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12 Oct 2021

Time running out to save treasured library

A open book, held by a person wearing white gloves
Works by Burns are included in the Honresfield Library.
The Trust and partners are working together to raise the funds needed to save this remarkable collection.

Update – November 2021

FNL continues to have very constructive discussions with Sotheby’s on behalf of the Consortium toward the acquisition of the Honresfield Library. Very fruitful discussions with individuals over potential philanthropic support also continue, and Sotheby’s (and the owners) have been kept up to date with the details of the impressive funds raised to date, and with the prospects of completing the funding. Further news will be shared as soon as it is possible to do so. There is no expectation of the material being placed back in their auction schedule in the near future.

An appeal was launched earlier this year when it was announced that a collection of original manuscripts held in the Honresfield Library, which has been unseen by the public for almost a century, were being put up for auction.

The library, collected and curated by a Rochdale businessman in the 1800s, comprises priceless manuscripts, rare first editions and irreplaceable letters. These include works by Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott and the Brontë siblings.

With the real possibility that these culturally priceless artefacts could be lost to the nation forever and dispersed overseas, a consortium consisting of leading heritage organisations and museums, including the British Library, Oxford’s Bodleian Library, Abbotsford, the National Library of Scotland and the National Trust for Scotland, was swiftly convened by The Friends of the National Libraries.

As a result, the collection’s current owners agreed to delay the auction until 30 October 2021 in order to give the consortium time to raise the £15 million needed to purchase it. So far, £7.5 million has been secured.

The Scottish members of the consortium - the National Library of Scotland, the National Trust for Scotland and Abbotsford – have worked together to support the UK-wide appeal and have drawn up plans to bring collection items linked to Burns and Scott back to Scotland.

These works are of deep significance to Scotland’s literary history and culture. One is a volume of poems by Robert Burns in his own hand, known as the First Commonplace Book. Written at the age of 24 before he found fame, it is known as one of his earliest literary works. Some of his earliest correspondence is also in the collection, including the only extant letter to his beloved father.

The collection also includes items related to Sir Walter Scott, including an exceptional group of Scott first editions in their original condition, and many of his manuscripts, including the complete working manuscript of his novel Rob Roy.

“These items are a vital part of Scotland’s cultural DNA.”
Philip Long OBE FRSE, Chief Executive of the National Trust for Scotland
A man in a navy suit stands in a garden beside a sundial, on a sunny day. Kellie Castle can be seen in the background.

If the money can be raised in time, the Scottish group will take joint care of the 40 ‘Scottish items’ in the collection, which have a combined value of £2.75 million, and subject them to expert curation and conservation before putting them on public display and making them available for research. These arrangements will include in-person and digital events, as well as loans to local venues in addition to regular and permanent exhibitions at the partners’ main locations.

Amina Shah, National Librarian and Chief Executive of the National Library of Scotland said: ‘It’s difficult to put a value on these priceless works, written by the hand of both Burns and Scott. But a value has been placed, and time is running out.

‘To help us secure these treasures for the national collections, please consider donating to our appeal. It’s time to bring the bards home.’

National Trust for Scotland Chief Executive Philip Long OBE continued: ‘This is a collection that transcends the ordinary and the everyday – these items are both of international literary significance and a vital part of Scotland’s cultural DNA.

‘Remarkable insight brought this exceptional group of literary treasures together in the 19th century into one collection. Now, there is one chance to bring the collection into public ownership, ensuring it will be preserved for all for the future. If we fail to reach our target in just a few weeks, that chance will pass, which would be a matter of great regret to all who care about preserving our cultural heritage and enabling it to be accessible as possible.

‘Together, the partners have made some headway in raising the funds needed but much support is still needed, and now within a very short time. We urge everyone to help save these precious artefacts for the nation.’

Giles Ingram, Chief Executive of Abbotsford said: ‘Future generations will thank us if together we can return such immensely important manuscripts to their homeland. The Honresfield collection includes remarkable papers, many thought lost forever, illustrative of the defining creative works of Scotland’s, indeed the world’s, greatest literary geniuses.

‘To be able to view and read these in the settings in which they were written, the places of which they speak, would add immensely to the pleasure of many, many people for years to come.

‘Should we fail to achieve this goal with only weeks to go, it is highly likely they will disappear into private locked vaults for another generation at least. Please support our campaign to save this remarkable collection for the nation.’