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Leadhills Miners Library: ‘The Oldest Subscription Library in Britain’

We continue our celebration of Scotland’s heritage with another Doors Open Days event. This week we head to South Lanarkshire to learn about an often-untold side of mining history. Join us as we head to the hills…Leadhills Miners Library that is.

If you truly want to learn about a country’s history, it is best to explore some of the smaller places because that is often where you will find some spectacular surprises. This is why we love Doors Open Days so much- it encourages locals and visitors to explore big and small venues. And while Leadhills Miners Library may be small, it is as if we ‘struck gold’ with this find.

Historians know that mining in the Leadhills area was well established by the 13th century. At that time, it was monks who were the miners. The area was rich in silver, gold, and lead. Notably, the gold used in the Scottish crown jewels (also known as the Honours of Scotland) was from Leadhills. In fact, while mining no longer takes place in the area, there still is ‘gold in them thar hills’ and you’re allowed to get a permit to pan for gold.

Large-scale mining was in place by the 17th century. “In 1729, the Scots Mines Company leased and began to work part of the area”. Established in 1741, Leadhills Miners Library (originally known as ‘The Society for Purchasing Books at Leadhills’) is the oldest subscription library in Britain. It might seem surprising to many of you that such a library existed for the working class- specifically miners, and it was unique as such subscription libraries were usually only available to the upper classes. However, we can thank the Scots Mines Company Manger, James Stirling, for its establishment. According to the Library, Stirling was a “mathematician and intellectual with a European reputation”. Considering the period, Stirling was clearly forward-thinking and believed in the value of education for all no matter their class in society.

The Library highlights how, in the beginning, “members paid an annual subscription of two shillings and six pence- 12 ½ pence in todays money, but a considerable sum in the 18th century when many miners did not earn much more than five shillings a week”. The earliest books bought for the Library focused on religion. Eventually the Miners Library collected books on a variety of topics- notably travel and history. It’s fantastic to think about a miner working all day in the mine, to come home and relax by reading a book on travels through South America! I can’t blame them though because I also love to read books as a form of escape.

As books were expensive, there were strict rules in place that governed the Society/Library. They had Rules & By-Laws set in place and election to the Society was done by secret ballot. Each member would vote on a potential member by putting a white ball in the box to confirm they wanted the person or a black ball as a ‘no’ (the use of this method is where the term ‘being black balled’ comes from). Some of the more interesting rules of the Society included that two elected officers were also given the task of ‘Inspectors’. They had to make sure that the books were kept in good condition and not stolen. In fact, they could call upon a “member’s house at any time and demand that all borrowed books be produced for examination”.

What seems to have helped the Leadhills Miners Library survival over the centuries is that it adapted to the times. Therefore, even after the last mine closed in 1938, they point how “unlike most other independent libraries, the Leadhills Miners Library did not close or transfer to local authority control”. Instead, they survived by “extending the Library’s opening hours and turning it into a Reading Room. The books were still there to be borrowed, but were now supplemented by newspapers, magazines, whilst from 1896 the Society organised a programme of winter lectures (which continues to this day)”.

The Leadhills Miners Library also served as a branch for the Lanarkshire County Library (meaning there were two libraries in the same building), but this ended in 1966 when the County Library replaced the Leadhills branch with a mobile service.

Eventually the building closed for some years, until it reopened in 1972 with a new purpose- as a museum. The current building that houses the Leadhills Miners Library (since the 1800s) is its third home and the original location is unknown. Nevertheless, it is quite amazing that there are still over 3,100 books from the Library’s original collection. I could have spent all day perusing the intriguing titles. Look carefully at some of the titles below which are just a few fun examples.

They also have extensive archives about the miners including the journals pictured below; these are records of their negotiations for the rights to buy and mine the land from the Company.

One of the most famous members of the Leadhills Miners Library was William Symington (1764-1831). He was the first man to successfully power a boat by a steam engine.

Some unique artefacts at the museum include the ‘Library Pulpit’. This is where the Society president would preside over meetings. This is the only known example of such a pulpit.

Additionally, they have the earliest library banner in all of Britain that dates to around 1820. It was notably featured on Antiques Roadshow in 2017.

We are so fortunate to have such a unique book collection as the Leadhills Miners Library and that it is still in existence. As the Library points out, it provides an invaluable look into the reading habits of working-class men between 1750-1850.

The oldest book in the collection.

The Leadhills Miners Library has expanded their museum collection over the years, and they have other artefacts that represent the history of the village in general.

If you happen to be near or passing through the area, we highly recommend you take the time to stop and see this wee but charming museum. They are usually open from the beginning of May to the end of September on Saturdays and Sundays. Please check out their website for more information. Finally, if you are interested in mining history and want to learn more about it in Scotland, be sure to check out our article on The National Mining Museum Scotland.

Until next time- Explore & Discover!


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