the way they are because we are all born prematurely at nine months. We should gestate for two years, but we don’t because of the size of our pelvises. This is because we are bipeds. Because we are bipeds, millions of folk are spending thousands of pounds a year on childcare. Our pelvises have wrought havoc on the squeezed middle. It is the world we live in. (more…)

Continue reading >>

Stevenson on screen

web-RLS-2015-pillar-case (3)

This week we are celebrating Robert Louis Stevenson’s contribution to cinema with a display highlighting film versions of his most famous novels.

Although he died in 1894, a couple of years before the birth of cinema, RLS made an impact on films all the same. He is one of the most adapted writers for the big and small screens, with well over 200 adaptations since 1908, some faithful, some fanciful. The most memorable of his characters feature in our display for RLS Day, running from Wednesday 11 to Monday 16 November. (more…)

Continue reading >>

Edible Wild Plants & Herbs : a Compendium of Recipes and Remedies

(Photo Credit: Grub Street) Cover image showing the title 'Edible Wild Plants & Herbs' written in ink and framed by a selection of wild leaves and flowers.
(Photo Credit: Grub Street)
Cover image showing the title ‘Edible Wild Plants & Herbs’ written in ink and framed by a selection of wild leaves and flowers.

As the seasons change, walks in the countryside can be enriched by being on the look-out for edible plants and herbs. The stunningly illustrated ‘Edible Wild Plants & Herbs’ by Pamela Michael, which arrived in the Library this week, shows you how to forage for fun!


Continue reading >>

Scurvy in the Arctic

Our major digitisation project (a partnership with the House of Lords Library and Proquest) means a close examination of all the volumes sent for scanning. While knee-deep in bubble wrap and packing crates, it’s great to come across gems like this: a report on the causes of the outbreak of scurvy in the Arctic Expedition of 1875-1876.

The report states: “We attribute the early outbreak of scurvy in the spring sledging parties of the Expedition to the absence of lime juice from the sledge dietaries.”  Plus the long winter which meant over 142 days with no sunlight.

scurvy pic


Continue reading >>

The First Edinburgh Musical Festival of 1815

Two hundred years ago today, at ten o’clock in the morning, musicians from London, Carlisle, Glasgow and Edinburgh gathered together for a first rehearsal to present a musical extravaganza never before heard in Scotland, a musical festival! Edinburgh enjoyed its first ‘Festival Week’.

“From England, and the remotest parts of Scotland, individuals and whole families poured into the city. Every house and every room that could be obtained was occupied by persons of all ranks and ages…” (G. F. Graham, 1816 in his Account of the first Edinburgh Musical Festival).

Concerts sold out very quickly and directors immediately arranged an extra performance.

Newspaper cutting
Announcement of the additional concert in the Edinburgh Evening Courant, 2 November, 1815










The National Library of Scotland is presenting a small display of material from its collections relating to the festival: concert programmes, newspaper articles and music scores. The display opens today and runs until Mon 30 November 2015.

For enquiries email


Continue reading >>

We can rebuild it: Conserving the Kinfauns Castle Recipe Book

Decoration on title page

Domestic staff would use a ‘culinary and household recipe book’ like this one for recipes for shoe polish as well as soup. It doesn’t cover Mrs Beeton’s full range of Household Management topics, but it does describe how to build an Ice House (early refrigerator):

Dig a pit in the ground, 12 feet deep, 16 feet long from north east to south west, and 16 feet wide…

The book was hand written early in the nineteenth century. Kinfauns Castle itself had recently been built in Perthshire by Lord Gray. It carries, like any well loved working recipe book, the scars and splashes of its history, and never sat on a coffee table to be admired. It can now be seen in the Lifting the Lid Exhibition at the National Library of Scotland. Here is how we conserved it. (more…)

Continue reading >>

The Library of Mistakes

Down a small lane, at 4a Wemyss Place Mews, in the Scottish Investment Trust building, you will find the Library of Mistakes. A strange name, you may think, but this is a library dedicated to avoiding mistakes. The Keeper, Russell Napier, was inspired by the banking sector’s spectacular crash in 2008, and set up the library in response. It has the aim of illuminating financial and banking history and learning from past mistakes – hence the name. I joined a visit there organised by  ELISA (Edinburgh Library & Information Services Agency) and found it to be a very calm space, conducive to study, with around 3,000 books related to the financial sector.  They also hold archival material, including the fascinating working papers of the late Stewart Hamilton,  a forensic accountant based in Switzerland, who worked on some of the big financial scandals such as those at Enron and Barings Bank.

The library is free to subscribers and there are talks and small events. Helen Williams, the librarian, and I are in discussions about potential collaborations, matching their expertise with our huge collections. Watch this space!

Library of mistakes

Continue reading >>