Adam Smith, the man generally regarded as the father of the academic discipline of economics (or Political Economy as it was once universally known), tends these days to divide opinion. He is now seen by the political right as their guiding spirit. Wherever he stands in the eyes of ‘right’ or ‘left’, he was a towering figure of the Scottish Enlightenment.
So, it was something of a thrill to visit Dunblane’s Leighton Library and see on display a first edition of An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. Alongside it sat a first edition of another work of philosophy that changed the world, Tom Paine’s The Rights of Man.
Smith in essence codified capitalism and gave states an intellectual basis for economic decisions. Paine ushered in what was to become the post-monarchical state and with it the United States and a new France. In some ways the modern world of business and democracy are children of Smith and Paine. So, what are these books doing in a rather small building in Dunblane that looks more like a farm steading than a treasure house of great works of literature, history, philosophy and science?
The Leighton Library is the endowment of Robert Leighton, a man of very great distinction. Leighton was born in London of Scottish parents, spending some of his early life around Montrose. Aged 16 Leighton began his degree at Edinburgh University, graduating with an MA in 1631. He travelled in Europe after graduating and learned French. After he returned to Scotland, he became a Church of Scotland minister in 1641.
To go into the Leighton Library is to feel Scotland’s history
A clerical superstar, he was to hold three posts of great importance: Bishop of Dunblane, Principal of Edinburgh University and Archbishop of Glasgow. Glasgow was to be his final appointment. He retired in 1673, spending the last ten years of his life in Sussex. On his death in 1684, Leighton left his library to the people of Dunblane plus £162 2s 6d sterling to build a home for his collection.
Leighton’s book collection originally numbered 1,400, an enormous sum for the time. More books have been added over the years. The total has now reached 4,500. There are books in Greek, Persian, Syrian and Gaelic, as well as of course in English, Latin and French. The library fell into disuse in the mid-19th century, but was reopened and made fit for modern use in 1980. Remarkably, the 140-year hiatus during which the library was closed also saw all the books survive in their original condition.
The Leighton Library is now looked after by trustees and volunteers who open it to visitors between May and September each year.
Except for modern heating and lighting, the library looks much the same today as it did when first built. To go in is to feel Scotland’s history. The books are too precious for visitors to touch, though they can browse for as long as they wish. It is a magical place, a place of scholarship and learning, and a critically important Scottish historical asset.
Of course, it needs money. For information on how to donate and find opening times for 2023, visit the library’s website.